Archive for April, 2016

Anzac Day in Sydney 2016

Something a bit different for Anzac Day this year: I had my photo light gear with me at the 463-467 Squadron Association lunch in Sydney, so I thought it a good opportunity to get some proper portraits of the six veterans we had with us.

Bill Purdy DFC LdH - 463 Squadron pilot

Bill Purdy DFC LdH: 463 Squadron pilot

Don Browning LdH: 463 Squadron wireless operator

Don Browning LdH: 463 Squadron wireless operator

Keith Campbell OAM LdH: 466 Squadron bomb aimer and PoW

Keith Campbell OAM LdH: 466 Squadron bomb aimer and PoW

Don Southwell, 463 Squadron navigator

Don Southwell LdH: 463 Squadron navigator

David Skinner, 467 Squadron pilot

David Skinner: 467 Squadron pilot

Alan Buxton: 617 and 467 Squadron navigator

Alan Buxton: 617 and 467 Squadron navigator

It was a good day, with three veterans marching on the amended route along Elizabeth St. There was a particularly Huxtable-shaped hole in proceedings however. Very sadly, for the first time in many, many years, when someone in the crowd yelled out “Hey, Don!”, the answer was not “which one??”

But while numbers were down for the march (and as I wrote last week I’m not sure how much longer this group will continue to take part), the following lunch had more than 50 people in attendance. And this was what led to probably my favourite moment of the day. At my table were a young couple who I’d not met before. Luke is a relation of the Southwells and he’d brought his partner Sharna along. I mentioned to them in conversation the significance of the little golden caterpillar badge worn by some aircrew, and suggested that if they find someone wearing one they should ask them about it. “Like him,”, I said, pointing to Alan Buxton who was sitting at the other end of the table. “Ooh,” said Sharna, “do you know his story?” I do, I said (he bailed out over the UK returning from a raid when all four engines in his Lancaster caught on fire), but as Alan was right there I encouraged her to ask him herself.

Shortly afterwards Sharna did so. This was the result:

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As I left the lunch about 45 minutes later they were still there: Sharna and Luke listening intently as Alan told them why he has a golden caterpillar.

One more story shared to a new generation. Two more people who have heard first-hand something about life in Bomber Command. This is what it’s all about.

It was a lovely way to end the day.

 

(c) 2016 Adam Purcell

 

Anzackery

Last Friday night I went to see the local Super Rugby team, the Melbourne Rebels, play South Africa’s Cheetahs at the imaginatively named “Melbourne Rectangular Stadium“. While it was great to see a sadly-not-too-common Rebels victory, something odd happened just before the game.

An Anzac Day ceremony.

At the rugby.

Huh?

It’s not even Anzac Day until tomorrow!

Call me unAustralian, but that ceremony made me feel a little uneasy. It did not feel like it belonged there, in that place, in that context. Sport is not war without guns, as David Stephens wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last year.

Stephens is the secretary of the Honest History coalition of historians and others “supporting the balanced and honest presentation and use of Australian history”. There’s a very long but illuminating transcript of a speech he gave in Kogarah in June 2015 on the Honest History website, and it’s a very useful read at this time of year. Among other things, he argues that Anzac should be “about the private, within-family, remembrance of – and caring about – people who have suffered in war, both those who have been killed and not come home and those who have come home but who are injured in body or mind – and those who live with the memory of the dead and the reality of the presence of the living.” In other words, Stephens sees Anzac as a primarily personal thing that is connected with those affected by war: both the effects on those who were actually there and the effects on the direct families who lived with them. “For families who are directly affected by war,” Stephens writes, “commemoration isn’t parades and wreaths and speeches by politicians; it is something they live every day and every week.”

As we move further and further away from the events being remembered, though, those private, individual stories seem to become lost in the mass. The Great War is now beyond living memory, and in a few short years WWII will go the same way. Meanwhile, Anzac Day continues to increase in popularity, at least if the crowds at the big marches are anything to go by. “The obsession about remembrance has grown stronger the further away we get from the reality,” Stephens writes. “It has grown stronger as the number of people who actually remember the reality of total war has got fewer and fewer.”

Why? Perhaps because Anzac has become almost a secular religion in Australia. We’re in danger of losing the quiet remembrance of individuals and of the terrible things war did to them – and continues to do to them – lost amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears.

This is a part of what the Honest History crowd likes to call “Anzackery.” Stephens again:

Anzackery… is public, very public. It’s marches and flags and hymns and speeches. Nowadays it’s also projections of pictures of Diggers onto buildings, it’s battlefield tours and Gallipoli cruises […] it’s ministers and prime ministers and war memorial directors making emotional speeches to nostalgic audiences about the Anzac legend, it’s Anzac football matches in whatever code you fancy… Anzackery is sentiment and it’s nostalgia and it’s nationalism – which people think is patriotism but which is really jingoism.

I was struggling to articulate ideas like these when I wrote this post last week. That remains an important piece of writing for me because it attempts to deal with the future of my own personal remembrance, both of the great uncle I never knew, and the Bomber Command veterans I did (and still do) know, and all their family members who had to cope with the effects the war had on them. But if I’m being truly honest with myself, it does not say completely what I think I wanted to say. That out-of-place Anzac observance at the rugby last Friday night, though, made me realise how uncomfortable I’ve become with many of the things that go along with Anzac Day these days. The problem is that I’m not quite sure how I can reconcile that realisation with the act of taking up the banner and marching down Elizabeth Street in Sydney tomorrow morning.

I maintain my desire to continue doing so while we still have 463-467 Squadron veterans capable of marching because supporting them, particularly as they get older and older, is an important thing, and many of them have become friends. But once they’re done, so am I. It’s time to find a quieter, more personal form of commemoration.

John Coyne – a veteran of Bougainville and East Timor – describes his own private tradition of remembrance in a beautifully-written piece in The Age last Friday:

These days I choose to head out into the Australian bush surrounding Canberra. Well before dawn’s first light I make my way to a piece of high ground overlooking a valley floor. I stand too with dawn’s first light, sitting silently and generally shivering in the pre-dawn chill.

To the cacophony of bush noises, I reflect on those who made the ultimate sacrifice while on operations, or after they’d returned home. I think about the cost of our service: both the physical and psychological. I remember our stories, good and bad.

After the sun’s rays warm me up I make my way back to my car and return to my family.

This, clearly, would resonate most with ex-service personnel, which I am not. But it’s a lovely concept, and it’s perhaps something to think about as you watch the Anzac Day march on television tomorrow morning.

 

(c) 2016 Adam Purcell

What happens when the last veteran dies?

And the band plays Waltzing Matilda,

And the old men still answer the call,

But as year follows year, more old men disappear.

Someday no-one will march there at all.

– Eric Bogle, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Once again Anzac Day approaches. Once again I will board an aeroplane and fly to Sydney. Once again I will pin my great uncle Jack’s medals to the right side of my chest. Once again I will hoist the 463-467 Squadron banner high, and once again I will march.

But for how much longer?

I’ve been struggling to write about the future of the Anzac Day march – or specifically the future of my part in it – for several years now. At around this time each year I’ve grappled with it, starting something but failing to come up with a coherent argument. So I’ve put it off. Chickened out. Relegated it to the ‘too hard’ basket. But sure as eggs, once again here I am. And the question has become more urgent. So this year I’m going to finish it.

I’ve been involved with the 463-467 Squadrons Association in Sydney for about a decade now. Long enough that I now consider friends many of the veterans, friends and family that make up the group. This is why, despite living in Melbourne for the last five or so years, I still prefer to go to Sydney for Anzac Day: it’s one of only a handful of chances I have each year to catch up with them.

As time has passed, so too has a fair number of veterans I knew. Men like Reg Boys, Rollo Kingsford-Smith and David Walter, among several others, have all gone to the Great Crew-Room in the Sky. In the last year or two however, as those who are left have grown very very old indeed and as age wearied them more and more, the trickle has turned into a flood: George Douglass. Harry Brown. Hugh McLeod. Albert Wallace. And now Don Huxtable. And these are just Sydney-based 463-467 Squadron Association veterans I knew personally.

As year follows year, more old men disappear.

In 2014 just three veterans started the Anzac Day march with the 463-467 Squadron banner. That was the first point at which I began actively wondering about the future of the Squadron banner in the march. One of the three that year was unable to complete the course – and the other two have since died. Improbably in 2015 numbers actually grew to eight, including two riding in trucks and two in wheelchairs, but given the numbers who have died in the intervening year that is likely to have been an aberration. Don Huxtable’s recent passing has further focused minds on a difficult but inevitable truth.

There are now very few 463-467 Squadron veterans left who remain capable of marching behind the banner on Anzac Day. One day, sooner than we all would like, they too will pass.

Someday no-one will march there at all.

And what then?

There’s been a fair bit of controversy in recent years about marching on Anzac Day, and specifically how descendants of veterans, such as myself, fit into it. Originally, of course, it was only the veterans themselves who were allowed to march – and that was highly appropriate. But those were the days when there were a significant proportion of veterans of conflicts like WWI still alive. Those first Diggers are long gone now, and descendants have begun marching in their place. But as the WWII Diggers now slowly fade away, the few who remain sometimes seem in danger of being swamped by the ever-increasing crowds of descendants.

In 2008 it all got too much for the RSL in Sydney. They began politely suggesting that descendants go to the back of the parade instead of marching with their ancestors’ units. In more recent years that polite suggestion has become more assertive, and changes have been made to the traditional format so that WWII veterans are given more prominence at the front of the march (with a strict limit of one carer each allowed with them). Instead of the WWI banners leading the march, they now bring up the rear. This year it’s spread to Melbourne, with similar adjustments on the cards for the southern capital’s march.

Far be it, of course, for me to criticise the involvement of descendants in the Anzac Day march. I have, after all, been one of them for several years now. There’s no doubt that it’s been a special experience. The noise made by the crowds that lined George St during last year’s march during the Centenary of Anzac was, genuinely, quite exhilarating. But at the same time I’ve felt a little uneasy. The applause and the cheering from the crowd is for those original veterans we have marching with us. Once they can no longer march, then what?

The answer, I think, is that once we no longer have any originals capable or willing to march, the time has come to bring down the curtain. The fellowship evident at the 463-467 Squadrons Association luncheon each year – and indeed the increasing numbers seen at that and other functions in the last few years – shows that there remains a place for events of that type. And of course other Anzac Day traditions such as the Dawn Service must also continue. But the March should be for the veterans themselves. While we still have veterans marching with us, I’m very happy to carry the banner for them.

But on the day the last 463-467 Squadron veteran in Sydney dies, it’s time to retire the banner.

And the band plays Waltzing Matilda,

And the old men still answer the call,

But as year follows year, more old men disappear.

Someday no-one will march there at all.

(c) 2016 Adam Purcell

 

 

Vale Don Huxtable

I’m terribly sad to report that 463 Squadron veteran Lancaster pilot, Hornsby legend, knockabout old bloke and all-round nice guy Don Huxtable died in a Sydney hospital in the early hours of this morning. He’d been unwell for several months but the end was, I’m told, rather swift.

I’ve written about Hux before, when I went to visit him in Sydney eighteen months or so ago. He was one of the first veterans I befriended amongst the Sydney-based 463-467 Squadrons crowd. For many many years he was a stalwart of Anzac Day commemorations, marching in front of the squadron banner with medals, among them the silver insignia of the Distinguished Flying Cross, proudly clinking on his chest. Probably my favourite memory of Hux is that most years he would be the first to reach the bar for a beer before the traditional post-march lunch.

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Hux had many, many stories, and a bar was probably his favourite place in which to tell them. I especially remember a night in the hotel bar in Canberra after the Saturday night Meet & Greet during the Bomber Command Commemorative weekend in 2014. Numbers dropped off steadily as the night wore on, but still there, scotch and soda in hand, when the bar staff finally kicked us out at 1am was, you guessed it, Hux and his entranced audience of young people. Some of the stories he told us may have even been true… like the one about flying solo in a Tiger Moth one day, with a princely 14 hours in his logbook, when he decided to fly his aeroplane between two trees at very low level. (As Hux told it he got 28 days in the Holsworthy military detention centre as a result.) He also spoke of flying circles around a tree in a paddock “like I was tied to it”, and of herding (with the aeroplane) all the sheep into the middle of a paddock… and then dropping empty bottles onto them.

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He was most distressed a few years ago when I told him that the Horse and Jockey, which during the war was the pub most frequented by aircrew in Waddington village, had closed down. “You hadn’t started until you’d had 16 pints, the beer was so weak”, he reminisced. “It couldn’t go flat ‘cos it was flat already… and it couldn’t go warm ‘cos it was warm already too!” Happily I was able to report the next time I saw him that my contact in Waddington had told me that the pub had new owners and was back in business.

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Hux on Anzac Day 2015 – as it turned out, the last time I would see him

He was very proud of his crew, four of whom after the war bought adjacent blocks of land in Hornsby and then helped each other build their houses on them. In later years Hux, perhaps always feeling the captain’s sense of responsibility for his crew, was always looking out for Mary Fallon, wife of his late mid-upper gunner Brian, and was very close to Mary’s grandson Bryan. After the war Hux worked in the meat trade and became such a respected member of his beloved Hornsby RSL that they went and named a room after him.

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Hornsby RSL

The tales Hux told were mostly about the lighter side of life in Bomber Command. Every now and then, though, something happened that reminded you that for all the humour and good times, it was a war that Hux had been involved in, and war isn’t all beer and skittles.

At the night-time function at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra one year, I was talking to Hux after the speeches when the lights dimmed and the sound and light show centred around Lancaster G for George began. At the end of the presentation I noticed that Hux had uncharacteristically gone quiet for a moment.

“I don’t know how the hell I flew straight and level through all that,” he whispered.

Blue skies and tailwinds, Hux. Anzac Day will never be the same without you.

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(c) 2016 Adam Purcell