Transport pioneer’s legacy lives on after 15-year mission to find original truck ends
It was the automotive version of finding a needle in a hay stack — a 15-year mission to track down one of the first road trains to cart grain through the Great Southern more than six decades ago.
Adrian Peters could not believe his luck when he hit the jackpot last harvest and found the original Southern Transport truck his hero — his uncle Wally — had driven for 12 years.
The truck he had been searching for was in a farmer’s shed at Hyden and being used to cart grain.
The 1976 Mack R600 Prime Mover has now been restored to its former glory.
A Rat of Tobruk and a WWII digger, Wally was just 21 when he enlisted for the 2/28th Australian Infantry Battalion 9th Division and began what would be a four-year career in the Australian Army.
Upon returning to WA, he carved out a career as a road transport pioneer as one of the nine founding members of the first company ever contracted to CBH Group to cart grain by road.
Southern Transport operated from 1957 to 1986 after being created by nine determined, unafraid and what many thought were slightly mad men who did not shy away from a challenge.
As well as winning that trailblazing contract with CBH, Southern Transport was the first company to use road trains to cart grain in WA and potentially in Australia.
For Adrian — a truck driver just like his uncle — the journey to find the first truck his uncle bought, drove and fixed himself while pioneering road transport started nearly two decades ago.
He first planned to paint a Kenworth in Southern Transport colours, but it “didn’t have the same feel”.
Instead, Adrian set about trying to find and restore it, and to share his uncle’s story with the world.
“I always said that I would like to find one of Uncle Wally’s trucks.
He was very special because he was a road transport pioneer and a Rat of Tobruk,” Adrian said.
“There never seemed to be any recognition for Southern Transport, for what they had achieved.
“He had a major influence in my life and restoring the truck is my way of paying him respect.”
Adrian said his uncle had shied away from Anzac and Rat of Tobruk commemoration events.
He never received a war service pension.
But when Wally died in 2003, he died as a quiet road transport pioneer of the bulk grain road industry, a Rat of Tobruk and a WWII veteran.
AN EARLY LIFE
Wally was born in Kalgoorlie — as Walter Vivian Ernest Peters — on October 9, 1919.
At the age of four, he and his family moved to a small dairy farm in Oakford’s then-fledgling dairy farming area.
Touted as a hard worker, his family depended on him and Wally worked on dairies in the area before going into log chopping as a teenager.
In those days, the trucks were just a chassis on wheels and the workers — Wally included — would load up to eight tonnes of logs onto the trucks by hand.
One of Adrian’s favourite stories about his uncle was when, at the age of 11, Wally’s family needed him to pick up a new horse for the dairy.
He caught the milk truck to the closest train station, travelled up to Balcatta and rode the horse all the way back to Oakford — just in time for dinner.
Wally was entering his twenties when he decided to work on cattle stations in WA’s north, but that time was interrupted when WWII started and he listed for the Australian Army.
TIME IN SERVICE
Wally enlisted for the Australian Army on December 4, 1940 as Service Number WX9430 of the 2/28th Australian Infantry Battalion 9th Division.
He was headed to the Middle East. Wally joined what was a wholly WA battalion until reinforcements from across Australia were added.
As an early draft, his army service also saw him involved in the Siege of Tobruk in Libya and the first battle of El Alamein in Egypt — called the Battle of Ruin Ridge.
It was the Australian Army’s biggest military disaster of WWII, and Wally and his fellow 2/28th members were nearly annihilated after just about everything went wrong.
On July 26, 1942, the 2/28th rose from their sandy trenches, formed into long lines and walked southwards on a moonlit desert night through minefields towards the Axis-held ridge ahead.
They were making one final attempt to break through the Axis position at El Alamein and reach a section of line held by Italian troops.
While they reached their objective, they were soon cut off by German troops and Afrika Korps.
Of the 650 Aussie soldiers, less than 100 escaped — including Wally.
Wally went on to survive the landings at Milne Bay in New Guinea and the amphibious assault on Lae Beach in Northern New Guinea — the first amphibious assault by Australian soldiers since the landings of Gallipoli. He also survived the crossing of the Busu River.
Born with a diseased hip, Wally found he really struggled in Papua New Guinea after feeling well in North Africa. He battled to walk the Kokoda Track.
In 1944, he was medically discharged for his hip issues and returned home.
A LIFE IN PERTH
Wally found a place for himself in Perth as a mechanic at Brownes Dairy, fixing trucks.
The skills he learnt fixing dairy trucks would prove greatly beneficial in years to come.
He married Frances Bennett and the pair had four daughters: Shirley, Sandra, Joy and Debra.
“Wally’s father-in-law gave him his first truck, a rickety old thing ...but after the war, he managed to get some money together and get a decent truck,” Adrian said.
He used his first truck, a KB5 International, to start carting grain for the railways from the Eastern Wheatbelt to Fremantle around 1948.
It was while returning to the Wheatbelt for another load that he noticed another operator broken down.
As he drove past later, he noticed that same truck was still there so he stopped to help.
He had a major influence in my life and restoring the truck is my way of paying him respect.
Neither the stranded driver Dick O’Neill, nor Wally, knew that this would be the start of a lifelong friendship and business partnership.
Together, the pair would start the first WA bulk grain road transport company to be contracted by CBH from 1957 to 1986.
Dick introduced Wally to some of his closest friends in the transport industry: Terry Priestley and Doug Hall.
He also introduced him to a group of other hardworking truck operators — mainly Italian and Yugoslav immigrants that had worked with Dick.
This included Rudd Barbarich, George Barbarich, Julian Rijavec, Tony Bubnich, and Angelo Bosich.
NINE BRAVE MEN
Wally and his newfound friends had been busy carting logs to saw mills, carting grain for the railways into Fremantle and doing other haulage jobs between 1948 and 1956.
At the time, the WA Government had shut down the railway lines in the lower Great Southern on the premise that it was not economical to transport grain from CBH bins to Albany Port.
CBH put a contract out for tender requiring transport operators to take over and cart by trucks.
But there was a catch — there were next to no proper roads or bridges and extreme corrugation and sandy bog holes were the norm.
The then-infamous Gairdner River was renowned for being difficult to traverse and there was little more than a gravel track over the Stirling Ranges.
No one responded to CBH, knowing that carting grain on these bad roads was an impossible feat almost guaranteed to lead to bankruptcy.
CBH needed a hardened operator willing to take on such a momentous task.
Wally, Dick and the others were well known in the industry for their work carting logs from the South West and to Perth saw mills.
Known as rogue operators, the group ignored requirements to have permits for carting freight.
Money was tight, and the group would “run the rabbit” — overloading trucks, carting at night and sleeping in the bush to avoid being caught.
Their wives would drive several miles in front of the trucks to spot transport inspectors and alert the men.
The roads were rough but it was the late 1950s, and the grain industry in the lower Great Southern was developing.
Dick saw an obvious gap in the market. He proposed to Wally — and their Italian and Yugoslav mates — that they start a grain carting business.
While most thought the treacherous roads would destroy their trucks and send them broke, Wally, Dick and the seven other brave men went on to found Southern Transport to give it a red-hot go.
Southern Transport was awarded the tender by CBH. The battle had begun.
THE FOUNDING OF SOUTHERN TRANSPORT
With Dick at the helm as managing director, Wally and Rudd as directors and the others as equal shareholders — Southern Transport was born.
The company operated from 1957 to 1986 — making history as the first in WA and potentially Australia to operate road trains to cart grain.
Adrian said he had heard many a story over the years about what it was like to traverse a “gravel track” over the Stirling Ranges, sleep on the side of the road, and fix their own trucks on the run.
Their first job was carting bagged super phosphate for Albany CSBP to land settlement sheds in the Gairdner River district.
At the time, loading and unloading was done manually — there were no hydraulics.
During that first year of operation, they nearly did all go broke.
Their trucks were battered and bruised, but as the roads and conditions improved their business grew stronger.
Southern Transport carted grain from the Lakes District, Ongerup and Pingrup back to Albany CBH.
In the early years, it also carted from Ravensthorpe, Mt Madden and Munglinup to Esperance Port.
Farmers were left to their own devices to cart fertiliser from the Esperance railhead back to their farms.
It was time consuming and costly.
Regulations meant Southern Transport had to stay on the west side of Ravensthorpe but eventually, a group of farmers approached Southern Transport and asked if they would cart fertiliser direct from Albany Port to their farms.
Running the rabbit for a second time, Southern Transport started to load their trucks in the day and run out under the cloak of darkness to service farmers.
From humble beginnings, Southern Transport had 34 road trains and up to 50 more subcontractors at harvest time.
Just one of the nine founders is still alive.
At 94, Terry Priestly is proud to say he’s “still with it” and amazed he has outlived the last of his once-colleagues by more than 12 years.
He was with the business for three years before he eventually realised he had “had enough of trucks” and started his own changing imported cars from left to right hand drive.
Remembering his business colleagues with a big chuckle, Mr Priestly said he and his friends were the only ones “tough enough” for the job.
“The roads were rough, corrugated, with bog holes, and we had brake trouble, wheel trouble, axle trouble during that first year,” he said.
“But we had the contract.
“So we carted all of the grain loads. The early days were hard, very hard.
“They knew we could handle the situation and we were used to sleeping in the bush.
“So we got the job.”
A TRUCK RESTORED
Adrian’s journey to find the truck was one of many twists and turns.
His first port of call was Salty’s Haulage owner Brian Shiner, a Mack fanatic whose father used to work as a sub-contractor for Southern Transport.
He suggested a “fella out at Hyden” may have bought it.
That “fella” turned out to be Hyden farmer Greg Hockeridge.
After a bit of convincing from his good friend Jack Cahill — who had heard Adrian’s story and was determined to help out — Greg gave Adrian the truck.
“Three weeks into the last harvest, I got a phone call from the farmer who said we could have it because he knew how much it meant to us,” Adrian said.
Adrian took it straight to Watheroo mechanic Wayne Parola — a well-known local that has lovingly restored a valuable piece of road transport history.
Adrian and his wife Sharon are now compiling a book about Wally’s life, which they hope to release in the next few years.
Adrian believes the City of Albany should pay tribute to him by naming a park after him.
Dick and Wally remained with the company until it closed in 1986.
But the nine men and their families, the offsiders and drivers that built the iconic company will long be remembered.
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