Bomber Command attracted, and got, the best men of a generation. They were (in general) more highly educated than many of their time, they were carefully selected and they were highly trained. Many achieved great things during their time with the Air Force. A significant proportion – those who didn’t come back – never got the chance to follow that achievement up with similar success in post-war life. For some who did survive, their few short months on an operational squadron would come to define the rest of their lives. But there were also others who went to war, flew a tour of operations, returned to Australia – and, putting all thoughts of the war behind them, simply got on with life. One of those was Pat Kerrins, who died on Easter Sunday.
Pat was a Lancaster pilot. He grew up on a farm just outside the northern Victorian town of Tatura and, after leaving home, worked for the Postmaster General’s department in Melbourne and Sale. It was while he was at Sale that war broke out and, perhaps having caught the flying bug from the close proximity to the RAAF base nearby, as soon as he was old enough he joined up, first as a transport driver but eventually as a trainee pilot.
Pat trained in Australia and was selected as a fighter pilot. He travelled via the US to England, but on arrival found a long wait to get onto a fighter squadron. Bomber pilots, on the other hand, were needed immediately – so he swapped over, and would eventually fly 32 operations with 115 Squadron. He ended the war as a Flying Officer.
I first met Pat at the Bomber Command Commemorative Day weekend in Canberra in June 2011. He was engaged at the time in a lively conversation with another veteran (Tommy Knox, a 149 Squadron Stirling flight engineer) about a mutual acquaintance both had known during the war, and I took a photo of them both in the midst of it:
I sent Pat a copy of this photo (he’s on the left), and after exchanging a few letters I even drove up to Tatura to visit him for lunch one day. We pored over his logbook and a few photos and he shared a story or two of his service. It turned out that, along with his mid-upper gunner Nobby Clarke, he had been interviewed by writer and broadcaster Michael Veitch for a book called Fly, published in 2008. It’s worth quoting a passage from this book (p.83) which I think reveals much about Pat’s character and cheeky sense of humour:
“You’re writing a story about us old blokes, are you?’ asked Pat. ‘Why didn’t you get onto us fifty years ago when we could remember something?’
‘Sorry about that, Pat,’ I replied. ‘So when did you join up?’
’26 June 1942,’ he rattled off in a flash. Somehow I didn’t think his memory would present too much of a problem.
I think it was Pat’s favourite self-deprecating joke; he asked me the same thing the day that I visited him!
But talking about his wartime experiences was only a fairly recent development. After the war, Pat never flew an aeroplane again. He returned to Tatura and settled down on the family farm. He raised a family (eventually becoming a grandfather and then a ‘2-Pa’), played an important role in the developing Tatura dairy industry and was generally involved in the life of the town, volunteering with groups like Legacy, the local AFL club and horseracing club. He was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2001 for his services to the local community. Pat was such a legend in and around Tatura that about one thousand people attended his funeral there last week, and a large crowd of those who couldn’t fit inside the church spilled over into the driveway outside. He had been baptised and married in the same church.
I spotted perhaps my most favourite tribute to a real character of the local area as I was driving out of Tatura after the funeral on Saturday. Pat had a lifelong love of horses and was heavily involved in the Tatura horseracing club, officiating as a steward for many years at race meetings. I happened to glance to my left as I was passing the racecourse, just in time to flash past a sign proudly proclaiming the name of a large expanse of dirt. It was, the sign said, the Pat Kerrins Carpark.
I only knew Pat because he was a Bomber Command veteran. But while his two or three years in the Air Force were an important part of his life, they did not come to define it, and arguably his greatest successes came after he returned to Australia. His impish grin and cheeky sense of humour will be much missed.
© 2013 Adam Purcell