Ern shared these wartime experiences in 2009 in his memoir Dangerous Days: A Digger’s Great Escape, which he co-wrote with author Kim Kelly.
I first met Ern at the Sydney office of HarperCollins, where I interviewed him about the book.
He was a big, robust man of 89, with sparkling eyes and a hearty laugh.
Our conversation flowed easily as I knew the territory where the Partisans had fought.
In the 1990s, I’d worked in the former Yugoslavia for the United Nations as a press and information officer and had travelled throughout Croatia and Bosnia, and knew the areas the three escapees had journeyed through, a route that included the Croatian towns of Varaždin, Ivanec and Kalnik, the capital Zagreb, and Banja Luka in the Serb region of Bosnia.
I had also experienced war in that part of the world.
I’d been shot at and trapped under artillery and mortar fire, seen people die from gunshot wounds and burns, and felt many times the uncontrollable fear that can grip you in a war zone.
None of that compares to Ern’s war experiences, whose courage earned him the Military Medal.
But I could understand why returned soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
War occupied only a few years of Ern’s young life but his scars have never truly faded – it was hard not to notice his shaking left hand, the nerves damaged by shell shock.
Yet he often insists he was not afraid in battle.
“I wasn’t very frightened of anything,” he tells me.
“I think it’s because I had a flash of blood from my mother that I did not fear for anything.”
Ern reckons he inherited the fighting resilience of his mother’s cousin, Captain Albert Jacka, a World War I Gallipoli veteran who earned a Victoria Cross.