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Passionate community man celebrates

Well-known Rochester resident Eric Kneebone celebrates his 90th birthday this week.

GRAHAM WILLIS July 23, 2014 3:33am

Eric Kneebone.

Growing up in the Depression years, leaving school at an early age and going to war at 18 is not everyone’s dream start to life.

Rochester’s Eric Kneebone celebrates his 90th birthday this week and reflected on tough times as a young man and the battles he and wife Shirley faced.

Losing his mother when he was just 12 years of age, Mr Kneebone and his six brothers and two sisters on the farm at Whorouly lived in hard times.

‘‘My father took me out of school at age 14 and I went to work at the Milawa butter factory,’’ he said.

Later Mr Kneebone worked in tobacco farming.

As World War II progressed, it was only a matter of time before 18-year-old Mr Kneebone enlisted in the RAAF.

‘‘In September 1942 I was posted to Katherine but eventually finished up in Townsville with the 80 Fighter Squadron which flew Kittyhawks,’’ he said.

Mr Kneebone was an aircraft general hand involved in the construction of roads, airstrips and buildings.

He saw two extended tours of the Pacific Islands, starting at Lae, then New Britain and finally Finschhafen.

‘‘We built two camps at Lae and were bombed as we worked at nearby Nadzab airstrip,’’ he recalled.

‘‘It was quite hairy at times.’’

In New Britain, Mr Kneebone worked with the US Marines who he fondly terms ‘‘terrific fellas’’.

It was in 1944 that he saw even more action at Aitape on the northern coast of New Guinea.

‘‘Here we laid steel matting with the Yanks on the old Japanese airstrips for our planes to land,’’ he said.

‘‘One of my greatest friends, the late Les Anderson was also at Aitape.’’

His last action was on Noemfor Island where Mr Kneebone recalls hearing the legendary Tokyo Rose warning the men over the radio to get off the island or they would be slaughtered.

‘‘We were bombed but she was wrong.’’

Mr Kneebone is one of the few Australian servicemen to be awarded a United States army unit citation for bravery, something of which he is very proud.

Returning from the war, Mr Kneebone became a French polisher by trade but city life was not for him.

He and wife Shirley took the chance to become sharefarmers even though it meant making huge sacrifices.

‘‘There were many hard times in those days when we didn’t have much money,’’ he recalled.

The couple share farmed at Wangaratta, Willowgrove near Trafalgar, Koonwarra in Gippsland before finally taking up a settlement block near Rochester.

Mr Kneebone’s life has always been marked by his sense of duty to local communities.

He lists involvement in Lions, the RSL where he is a life member, school and church boards of management, football administration and the fire brigade as just some of his involvement.

Mr Kneebone has also been a Justice of the Peace for 42 years, was the inaugural president of Rochester Probus Club and is a life governor of the Rochester and Elmore District Health Service and the Freemasons homes in Melbourne.

However it is the Legacy movement which has seen his greatest involvement.

‘‘I have been a Legatee for 40 years and chaired the Echuca Legacy on two occasions,’’ he said.

‘‘I have worked tirelessly to support my war widows through the years with outings, Christmas luncheons and just being there when they needed me.

‘‘Legacy is a wonderful way of giving back to society.

‘‘In fact I often think I got more out of it than I put in.’’

Mr and Mrs Kneebone can look back on their 60 years of marriage, something celebrated with a citation from Queen Elizabeth proudly hanging on the wall at their home, with much joy.

‘‘In the early days we were always trying to get our heads above water but we got there,’’ Mr Kneebone said.

‘‘And our biggest joy is seeing our family grow up to be such good persons.’’

The Kneebones have four children, Bruce, Helen, Julie and John.

There are also 10 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren.

Coincidentally the whole family was at a reunion at Whorouly last week, something treasured by the couple.

Mr Kneebone celebrated his birthday milestone at a function at Rochester Wine Bar on Sunday when the community turned out to recognise a man who has seen plenty of history but has always given so much back to his community.

Graham Willis

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