Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McCure, Russell Melton (Bill) (1918–1987)

by Peter Burness

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Russell Melton McCure (1918-1987), army officer and business executive, was born on 15 December 1918 at Clifton Hill, Melbourne, younger child of Victorian-born parents Noel Milton McCure, drapery salesman, and his wife Agnes Jean Elizabeth, née Aberline. Russell grew up in Northcote before the family moved to North Brighton; he attended local schools and the Collingwood Technical School. He then worked as a clerk for a match manufacturing company, Bryant & May Pty Ltd, and served two years in the Militia before being commissioned on 6 August 1940. He joined the Australian Imperial Force on 17 November and was appointed as a lieutenant in the 4th Anti-Tank Regiment. His unit was sent to Malaya on 4 February 1941.

Following the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December, McCure was ordered forward on 17 January 1942 in command of a troop of four guns to assist the 2/29th Battalion south of Muar. Defying his commanding officer who had told him, ‘I don’t expect the Japanese to use tanks so, for my part, you can go home’, he deployed two guns along the road beyond an intersection at Bakri. Early the next day Japanese tanks appeared and for almost an hour the gunners engaged them, destroying eight while McCure helped with the ammunition. The fighting was so close that a war photographer captured the battle in a single frame, ‘destined to become one of the most famous and enduring images of the Malayan campaign’. After the battle, McCure’s commanding officer said to him, ‘Only for your persistence in defying my orders and positioning your guns where you did, there would have been wholesale slaughter. I’m so sorry’.

Success was brief and the Australians became cut off. McCure and others escaped into the swampy jungle and for the next weeks tried to get to Singapore. Some help came from local Chinese who led McCure and his men to a Chinese communist jungle camp from where, assisted by a British officer, guerrilla raids were conducted against the enemy. Even after Singapore fell the men still hoped to escape, and formed smaller squads. McCure tried unsuccessfully to get a boat to cross to Sumatra, but returned with his group to the Chinese, who took them to a camp of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army.  There they helped with tasks such as weapons training and map preparation. To avoid discovery or betrayal, the camps had to break up and move constantly. Deaths, illness and movements meant that McCure had only rare contact with surviving colleagues. He became a solitary figure and, although free to go about within the camps, felt he was a prisoner or a hostage.

For over three years McCure knew little of the outside world, and it knew nothing of him. Poor diet, malaria and other infections damaged his physical and mental health. He was also deeply affected by the brutality he witnessed, including executions and torture, and was fearful for his own safety. He later said: ‘I would often wander to the outskirts of the camp, and sit down under a tree thinking of mum and dad and of my boyhood days at home, and just cry’.

Finally the Chinese left McCure, weak and sick, with an Indian doctor. He was found by Canadian commandos who told him that the war was over. Although never a prisoner, reports declared that he was ‘recovered from the Japanese’ on 22 September 1945. Few understood or believed McCure’s story. When he returned to Australia he was admitted to hospital with a variety of illnesses. He also suffered psychologically, later saying, ‘I had been too lonely, too long’. He was placed on the Reserve of Officers on 20 December 1945.

On 3 October 1946 McCure married Jeanette Osborn Pentland, a typist, at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Gardiner, Melbourne; they later divorced. Always known by family and friends as ‘Bill’, McCure lived quietly and resumed work with Bryant & May, eventually becoming personnel and industrial officer. He played tennis, had a deep interest in stamp collecting, and met regularly with old army mates. On 4 November 1974 McClure married Leonie Ann Crooks at the office of the government statist, Melbourne. In later years he moved from Melbourne to Cockatoo, in the Dandenong Ranges, where, survived by his wife, their son and daughter, and the son of his first marriage, he died of cancer on 23 March 1987. He was buried in Springvale cemetery with Uniting Church forms.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Finkemeyer, It Happened to Us (1994)
  • L. R. Silver, The Bridge at Parit Sulong (2004)
  • B883, item VX39035 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Burness, 'McCure, Russell Melton (Bill) (1918–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccure-russell-melton-bill-15058/text26256, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 July 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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