When Dad came Home from Changi

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.

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“Australian POWs embarking for home on the Largs Bay at Singapore docks”, by Ernest Buckmaster. Oil painting. Copyright Australian War Memorial Collection

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.

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HMT Largs Bay, Brisbane River, 7 Oct 1945

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.

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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.

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Menu and booklet, HMT Largs Bay

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.

Moorooka Daepot

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.

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Bellevue Hotel, George St, Brisbane Photo: State Library of Queensland

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.

ANZAC Stories

 

Most of us Australians left sacred sites on the other side of the world – the River Jordan, the Ganges, the Thames. Our ancestors who came from overseas brought the stories with them, but many of us still hold a yearning for the places. Ancient stories, the myths that bind us to the earth, are always attached to places.

Indigenous Australians who know their sacred places and the stories that go with them have a feeling of deep belonging that might elude the rest of us, no matter how much dust in our hair or dirt under our fingernails, or how many generations of our ancestors have lived here.

The mythology of Australia that we, as a nation, have taken most to our hearts is based on stories of foreign places: Gallipoli, and the battlefields of France and Belgium. In Canberra last week, I went to see the sixty-two thousand knitted red poppies that are flowing across the lawns surrounding the Australian War Memorial. It’s a beautiful sight, just like the poppy-strewn fields of France. The poppies stand for the Australians who died.

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At the Australian War Memorial

This striking display is there to commemorate 11 November 2018, the one hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day.

No one who fought in the First World War is alive now, and few who fought in the Second World War. My father was a prisoner of war in Changi and on the Burma Railway, and after he came home, he always attended the ANZAC Day Service at the Nambour Cenotaph. For him it was personal. He remembered the faces of the men who’d died and suffered around him.

The War Memorial at Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore overlooks the countryside Dad and his battered company fought across, in 1942, in the last days before the surrender. That story is not often told.

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The memorial in Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore

Now, for Australians, the iconic story of Australians in World War Two is the story of Papua New Guinea’s Kokoda Track.

In Australian culture, these foreign places – Gallipoli, the battlefields of France and Belgium, the Kokoda Track – symbolize all our deaths in war. The people who served in these places have become a source of inspiration – the embodiment of courage, toughness, sacrifice, and a dry and cheeky humour that we regard as our own.

These foreign places have become our own iconic places. Huge numbers of Australians make pilgrimages overseas to visit them; and at home, every town has its local equivalent: a war memorial. Here the ceremonies take place year after year, with symbols and rituals, music and costume, and the re-telling of uplifting stories.

For veterans and their families, war memorials and ANZAC Day commemorations are personal, not matters of mythology; and on most war memorials there are lists of names. In the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, there are more than one hundred thousand names on the bronze panels of the Roll of Honour, all of them people who have died as the result of war service.

The Western Queensland town of Roma has trees for memorials. Wide-trunked, beautiful bottle trees line the streets. By 1920, ninety-three had been planted to commemorate ninety-three local men who died in the First World War. Each tree had a plaque with the name of a soldier, date of his death, and the words “Lest we forget”. Most of the trees still stand, giving Roma’s streetscapes a unique dignity and charm.

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Memorial bottle tree in Roma

The War Memorial in Barcaldine is restrained and elegant – a granite and marble clock tower, standing in the middle of an intersection. It has four clock faces, each surrounded by a marble wreath, and the names of the two hundred and ninety-two locals who went away to fight in World War One. My grandfather’s name is among them. He was one of the lucky ones; thirty-eight died overseas.

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War Memorial in Barcaldine

 

My father’s name is one of the many on the National Freedom Wall in Mount Coot-tha Botanical Gardens, and on the Ex-prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat.

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Looking out from the National Freedom Wall, Mt Coot-tha Botanical Gardens

I remember Dad’s few stories of the war, mainly funny ones. I also remember when, in his seventies and suffering from Parkinsons Disease, barely able to articulate anymore, he suddenly spoke clearly. He said, “It’s hard to burn bodies with wet wood.”

His mind had gone back to the days on the Railway, when cholera struck the camps and men who helped burn infected bodies in the morning could themselves be dead and burned by evening.

Stories. I remember them when I see his name on these memorial walls.

We can’t spread our thoughts over all of the suffering of Australians in time of war. Instead, we focus on the battles of World War One. When we take part in the events of ANZAC Day and Armistice Day, when we stand before eternal flames and war memorials, they symbolize the pain of all the wars. The stories and the familiar rituals bring us together, not to go shopping, or to eat or drink or surf, but to think about something bigger than the individual, something that encourages higher aspirations.

We should never let this degenerate into flag-waving, patriotic theatre, the glorification of war, or divisive, bitter discourse. We shouldn’t let politics or the marketplace intrude. They intrude almost everywhere else.

We should also acknowledge the wars on our own soil – the Frontier Wars that happened here in Australia from 1788 onwards, as Indigenous people fought for their land and lifestyle, and suffered the heart-breaking loss and destruction of their own ancient, sacred places.

My favourite memorial stands among trees, looking out over the sea, in a sandy park in Cardwell, Far North Queensland. It’s the memorial to the Battle of the Coral Sea, which happened right off this coast. This was a crucial sea and air battle of 1942, fought with bombs and long-range guns. People living in the North listened in awe to the rumble of artillery far out at sea.

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The Memorial to the Battle of the Coral Sea, Cardwell FNQ

This battle was fought in defence of our own place, our own stories. And not a poppy in sight.

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