Police Rescue and Bomb Disposal Squad officers detonated the jar of crystallised picric acid at Emerald Beach.
Police Rescue and Bomb Disposal Squad officers detonated the jar of crystallised picric acid at Emerald Beach. Frank Redward

Explosive find in Anzac's war relics after seven decades

IN WAR a soldier's field dressing and medical kit proved a life-saving necessity, but 73 years on and one stock standard chemical carried by the Anzacs on the World War II battlefield is today presenting a public danger.

Coffs Coast local Mark Ingleby found that out this week, after discovering a glass jar of picric acid among his grandfather's wartime belongings.

Widely used as a disinfectant and to treat battle wounds, picric acid, which has largely been phased out of use since the 1980s, becomes highly unstable with age.

In fact the little glass jar of crystallised acid, among his grandfather's wartime medical kit, was deemed such a concern that members of the NSW Police Rescue and Bomb Disposal unit were called to Emerald Beach to dispose of the deteriorating chemical.

"It was just mind boggling the response. First the fireys, Hazmat crews then the bomb squad," Mark said.

"I understand picric acid is bad, bad news once it crystallises, it's just astounding to think it was sitting in a shoe box amongst my mother's polishes for so many years.

"After I found it, I realised how volatile it can be and somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind I recalled a science lesson as a kid remembering the dangers of the acid.

"After handling it as safely as we could we knew it had to be disposed of correctly."

 

RAT OF TOBRUK: Anzac John 'Dick' Johnson (centre) in training with the Army in Egypt during the Middle Eastern theatre of war.
RAT OF TOBRUK: Anzac John 'Dick' Johnson (centre) in training with the Army in Egypt during the Middle Eastern theatre of war. Contributed

When crystallised it is widely said that picric acid can prove to be more unstable and just as explosive as TNT.

But for Lance Bombardier John "Dick" Johnson, a Rat of Tobruk, who served in the Australian Army's 23rd Infantry Battalion Anti Tank Regiment, that little glass jar no doubt held huge importance.

"My grandfather served in El Alamein, Tobruk and then Borneo and New Guinea, he was one of those guys who didn't talk a hell of a lot about, but when he did we listened," Mark said.

 

KEEPSAKES: The war relics of bombardier and 'Rat of Tobruk' John 'Dick' Johnson.
KEEPSAKES: The war relics of bombardier and 'Rat of Tobruk' John 'Dick' Johnson. Frank Redward

"One great story he would tell was how in the Middle East he used to play football with the allies against the Germans when they weren't at battle.

"He explained it like they were there just doing their job and he was doing his.

"He actually took a camera to war even though the soldiers were told they weren't meant to, some of his photos are incredible and I'm so lucky I have them."

Hailing from the Hunter Valley, Dick returned home after the war and lived on the Central Coast until his late 70s, often travelling to Woolgoolga to holiday.

 

EXPLOSIVE FIND: Dick's World War II field dressing kit in which the volatile jar of crystallised picric acid was found.
EXPLOSIVE FIND: Dick's World War II field dressing kit in which the volatile jar of crystallised picric acid was found. Frank Redward

"I've been thinking about it over the past couple of days and I get the feeling he probably kept the medical kit because it held great importance to him," Mark said.

"I believe he would have grown attached to it, even more so if he had of used it to treat himself or one of his mates, not forgetting of course he came through the Depression and back then they didn't throw anything away."

 

The field dressing kit contained a host of war time medicines.
The field dressing kit contained a host of war time medicines. Frank Redward


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