Straight to the Pool Room!

Or are you a stranger, without even a name?

Forever enshrined, behind some glass pane?

In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,

And fading to yellow, in a brown leather frame?

-Eric Bogle, No Man’s Land

Perhaps because so little has survived, the few photos and original documents that I have of my great uncle Jack are treasured possessions for my family. They help to make real the legend that I grew up with. They are, literally, all that is left of the man. And for this reason, it’s critically important that I keep them safe.

When Dad was given the photos from his grandfather they lived in a shallow foolscap box. But by the time I saw them in the early 1990s the box was falling apart. Given my developing interest in the photos and the story they represented, something more practical needed to be found to allow them to be easily accessed. They spent the next few years in plastic sleeves in a green display folder, along with all the other material we’d gathered.

A few years later Dad found an old leather briefcase in an antique shop somewhere, and thought it would make an appropriate home for Jack’s memorabilia. He arranged the photos around Jack’ logbook in the briefcase, which sat open in a display cabinet at my parents’ place in Goulburn until he gave them to me earlier this year.

An antique cabinet at home serves as my ‘Pool Room’. I was keen to display Jack’s memorabilia there, along with other meaningful objects like the forage cap and my Lancaster model. (Not entirely coincidentally, the original oil painting of B for Baker hangs on the wall above). But some of the photos are fading and curling a little. Wanting to display them but not wanting to run the risk of further degradation, I needed another solution.

The first thing I did was get copies of the photos. I scanned them many years ago for a CD-ROM (remember those??) I put together in 2003 so I already had digital copies, but imaging technology has improved immeasurably in the decade since then so I recently had digital prints made at my local friendly photo retailer. The new copies I arranged in the briefcase that Dad had given me, along with Jack’s original logbook and service medals:

14Sep-Medals 026 copy

So I now have copies on display in my cabinet. Digital copies are available for study as part of my research if I need to, or for posting on this blog. But the originals have an atmosphere to them that the copies can never replicate. In part it is those imperfections collected over seven decades – the fading, the creases and the pin holes in some – that give the originals their character. Phil Smith’s handwriting on the back of one or two adds to their authenticity.

But while those imperfections add to the character of the originals and help make them ‘real’, there’s not much point if the photo degrades to such an extent that the original can no longer be viewed. To prevent further deterioration I have now mounted the original prints – seventeen of them in all – in a loose-leaf archival quality album, using photo corners. The album is now stored in a closet in my house where the temperature will, hopefully, remain reasonably constant. That way the photos are still easily available for closer examination if I want to get them out, but they are also stored as best I can in conditions that will not accelerate the aging process and the deterioration that comes from it.

They should last another couple of generations at least.

(c) 2014 Adam Purcell

Three Brothers

November 2014 saw the 73rd anniversary of the sinking of HMAS Sydney, a light cruiser of the Royal Australian Navy. Following a successful tour of duty in the Mediterranean, Sydney was escorting troopships through the Indian Ocean to South-East Asia when she was engaged in battle by a German raider called HSK Kormoran. On paper it was a lop-sided encounter but, disguised as a merchant ship until the last moment, the Kormoran managed to surprise the bigger vessel and Sydney was sunk without a trace and with no survivors. Just one body from Sydney washed ashore, three months after the battle, at Christmas Island (north-west of Australia). The unknown remains were buried in an unmarked grave on the island.

One of the 645 men lost with HMAS Sydney was Donald Erskine Johnston, a 21-year-old, and he has a direct connection with the crew of B for Baker. Indeed, it was the Sydney connection that led me directly to contacting Don Webster, a nephew of the lads, in 2010. Following the Mediterranean action, Don Johnston was at home in Kingaroy on leave for a couple of weeks in February 1941. While there, this photo was taken:

Ian, Don and Dale Johnston - Kingaroy, February 1941. Photo courtesy Dale Higgins

Ian, Don and Dale Johnston – Kingaroy, February 1941. Photo courtesy Dale Higgins

Don is in the centre, flanked by his two brothers. On the left is Ian. And on the right is Ian’s twin – Dale Johnston, who of course would eventually become the wireless operator on B for Baker.

This would be the last time that all three of the brothers were in the same place at the same time. Only Ian would survive the war.

The wrecks of HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran were discovered about 100 miles off the coast of Western Australia in 2008. But about a year ago an article was published in The Age, about how the Navy had exhumed the unidentified body on Christmas Island, and was trying to work out who the man had been. Forensic analysis, the article said, had established that the man was of European ancestry with red hair, blue eyes and pale skin. He was quite tall, between 168 and 188cm, and limestone traces found in his teeth suggested he came from northern NSW or Queensland and probably grew up reasonably close to the coast. Using this information, the article continued, researchers had narrowed the field, as it were, from 645 to about 50.

Red hair, you say?

Tall?

From Northern NSW or Queensland?

I’d seen that combination of features somewhere before – in Dale Johnston’s service record (NAA:A9301, 425413). Dale was 5’10 in the old money, or about 178cm – smack in the middle of the range of our mystery sailor. He had red hair and blue eyes. The family moved to Kingaroy – in southern Queensland – when Don was nine years old.

Could it be…?

I sent Don Webster an email the day after the article was published and he duly contacted Navy. Nine months later, Don had provided a DNA sample which had been tested and, in the middle of November, the results were in.

And…?

The sailor buried on Christmas Island is not Don Johnston.

While that result is a little disappointing for Don’s family, it is of course not an entirely wasted effort. Don Johnston can now be crossed off the list of 50 potential identities for the unknown sailor. At this stage in the investigation, ruling someone out is almost as valuable as a positive identification.

One more down, only 49 to go.

 

(c) 2015 Adam Purcell

Medals lost and medals found

Digging in his garden in the Victorian Goldfields town of Creswick late last year, a man named Neville Holmes unearthed something unexpected. Under the flower bed was a sort of trench. And in the trench was what was left of an old medicine cabinet. “I could see bits of bottles and broken glass so I kept digging deeper and deeper to see what was under there,” he told journalist Melissa Cunningham of the Ballarat Courier newspaper in January. “There were tubes and tubes of toothpaste, combs, toothbrushes, a pair of dentures and medicine bottles.”

My sister has a degree in archaeology, and to celebrate her graduation a few years ago my father created an ‘archaeological dig’ in the back yard, smashing old plates and mixing in a rusty spoon or two for her to excavate with her brand new trowel (because, as everyone knows, every archaeologist needs a trowel). So finding a real-life pile of old stuff buried under your wife’s irises would, I’d imagine, be pretty exciting. But Mr Holmes found something else hiding away in the old medicine cabinet. Something with even more of a story.

They looked like coins at first. But when he pulled them out, Mr Holmes realised he had found a pair of war service medals. He took them to the secretary of the local RSL club, a man named Phil Carter. Mr Carter was able to identify who the medals belonged to because the soldier’s name is engraved around the rim: a WWI soldier named Private George Bailey. Cunningham writes that Bailey enlisted in Ballarat in April 1916, served with the 39th Battalion and was killed in a gas attack in Messines, Belgium, in June 1917. His brother – Frederick – lived for many years in the house now occupied by Mr Holmes and his wife.

At the time the article was written the search was on for Private Bailey’s family, led by the Creswick RSL. “We knew nothing about George but now we know so much”, said Phil Carter. “It’s like he’s a member of our RSL.”

I can certainly relate to this feeling. After seriously studying the story of my great uncle Jack and the rest of his crew over the last six or seven years, I genuinely do feel as if I know the lads, even though six of them were killed forty years before I was born. The feeling is all the stronger for those members of the crew for whom I have letters or diaries written in their own words, in their own hand. But to find those, of course, I first needed to find their families, and, well, that took a while.

Amazingly, though, less than a week after Melissa Cunningham’s first article was published in the Ballarat Courier and The Age, the search for Private George Bailey’s family came to a successful conclusion when Frederick Bailey’s grandson came forward. If only it were that easy when I was searching for families of the crew of B for Baker three or four years ago!

We initially thought that Jack Purcell’s service medals had been lost in the years since the war and so almost 20 years ago my father enquired about the possibility of acquiring replicas. Imagine our surprise, then, when we discovered that in actual fact they had never officially been issued. Dad duly jumped through the multiple bureaucratic hoops that were required to prove that we were entitled to claim them and one day in 1996 a small box arrived by registered post. Inside were five medals – three circles and two stars – and their associated ribbons.

And, yes. Stamped around the edges are Jack’s name and service number.

1501-JackMedals 042Words and photo (c) 2015 Adam Purcell

Hangars, Ansons and Aeradio: A visit to Nhill

Most of the 40 or so locations around Australia that hosted aircrew training units during WWII are still in use today as aerodromes, both civil and military. Some are better-known than others. Mascot, for example, where the current Sydney International Airport is located, was No. 4 Elementary Flying Training School. Essendon – No. 3 EFTS – was, for a time, Melbourne’s main airport and remains in use by corporate aircraft, emergency services, freighters and trainers. Amberley and Pearce are still RAAF bases. While some were abandoned post-war (Cressy in Victoria, for example, or Uranquinty in NSW), a large number of the others are in use in regional and metro areas of Australia. Forest Hill – No. 2 Service Flying Training School – became Wagga Wagga Airport, now a reasonably busy training, maintenance and RPT hub for regional airline Rex. Many navigators trained at No. 1 Air Navigation School in Parkes, NSW, which remains active as a regional airport. And about five years ago I landed my last aeroplane, appropriately enough a Tiger Moth, on the grass runway at Camden, outside Sydney, which hosted for a time the RAAF’s Central Flying School where flying instructors were taught their trade. Jack Purcell trained at four airfields in Australia, and all remain active. After he was scrubbed from pilot training at 8 EFTS, Narranderra (which today receives multiple scheduled air services each day to and from Sydney), he re-mustered and began his navigator training at No. 2 Air Observers’ School, Mount Gambier (hosting air services to Adelaide and Melbourne). Then he was posted to 2 Bombing and Air Gunnery School at Port Pirie, South Australia (a regional town on the eastern side of the Spencer Gulf). And finally, before being awarded the half-wing that denoted a qualified navigator in July 1942, he spent almost a month at No. 2 Air Navigation School, just outside the western Victorian wheatbelt town of Nhill, on the highway half-way between Adelaide and Melbourne. Rachel and I happened to spend a night camped in the caravan park at Nhill on the way home from a holiday to Kangaroo Island late last year. Knowing that the name crops up in Jack’s logbook, I thought we might be able to have a quick look at the airfield to see if we could find interesting remnants of its wartime history. I was completely unprepared for what we actually found. The first sign that something good is going on at Nhill was, quite literally, just that: a new-looking brown road sign. It was pointing, it said, to the “Historic RAAF Base”. Excellent, I thought, we’ll follow that in the morning. We arrived at the caravan park where a westerly wind was howling as we set up the tent. The roar of trucks passing on the highway was almost drowned out by the squawking and screaming of hundreds of white and pink corellas as they wheeled and soared and swung overhead. Walking around the town looking for somewhere to have breakfast the next morning, we found a display in an otherwise empty shop window for the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre. I rang the telephone number and was put on to a lady named Joan Bennett, who is the Secretary of the group. She readily agreed to open up the hangar at the aerodrome for us to visit. And so an hour later after breakfast in a local café, that’s exactly where we headed. Unexpectedly, and despite the almost constant truck traffic, Nhill is a rather pretty little town. Heritage buildings line the main street and a long park, with bandstand and war memorials, sits between the two carriageways as the highway passes through the town itself. The smaller of the two memorials looked, to me, to be quite new. And so it proved, being a memorial set up by the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre in 2011:RAAF Nhill memorial in the town The northern end of the town is dominated by the concrete silos of the former Noske Flour Mills. When it was built in 1919 this was apparently the largest concrete silo in Australia. No doubt it was a significant landmark for trainee navigators during wartime. About two kilometres northwest of the town is the airfield. In 1938 an Aeradio station began operating at Nhill. This was part of a national network of air/ground communications stations set up to give comms and navigation support to civil aircraft flying around Australia. It was, in effect, the forerunner of the Flight Service network which eventually developed into the enroute air traffic control system we now use. The first building we passed, right next to the road along the western boundary of the aerodrome, is the former Aeradio site. It looks to be in some disrepair but out of the seventeen original sites around the country this is, it seems, the most original and the best preserved, and so moves are afoot, in cooperation with the Civil Aviation Heritage Society based at Essendon Airport here in Melbourne, to restore it and turn it into part of the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre. There are two hangars at Nhill Airport. One is the last of five Bellman hangars built at Nhill during the war. It currently hosts the Wimmera Aero Club: The Bellman Hangar at Nhill Airfield; now the home of the Wimmera Aeroclub The other is virtually brand new. It was built in 2013 and officially opened in May 2014. Designed and built at cost by Ahrens, a steel and industrial supply company based in Adelaide but which owns a local Nhill business, the hangar now houses the beginnings of an air museum. Joan was already there when we pulled up in front of the hangar. We paid our $5 each for admission (genuine 1972 prices!) and Joan showed us around. Pride of place in the middle is this: The Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre Avro Anson, undergoing restoration in their brand new hangar It’s the bones of an Avro Anson, serial W2364 to be specific. While this particular airframe was not itself based at Nhill during the war, most of the flying that took place from the airfield would have been in aircraft very much like it. Jack Purcell’s logbook records a total of 25 hours of flying from Nhill by both day and night, over seven flights in July and August 1942. All of it was in Ansons. Page from RW Purcell's logbook In recognition of Nhill’s association with Ansons, then, this one is undergoing a slow but steady and beautifully detailed restoration. Joan says the aim is to get it to taxying status and they have already got one of the engines running, evidenced by the drip trays catching oil from said engine. Over along one side of the hangar is the workshop area, where members of the group have been cleaning, repairing or fabricating components as they go. It’s taken five years and over 2,000 man-hours of work to get it to this stage and while there’s undoubtedly a very long way to go, the day in February 2014 when the work-in-progress was towed from Anson Restoration Project Manager Mick Kingwell’s shed to the new hangar was a significant one for the group and for Nhill – the first time an Anson had been on the airfield in some sixty years. While none of the original wooden parts have been suitable for re-use on the restoration, they have been used as templates for copies to be made and the level of detail already in place inside the fuselage is quite stunning: Inside the Nhill Anson Joan emphasised the spirit of cooperation and assistance that has come out of the aviation heritage community around Australia. A good illustration of this is the pair of Link Trainers which sit in a corner of the hangar. They both come from the same South Australian-based family. One is more complete than the other. This has been loaned to the Nhill group to restore to operating status and then to use as a template while they work on restoring the second one. Once restoration is complete the first trainer is to go back to its owners – but the second is to be retained in Nhill. Also around the airfield itself is a Heritage Trail, with sealed pathways and signage, that takes the visitor around and explains the significance of the remains of the airfield’s time as a RAAF base. While we didn’t have time to walk around it ourselves it’s another sign that good things are afoot at Nhill. There are even plans to hold a fundraising airshow at the airfield on October 10 this year (stay tuned for details – I intend to be there if I can). It’s wonderful to see such a passionate group at work in Nhill. Their plans are ambitious but the work to date is, really, most impressive. They appear to have the support of the local council and the town itself and they are breathing new life into what would otherwise be just another quiet, dying little country airfield in a quiet, dying little country town. We certainly need more of that sort of enthusiasm, and that there is a direct connection to Jack Purcell’s wartime story is, for me, an added bonus. Joan and Adam in front of the Nhill Anson You can find the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre’s website at http://nhillaviationheritagecentre.com.au/. Visits to the Ahrens Hangar can be arranged by phoning Joan Bennett on 0438 265 579. Tell her I sent you! © 2015 Adam Purcell

EVENT: Cocktail Party for the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (VIC)

Also just to hand is notofication from the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) of a cocktail party planned to raise funds to support the annual commemoration service. Details below…

WHEN: 18:00-21:00, Saturday 14 March 2015

WHERE: Nurses’ Memorial Centre, 431 St Kilda Road, Melbourne (entrance off Slater St)

WHO: All welcome – Veterans, Family, Friends

WHAT: Cost includes bubbly, beer, red and whit wine and soft drinks with finger food also provided

HOW MUCH: $40 per head

RSVP: Robyn Bell: brucebell (at) netspace.net.au or 0439 385 104, by 28 February

Details for payment can be found on the official flyer, here.

 

EVENT: Bomber Command Commemorations in Melbourne, 7 June 2015

An announcement just to hand from the organisers of the Melbourne edition of the Bomber Command Commemorative Day about this year’s ceremony:

The Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic) is pleased to announce the 4th year of commemorating the service and sacrifice of the men and women who served and those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in WWII.

In Conjunction with the Shrine of Remembrance we will be conducting the 2015 service at the Shrine at 12.00 noon on Sunday June 7th

Concurrent observances are held in Canberra, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia together with overseas observances in New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Enquiries:

Robyn Bell

03 9890 3107

0439 385 104

brucebell (at) netspace.net.au

Similar events are expected to be held around the country on the same day, including of course the flagship weekend in Canberra. Further details to be released in due course.

What happens when those that are left grow too old?

It has long been the case that, following their return from war or warlike service, many veterans will become involved in ex-service groups. These organisations – many set up and run by the veterans themselves – provide support and comradeship for the years immediately following return from war. Regular reunions, typically based around ANZAC Day or other significant dates on the calendar, helped keep alive the close friendships that develop out of shared combat or other adversities. And of course they would also allow time for reflection and remembrance of those who did not come back. As Laurence Binyon wrote, “They shall not grow old.”

But of course there are more words that follow that line from Binyon’s famous poem, For the Fallen:

“..as we that are left grow old.”

Time, inevitably, marches on, and those that are left from WWII are now very, very old indeed. The last Australian to serve overseas in WWI died in 2005. It won’t be many more years before WWII veterans go the same way. Once they are no more, will the ex-service organisations carry on? Who will run them? Who will carry the banners? Who will remember them, at the going down of the sun, and in the morning?

Enter Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. Reasoning that the earlier you get ‘em, the greater the impact, the Shrine runs a programme that as far as I know is unique in Australia. They match ex-service organisations with primary and secondary schools, usually with either a geographical or a historical connection. The Shrine facilitates and hosts initial meetings between the interested parties. It provides guidance on how to proceed. And then it steps discreetly out of the way, leaving the two bodies to continue and develop the relationship that has been cultivated.

Usually targeting a particular year group at the school, the history of the adopted unit is integrated into the school’s curriculum. As the Shrine notes on its website, this works nicely with the Civics and Citizenship part of the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (AusVELS) curriculum. Just this in itself is a good reason for becoming involved. But then they go further.

Many different ex-service organisations hold annual commemorative services at the Shrine (that for Bomber Command, of course, is in June each year). But as the veterans age, it becomes harder for them to organise, run or even attend the ceremonies themselves. For units that have been adopted under the Shrine’s programme, the solution is obvious. The school students, who have been learning about the unit at school, meet the veterans, become part of organising the ceremony and then play a role in actually running it. Because the programme is targeted at a specific year group (say, Year 9), different students are involved every year – and thus the unit’s legacy becomes, hopefully, self-perpetuating.

It’s a great idea and one that has already borne fruit. Some 33 schools are already taking part and there are a number of others in the pipeline.

Just imagine learning at school about a particular aspect of WWII, and then meeting people who were actually there. What a fantastic way to inspire an interest and bring the history alive. Wish they’d have thought of it when I was at school!

 

(c) 2015 Adam Purcell

 



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