John Peters spent a great deal of time listening to the radio during World War II. But the programs he tuned in to on his short wave set were not for his own entertainment.
Pete, as he was known, was trying to find out information about his son who'd gone missing at the fall of Singapore.
So he listened each night to the mocking voice of Tokyo Rose who broadcast details of Australians captured by the Japanese, trying to find out what had happened to his son.
He realised that many other people might be worried about missing relatives so he began to make a note of the names mentioned by Tokyo Rose. He also discovered other frequencies where this information was available and passed this news to others.
"Early in the piece I recognised, & very soon had definite proof, that these messages were authentic enough as far as letting people know their loved ones were at least alive," Pete wrote to one correspondent.
His wife Blanche and daughter Joan worked with him to record the names so the information could be passed on.
He kept meticulous records of names mentioned, the time and date of the broadcasts and used this information to check when people began writing to him as a source of information on missing relatives.
"Although our self-imposed task has been most exacting & very often greatly inconvenient - we have not missed a session that we knew about - and there are nine of these a day now," he wrote.
Joan recalls helping her parents in their task, listening each night to Tokyo Rose and others.
"I used to find her voice very galling," she recalled. "She had an aggravating, mocking tone of voice but we soon got used to it."
Having written down the names given out by Tokyo Rose and others, Pete would scribble messages on to precious pieces of paper. If he was able to contact any folk by phone this was done immediately. He'd also check the phone book for addresses, then he'd put the notes in envelopes and walk the few yards to the railway station at Muchea, a small village about 50km north of Perth. There he'd drop them in the open mail bag on the train which stopped each night between 1am and 3am.
Where he couldn't locate a phone number or address, because there were not that many telephones during the war, he would ring up the local police station to pass on the information.
"We were fortunate in having one of the really good (short wave radio) sets for the job and the fact that most of my work is at home - I am storekeeper here - and without these two conditions it would not be done," he wrote.
Daughter Joan recalls that paper was very precious during the war
"Everybody saved paper and envelopes for him," she said.
Pete used old ledgers, journals, circulars and any other pieces of paper he could lay his hands on.
Many people who received the notes would write back to thank him and would enclose a stamp to help pay for the cost while others donated small amounts of money urging him to continue the service.
All the time he was listening to the short wave broadcasts, Pete was hoping to hear about his missing son but it wasn't until the war ended that he finally learned that his son had been killed in the fall of Singapore.
Meanwhile, hundreds of families had received news of their loved ones thanks to Pete's voluntary service. Pete's daughter Joan Edwards, who lives in Western Australia, has a collection of 820 letters sent by grateful families from all over Australia.
"Your letter of the 8th regarding my son, Phil, caused a thrill to many homes," one correspondent wrote. "I had heard from the Department of the Army about two weeks ago that my lad was a prisoner of war in Malaya, but the other boys mentioned, namely Gregor McDonald, Halwin Buttsworth and Bill Bell, had not been heard of, so you can imagine the joy amongst the families of those three boys when we phoned them the contents of your letter."
Another letter from a grateful mother read in part:
"I wish to express to you my sincere thanks and gratitude for your kindness in sending on the message which you heard last night from Saigon, sent by my son of whom I have had no tidings since the fall of Singapore. You can just imagine how thankful I was to get the message which the local constable gave within a few minutes of receiving it from you."
News of a missing son prompted this mother to write:
"It gave us untold pleasure to know that our dear one was safe & well, & feel that you are doing a great job in letting relatives know of these letters."
And another mother was ecstatic at hearing news:
"I received your most welcome letter yesterday (28-8-43) & it is the most wonderful news we have ever had. Yes, that is our soldier son XX36828 Gnr L.H. Howell. The last letter we had from him was 27th Jan 1942 from Malaya since then silence, but the news you have sent us is wonderful news & we are all overjoyed by it."
Many wives learned from Pete that husbands were still alive as POWs:
"I was delighted to receive your letter today and words cannot express my feelings when I heard the good news of my husband, and to know he is safe and well."
These are but a few excerpts from the hundreds of thank you letters received by John 'Pete' Peters from all over Australia as well as New Zealand, South Africa, the British Isles and even one from New Guinea.
After the war Pete continued to run his store. Because he spoke four languages he also taught English to the migrants who arrived to work in the timber mill at Muchea. He spent many hours helping them with tax returns, writing their letters and did all the estimates of the acreage cleared for those on farms. He also acquired the local post office to go with his store until his daughter Joan and her husband, Wally Edwards, took over the store in 1948. Pete continued with the Post Office for some years but was taken ill with cancer in 1956 and died in 1961.
There are hundreds of families throughout Australia and other countries who have reason to be grateful for the many hours Pete and his family put in to let them have news of their missing relatives.
John Peters enrolled in the army within a few weeks of World War I being declared. He had been a school teacher, having migrated to Australia in 1912, and divided his time between two schools at Gingin Brook and Mooliabeenie which were 18 miles apart.
Because he had an abhorrence of killing he joined the 3rd Field Ambulance after training was sent to Gallipoli. It was here he adopted his nickname of 'Pete' which stayed with him for the rest of his life - apart from with his parents and sisters.
After carrying the dead and wounded for three or four months Pete collapsed with a strained heart and after three months in hospital was repatriated to Australia.
In January 1917 the Department of Education posted him to Muchea, a small town 34 miles from Perth. He met and fell in love with Blanche Fewster and they were married on 8 January 1919. Pete paid a deposit on a poultry farm in 1926 but continued to teach at the school for 21 years.
Due to the depression he had to get rid of his poultry at a great loss but continued to live on the farm growing vegetables which he bartered for groceries. In 1936 he retired from teaching with a worn-out voice box and bought the local store. He paid off the farm two years later.
Pete's three-year search for news of his missing son John began after the fall of Singapore. The family had received one letter from John on his arrival in Singapore and despite being able to provide news to hundreds of other families, it was not until November 1945 that a letter from the Red Cross, followed by one from the Army, informed them that John had been killed on 11 February 1942.
Material for this article was supplied by Joan Edwards of Western Australia.
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