Glimpsing Bradman

On Boxing Day, 1936, in a soft-topped Essex motorcar and towing a trailer full of camping gear, my father Maurice, his two younger brothers, his father, E.B., and his grandfather C.B. left Nambour to drive to Melbourne. The Third Test was due to begin in January 1937, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and they wanted to see Don Bradman bat.

It was to be a two-week road trip – touring, as they called it then – through New South Wales and Victoria. The family often went touring. They didn’t know this would be their last long trip together.

My Dad, Maurice, then an eighteen-year-old, kept a trip journal, full of details that seem quaint to travellers in the twenty-first century: border crossings, road conditions, camping, communications, access to funds along the way.

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Maurice’s trip journal 1936-1937

Now, in June 2020, the year of COVID-19, southerners are stopped at the border, not allowed to cross into Queensland without a special permit.

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“Long delays as Queensland-NSW border closed for first time since Spanish flu in 1919” The Guardian, 26 Mar 2020

In 1936, cars and trucks going from Queensland to New South Wales were stopped and inspected at border gates. New South Wales didn’t want Queenslanders bringing cattle ticks south with them to infest stock. They still don’t.

Queensland has always been seen by southerners as a wild, bizarre place, a frontier region with its own quirky rules. We are the state of cyclones, cane toads, crocodiles, cattle ticks and mad politicians, and we’re oddly proud of that.

In normal times in the twenty-first century, cars drive straight across the borders without a pause; but still, when I cross into New South Wales on the Pacific Motorway, speeding past the big red border sculpture along the Tugun Bypass, or down through the rugged border mountains near Mount Lindesay, or at Wallangarra on the New England Highway, or Goondiwindi on the Newell, it feels like an event, with a little sense of visiting a foreign country; and crossing back into Queensland feels like coming home.

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Qld-N.S.W Border, Tugun goldcoastbulletin.com.au

In 1936, Queensland travellers were advised to obtain an Interstate Motorists Permit before travelling south. Dad’s family crossed the border at Mount Lindesay, and in Armidale, their first stop in New South Wales, according to Maurice’s journal they sought the cop-shop, where a policeman was persuaded to come out and search for engine-numbers, chassis-numbers etc., and to give us an interstate pass and windscreen sticker.

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The Border Gate at Mt Lindesay Frank Hurley, c.1961

They slept that night on the floor of a fruit packing shed outside Armidale, on the property of a family friend. From then on, nights were spent in their tent in what were called Tourist Camping Parks, or at likely spots beside the road wherever it suited them, as you could do in those less regulated days.

In 1936, the population of Australia was less than six million. Now, over twenty million people call Australia home, driving nearly twenty million vehicles, and so we can’t just set up camp wherever we want to anymore.

Roads were narrow and often steep and winding. Even major roads were rough and unsealed in places. There were many railway level crossings on the New England Highway; and instead of speeding high over the Hawkesbury River on the M1 as we do now, travellers crossed by Peat’s Ferry. It nine years later when the river was bridged at that point.

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Launch of the new Peat’s Ferry, 1930 records.nsw.gov.au

Thirty-seven other cars went on the ferry with the family’s Essex, and as they waited in line to board, Maurice and his brothers ate a bottle of local oysters, sold to waiting travellers by enterprising boys. Hawkesbury River oysters. That hasn’t changed.

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Essex Super Six Model E, 1931 – probably the model used on this road trip commons.wikipedia.org

Road trip communications are different now, in ways that were unimaginable then. We use our phones to check directions and distances, traffic conditions and weather; to book accommodation, and listen to music, talking books and podcasts; all while travelling. To check weather conditions before heading to Mount Kosciusko, E.B. booked a trunk call to the weather bureau from Canberra Post Office, and to communicate with home they sent telegrams.

We’ve done over 100,000 kilometres in our Forester, with one puncture. We have it serviced every 12,000 kilometres or so. On highways, cruise control is set at 100 or 110 kph. Maurice and his family, on their 1936-37 trip of 3397 miles (5467 kilometres), changed three tyres because of punctures, stopped three times for grease-ups and oil changes, broke a spring, had the steering adjusted and repairs done to the trailer, and were pleased when on one straight road in Victoria they reached fifty miles (eighty kilometres) an hour.

As we all had to before the arrival of Bank Cards in the late 1970s, they’d sent specimen signatures ahead from their home branch of the Commonwealth Bank so they could withdraw money along the way. No ATMs or plastic cards then.

On 4 January 1937, Maurice and his group at last got to the M.C.G. to see Bradman. They arrived late. As Maurice put it, We went there on the day on which the world’s record cricket crowd – 87,000 – was present. We were among the 17,000 for which there was no room. We caught glimpses of the play – sometimes three quarters of a wicket keeper, or a single fieldsman and a patch of grass. One of the batsmen we could sometimes glimpse was Bradman.     

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Bradman at the crease, Third Test, second innings, Melbourne January 1937 20 Great Ashes Moments No. 4, The Guardian, 9 May 2013

Next day they had to leave for home. With no car radio, they stopped along the way to hear the progress of the Test: in a café in Wangaratta, and again in a park at Albury, where people lay on the bank of the Murray in bathers, listening to the broadcast description of Bradman’s and Fingleton’s fine stand blaring forth from a speaker hung in a tree in the park.

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The Murray River near Albury, 1930s. flickr.com

Next day, at a loudspeaker at a small refreshment stall at Hume Dam, we heard Bradman score the single which took his score to two hundred.

Bradman ended up scoring 270 runs – a record for a number seven batsman; and England lost the Test.

Sixteen days after leaving Nambour, Maurice and the family arrived back home. Maurice typed up the story, added maps and illustrations and had the journal sturdily bound.

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Maurice’s hand-drawn map of the journey through N.S.W.

A month later, he started university. Three years later, he joined the 2/26th infantry battalion. He shipped out of Melbourne in 1941, bound for Singapore, part of the troop build-up in the face of the threat of invasion by Japan.

The following February, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army, and in 1943 Maurice was among the thousands of prisoners of war who were packed into rice wagons and taken north by train to work as slaves, building the infamous Thai-Burma railway.

In October 1945, twenty-seven years old, thin, jaundiced and exhausted, Maurice came home again to Nambour, to Mum, and to their little son.

At once, he bought a new car; and within two years, he and Mum were off on another road trip – the first of a new generation. My earliest memory is standing in the back seat of that little car, as kids did in those less regulated days, looking between my parents’ shoulders at a long, narrow road leading off into the distance.

My Dad got me addicted to road trips early. I’ve never gotten over it.

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.

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