My father first showed me my great uncle’s logbook and a few faded photos when I was perhaps eight or nine years old. Since that time, I have always been aware of the family legend that tells the story of the Man in the Photograph. I think my sister Jen said it better than I can when she visited the grave in Lezennes in September 2007:
“Jack has always been an intangible legend. A god. The man of the medals and he blue felt covered notebook. The man of the faded photo and the tragic love story. Larger than life. The sudden realisation that this legend was human came when I read out aloud his age of 22…the age I will be in less than six months. So I sat in front of a war grave of a man I was so utterly disconnected from, but so inextricably connected to, and cried”.
There has always been this ‘idea’ of Jack in the back of the collective Purcell family mind. The idea is of a young man who sailed to far-off places to fly in a war from which he never returned, leaving only a handful of photos and that much-prized blue logbook to survive through the decades. Jude Findlay – a great nephew of Jack’s from the other side of the family – called him “the Shadow in the Corner”. While growing up Jude was always aware of the legend. In fact Jack’s death affected Jude’s father so much that he went and joined the RAAF himself.
Consequently Jen is right when she calls Jack a ‘legend’. Certainly he has been turned into a legend, being the focus of much of the family lore that originally got me hooked on the story. But along with the ‘legend’ tag has come some mythology, or at the very least some stories of debatable or unconfirmed authenticity. Like the story that says Jack was to be married the Saturday following his death. Or the claim that his mother only signed his enlistment papers in the belief that a knee injury picked up as a young child would disqualify him from active flying. Both these stories I heard originally from my grandfather (Jack’s nephew). They may well be true – but they may also be somewhat ’embellished’. The Purcell family, of course, is far from alone when it comes to these family stories. One example is the tale Gil Thew tells of his uncle Gil Pate who, he says, was recalled off end-of-tour leave for ‘one last’ operation to Lille from which – of course – he never returned.
The problem is that, unlike the hard facts like dates and places that can be found in service records and logbooks, for the somewhat ‘romantic’ stories like these ones there is generally no definitive primary evidence – especially where the serviceman concerned never returned from the war. In these cases grieving families, desperate for any clue as to what might have happened to their loved ones, could perhaps grab hold of any information that might possibly relate to the bomber war and ‘extrapolate’ it into a theory relating to their missing man. It could also be a comfort or a defence mechanism, as a way of dealing with what happened – believing, for example, that the aeroplane was brought down by flak rather than a more mundane and somehow less acceptable accident like a collision. Over time, the theory becomes ‘fact’ in the minds of the successive generations of the family. This is the danger of relying solely on ‘oral histories’ from members of the various families.
But while dry facts like dates and places and timelines can come from official documents, it’s these stories that add a ‘human’ element to the history. It is, after all, a ‘family’ history – as much the story of the families as it is of the airmen themselves. How the families dealt with the loss is a legitimate part of the history – even if the stories they used to cope are slightly stretched versions of the truth.
This post took well over a week to write. I started off going in one direction but in the writing it took a few unexpected turns. I’m not entirely sure what it became – which is why I left it for a few days. I’d especially appreciate your comments on this one please!
Current task: Editing and cataloguing Dale Johnston’s A705
(c) 2010 Adam Purcell