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?


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.


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