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The Darwin Fighter Pilot who became Prime Minister

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Someone once said he had a face of a walnut, but John Gorton had a good reason for his distinctly battered visage. 

Three crash landings during World War II – including one in a Kitthawk on Melville Island – left his face battered and bruised. Despite restorative surgery he always looked a victim of the World War II. But he didn’t let that stop him – Gorton went on to become Prime Minister of Australia.

A married farmer, Gorton enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force in November 1940 and trained as a fighter pilot in Victoria and New South Wales. He then was sent to England where he completed training at Hendon. 

His squadron was to be sent to the Middle East, but the British government diverted them instead to Singapore. The troopship arrived on 13 January 1942 and just eight days later Gorton was involved in a dogfight, and forced to crash land his Hurricane on Bintarn Island near Palembang, Sumatra. His harness was not fully tightened and his face was seriously injured on the gunsight of the plane. 

After he recovered from this serious crash, Gorton joined No. 77 Squadron flying Kittyhawks, and was posted to Darwin, where they flew out of Batchelor and then Livingstone airstrips. In September 1942 a mistake nearly cost him his life, but he executed an ‘extremely successful’ crash-landing on a Melville Island beach after inadvertently cutting the fuel supply. 

In February 1943 the squadron was sent to Milne Bay in New Guinea to assist with the mopping-up operations as US forces pushed the Japanese from the islands they had occupied for a year. At Milne Bay on 8 March 1943, Gorton had a third flying accident – he miraculously escaped when his Kittyhawk stalled and flipped over at take-off.

The following month Gorton was posted back to Australia to the RAAF operational training unit at Mildura, Victoria. In 1944 Flight Lieutenant Gorton went to Heidelberg hospital for surgery which could not fully repair his facial injuries. After the war, he returned to the orchard his wife Bettina had been running while raising their three young children.

Gorton went into politics after the war and became a senator for the Liberal Party in 1949. He defended his seat successfully on several occasions and became the Minister for the Navy. He served in several other portfolios before becoming the Prime Minister following the disappearance of Prime Minister Holt in a swimming accident. He was forced to contest a by-election to move to the House of Representatives to take on his role as Prime Minister from 1968 to 1971.

He died in 2002, having served his country with distinction in two very different fields.  

Acknowledgement is made to the National Archives for material.

John Gorton prior to leaving for war service in 1941. (Public domain)
John Gorton fourth from the left in the back row, with fellow pilots of 77 Squadron in Darwin. (RAAF)