This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002
Alexander George Thornton (1914-1942), soldier, was born on 29 June 1914 at Paddington, Sydney, second child of Percy George Thornton (d.1932), an Australian-born clerk, and his wife Nellie, née Maidment (d.1926), who came from New Zealand. Owing to the illness and deaths of their parents, George and his siblings spent a number of years in the foster care of relations and friends. During the Depression he worked intermittently as a labourer. In March 1939 he stowed away in a ship bound for Fremantle, Western Australia, where he was arrested and gaoled for fifteen days under an assumed name, 'George Maidment'.
On 15 June 1940 Thornton enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, again using his alias. Five ft 9 ins (175 cm) tall, with brown eyes and light brown hair, he was posted to the 2nd/16th Battalion at Northam. With his unit, he embarked for the Middle East on 25 October 1940 and reached Palestine on 26 November. He spent most of 1941 attached to a training battalion and in hospital with minor ailments, but fought in the battle of Damour on 5-9 July during the Syrian campaign. Returning to Australia in March 1942, he was sent to Queensland for jungle-warfare training in May and to Port Moresby in August.
The men of the 2nd/16th Battalion were quickly thrown into action on the Kokoda Track. Reaching Eora Creek on 27 August 1942, 'A' and 'B' companies made their way via Alola to the Abuari area, where the advancing Japanese were entrenched in camouflaged, carefully prepared positions on a ridge. Late on the morning of 30 August the two companies attacked up a steep, wooded slope. Maidment's platoon was halted, with heavy casualties. His section leader, Corporal M. T. Clarke, was killed.
Maidment snatched grenades from Clarke's pouches, dashed up the slope, destroyed the foremost enemy machine-gun posts and sustained a severe wound to his chest. With his grenades expended and the enemy pressing forward, he ran back to Clarke's body, seized his Tommy-gun, stood in the middle of the track and held the enemy with accurate fire until his ammunition was exhausted. His actions inflicted severe casualties on the Japanese, prevented further losses among his comrades, and allowed his platoon to fight clear and re-form. The recommendation that he be awarded the Victoria Cross stated that his 'unsurpassed courage, fortitude and devotion to duty' set an 'inspiring example'.
Although exhausted and suffering from loss of blood, Maidment refused every offer of assistance. On his arrival at the regimental aid-post, he collapsed. He was evacuated (on a stretcher) along the track and was reported to have reached Templeton's Crossing en route to Myola. In December 1943 an inquiry into his whereabouts proved inconclusive. He was officially registered as missing and was believed to have died from his wounds. His body was never found.
Maidment had always been a controversial character during his army service. Unruly, especially when affected by alcohol, and resentful of authority, he had incurred several punishments (including periods of military confinement) for insubordinate language, disobedience and absence without leave. As one of his officers reported, with some respect, 'Maidment was a very strong character who could be coached but not ruled'. The recommendation that he receive the Victoria Cross was endorsed at higher levels, but finally downgraded to the award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He is commemorated, in his correct name, on the memorial at Port Moresby to Australian servicemen who gave their lives in Papua and have no known graves.
Keith D. Howard, 'Thornton, Alexander George (1914–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thornton-alexander-george-11853/text21219, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 8 March 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002