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Fethers, Willard Noel (1920–2012)

Willard Fethers grew up in Sydney. His father, Noel, a manufacturer’s agent, was a former major in the A.I.F. serving in Gallipoli and France.

With the Great Depression came hard times. By the time Willard finished high school the family had moved to Victoria and he had attended 13 schools. After high school Willard worked as a clerk before enlisting in the RAAF in January 1941, and was posted to the UK where he met a schoolgirl, June Beale who would later become his wife.

On 5th October, 1942 Willard and his crew took off in their twin-engined Wellington, ‘Queenie’  – target Tobruk. They did not return. The port engine failed, then the starboard. Willard brought the plane down with no serious injuries. After nine days in the desert hungry, they were captured while trying to steal a truck from an Italian camp and sent to POW camp in Bari, Italy.

In October 1943 Willard was sent to Stalag Luft III, Poland, site of two of the greatest escapes of the War, The Great Escape and The Wooden Horse.  Willard joined the men who exercised on the wooden horse each day to hide the three men tunnelling underneath. All three escaped.

At the same time ‘The Great Escape’, was hatched. Three tunnels were dug into the surrounding woodlands. Willard became a ‘Penguin’ – one of many who carried the sand from the tunnels in bags inside their trousers slowing allowing it to leak out as they walked.  Fifty of the 76 men who escaped were murdered by the Gestapo, 23 recaptured and just 3 made it to safety.

Willard was moved to Stalag Luft 7. In January 1945 thousands from POW camps  throughout Germany were force-marched to the ‘rear’, for Willard it was a gruelling 240 km from Bankau to Goldberg.

Liberated by the Russians on 10 May, 1945 he wrote to his parents ‘ how wonderful it is not to be surrounded by wire and guards’. Willard and June were soon reunited in England.  June arrived in Melbourne on the bride ship Otranto in December 1946  and they married in Melbourne in January 1947.

Willard and June settled in Melbourne. They had 3 daughters: Carolyn, Susan and Pauline.  In 1960 they moved to St Ives, Sydney and when Willard retired to Orange and settled in Bore Nore. June passed away in October 2010.

Original publication

  • Central Western Daily (Orange, NSW), 8 January 2013, p 9

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Fethers, Willard Noel (1920–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/fethers-willard-noel-17269/text29049, accessed 21 August 2019.

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