"There and Back Again", the Story of Leslie "Bull" Allen MM USS – I Was Only Doing My Job: Australia's Military History
This episode was re-recorded and re-uploaded on 29-9-2021
30-JULY-1943 Serving as a Stretcher Bearer in the 2/5th Infantry Battalion Second Australian Imperial Force, Cpl Leslie “Bull” Allen would participate in the Battle of Mount Tambu and assist forces of the 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry Regiment, US Army. with casualties rising, and both US medics killed, Bull Allen would voluntarily walk into the battlespace and recover between ten and seventeen wounded American soldiers.
He would carry them one after another on his back, only stopping when he physically couldn’t continue, and for his actions, he would receive the United States Silver Star, the third-highest medal of Bravery, and the highest that could be awarded to a non-US citizen.
When asked about his gallant deeds during the Second World War, this Gentle Giant would simply say. “I was only doing my job.”
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Corporal Leslie Charles “Bull” Allen MM SSM.
Leslie Charles Allen was born on 9 November 1916 in Ballarat, Eastern Victoria. The son of Clarence Walter Allen and Ruby Ethel nee-Robertson, aside from a sister Violet Allen, not much is known of any other siblings as he and Violet were sent to an orphanage at a young age following an upbringing marred by domestic violence brought on by the effects of the Great Depression. He would end up being fostered by an aunt, Mrs H L Allen, who had four sons: Percy, Herbert, Ronald and Albert, who like Leslie would serve with their father Mr Herbert Leslie Allen in the Second World War. From the age of twelve, Leslie worked as a labourer mostly on dairy farms around Ballarat to support his foster family and pay for his sister’s training as a Nurse at Bethesda Hospital in Richmond, Victoria.
He enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Force on 19 April 1940 at age 21, giving his middle name as Clarence and his date of birth as 9 September 1918 and joined D Company, 2/5th Battalion as a Stretcher Bearer and was sent to the Middle East. At 180 cm tall with broad shoulders he was “physically imposing” amongst the men of his company but well-liked due to his wicked sense of humour and sporting abilities. The only people of the 2/5th that may not have liked him were the officers where he showed ‘traditional larrikinism and disdain for authority. With his loud laugh and booming voice, colleagues in the Company would report that “You could hear him a mile off! Bull was thus one of the battalion’s most recognisable…and one of its most popular characters”. He gained his nickname “Bull” while on the sporting pitch, for charging down the opposition during battalion AFL matches like a “Bull in a China Shop”, which considering his stature would most definitely have been an imposing sight.
That sportsman’s stamina was easily transferred to the battlefield while on the Syrian Campaign when on 10-11 July 1941 during the Battalion’s attack on Khalde, while under heavy shell fire. He worked through the night tending to the wounded men of his company, and the following morning, even though fatigued, walked 10 km to secure transport for them.
This prowess was not without a cost, as he was admitted to the hospital for ‘anxiety neurosis’ which we would now call PTSD around this time. He was, however, able to return to the battalion as the 2/5th was recalled to Ceylon now Sri Lanka in March 1942 before continuing to Australia in August of that year for resupply and redeployment to Papua in October. On 17 December 1942, he contracted Malaria but was able to rejoin his unit on the 22nd for the defence of Wau in January-February 1943.
It is in the defence of Wau that the ‘legend’ of Bull Allen starts to appear, during an attack on Crystal Creek where he is credited in papers for carrying a wounded Australian Soldier ‘1000 yards’ in a ‘Superman effort’. Official accounts of the battle tell a slightly different but no less critical feat of what became known as the Battle of the Slaughterhouse. On the 7th of February, D Company 2/5th was attacking a Japanese machine gun position near Crystal Creek, when a platoon led by Lieutenant Taylor was pinned down in the open. With three wounded and two killed, including Lieutenant Taylor, Private Allen rushed out into the open in the face of machine gunfire. Pulling one of the wounded Corporal Kelly over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry proceeded over 200 yards uphill to the company headquarters. While he was unwounded in his action, his uniform and haversack had several bullet holes from the constant machine gunfire. On the following day, 18 Platoon from the 2/5th was surrounded and ambushed by snipers. One member was killed and three more wounded. Bull once again moved forward and making three separate trips he was able to recover all three wounded men, two of which he dragged 30 yards to cover. During these two engagements, Bull had been wounded four times, but none were severe enough to warrant him leaving his unit. For his actions in this battle, he was awarded the Military Medal and was promoted to Corporal. His citation read “Private Allen’s bearing and his untiring efforts in tending the wounded and helping with rations and stores were an inspiration.”
Following Crystal Creek, he was admitted to the hospital several times for exacerbation of malaria and spent most of early 1943 in and out of the hospital. Returning to his unit he participated in the battle of Mount Tambu in July 1943 as part of the larger Salamaua–Lae campaign.
On 16 July, Australia secured part of the southern slopes of Mount Tambu, in response the Japanese commenced a counterattack that night, but were repulsed with Australians suffering thirty-nine casualties including fourteen killed, The Japanese would suffer heavy casualties with approximately three hundred-fifty men wounded and killed in the eight attacks they attempted before dawn.
On 28 July American forces landed, and the 1st Battalion 162nd Infantry Regiment was pushed into the attack and replaced the Australian forces on the 30th. Australian Mortar teams and Stretcher-bearers remained in the line to assist but did not actively participate. Owing to his experience in the jungle, Bull stayed on the line and this is where he becomes a folk hero.
Like the Australians, the American forces failed to secure the summit, and suffered fifty casualties to near-constant Japanese sniper, mortar and machine-gun fire in what Historian David Dexter described as “One of the most difficult and unpleasant areas ever to confront troops.” The land around Tambu is muddy, steep-sloped and under constant Japanese attack, in which two US Medics had been killed trying to bring the wounded to safety. Lance Copland a mortar operator who was present said in a 2016 interview that Allen was the last stretcher-bearer left to assist the 162nd.
At this point, Allen who was in the area as part of this residual Australian presence and probably exhibiting the same spirit he previously displayed at Khalde and Crystal Creek, voluntarily entered the battlespace alone and brought back a wounded American soldier, then went back out for another, then another. Each time he went back for another rescue attempt, soldiers would make bets on whether he would return.
Allen would complete this task several times, while official reports vary between ten and twelve Americans rescued, accounts from the field report up to seventeen American battle casualties were carried out to safety one by one on the back of a lone Australian from Ballarat before he collapsed from exhaustion. When he recovered, he had to be physically restrained from re-entering the battlefield. His hat and sleeves bore bullet holes from repeated machine gun grazes but he was relatively unharmed during the battle. It is during this battle that the most known photo of Allen was taken. A tall broad-shouldered Australian, with steely eyes with a determined expression carrying the helpless body of a comparatively diminutive American soldier over his shoulder.
War Correspondent Gordon Short took the iconic image during one of Allen’s repeated trips back to friendly lines, this particular American had been knocked unconscious by a mortar bomb. Bill Carty, a cameraman who accompanied Gordon Short recalled a ‘gigantic man striding up Mount Tambu like he was on a Sunday jaunt’, describing Allen as a huge man with obvious physical and emotional strength, perhaps borne of a difficult childhood’.
When the 2/5th was rotated back to Queensland in December 1943 for training, the effects of these ‘superman’ efforts started to show. While he never showed fear on the battlefield, the war affected him. Allen went absent without leave for eleven days, even to the point where a warrant for his arrest had been issued, then cancelled when he re-joined the unit. As punishment, he was docked 5 days’ pay. In January 1944, he had an altercation with an officer; he was court-martialled and demoted back to Private.
It was at this time that his health continued to deteriorate. With his malaria continuing to plague him and suffering from ‘constitutional temperamental instability’ another term for what is now considered Post Traumatic Distress. His military career came to an end, and he was discharged as medically unfit on 10 September.
The war did not end for Allen right away, as he spent six months recuperating at an uncle’s farm in Warrenheip, having lost the ability to speak. When he recovered he met and married Jean Elizabeth Floyd, a former army nurse, on 23 April 1949. One of the well-wishers to the happy couple would be Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of United States President Franklin D Roosevelt; the two would continue to correspond until the First Ladies died in 1962. The couple would have a daughter and three sons, with the daughter named in Eleanor’s honour.
This connection to the United States did not stop at the First Lady, with Allen repeatedly offered roles to appear in movies in Hollywood, depicting his actions and other historic deeds, which he would turn down. When news of his exploits started to reach the media, he met it with timidity. When asked, he would deflect attention to other Australian stretcher-bearers, or simply state “I was only doing my job.” Only doing his job would earn him the United States Silver Star, the third-highest medal for bravery in the US System, and the highest award that can be issued to a non-American. The citation read: For Gallantry in Action in Mount Tambu New Guinea on the 30th July 1943 during an attack on the enemy in which his unit was not engaged, Corporal Allen voluntarily advanced through heavy enemy machine-gun fire to rescue American battle casualties without assistance he carried them from the field to safety no less than twelve soldiers. He collapsed from exhaustion only after all the wounded men had been rescued, he was wounded during the action. Corporal Allen’s gallantry evoked the unstinted praise of all who witnessed.
In civilian life, Allen didn’t talk about his exploits in New Guinea or North Africa, with his children having to find out about their father from others, particularly those he rescued.
Following the war, Allen worked as a labourer and as a theatre orderly at Ballarat Base Hospital. At home, he raised pigs and broke horses on an acreage outside Ballarat. In his later life, he would work at the recreation gold mining town of Sovereign Hill where he would demonstrate a horse-drawn Chilean mill used to crush quartz. Every ANZAC Day he would travel to Melbourne where he would carry the banner of the 2/5th Battalion.
Allen’s health would deteriorate even further, and for the remainder of his life he would be plagued by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and poor health, eventually dying on 11 May 1982 of a heart attack exacerbated by diabetes. To commemorate his service, Puckapunyal Army Base in Victoria renamed their mess facilities the CPL LC Allen MM Canteen on 8 December 1979, making it the first piece of Army property named after someone who was not a Victoria Cross Recipient.
For someone who did not seek glory or fame for simply doing his job, he was considered a homegrown hero by the people of Ballarat who still fondly remember the tall gentle giant. On the 70th anniversary of the battle of Mount Tambu, a documentary was released chronicling his service and calls for him to be invested with the Victoria Cross for his actions on that day. I personally believe that this claim is valid so believe there are several other stretcher-bearers throughout history’s military history or equally deserving of Australia’s highest award for gallantry.
However, most people only know him by the photo taken by George Short very few know his story. However, that is not entirely true outside of Australia. In 2014 Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton dedicated the Ballad of the Bull on their Heroes album to him. On a state visit in 2019, the Australian Prime Minister gave a bronze statue of that same famous photo to the serving United States President as an enduring symbol of Australia and America’s ongoing alliance.