Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pull on the Wheel and Yell "Whoa"

Joining up in the first flush of volunteers in 1939, Uncle found himself in the Lighthorse. An accomplished horseman, bushman, self-reliant, physically both adept and experienced, he fitted in very well.

.....then the Lighthorse was mechanised.

Like many who are highly capable with anything that had hair or hide, snorted and was bigger than you, Uncle was hopeless with machinery of any sort (rifles excepted) and incapable of adapting.

As handy as Uncle had been when mounted on a horse, as a driver he was reciprocally as disastrous.

On his enlistment form Uncle had stated that he was a sleeper-cutter. This was a reserved occupation.

The Army now "discovered" that Uncle was in a reserved occupation, and promptly discharged him.

He spent the war as he had spent the 1930's: In the bush, cutting railway sleepers by hand.

For the next 65 years he maintained immaculately his issued Lighthorse accoutrements and uniform. When recently he passed on, the Emu feather in the slouch hat was the original.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

All The Way

Like most people Mine Host is uncomfortable when confronted with a victim of severe burns. Even years after their recovery, sighting (or even thinking of) the victim brings to life the torment of what severe burns must feel like.

The Mongoloid visage of one who has had their face burnt off is possibly the most unsettling of all burns injuries (for those of us who have not been burned)

All of us have experienced minor burns (from a stove etc) and the imagination horrifically multiplies this experience.

A cousin, though functioning as a member of society, spent most of his life bearing the all-too-obvious scarring of severe 3rd degree burns to much of his body (the visible parts anyway) including his face and hands.

Cousin had a brief career in the RAAF. A radio operator in a Wellington bomber crew, what turned out to be his last mission (and final task in the RAAF) came very early in the war.

Hit badly after a bombing mission to mainland Europe, his Wellington ditched. Upon the skipper's advice that ditching was unavoidable, Cousin commenced transmitting a distress signal, advising their imminent fate and estimated position.

After the crash into the sea, he remained at his station, transmitting continuously, with no way of knowing if his signals had been heard.

He kept transmitting as the bomber burned around him, leaving it only when fire destroyed the radio equipment.

The crew was rescued, unharmed (radio operator excepted).

It is not known if his transmitting until the final moment helped their rescue. Had he got out of the crashed bomber with the rest of the crew, he would not have been burnt.

He received several years of rehabilitation, Three service medals, and a discharge into civilian life.

Morse code, his most marketable skill, was not available to him, his fingers no longer able to tap it out.

Even though he lived an ordinary and decent life, as most of us do, his presence at family gatherings always prompted everybody to (at some stage) privately reflect with their own thoughts.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

I won't if You don't

Continuing the series of daily posts of small WWII snippets, as they happened to his family, Mine Host recounts this hearsay yarn from one of his uncles:

Uncle, in the army and with a very low NX service number (two digits, beat that!) was serving in New Guinea in the Engineers. Being a bush worker accustomed to solving his own construction/logistic dilemmas apparently made him ideal Engineer material. He was asked to forge a link, this he did (no problem for the son of a blacksmith) and that's how he found himself in the Engineers.

Uncle's army tales are mostly around One of Two themes:
1/. How little he thought of anyone who abused rank, particularly if the same specimen then threw themself at the feet of anyone with an extra stripe on their sleeve or pip on their shoulder. And,
2/. How hopeless most soldiers (Engineers mind you) were at basic Engineering tasks, ie, setting up a block & tackle and things like that.

Uncle enjoyed the Engineers' problem-solving, but the abuse of rank caused him to loathe the army and every day he spent in it. At Six foot Six inches, barrel chested, arms like telegraph poles, and with a "behind the saleyard for Sixpence, place your bets" bare-knuckle background (the 1930's were a tough time, to drive a gentle compassionate man to such a base source of income), Uncle's solution to fools & irritators in the bush (not that he had many, at that size) was to warn 'em, then just flatten 'em.

One can imagine how much it rankled such a man to be subject to the Army rank structure and physical inferiors who took their opportunity of a lifetime and issued petty commands to the "big fella" because rank allowed them to.

The story: On foot patrol in New Guinea. Bringing up the rear of his section, Uncle was mostly looking backward. As the section moved on, he glanced upward, and saw a Japanese soldier perched high in a tree.

The Japanese had his rifle carefully aimed at Uncle, and clearly had been covering him for some many seconds. The distance was quite close. Uncle and the Japanese stared directly into each other's eyes.

Neither man said anything, both sets of eyes remained locked on the other. Uncle continued pacing backward to keep up with his section.

Uncle could see in the eyes of the Japanese that the Japanese did not want to die, or to be involved in a shootout, likewise the Japanese no doubt could see the same in Uncle's eyes.

Neither man gave any hint that would have alerted Uncle's section to the situation.

Uncle kept backing away, both men kept their rifles and eyes on each other, until the section, and Uncle with it, moved out of sight of the Japanese.

In Six Years of war, this was the only contact he had with the enemy.

Uncle never joined the RSL, and never attended an Anzac Day parade. When his brothers urged him to take up both of those "rights" he explained, only once, that it was his right to not join, and his right to not march.

Such was the strength of his desire to forget the entire distasteful experience of war and having been in the army.

Monday, September 07, 2009

World War Two Snippet D

Reasons for joining up during wartime mostly revolve around Patriotism/Peer Pressure.

Try this reason:

One of Mine Host's uncles was a "scheme-a-minute" type. Always had a (new) business deal/scheme on the boil. In the new economic climate that magically appeared after hostilities broke out he thrived, or imagined he did. He hocked himself & his widowed mother's legacy to the hilt, & started trading in various wartime commodities.

As with any of his schemes that acutally got off the ground (ie, if someone was imprudent enough to finance him) he went bust in spectacular fashion, owing every last penny he had borrowed.

His widowed mother faced a severe reduction in circumstances, and he also.

In a move that surprised all the family, without any warning, just days before the dreaded interview with the bank manager, he joined the army. His mother & sister went along in his stead, braced for the worst. However the bank manager was inexplicably quite pleasant, explaining that the bank would be taking no action & they had unlimited time to "sort out" the mess (with no bank pressure, sister slowly solved the financial woes). When it was clear that they were puzzled at this change of direction by the bank, the bank manager cheerfully explained:

Banks were prohibited from foreclosing on anyone who had joined the armed forces.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

World War Two Snippet C

When hostilities broke out, amongst the many who joined in the first rush of volunteers was a newlywed farmer, a young man with much to look forward to, a loyal and pretty wife he was devoted to, a farm he was secure on, and a bright future.

Two years later he was killed in action.

His widow inherited the farm, and unable or unwilling to carry on, sold it, moved into town, then remarried. The fresh marriage was a happy one, with children.

Some time after the cessation of hostilities, in a country full of soldiers making their way home from the war, the husband turned up in town. Very much alive, and repatriated from the Japanese Prisoner-of-War camp where it turned out he had spent the war, he was ready to take up the life that had been suspended when he joined up.

Apprehensively arriving on foot at the farm (it was only a few miles from town) and not quite knowing what to expect after such an abscence without any communication, he made no sound and showed no emotion as the farmer who now owned his farm briefly explained matters.

The hollow eyes of the man who had experienced Two years on the front line, then Three and a Half years as a prisoner of the Japanese, looked directly into the eyes of one who had obtained his farm through remaining a civilian, as the civilian gave directions to the house in town where the wife now lived.

(This story is well known by Mine Host, as the man who bought the farm was his uncle)

Silently the returned serviceman tramped back to town, without having once put down the kitbag he carried. It contained the few possessions of one demobbed after repatriation from Changi.

Several hours later the farmer observed the returned serviceman trudging along the tracks to the water tower just out of town, to sit on the platform there.

Having walked to town, visited the house where the woman whose memory had sustained him through several years of captivity now lived with her husband & children, spoken with both of them, discovered that the proceeds of the farm sale had been dissipated through financial indiscipline, agreed that no aspect of the situation could be undone, then instead of walking to the railway station, walked along the tracks to the platform a few miles out, by what had been his farm.

He boarded the first train that stopped for water. It is not remembered now if it was an Eastbound or Westbound train.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

World War Two Snippet B

To improve his education opportunities, during World War Two Mine Host's father boarded in town. (though not far from home, only 11 miles).

He boarded in a house with 3 other urchins/larrikins his age, all were schoolfriends first, & later boarded together. Father, because he was from "too far" out of town, his best mate as he came from a large family & his mum had enough kids to handle alone after her husband joined up, & so on.

The housewife (& mother of some of the kids in the household) was also the sole grown-up in the menagerie. The houseful of kids needing care & discipline kept her mind occupied. Her husband (in his 40's) was in the Navy, posted as "Missing Believed Prisoner-of-War" (of the Japanese).

He remained a "believed prisoner" for the duration of the war. His fate being telegrammed to the house a few weeks after the Nagasaki Bomb.

The telegram confirmed that he had indeed been a prisoner of the Japanese, and that he was demobbed & on his way home. Only a few days later he arrived home. Apparently his arrival most poignantly reinforced something that was only just entering the national consciousness: ie, What it meant to have been a prisoner of the Japanese.

In 1946 the couple, in their 40's both, had another child, 12 years younger than the (previous) youngest.

The returned sailor passed on in the 1950's (a legacy of his treatment as a P.o.W.)
The children (including the 1946 model) have all since passed on, & every child who boarded in that wartime house has passed on (except one)

Epilogue to this tale, and the reason it is postworthy?
It has just been discovered by Mine Host Sr. that the woman he boarded with in WWII is still alive, and pretty much as sharp as she ever was. They haven't seen or heard of each other in almost 60 years. This is due to change shortly. (Thousands of miles separate, and dad doesn't travel as well as he used to)

Humble Correction: Dad travels very well, just that he "doesn't travel south in winter."

Thursday, September 03, 2009

What were you doing when............ ?

70 years ago today an event occurred that had very far-reaching implications, changing the course of history, and the lives of a significant portion of the world's population.

Some of those who remember the 3rd of September 1939 are still with us. Ask them their recollection of what they were doing that day. It is a recordable snippet of history.

Mine Host's father (a boy at the time) remembers the war starting:

The grown-ups gathered around the wireless as dusk approached. The kids gathered also & were required to be still.

The Prime Minister came on the wireless, gave a brief synopsis of the international events, ultimatums, rejections, etc. then solemny announced that as a consequence of the aforementioned events, the country and empire were now at war with Germany.

The grown-ups went very silent. And remained silent. The kids were put to bed, without a story. The grown-ups were to remain silent all night.

The kids knew something was up, by the silence, lethargy and deep contemplative mood of the grown-ups.

They wondered what "war" was.

The coming years were to demonstrate just what the word meant.