Each ANZAC Day, I think of my father Frank (pictured) who served first in the Middle East and then in New Guinea. He told funny stories about his time in the Middle East (I have his photo album from that time) but fighting the Japanese on the Kokoda Track was much more challenging and demanding.
His story is a familiar one. He was only 19 when the war began in 1939. He was drawn to the Army initially as a means of employment – his Army records continue to record the lie of his birth date which he put back by two years (1918 instead of 1920) because he enlisted in the militia as early as 1936. Clearly he was pretending to be 18, instead of the 16 he actually was.
He was in transport and later Field Ambulance, mainly in the 2/1 Field Ambulance. He did some training on the Atherton Tableland. It was the war in New Guinea and his work recovering the bodies of the fallen that haunted him in his final years. Now we understand it as late onset PTSD.
It happened so often with men who, during the busy years of work, marriage, raising families and all that entails, could bury the brutal psychological experiences and think them forgotten, only to have the memories re-emerge when life was less busy and they had time to think. He passed away in 2004 aged 83.
My mother Doris was a young woman in Sydney during the war – she made uniforms – and recalled how the girls would put notes in the pockets and often the hopeful young men would come looking for the girls, who were clever enough to inspect the hopeful lad from the window before agreeing to meet them. If he wasn’t good looking, she said, they wouldn’t go out to meet him.
And then there is my Uncle Jacky, now in his 90s, who became a prisoner of war in Changi at the age of 17. He won’t speak of it and who can blame him.
I must go back a generation to the 1st Light Horse. My paternal grandfather with the German name of Herman Meisterhans volunteered for fear of internment (he was Swiss, though born in Altona, Germany). Having arrived in Australia as a migrant with an English wife in 1908, by the time he enlisted in June 1915 he already had 6 children. He arrived in the Suez in March 1917 as part of the 23rd reinforcement, was badly injured in the camp on 27 September 1918 when a detonator from an aerial ordnance exploded (accidentally). It was two months before he was off the dangerously ill list.
He returned to Australia in early 1919, but was in Liverpool Repatriation Hospital for months. He was never able to return to his profession of chef because of his injuries – he was a cook in the Army. Had he not survived, my father – the first of the children to be born on his return – would never have been born. Well, you can draw the conclusions.
My maternal grandfather Alfred Woodward enlisted late – July 1918 – possibly because he was in essential work, we believe, and was on board the troopship HMAT A7 ‘Medic’ which sailed from Sydney on 2/11/1918 only to be recalled and returned to Sydney, no doubt to the relief of all.
That’s just a snapshot of my own family’s experiences. I’m sure every family has similar stories, if only they know them.
It was my father who gave up the German name for an Anglicised version, just prior to marrying my mother at the end of 1943. He was not a model soldier – a typical Australian larrikin, often getting fined and yielding up proficiency pay – and going AWOL such as when he married my mother (absent for 5 days). I know it took him several years after the war before he could settle into a job and the routine of civilian life. I know that is a familiar story too.
Today we honour the contribution of all our men and women in uniform.
Lest we forget.