The Story of Con's Rock

Have you ever walked passed the flat stone on your way either to or from Isurava Battlefield? If so you may have been told this is Con's rock and this is the location an amputation was carried out. Have you ever wondered who exactly was Con? Gary Traynor from Kokoda Historical recently compiled this story.

To gain an understanding of the men who made up the First AIF during the Great War, one needs only to study the works of Charles Edwin Woodrow BEAN (C.E.W. BEAN). Arguably, he is one of Australia’s greatest historians. Volume one in the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, gives us a vivid account of these men who stormed the shores of Gallipoli in 1915. In doing so, these diggers weaved a vital thread in the fabric, of what it is to be an Australian …“the Spirit of Anzac”.

English war correspondents of the time also helped to perpetuate this legend. Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett emphasised not only the magnificent performance of the Australians on the battlefield, but also their remarkable “physique” when compared to that of other Commonwealth troops. An English born writer (of Scottish descent), Sir Edward Montague Compton McKENZIE, in 1929 praised the original Anzacs.

In poetic strains which were the style of that era, he remarked on ”their absolute beauty, their tallness and majestic simplicity – as well as their litheness and powerful grace”. He went on to say that “Any one of them could have been Ajax or Diomed, Hector or Achilles”. Whilst these comments primarily related to the men of the First and Second Australian Divisions (prior to the lowering of height restrictions) it is important to note that NOT all diggers, serving in the AIF were born and bred in Australia.

Undoubtedly, there were men of Greek descent amongst the Australian ranks of the first AIF. Men who through the eyes of Ashmead-Bartlett or Compton MacKenzie, could be drawn into a figurative comparison with these mythical Greek characters. Their Australian born sons merely one generation later, shared a fate which would also lead them to war in the ranks of the Second AIF.

So when the 7th Australian Division was sent from their deployment in the Middle East back to defend their homeland Australia, it would be “fate” which would result in the naming of a small ’rock’ to a man of Greek descent in the steaming jungles of the Kokoda Track, New Guinea. For Con VAPP of the 2/14th Infantry Battalion, AIF was born Constantine VAFIOPULOUS in suburban Camberwell, Melbourne on the 17th of February, 1920.

Working as a canister maker in Caulfield before the war, he would enlist into the AIF on the 5th of July, 1940 and be allocated the service number VX42431 when the Second World War broke out. He was entered into the ranks of the Victorian 2/14th Infantry Battalion as part of the 21st Brigade, 7th Australian Division. A division which would see bloody fighting in the battlefields of Syria and Lebanon, which would famously earn them the moniker of “The Silent Seventh”.

The colour patch of the 2/14th Infantry Battalion, AIF showing the ‘yellow over blue’ of the original 14th Battalion, superimposed onto the grey background to denote the 2nd AIF (the diamond shape of the grey denotes the 7th Division).

Departing Australia on the 19th of October 1940, the 2/14th Battalion sailed to Palestine for further training before being deployed to Egypt in early April of 1941. After Greece and Crete had fallen, it was thought that the Germans might attempt to capture the Suez Canal by attacking through Lebanon and then Syria. A move of the Australians serving in the 7th Division was necessitated to strengthen the defences along the Libyan border; however a German attack failed to eventuate.

The men of the 21st Brigade returned to Palestine in late May of 1941, in order to prepare for the Allied invasion of Syria and Lebanon. However, their enemy in this engagement was not to be the German Army but French troops of the Vichy Government who despised the “Free French” and their leader, Charles De Gaulle. It was hoped that these Vichy French troops would capitulate, however nothing was further from the truth. They were large in number and well equipped. Their ranks also included the hardened men of the legendary French Foreign Legion. So with a distinct hatred for their countrymen who were Allied with Great Britain, the Vichy French would prove to be a tough and determined foe.

The 2/14th went into action in the early hours of the 8th of June, 1941. In the Official History of Australia in World War II by Gavin Merrich LONG (see footnote) a special mention is made of Con VAPP (prior to his name change). Detailing the action which occurred between the 22nd and the 24th of June, 1941 it states:

“Meanwhile Lieutenant Kyffin had led two of the remaining platoons forward. hey reached to within 300 yards of a flanking platoon under Sergeant Ralph Thompson, who, though wounded, continued to command. Kyffin and others were wounded. These men, exposed to fire from well-sited posts on three sides, fought on until, about an hour after daylight, their ammunition was exhausted. Among them Privates Von Bibra and Chris Walker, and a stretcher-bearer of Greek descent, Private Vafiopulous, who was critically wounded while attending the fallen men, showed outstanding courage”.

For a researcher, it is always humbling when the family of a veteran agree to speak with you and share their father’s history. I had the pleasure to speak with the two sons of Con VAPP, Rodney and Gary. Information from the family of Con indicates that it was during this action in the Syrian campaign where their father would play an instrumental part in saving the life of another soldier. A man by the name of Arthur Roderick EDEN who survived the war, thanks to the actions of Constantine VAFIOPULOUS.

During a bombardment of the Australian positions, Con pulled the wounded Lance Corporal EDEN over a rock to safety. Only moments later, a mortar round exploded near where Arthur EDEN had been laying. Injuries to Lance Corporal EDEN were such, that a bullet had passed through his body and he was not expected to live. However, he survived and was discharged from the AIF on the 23rd of July, 1942. (Arthur EDEN preferred to be known by his middle name of ‘Roderick’ and it was by this name that Rodney VAPP was christened).

It is apparent that during this action and perhaps as a result of his “critical” injuries mentioned in the above extract, Con was taken prisoner by Senegalesse Troops fighting for the Vichy French. This could have been the end of Con’s active service had he joined the countless thousands of Australians who remained P.O.W’s for the duration of the war. However, Con VAPP was a participant in a “prisoner exchange” between the Vichy French and the Australians (his exchange is likely due to the fact that Con had sustained serious wounds and the French no longer considered him a threat to their operations).

If you believe that fate does play a hand in the lives of men, then had Con remained a prisoner for the remainder of the war all of the ‘medical’ deeds which carried out in later campaigns would never have eventuated. How many lives were changed as a result of his one act of chance? A ‘cross road’ in life.

Emblem of the 7th Australian Division, AIF, “The Silent Seventh”, depicting the famous Australian Kookaburra sitting on a boomerang.

The bitter campaign would be fought over a five week period, until July 1941. Because the press censor (who normally would have a say in what news is released to the Australian people) was manipulated by both political and military guidelines, the news was censored to delete any references of the fighting. The French had to be seen by the rest of the world as a brave and loyal ‘ally’ to the British in the fight against German oppression.

The news of Australian soldiers killing Frenchmen would not sit well in the big scheme of the propaganda machine. Subsequently, the severe fighting faced by the 7th Australian Division was not reported upon, whilst the accolades (though well deserved) were being played upon the 6th Division and their gallant stand in the siege of Tobruk. Much to their resentment, the name “Silent Seventh” would fall upon them and the deeds of their fallen comrades go unheralded.

During early 1942, the 7th Division would be unwitting pawns in a ‘tug-of-war’ between Winston Churchill and the Australian Prime Minister of the time, John CURTAIN. Churchill had previously asked the Australian Government for two Divisions to be dispatched from the Middle East, to Burma. The 6th & the 7th Divisions had been selected, however when Singapore fell to the Japanese on the 15th of February the whole situation changed for Australia.

Two days after this catastrophic loss of Britain’s naval base in Malaya, Curtain requested that the convoy, carrying the troops of these two divisions be diverted to Australia. For the first time in the nation’s history, the Australian Government would challenge the wishes of her mother England and demand that the diggers be returned in defence of their country. Australia owes much to the stand made by Prime Minister Curtain, and the 7th Division arrived back during March of 1942. It would not be long before Con Vapp would be facing a new enemy.

A photograph taken of Constantine VAFIOPULOUS and his bride Estella (nee BULLEN) on their wedding day. Having spoken about Con on numerous occasions whilst on location along the Kokoda Track, I was surprised by his ‘youthful’ appearance when I first saw this image many years later. The colour patch of the 2/14th Infantry Battalion, AIF is clearly visible on his right sleeve.Photograph courtesy of the VAPP family collection.

The 2/14th Battalion entered the fray of the Kokoda Track campaign on the 16th of August, 1942 when they started off along the trail from Itiki. The first elements of this unit reached the embattled 39th Infantry Battalion (AMF) around 5pm on the 26th of August. The 39th were the famous ‘Militia’ battalion, who were labelled “Chocos” or “Chocolate Soldiers” and would later be dubbed “Those Ragged Bloody Heroes”.

A 39th digger by the name of John MANOL is quoted as saying

“That’s the first time I’d ever seen a man dressed in green. That was at Isurava and this bloke jumped into our pit and I thought ‘Jesus. He’s a bloody Nip! Green uniform?” I said to him, “Who are you?” He said,“We’re the 2/14th”. I thought Christ had come down again! We all did. We thought of them as Gods, these blokes. They were tall and they were tanned….clean uniforms…whereas you’d look around at your mates and their eyes were sunk back in their heads and they were pale and dirty and grubby”.

The battle which ensued at Isurava between the 26th and the 30th of August, 1942 is the stuff of legends. It is difficult for anybody who has never been in combat, to actually picture the horror of “hand to hand” combat…..or the killing of a man at close range. However during the latter stages of this action, the Australians began to reconnoitre a position to the rear where the troops could fall back and begin the fighting withdrawal.

The position chosen was the site of the Isurava Rest House (between wartime Isurava and the village of Alola). By 2am on the 30th of August, the Australian troops of the 2/14th Infantry Battalion AIF and what remained of the 39th Militia Battalion, had dug in around the Rest House area in a tight perimeter. Just to the south of this position, lay a small “flat topped” rock which would be the scene of a dramatic medical procedure.

There are numerous accounts of the sad disposition of the Australian wounded. As their mates did their best to buy time and hold back the advancing Japanese, the pitiful wounded did their best to make their way back towards Eora Creek. Sometime during this phase, it is reported that Medical Orderly Constantine VAFIOPULOUS was struggling under the weight of a wounded man. It is believed that Con urged him to continue on unassisted, as the number of wounded behind them was mounting and other men needed assistance. Whilst the name of this man is not known, it is believed that he did continue unassisted and successfully made it back to Port Moresby.

A photograph taken of Con’s Rock (also known as Surgeon’s Rock) during April, 2010. Its flat topped surface can clearly be seen here and there is no other feature that comes close to resembling this on the Kokoda Track. One can also see, that the rock provided an elevated position, clear from the mud and leaf litter which clutters the jungle floor. Con’s Rock is sizeable enough, so that you can place the body of a man along the stone table so that just his feet are protruding over the end.

However, it is the story of an amputation that has given Con’s name to a ‘flat topped’ rock on the Kokoda Track. Should you walk the Kokoda Trail today, you will find a plaque which is dedicated to the memory of Harold ‘Butch’ BISSETT (see previous paragraph). It is recorded that on a spot near here, his brother Stan held the hand of Butch who had been fatally wounded in fighting back at the ‘B’ Company position on the high ground of Isurava. Just below that plaque is “Con’s Rock”.

This feature is the only rock of its kind, anywhere along the Kokoda Track. Its shape is unmistakable and one could easily compare its flat surface to that of an operating table. It is reported that on or around the 30th of August, 1942 a medical orderly (who had been a canister maker in civilian life only two years previously) with only basic formal training in medicine performed an emergency amputation on an Australian soldier. Sadly, the name of the patient is not known. One can only hope that he survived the operation, however the surgical procedure would merely be the start of his ‘horror’ ordeal.

There were about 70 kilometres of torturous track ahead of him, before he would see a ‘real’ hospital. It is also unknown exactly which limb was amputated by Con Vapp. However, it does not take a creative imagination to conjure up what exactly was going through Con’s mind, as he performed such an operation with the inadequate and basic tools at hand. A sobering thought to any Kokoda trekker who begins to complain about the annoyance of a “blister” on their heel.

On location at Con’s Rock, two days after Anzac Day 2010. With the kind permission of Gary and Rodney VAPP, I carried their parent’s photo to this spot for the first time. Considering the fact that the Australian forces pulled out of Isurava around dusk on the 29th of August (and were dug in at the Isurava Rest House area around 2am on the 30th August) it is highly likely that the operation performed by Constantine VAFIOPULOUS was carried out either in the dark of night or the dim light of sunset on the 29th of August, 1942.

Page 318 of Bill James’ wonderful “Field Guide to the Kokoda Track” gives us a brief insight into Con’s Rock. Gary VAPP indicates that he was with his father Con, in 2000 when a party of 2/14th veterans returned to the Kokoda Track. At the time of his return to that location, Con indicated that to the best of his knowledge, this rock was the location where he performed the emergency medical procedure. However sadly, Con has since passed away and little else is known about that moment in time.

So whether you know this location as “Surgeon’s Rock” (as it has been called in the past) or Con’s Rock, spare a thought for Constantine VAFIOPULOUS as you pass. It is highly likely that this single act, burned itself into his subconscious and remained with him for the rest of his life. A private nightmare which no doubt, surfaced into his mind every now and again.

This Aussie of Greek descent would certainly never have thought of himself as “Ajax or Diomed, Hector or Achilles”. And I haveno doubt that he would have scoffed at the poetic descriptions given to the diggers of the First AIF by Ashmead-Bartlett or Compton McKenzie. However, I have heard it said that the battle of Isurava was Australia’s Thermopylae. I hope that whenever we look for the heroes of this world, we remember the ones who did their duty willingly, faced a terrible enemy, and then returned anonymously back to civil life. Expecting nothing and asking for nothing in return. Men like Constantine VAFIOPULOUS.

The 1939-1945 Star, Africa Star, Pacific Star, Defence Medal, 1939-1945 War Medal and the 1939-1945 Australia Service Medal as awarded to VX42431 Lance Corporal Constantine VAFIOPULOUS (Con VAPP) for service in the Middle East and new Guinea.

FOOTNOTE: For his own personal reasons, Constantine VAFIOPULOUS would simplify his name to ‘Con Vapp’ by deed poll. However he is recorded as Constantine Charles Athol VAFIOPULOUS on the World War Two Nominal Roll. He discharged from the AIF on 29 September 1944, his duty nobly done.

REFERENCES:

Official History of Australia in World War II (page 455) by Gavin Merrich LONG. Gavin Long had been appointed the General Editor of the Official History of Australia in World War II on the recommendation of C.E.W. BEAN in March of 1943. LONG spent the last thirty months of the war, in planning, consulting and recruiting authors and staff (information from the Australian Dictionary of Biography)

Nile “Origins of Anzac” pg 35

Blood & Iron by Lex MacAulay

Field Guide to the Kokoda Track by Bill James. This book is an essential addition to any trekker’s backpack, if trekking the Kokoda Track. The maps and topographical photographs are excellent and the information contained inside will assist you to “match the history” to the lay of the land. I thoroughly recommend it.

My deepest thanks go out to Rodney and Gary Vapp for their kind permission to write this account. Photographs within this article are not to be reproduced without the specific permission of the VAPP family (please contact Kokoda Historical) I would also like to thank my dear friend Janice VAFIOPULOUS (Information Assistant- AWM) for a ” chance” discussion in the Hall of Valour at the Australian War Memorial!

Written by Gary Traynor

Con's Rock