Community engagement


Thomas John 'Massa' Clarke


A decorated soldier who led by example 

Thomas John Clarke gave the best years of his life in service of his country, in 3 wars and several military campaigns where he earned 11 medals for his courage in battle. Born in Bordertown, South Australia, in 1926, Tom was a Jardwadjali/Gunditjmara man.

He was the youngest of the 7 children of Emma Edna (nee Harradine) and John (known as Jack) Murray Clarke. Emma was born at the Ebenezer Mission in the Wimmera and Jack was born at Framlingham Mission in South West Victoria. Tragically Jack drowned in the Wimmera River 2 months before Tom’s birth. Tom’s siblings were Laurence, Isobel, Eric, George, and twins Reginald and Irene.

Times were tough for the young family without their father. The older children looked after the younger ones while Emma supported them through domestic work. Tom completed his schooling at Lillimur near Kaniva but the family moved around, living at times near Red Cliffs, Dimboola and Lochiel.

In 1942 Tom joined the Citizen’s Military Force, giving his age as 18 although he was probably only 16 or 17. His older brother Reg, with whom he was very close, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in 1943 and Tom was keen to join him, transferring to the AIF at the same time.

The brothers soon found themselves engaging with the enemy in the jungles of Rabaul in New Britain (now Papua New Guinea) and both fought in the battle of Tarakan in Borneo. Tom stayed with the Army until February 1947 and served with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. He was stationed in Nagasaki and was deeply affected by the destruction he witnessed there.

It is believed that Tom got his nickname 'Massa' (slang for Master) when he first joined the army as he had a commanding presence. In later years other soldiers he served with associated the name with his ‘massive’ chest as he always stood tall and proud. He rejoined the Army in July 1951 and again saw active service in the Korean War with the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR), before being discharged in February 1953 and returning to Australia.

Tom tried his hand at many types of work during the 1950s, including cane cutting in Innisfail, bagging grain near Bordertown, working on the railways at Mildura and Dimboola and also harvesting salt at the Pink Lake near Dimboola. Tom always gravitated back to his family in the Bordertown and Dimboola areas whenever he could, but he missed army life and signed on again in September 1961.

He was actively engaged for 2 years in Malaya and Sarawak, Borneo, during the Indonesian Confrontation. Soon after Australia entered the Vietnam War (1962-75) and Tom was again on active service, attached initially to the 1st Battalion, and later to the 4th and 7th Battalions of the RAR. Tom rose to the rank of Lance Corporal, but according to his family he was ‘promoted and demoted more times than you could count’.

His love of army life did not extend to an appreciation of the strict chain of command and he was often disciplined for insubordination. While he’s been described as a 'natural leader', he was happiest amongst the ranks leading by example rather than according to his stripes.

Some perspectives on Tom’s personality are gained through an account of his Company’s experience on Operation Coburg, a 3 day battle fought during the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam. His skill in the field, particularly in the bush, was undisputed. 'He could smell, hear and see things long before anyone else did' and was reputed to have a charismatic effect on many young diggers serving with him.

He was wounded in February 1968, during Operation Coburg, when shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade ripped through the bridge of his nose. Tom was air-lifted to the US Army hospital at Long Binh but 'when they pulled him off the chopper they thought he was dead.'

Fortunately, as he was being tagged, 'he let out a loud bellow and sat up' and was rushed to the operating theatre. After recovering from the injury he was returned to Australia.

Tom served out his army days at the Jungle Training Centre at Canungra, Queensland, and was discharged in September 1979. He remained in Canungra at the Training Centre, working in the stores, until his retirement around 1987. On ANZAC Day Tom would always lead the march.

According to his nephew Frank Clarke and niece Kerry Clarke-Hunt, Tom had a great sense of humour and loved to entertain. 'We always had good times when he was around.' His passion in life was music, particularly country music, and he could play the guitar, accordion and mouth organ, and could easily extract a tune from a gum leaf. He was also a great swimmer. Frank Clarke recalls that 'Uncle Tom saved me from drowning in the Mitchell dam.'

Not surprisingly, given the amount of active service he had seen, Tom suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His family believe he was probably affected by PTSD from the time of the Second World War and his experience in Japan, but managed to cope with it in his own way.

Through his courage and resilience Tom inspired his nieces and nephews to be proud and strong in their culture. Sadly, Tom 'Massa' Clarke died of cancer in 1990.