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Remembering our ANZACs

On ANZAC Day, NMFC.com.au shares the stories of the seven Kangaroos who passed away while on active duty.

All stories are lifted from the book ‘Harder Than Football – League Players At War’, written by Barb Cullen with the foreword from Kevin Sheedy

George Brock

Although born in Victoria, Brock was living in Adelaide when he enlisted in the 2nd AIF in 1939, aged 20. A strapping 185cm, Brock played for Port Adelaide before the war, and in four rounds for North Melbourne while on leave from his RAAF duties in Victoria in July 1941.

His final game was the Round 13 match against Essendon, a week before he was killed. Stationed at Point Cook in Victoria, Brock was a passenger in one of two RAAF single-engine training planes that collided in mid-air close to the You Yangs.

Aircraftman Brock was named after two uncles who had been KIA in WW1, one at Gallipoli and one in France. Brock is remembered along with 62 other war casualties in the Springvale War Cemetery in Melbourne.

Alf Goonan

Graduating from North Melbourne juniors, Goonan played seven games for North Melbourne over the 1925 and 1926 seasons, and has the distinction of kicking North’s first ever goal at League level.

He enlisted in Mildura in July 1940 at the age of 36 and trained in Albury and Bonegilla before being posted to the 2/29th Battalion four months later. Leaving Melbourne at the end of July, he arrived in Singapore on 15 August 1941.

His battalion was involved in fierce fighting until halted by strong Japanese opposition near the Simpang-kiri River. With no chance of relief, the survivors were ordered to retreat through the jungle and forced to leave the wounded behind in the hope that the Japanese would treat them humanely.

Goonan was one of the 110 Australians left defenceless. The injured men surrendered to Japanese troops, but were killed all the same in what would become known as the Parit Sulong Massacre. The Japanese denied the wounded food, water and medical attention before finally incinerating them.

Len Johnson

Born in 1908 as one of eight children, Johnson was raised in an orphanage with two of his brothers after the death of their mother in 1918.

He played five games for North Melbourne in 1933 before transferring to clubs in the Wimmera, NSW and Tasmania. Johnson enlisted in March 1941, aged 32. On the day of his death, Johnson was serving close to Singapore when his Sergeant ordered his company to demolish a warehouse.

The sergeant began knocking down a wall to demonstrate, unaware that Johnson was on the other side and killing him accidentally. The Japanese occupied Singapore three weeks after Johnson’s death, and no trace of his grave was ever found.

Bert Peters

Peters was the 110th player to appear for the North Melbourne Football Club, playing 17 games over the 1930 and 1931 seasons.

At the end of his VFL career, he moved back to his hometown of Gippsland, where he taught at Red Hill South Primary School before enlisting in June 1941, aged 31.

He was attached to 53 Squadron RAF based in Cornwall upon arriving in England on 4 June 1943. On the night of 13 June 1944, Peters was the 2nd Navigator of the Liberator BZ810, 53 Squadron, tasked with anti-submarine patrol in support of a major operation.

After taking off at approximately 9:30pm, a member of the crew reported that an enemy submarine had been sighted and the squadron prepared to attack. Nothing further was heard from the aircraft. It is thought that a German U-boat shot down the Liberator, killing all on board.

Beres Reilly

Reilly was a football journeyman who represented North Melbourne, Melbourne and St Kilda as a winger or rover between 1935 and 1938. He enlisted in March 1941 and was deployed two months later.

His squadron served in Iran and Egypt, operating as maritime patrol around the Mediterranean Sea. Ranked as a Flight Sergeant, Reilly was granted a commission with the rank of Pilot Office retrospectively, effective a month before his presumed death.

On 23 July 1943, he was a wireless air gunner on one of eight Martin Baltimore aircrafts from the 454 Squadron to take part in a low-level bombing attack against German military establishments as part of the second wave of Operation Thesis.

Upon crossing the eastern end of the island of Crete, five of the 454 Squadron’s Baltimores was shot down and one ditched. Reilly’s plane sent an SOS message at 8:50am, but nothing further was heard or seen of his aircraft. No sign of the wreckage or crew of four has ever been found.

Mo Shapir

Shapir was an outstanding all-round athlete at Melbourne High School. He played for the North Melbourne Football Club, aged only 17, in Rounds 14, 16 and 17 of the 1935 season.

He enlisted in Melbourne in August 1940 and was deployed to England, where he had a close call in October 1941 when his plane’s starboard motor was directly hit, forcing all of the crew to bail out by parachute.

He recovered and was posted to the Middle East. In August 1942, Shapir’s Wellington DV676 aircraft, in which he was operating as wireless operator air gunner, was returning from a mission over Tobruk, Libya when an engine cut out. The pilot jettisoned its bombs and the plane made a forced night landing into no man’s land in the desert north of Qattara Depression, Egypt.

The rest of the injured crew was rescued by a British tank patrol, but Shapir, pinned across the chest by the main spar, said he was ‘comfortable’ and told the men ‘to wait until morning’ to extract him from the wreckage.

He died during the night. It was confirmed that Shapir’s body was removed from the wreck and buried close to where he had died, but later post-war searches by grave concentration units failed to locate him.

Len Thomas

Thomas enlisted in Caulfield, Melbourne on 17 June 1940 and served in the Middle East until 1941 before requesting to revert to the rank of Private so that he could serve as a commando.

In February 1943, he was wounded in the leg in Port Moresby. Upon recovering, he and his company flew to Wau, pursuing the Japanese towards Mubo and then Salamua. During this campaign, the commandos, who were operating behind enemy lines, endured poor conditions and suffered heavy casualties.

They were constantly damp, fatigued and hungry, with priority given to bringing in ammunition rather than food. Thomas was trapped behind enemy lines at Salamua, 35k, south of Lae, when he was killed by the Japanese in August 1943.