As a kid, Charlie Boase dreamed of flying then missed out on becoming a pilot, before suffering a terrible accident. He feels blessed though for a fortunate life
When they cut you 49 times, slicing and mending, taping and sculpting over and over again, with skin that sticks and skin that won’t.
When your face and hands are seared deep in a furnace of flame and might, in the biting, damp winter cold, betraying the most simplest of cruel logic in not doing away with your body, clad in a saturated air force uniform, for good.
When you’re facing a life you could never have expected, peering through strange, still-unfinished slits at a face you no longer know.
After this curiosity of an Australian can finally see again, the US military surgeons in a Japanese field hospital (as fighting in the Korean War winds-down) finding a path again for clear, crisp blue eyes that once let him marvel as an eight-year-old farm boy infatuated with flight thanks to “Smithy”.
Floating and bouncing and motoring-along in the breathless skies above his home town, a five-bob fare for a circuit over the showgrounds in a little low-winged, single-engine Miles Falcon, above the bullocks and drays at the silos, over the railway sidings and the eternally unlucky Ganmain Hotel, already burnt down twice and yet it’s still only 1937, two years after legendary Australian aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith crashed in the sea off what is now Myanmar.
His surgeons’ resolute efforts that let him see and walk, to move his hands, gave Charlie Boase possibilities, even if this meant he forever would be in the quizzical, harsh, silent gaze of all who knew not a thing about him. The 88-year-old retired North Albury mechanic, husband to Terry for 51 years until she died three years ago, Dad to Caroline and Louise, is not bothered.
Not now, as it’s been six decades-plus and the war itself, that whole Korea experience – including his accident – “was so long ago.”
The civi’-street stares when the air force let him go in ‘61 stood out on moving to Albury, his dad, “Wenty”, and mum, Doris, having left the Ganmain farm for a house “right down there in South Albury near the old Olive Street railway crossing. It wasn’t sort of pleasant wandering around the street and people are sort of looking at you. I got used to that anyway.”
Charlie Boase is quietly pragmatic, not sure – in a soft, self-deprecating way – if he has much to say about himself, circling his workingman’s hands over that day’s paper, across his daily Sudoku puzzle.
He looks down as he sits at the table in his kitchen, a few paces from a sliding door leading outside, crosses his arms, starts the search for his next thought. And invariably he repeatedly returns to that day in Korea and to the reality check that monstered him in his hospital bed.
“I knew then that the old life I had was gone, sort of thing. It was a completely new life from there on.”
HE made it to Korea with the RAAF just before the Christmas of 1953. By then, Charlie was already working as a mechanic and truck driver, his pilot hopes dashed.
As a kid, on the family’s hay and grain farm, he was always making model planes, dreaming of flying, “all that sort of thing. But that got knocked on the head pretty smartly. I never got through, I never got my wings.”
When his only sibling, his sister Kate, who turns 90 next month, went to Melbourne to be a nurse, Charlie made his choice.
It was 1950 and he was only 21, full of “stars in my eyes” that propelled him to join-up as a trainee air crew. The blow came soon enough, after having a go at an assessment course.
“You do 10 hours’ flying and then you do a test afterwards, and then they say ‘you’d make a better navigator than a pilot probably’. I had all the qualifications as a navigator but I didn’t like it a lot. That’s mainly because you’re stuck inside, you couldn’t see out at a thing. I was really mad, I thought it was stupid.”
A few others missed the cut too, but that didn’t ease Charlie’s disappointment. The ones who did pass “had wonderful lives you know, traveled the world”. But he didn’t have another trade so, thinking of times spent working in a garage back on the farm, decided to stay in the service as a driver and grease monkey.
Before he knew it he was posted to Japan. After just a week he was then sent to Korea and worked there until the February of 1954 before a two-week break back in Japan. A few days after his return was when his world changed. “It changed everything.”
Up early on a miserable, wet day, “it was always cold there in the winter time”, he and a mate put on their gear and got stuck into breaking-up planes wrecked in crashes or bad landings.
They loaded the broken fuselages and wings and other bits and pieces on to the back of a truck to be taken away. The job was supposed to be safe, the fuel tanks were supposed to empty.
This one wasn’t. Charlie was on the back of the truck, standing beside the tank, as they began cutting it in half. The belly tank wasn’t full, but it still had “a lot of fuel inside”. Cutting through metal sparked disaster. The explosion knocked him out, though within moments “I woke up and there were flames all around me. My mate jumped up and threw me off,” he says.
“I kept thinking of what a bastard of a place it was to die. I probably would have died if my mate wasn’t there. It was pretty serious and they said you’d probably be a few weeks in hospital. It ended up being seven years.”
IF the burns didn’t go so deep, he’d have been dealt the agony of his dire reality.
The explosion created a fireball that melted through Charlie Boase’s outer skin, his epidermis, through the underlying dermis and deeper, into the fatty tissue and sweat glands.
It was a full-thickness burn to his face, so nerve damage spared him the excruciating pain.
His hands were so badly hit that he could not move them, but even though he had burns to 80 per cent of his body these other areas of skin were largely spared because of the wet clothing he was wearing, including on the top of his head. His hands weren’t because of the instinctive move to shield his face from the flames.
Charlie had no idea what was going on and he has never regained the memory, mainly because he was drifting in and out of consciousness and in shock. He was to find out later he had been picked up by a US Marines helicopter and flown-out to the hospital ship USS Haven, anchored off Japan. It was to be his home for four months, but for much of that time he wasn’t allowed to look in a mirror.
When he was, after already undergoing several operations – he had 13 during that time, including on his eyes, restoring movement to his eyelids – “I started to realise it was a lot more serious that I thought it was”.
“That was a bit of a shock, seeing somebody else that didn’t look anything like you looking back at you.”
Eventually he was flown home to the RAAF hospital base at Richmond in Sydney, where he spent 19 months before being let out before going back countless times over those seven years.
Sometimes the operations – by the end of it there’d been 49 – would fail, often when it was a skin graft. It was a terribly long process, but one he accepted as he continued to drive trucks and cars and work as a mechanic when not in a hospital bed.
What he sees as more significant was a chance meeting with an ex-air force bloke who had heard of his plight on his move to Albury. This fellow, Bert Aylward, worked for Milthorpes, a tractor repair place in Mate Street. He asked Charlie “do you want a job?” and he replied “yeah, I wouldn’t mind”.
Charlie went on to work for the business and the businesses that took over in turn – English tractor company David Brown and then Case – for about 25 years, when everything about the job began to “get too heavy for me, too much”.
“I had some good friends though, like the Grays down in South Albury, I did a fair bit of work for them,” he says.
“And I’ve had a good life. I’ve enjoyed my life, and I’ve got my two daughters. You sort of think there’s a lot of people who are a lot worse off than I am.”