Down at the Brisbane River that Sunday morning, my mother Pat waited with her family, all eyes straining to see the ship due to dock at Hamilton Wharf at midday.
It was October 7, 1945, and they were waiting for the Largs Bay, which was bringing home the men of the 2/26 Battalion AIF, who since February 1942 had been prisoners of the Japanese in Changi, Singapore, and on the Thai-Burma Railway. Among them was my father Maurice.
My brother John, then three and a half years old, was going to meet his daddy for the first time. Pat had shown him photos of his father every since he was born. Now Daddy was coming home.
Pat’s young brother Bob saw the ship first, coming slowly up the river, accompanied by a tug and a few small boats. A string of flags ran down to the bow and smoke billowed from the funnel. The Largs Bay was red with rust and not a pretty sight, but its dirty hull was a thing of beauty to the people of Brisbane.
Pat’s sister, my Aunt Betty, told me that all over the ship, flapping in the breeze, there seemed to be bundles of rags. It was the men, crowded at every vantage point, on the gun turrets, on the lifeboats, waving their hats and shirts and cheering.
Most of the 2/26 were Queenslanders, and they had dreamed of this moment for years. In their worst times – dodging the planes strafing them through rubber plantations; dragging their diseased and starved bodies through mud and tropical rain; trying, with wet wood, to burn their friends’ cholera-infected corpses; squatting by muddy creeks scraping dysentery and pus from their mates’ rags with pieces of bamboo; dragging carts of gravel to build Changi Airport – they had talked about home. Roast dinners and Yatala pies. Beer. Clean sheets and fresh underwear. Loving families.
They had imagined this slow journey up the Brisbane River, past low, wooded banks where mangroves gradually gave way to houses, the jacarandas in bloom, and finally the wharf where their families waited.
The Courier-Mail reported that there were 10,000 people outside the gates of Hamilton Wharf that day. Orders had been given to keep the public out to allow for an orderly disembarkation, but when they heard the band playing and their men shouting as the ship came closer, the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and wives forced back the police manning the gates, and rushed on to the wharf.
The ex-POWs packed the ship’s rails, cheering the crowd on and calling down to their families. Some had their heads out of the portholes. The police struggled to control the sobbing, laughing, resolute mob.
Maurice knew what to look for. Pat had written him a letter the previous day, hearing that the pilot was carrying mailbags to the ship at the mouth of the river.
“I will be wearing a red and blue frock and a white tam,” she’d written. “John will wear his red jumper and he’ll be waving a flag. There’ll be some excitement, I can tell you!”
For Pat, this moment was the culmination of weeks of anxiety and anticipation.
The Japanese surrender had been signed on September 2. Pat wrote to Maurice, for the first time in years knowing that he would actually get her letter. “It must have been hell, darling, and I can’t say what is in my heart about it all. I just want you at home again so I can look after you and help you forget it all. You deserve happiness from now for always.”
When Changi was liberated, the men were in a dire condition. They needed medical attention, careful feeding, and clothes. Charla Smith’s father was there. “My father, Morris Fink, was in the Ordinance division of the Australian Army, sent to repatriate the POWs from Changi. He said he had to fit the soldiers with uniforms, and nothing would fit them. He had tears rolling down his face.”
I’m pleased Charla’s dad Morris was there to help people like my dad Maurice.
At last, on September 21, Maurice was able to write a letter to Pat from “NO LONGER Changi Gaol.” He wrote, “My darling adored one, here I come!”
On the ship there was plenty of food and a bottle of beer per man every day, and care was taken to prepare them for their return home.
However, when the wharf had finally been cleared and the men started down the gangplank, the onlookers were shocked. They were gaunt and haggard, and yellow from anti-malaria drugs. The young men who had left on the troop train in 1941 were hard to recognise now.
Many of them had not returned. Almost half had died in combat, in prison, or on the railway.
More than 450 ex-POWs were loaded into cars provided by the RACQ, and driven past cheering crowds outside the wharf and lined three-deep through Fortitude Valley on the way to the Story Bridge. They were taken to the Moorooka Leave and Transit Depot, and there the families went to meet them.
In the Depot’s crowded Recreation Hall, Maurice climbed on to a table to look for his family. Years later no one could remember the details of their meeting, but Maurice’s father took a photo.
There is Pat, dark-haired, a little tense in her brightly-patterned dress. Maurice is next to her, uniformed and smiling broadly. Behind Pat is her sister Betty with her arm around fourteen-year-old Bob. Maurice’s mother Nan is holding John’s shoulders.
Behind Nan are Pat’s parents. Next is Nancy, Maurice’s young sister, clutching his slouch hat, then Pat’s brother, Don, in his faded AIF uniform, and Maurice’s Air Force brother Alec.
The Depot on Beaudesert Road had been used for processing Australian personnel in transit between the war zones to the north and the southern states. The YMCA ran the canteen there, and men who had come from fighting in New Guinea remember the Moorooka Depot as the place where they had their first drink of fresh, cold milk in many months.
Emotional scenes took place in that crowded hall. Husbands and wives hugging, mothers crying and fathers blowing their noses. Servicemen, like Maurice, introduced to their own children.
Pat had arranged for her mother to look after John. She’d booked a night at the Bellevue Hotel, with its verandahs, iron lace and jacaranda trees. Long gone now.
Next day, they left for the Surfers Paradise Hotel, where they’d spent their honeymoon. They were resuming their married life in style. Maurice was twenty-seven, Pat twenty-five.
Bob and John still remember the day in 1945 that Maurice came home, but the rest of them in that tiny black-and-white photo are gone. Pat died in 1976, and Maurice lived on through Parkinson’s Disease, which took him back to his Changi weight before he died in 1996.
They were brave, tough, good and loving people, like so many who lived through the painful years of the war. I miss them.