Private Thomas Kennedy Shiel died in action during unusual flood off the coast of New Guinea, just eight months before the end of World War II

SHOVELLING SNOW IN SYRIA: Members of the 2/3 Battalion clearing snow in 1942.
SHOVELLING SNOW IN SYRIA: Members of the 2/3 Battalion clearing snow in 1942.
HARD WORKER: Thomas Kennedy Shiel.

HARD WORKER: Thomas Kennedy Shiel.

DONNA Collier always knew a relative fought in World War II, but it wasn't until she searched on the internet for more information she found the heroic story of her great uncle, Thomas Kennedy Shiel.

Thomas was born in the NSW country town of Yass and was a hard working labourer before enlisting in the army in Canberra on October 24, 1939.

Donna tells the story of what she discovered while Thomas served with the 2/3 Australian Infantry Battalion.

"My great uncle Thomas arrived in Egypt with the 2/3 Battalion in February 1940 and in March 1941 he and his unit were sent to Greece, where it successfully blocked the Germans at Tempe Gorge enabling Allied troops to withdraw.

"Thomas and most of the 2/3 Battalion were evacuated to Egypt at the end of April 1941 and were sent to Syria in June 1941 to fight the Vichy French.

"After the Battle of Damour in July 1941, Thomas spent several weeks in hospital. In March 1942 the AIF were ordered back to Australia to meet the Japanese threat, however several units, including the 2/3 Battalion were diverted to Ceylon for four months, finally arriving home in August 1942.

"The next month they were sent to Papua and fought the Japanese along the Kokoda Track to the beachheads at Gona, Sanananda and Buna. In December 1942 Thomas was evacuated to Australia, where he spent much of 1943 being treated for malaria.

"It took another year before Thomas was sent to Aitape on the north coast of New Guinea. On 27 January 1945 Thomas's section (No.2 Section of No.2 Platoon, 2/3 Battalion) were in position on an island in the Danmap River. Heavy rain caused flooding, which swept away the island with the loss of all the men and their equipment.

"A description of the event from platoon commander Lieutenant G.H. Fearnside is below:

'The terrain was so rugged that carrier pigeons had to be employed to get written signals to brigade headquarters.

'For several days in January 1945 torrential rain caused severe flooding to the Danmap River. Rising floodwaters washed away bridges, boulders, and trees. On the January 27, the river rose 6 metres above its banks, and the men clambered to the remaining high ground and into the treetops.

'Platoon commander Lieutenant G.H. Fearnside, a veteran of Tobruk and El Alamein, recalled this night as the most terrifying experience of his life:

'Some were killed outright in that mad onslaught of frenzied water and green timber; others were swirled beneath the press of timber and drowned; others were knocked unconscious and their bodies snatched and sent racing downstream, turning over and over, like otters.'

"By morning some of the company's men had been washed or had floated away on logs to the safety of the banks gathered in the battalion area. Seven failed to report back, having drowned in the floodwaters. One of those was my great uncle Private Thomas Kennedy Shiel.

"His body has never been found. He was 24 years old.

"I was not aware of this terrible event until my visit to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, where I discovered the story of my great uncle in the memorial's archives.

"We knew he was reported as missing but finding out the details of the actual event was very emotional.

"I should think myself lucky as my grandfather was enlisted to leave the very next day that my great grandmother was delivered the news that my great uncle was missing.

"With this the Army ordered my grandfather to stay with my great grandmother as they did not want to send him away, he was to stay and assist my great grandmother through her grief. They could not take the risk for him not to return home.

"Knowing now, what my great uncle endured during his service and the ultimate sacrifice he made along with the other six members of his battalion bring a new perspective at the dawn service that I attend locally every year.

"Today his name is located at panel 30 in the commemorative area of the war memorial. We placed a poppy in his honour at our visit. He also has a plaque at the Lae war memorial in New Guinea."