Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive
Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive
Thursday, 29 April 2010
This is a copy of an address I gave to students of my old school to commemorate Anzac Day last year. I'll post it now - better late than never.
Anzac Day Address – 24th April 2009
Young men and women of Downlands, distinguished guests staff and visitors.
Tomorrow is Anzac Day, and represents the 94th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli.
It’s also 93 years since the Battle of the Somme, 68 years since the invasion of Crete, and the Siege of Tobruk, 67 years since the battle for Australia on the Kokoda Track, 58 years (to the day), since Kapyong in Korea, and 43 years since the Battle of Long Tan in Vietnam.
Today as I speak, Australian men and women are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also peacekeeping deployments currently in Cyprus, the Middle East, in East Timor, the Solomons, Sudan and Darfur.
Tomorrow we commemorate the sacrifice and contribution sailors, soldiers, airmen and nurses, made and continue to make to our country’s security. This sacrifice and contribution has become a legend.
Today I would like to share with you some of the realities behind this legend, by telling two stories about people whose lives held a personal significance for me. I am happy to acknowledge the legend, and all that is made of it through the media, but I also feel strongly that the reality is much more significant than the legend.
Please come with me on these two brief journeys.
Back in 1961, a 14 year-old boy left his home in North Eton, outside Mackay, and traveled the one thousand or so kilometers to attend boarding school in Toowoomba. The school was Downlands, and the 14 year-old was me.
It was the first time I’d been away from home, and as a boy from the bush initially I was lonely and homesick. Downlands was a very different place back then, a pretty tough environment.
During my first six months at Downlands, another young boy from the bush was very good to me, and used his straightforward sense of humour to cheer me up when I felt down. He was also good to have around on the few occasions when I copped a bit of teasing.
He was from Flagstone Creek, like me a boy from the bush, and his name was Frank. Before too long I had made friends and began to enjoy school, but I remember well Frank’s friendship and support when I needed it most.
He left Downlands six months after I arrived, and subsequently joined the army as soon as he was old enough, and did his recruit training at Kapooka. Frank’s family (he was the eldest of six) drove down in their Ford Customline to attend his passing out parade. His parents were very proud of their soldier son. His corps posting was Ordinance.
After Frank had been in the army for a few years he applied for a reposting to Infantry, and this happened in 1965. He went home for Christmas leave that year, and then returned to Sydney as a reinforcement. Eight months later, he was in Vietnam, and on the morning of 18th August, 1966, he joined Delta Company 6RAR.
By 4 o’clock that same afternoon, Frank was dead.
He was one of the first casualties in the Battle of Long Tan, when an Australian Company of about 100 men held out against an enemy force, estimated at least at 1500, until relieved by a company of Infantry mounted in Armoured Personnel Carriers.
This easy going compassionate boy from the bush had given his life for his country. Frank is buried in the Catholic cemetery at Helidon. He is remembered well by his large family, and his mother Bridget has been a guest here at commemorations, most recently at the dedication of a plaque in Frank’s memory in the refectory.
My second story is about the Head Teacher of Hampton State School in 1941. This young man had married in 1939, to a pretty young teacher he’d met at Clermont, and they had moved to Hampton when he was transferred there. As a married woman, his new bride had to resign as a permanent teacher, but when her husband enlisted in the RAAF in late 1941, she was temporally re-employed to act as Head Teacher at Hampton whilst he went off to war.
This young man was my father, and Josie his wife, was my mother. Dad enlisted one day after the news of the Japanese raids on Darwin came through. I doubt that this was a coincidence.
He had originally applied for aircrew, but his sinuses apparently weren’t suitable for the unpressurised aircraft used in those days, so he was posted to ground crew, and trained as an LAC in Melbourne.
He was deployed to New Guinea from July 43 until Dec 44. Dad spent his time in New Guinea fitting and repairing radios to aircraft, amongst them Kittyhawks and Hudsons, and had a fairly uneventful war, with the exception of severe skin problems caused by the tropical conditions which saw him hospitalized on more than one occasion.
It was probably fortunate for me that dad’s posting was LAC, as the casualty figures for aircrew in the RAAF in New Guinea during this period were pretty high. Dad was demobilized in July 1945, and resumed his career as a teacher in 1946. He went on to raise six children, and retired as a school principal in 1976 after working in many different parts of Queensland. Dad died in 1991.
These are stories of two ordinary Australians whose contributions of service I remember today, and who touched my life in very significant ways. You could consider them unremarkable but to those who knew them and love them, these simple stories distill the spirit and legend of Anzac.
That spirit is about service, self-sacrifice and loyalty – old fashioned virtues, perhaps, but just as relevant now as they were in 1942 and 1966.
Someone who has used words to capture this spirit much more eloquently than I can is the Australian poet, John Manifold. I’d like now to read an extract from the poem The Tomb of Lt John Learmonth, AIF written about an Australian killed in the Battle of Crete in 1941.
His freedom gave him nothing else to do
But set his back against his family tree
And fight the better for the fact he knew
He was as good as dead. Because the sea
Was closed and the air dark and the land lost,
'They'll never capture me alive,' said he.
That's courage chemically pure, uncrossed
With sacrifice or duty or career,
Which counts and pays in ready coin the cost
Of holding course. Armies are not its sphere
Where all's contrived to achieve its counterfeit;
It swears with discipline, it's volunteer.
I could as hardly make a moral fit
Around it as around a lightning flash.
There is no moral, that's the point of it,.
I’ve shared this extract and these stories with you to remind you that there are hundreds of thousands of people today quietly remembering loved ones who served.
These precious shared memories are at the centre of our national commemoration.
Lest we forget.
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