Finding Gilbert Pate

Gilbert Pate was the rear gunner in Jack’s Lancaster crew. At 28 he was the second eldest in the crew, behind bomb aimer Jerry Parker.Gilbert’s was the third family I managed to trace in the course of this research. From his servce record I had wartime names and addresses for his parents and his wife. That, and a pile of letters written by his father, Sydney Firth Pate, to the family of pilot Phil Smith (kindly provided by Phil’s widow Mollie) was all that I knew.

A good starting point was the Ryerson Index – a free, online, searchable but very incomplete database of Australian death notices. I found a hit for Sydney Pate from 1956 in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The Ryerson Index does not normally provide copies of the actual death notices so I needed to go and visit the State Library of NSW in Sydney. Actually finding the record was fairly simple – and it told me the names of the rest of the family – wife Kathleen, daughters Kitty, Peggy and Joyce, and of course his son Gilbert. I took this information downstairs at the State Library to their Family History unit where I could access electoral rolls. An afternoon at a microfiche machine yielded full names for each of the Pates and showed that at least Joyce and Kathleen remained at 17 Bowns Rd, Kogarah, until 1964. After this the trail went cold.

On a whim I tried the Ryerson Index again, this time with the names of each of Gilbert’s siblings. I found a match for his sister Joyce who had died in 2008 – or about two years previously. I also searched NSW Births, Deaths and Marraiges and managed to find a record for Peggy having married a man named Laurence Thew in 1936.

So I was certainly getting somewhere. The breakthrough came when the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader replied to a query in February 2010, sending me a copy of Joyce’s death notice. It said she was

“sadly missed by her sister Peggy and nephews Gil and Dick”.

At this point I went out on a limb. I took a guess that Gil and Dick might have been Peggy’s sons, and speculated that their surname might therefore also be Thew. Back, then, to the State Library, where it was a fairly easy exercise to pull an address from the latest electoral roll (2008) for both names. I fired off hopeful letters to each…

…and three days later, my phone rang:

“G’day, this is Adam”

“Adam. Gil Thew here. You wrote me a letter.”

I felt a surge of excitement. “I did.”

“Well”, he said, “you’ve got the right bloke”.

I am not at all ashamed to say that I danced up and down my hallway after I heard that.

After much subsequent correspondence via email over the next few months, I managed to meet Gil – who indeed is Gilbert Pate’s nephew – and his 97-year-old mother – Gilbert’s sister Peggy – on Sydney’s North Shore in April 2010. We spent a fascinating few hours talking about the story of Gilbert and Jack’s crew, about my research and about vising the graves in 2009. Gil had with him a great big box full of letters, official documents and photographs which we looked through, my eyes goggling at the sight of each new letter. Here, truly, was a gold mine. Gil initially offered to copy for me anything I was interested in – but as we went on it became clear that I wanted a copy of… well… EVERYTHING! Gil thought about it for half a second.

Then he pushed the box across the desk towards me. “Take as long as you need!” he said.

I copied everything in the box, sorted and catalogued it, then returned to Gil the originals.

So I have now spent the last few weeks transcribing letters and other documents from the box. It’s given me a fairly solid idea of what he was like as a person. He was extraordinarily close to his family – especially his mother. He was an Australian through and through – he enjoyed the beach and the weather and the food – and he missed his wife and his pup. He toyed with becoming a jockey for a while, played tennis and was always keen to hear sporting results from home, partidularly the cricket and the football. He enjoyed the good things in life but he also understood full-well the task ahead of him when he joined the Air Force. He tried hard to shield his mother from the uncertainty and he was to a certain degree hopeful for the future, but he was also realistic enough to recognise that he would need a great deal of luck on his side if he was to return to his see his beloved family again.

This is stuff you just can’t get from official records only. I have been greatly privileged to have had the access that I have had to this fantastic archive and I am extremely grateful that Gil has been so enthusiastic about it.

The transcription task is almost complete. Next step is to contact Gil again and arrange a second meeting where – armed with the knowledge I have pulled from this fantastic ‘box of tricks’ – I can ask Peggy specific questions about Gilbert to see what other loose ends I can tie up.


Current task: Transcribing Gilbert Pate’s papers – Vol II

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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