Archive for the 'Commemoration' Category

The perils of oral history

There was a quite interesting article in Good Weekend, the magazine that comes with the Saturday newspaper here in Melbourne, last week. In Afghanistan, a split-second decision separates life and death is an edited extract of a new book called No Front Line by Chris Masters, who as a journalist was ‘embedded’ with Australian Special Forces units in 2006.

The article (and I suppose the book, though I haven’t read it) looks at some of the troubling issues to rise out of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan: the moral ambiguity, the culture of the Special Forces and the questions that remain over what actually happened there. It’s worth a read.

It was a little snippet contained within the article that really grabbed my attention, though. Much of the extract published in Good Weekend centres around one particular action that happened in early June 2006  in the hills around the Chora Valley, near Tarin Kowt (where one of the principle Australian bases was located). An Australian patrol made up of six men climbed up into the hills to establish a reconnaissance post overlooking the valley, which had recently been overrun by Taliban troops. “Later accounts of what occurred vary markedly,” Masters writes. Two soldiers who were involved in the incident recalled a young Afghan male, who carried nothing, approaching their position. He “looked past the OP, then walk[ed] on across their front from right to left.” Then he came back, this time carrying a bag. Sometime around here was when it was decided that the man was a danger to the soldiers at the observation post, and two of the soldiers stalked him and, in the euphemistic language of the later after-action report, “neutralised the threat.” Whether or not this shooting of an apparently unarmed man, who may or may not have been a civilian, was justified is one of the moral questions that often arises in war.

And this is where it gets interesting. One of the other soldiers involved in the incident was Lance-Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith (who would receive a  Medal for Gallantry for this action, and later a Victoria Cross for another incident). He was interviewed by an Australian War Memorial historian in 2011 about what happened on the ridgeline. “A couple of blokes just walked up, literally,” he said, “probably about two hours before dark, walked straight up to the front of the OP, got about 30 metres to the front…”

Note Roberts-Smith’s first sentence: “a couple of blokes” [my emphasis]. The presence of two potential enemies rather than just one paints the incident in a rather different light. So here we have accounts from three eyewitnesses, all soldiers who were directly involved in the action, that differ over a quite significant basic fact. Adding to the confusion, in a different, later, interview, Roberts-Smith said “an armed insurgent walked to within 30 metres” – an. A sole individual.

Which was it, really? The post-action report, written later by the patrol commander in the aftermath of the incident, identifies a single person. That, the original two soldiers’ testimony and Roberts-Smith’s later interview all agree that there was just the one Afghan who approached the observation post, so it’s likely that this is the true number. So why did Roberts-Smith apparently get it wrong when talking to the War Memorial?

I reckon that it’s most likely simply because of the way the human mind works. Roberts-Smith wrote to the AWM after the interview, setting out a few factors that could explain it: Firstly, five years had passed between the incident and recalling it in an interview. In the interim, he had been sent to Afghanistan four more times. And the interview itself was more than two hours and 40 minutes long. “It would appear,” he wrote, “I have confused my many engagements.”

And finally we get to the point. Oral history depends on memories – indeed, oral history is made up of memories. But memories are volatile things. Time can dull the stories or even remove details entirely, and experiences can, perhaps, get muddled together in retelling – even more so when, as is my experience of collecting oral histories, those doing the remembering are nonagenarians  dealing with events that took place more than seven decades ago. Memories can be manipulated, too: if you tell yourself often enough, intentionally or otherwise, that something happened, before too long you’ll believe it really did.

In short, oral histories are not particularly reliable for the bare facts of history. They remain extremely valuable sources because they are first-hand accounts of the time under study and can capture a feeling of what it was like. But make sure you check the facts against documented sources before taking them as gospel.

It’s nothing deliberate on the part of those being interviewed. It’s just the way the mind works.

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

 

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Bomber Command in Canberra 2017

“PER ARDUA AD ASTRA – For we are young and free.”

With these words, Director of the Australian War Memorial Dr Brendan Nelson closed a speech delivered at the Bomber Command lunch in the shadows of Lancaster G for George last weekend. He was speaking, specifically, to the 38 veterans of Bomber Command who were among the audience, telling them that the latter phrase can be in Australia’s National Anthem because of deeds done by the likes of them.

Dr Nelson’s speech – a rolling masterpiece, delivered with passion, skill and emotion (and just the right amount of self-deprecating humour) by a man who admittedly does this sort of thing for a living – will long be remembered by those who heard it. It received a standing ovation and was a clear highlight of a weekend that brimmed with them: the tenth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day.

Ostensibly there were, perhaps, two reasons why a particular effort was made to make this year somewhat more special than usual: the fact that this was the tenth such event, and also to mark the 75th anniversary of Australian squadrons going into action as part of Bomber Command. There is some contention on this latter point (as author Kristen Alexander has pointed out) and in a way it’s unfortunate that someone felt the need to justify ‘extra special’ treatment by concocting an anniversary which doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. But whatever the justification for it, this was a very impressive event. The federal Department of Veterans Affairs were involved early on by making funding available to assist veterans to travel to Canberra, Royal Australian Air Force Association coordinated the DVA grants, Bomber Command Association in Australia were actively contacting all the veterans on their database to ensure that they were aware that assistance was available, Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation coordinated guest lists and arranged the Meet and Greet, and the Australian War Memorial hosted, ran and even paid for more than 300 people to enjoy lunch in the shadows of G for George. Each of those groups, and more, played a role in delivering the biggest and most significant Bomber Command event seen in Australia for several years.

It’s become traditional in the last few years to focus on an Australian Bomber Command airman in the ‘Last Post’ ceremony, with which the AWM closes each evening, on the Saturday night for this event. This year it was Flying Officer Charles Williams, who died on Operation Chastise in May 1943. Several hundred people were present, including a good number of Bomber Command veterans:

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I am more of a fan of the way the War Memorial used to mark the close of each day (a far simpler ceremony with a lone bugler or piper), but this Last Post ceremony was well done, with an all-Air Force catafalque party providing an honour guard and F/O Williams’ story told simply and well.

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Following the ceremony, we moved into the AWM’s Reception area, mostly to get out of the cold while waiting for the Meet & Greet cocktail party to begin. Dr Nelson, though, decided it was time to move, getting up onto a bench to ask the crowd “what are you waiting for? We need a navigator…” and exhorting everyone to move to the Anzac Hall.

There was a short delay while final preparations were being made for the night’s function. But once the Air Force jazz quartet started up, it was a very good night: talking with people I’d just met, seeing familiar old faces and soaking up the atmosphere of that big collection of metal known as G for George.

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RAAF Jazz Quartet

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Frank Dell

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Keith Campbell

It was lovely seeing a young Sydney couple (Josh – himself ex-Navy -and his wife Katie, both of whom who I’d met on Anzac Day this year) talking to Bill Purdy. Josh had a grandfather who flew with 463 Squadron. On mentioned his name, Bill remembered him immediately. I left them listening intently to his recollections.

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It was also great to catch up with Ray Merrill again. One of my favourite veterans, who I’d met at the Canberra weekend in 2014, Ray had come from Adelaide with no fewer than 16 relatives and friends:

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Sunday saw the sort of morning that, despite the rain that has affected it on some occasions, I most associate with this weekend: bright, sunny and cold. A big crowd gathered in front of the Bomber Command sculpture in the grounds of the AWM for the ceremony, the centrepiece of the weekend’s events. Plenty of veterans were scattered around the crowd, with a catafalque party provided by the Federation Guard and an honour guard of current 460 Squadron personnel making up the most visible uniformed presence. It was particularly pleasing to see no fewer than four veterans taking active roles in the ceremony, including Ray Merrill who delivered an excellent Reflections speech:

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Another impressive speech was given by Senator Linda Reynolds (representing the Prime Minister). Senator Reynolds, it turns out, has two Bomber Command connections in her family, and so her speech was heartfelt and honest.

And then, afterburners twinkling, a 77 Squadron F/A18 Hornet screamed over the crowd to end the ceremony, pulling up to disappear in a vertical climb over Mount Ainslie.

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Alan Finch

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Murray Maxton

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Ron Houghton

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Richard Munro

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Howard Hendrick

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Bill Purdy

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Catafalque Party

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Peek-a-boo!

This year’s Bomber Command lunch was one for the ages. It saw the most people attend, I think ever, and the most Bomber Command veterans that I’ve seen in one place in a very long time. Seated under George’s starboard wing, the atmosphere was quite unique. As well as Dr Nelson’s outstanding speech, several veterans spontaneously got up to say a few words. There was Rob Jubb:

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Ron Hickey:

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And Don Browning:

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The most revealing thing? All three told stories relating to wartime service – but not about their own wartime service. The stories were about someone else.

That famous modesty of this generation, on display again.

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Jim Bateman says grace

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This was a particularly special weekend, the likes of which I doubt we’ll see again. Without going overboard, the focus was firmly on the veterans we had present. Absent friends were also kept close to mind throughout. While there was some confusion in the lead-up, probably because of the multitude of groups involved in putting it together, the actual events appeared to run smoothly and professionally in a genuinely respectful atmosphere. Though several needed to pull out at short notice on medical grounds, the effort to get as many veterans as possible to attend, from all over the country, was very successful. One man I met for the first time – Howard Hendrick – came all the way from country South Australia, which is not a particularly straightforward journey. This was the first time he’s ever come to a ‘reunion’ like this. Seeing how much he enjoyed himself will, I’m sure, reaffirm to everyone concerned the value of weekends like this.

Long may it continue.

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© 2017 Adam Purcell

 

 

 

Vale Jim Cahir

I first saw Jim Cahir at a Bomber Command panel discussion at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, way back in 2013. He was one of 13 Bomber Command veterans who were present, and he was able to share with the audience the experience of being shot down by Schräge Musik over Germany one December night in 1943.

Keilor East RSL Anzac Ceremony, April 2016

It would be several years later, though, when I would get the opportunity to have a close talk with him. A chance meeting at the Anzac Ceremony at the Keilor East RSL in 2016, just down the road from my home in suburban Melbourne, led to a very quick acceptance of my invitation for an interview for the International Bomber Command Centre. We did the interview a few weeks later. And I’m very glad that we did, for this week, at the age of 93, Jim Cahir took his final flight.

Jim Cahir as a trainee gunner at Parkes, NSW

Jim was a 466 Squadron mid-upper gunner, shot down over Germany one night in December 1943. In his turret, Jim had the best view in the house as the starboard wing and engines of his Halifax burst into flame. They were the victims of a JU-88 flown by German nightfighter ace, Heinz Rökker. Jim and most of the rest of the crew would spend the next year and a half in a German prisoner of war camp.

For all the trauma of that experience, Jim led an extremely fulfilling life. He had a long career as an accountant, but he reckoned his family was his greatest achievement: ten children of his own, 38 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren. His first and much-loved wife, Valda, died in 2003 and he married his second, Glenne, when well into his 80s. Their relationship was quite special. I dropped in a couple of times after our interview for a cup of tea and a chat – Jim and Glenne lived a ten-minute walk from my house – and I’ll always remember Jim’s hopeful and cheeky smile as he signaled to her that he’d like a new cup of tea, thanks very much, miming the teacup-on-a-saucer with his hands.

Following our interview, June 2016

We gave him a lift home from the Bomber Command ceremony at the Shrine last year, along with Laurie Larmer who also lives close by. My partner Rachel best remembers the sight of Jim, insisting on sitting in the back, squeezing his long legs into our little Golf.

Jim always held close the memory of his pilot, Flight Sergeant Patrick Edwards. After the Halifax was hit, Edwards stayed at the controls, battling to get the aircraft under some sort of control. “Good luck Boys,” Jim remembered him saying. “If those so and so’s catch you, don’t tell them anything!” The rest of the crew got out and survived – but Edwards, in making it possible for his crew to jump, lost his own life.

Jim had remarkable determination and drive throughout his life, which helped him survive three types of cancer, a heart attack and a stroke. His three pillars, it was said at his funeral today, were Family, Faith and the Forces (and the Essendon Bombers). I reckon his grandson Tom McCann pinpointed the real source of that determination, though: “All the accolades that Pa achieved over the last 74 years belong as much to Pat Edwards as they do Pa.”

Jim lived his life driven by wanting to make the most of the time that his pilot’s sacrifice gave him. To make sure he never ever forgot, hanging from the wall in Jim’s little study at home is a portrait of Patrick Edwards.

“He was the bravest man I ever knew,” Jim told me sadly.

So were you, Jim.

So were you.

Text and colour photos (c) 2017 Adam Purcell. Wartime photo from Jim Cahir.

Werribee Liberator

If you head down the Geelong Road a short distance out of Werribee in Melbourne’s south west, you soon come to two almost identical big old buildings sitting beside the road. They are a little incongruous, until you realise that they sit next to a great big paddock which looks like it could once have been an aerodrome.

Indeed it was, in fact, once an aerodrome – leased by the Royal Australian Air Force from the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works in 1940 for a satellite relief landing ground for the nearby stations at Laverton and Point Cook. And the two big hangars are the last survivors of five, of American design, that were built there between 1942 and 1943. The original design called for steel to be used in the construction of the frame and roof trusses, but a shortage of that material meant that instead they were built using wood from the Otway Ranges.

Aeroplanes have not flown from Werribee for many years, the field reverting to MMBW use in the early 1952s. But there’s still at least one aeroplane in one of the hangars. It’s a Consolidated B-24 Liberator, one of only eight in the world and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere. The actual aircraft is 44-41956, a B-24M, and while it never saw active service it did serve with the RAAF as A72-176 at 7 Operational Training Unit at Tocumwal. After five decades being used as temporary accommodation and as a wool shed on a farm at Moe in Victoria’s south east, the aircraft was acquired by the B-24 Liberator Memorial Restoration Fund and moved to Werribee in 1995, where it has been the subject of a slow, heroic and extraordinarily high-quality restoration ever since.

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The hangar is open for visits three days a week and this afternoon I finally managed to go and have a look. It’s an impressive operation. The old hangar is full of aeroplane – I have no idea how they’ll get it out of the building once they’re done. It’s a tight fit, and the tailplane isn’t even attached yet. There are aeroplane parts everywhere, workshop areas that were in use while I was there and displays related to Liberators in general and this one in particular. They have four operational engines (none yet fitted to the aircraft) and they conduct public runs on a specially-constructed test rig once a month or so.

You can even duck under those amazing sliding bomb bay doors (apparently this was the favoured way for Liberator aircrew to access their machines) and stand up inside the aeroplane’s fuselage to have a look at the interior of the beast. There was a refreshing lack of safety barriers or fun police present – evidently the Fund has gone down the very practical “common sense” path. Standing here, looking up past the wireless operator and flight engineer’s positions to the cockpit, I thought of men like John McCredie who once flew – and indeed was compelled on one occasion to bale out from – these big silver birds.

Inside the Werribee Liberator, looking forward from the bomb bay

Inside the Werribee Liberator, looking forward from the bomb bay

There are those who have publicly lamented the lack of a WWII-vintage bomber in Victoria. Those people, I think, are doing this group a disservice. Here is a genuine WWII bomber, and indeed a genuine Australian bomber, and it’s right on Melbourne’s doorstep. I’m told the organisation holds about 97% of the parts required to make a complete Liberator, and what they are missing is non-essential ‘aesthetical’ pieces. So they certainly will eventually reach their goal of a fully-operational Liberator (albeit restored to taxying status only, much like Just Jane was when I visited it in 2009). The intent is to reach “museum piece” status, which apparently requires at least 51% of the aircraft to be verifiably original.

All they need is money. It costs a very reasonable $5 to go and have a stickybeak around ($5 more on engine run days), and further donations are much appreciated. They’re a very welcoming lot, I thought – so if you’re in the area, make the effort to go and have a look. You won’t be disappointed.

More details, including opening times, on the Fund’s website.

I’m not in any way affiliated with the B-24 Liberator Memorial Restoration Fund, and visited as a paying member of the public.

© 2017 Adam Purcell

Bundaberg Beaufort

It’s funny the way the internet works sometimes.

A little over four years ago I wrote a post about a Scroll of Honour that I’d found in a tiny military museum next to the Murray River in Moama, NSW. Starting with the name of the man it commemorates, Flight Sergeant Irwin Harold Smead, I carried out a small search to find out about him. I discovered that he had been the navigator of a 32 Squadron Beaufort aircraft which was involved in a mid-air collision with another Beaufort of the same squadron near Bundaberg, Queensland, on 21 April 1944, with the loss of both aircraft and all eight men on board.

I wrote a post about the Scroll, added a little bit of the story… and forgot about it.

Almost exactly four years later, in December last year I was reminded about the story when a second cousin of Flight Sergeant Ignatius William Willcocks (the navigator on the other Beaufort involved in the collision) left a comment on the post. And then Vince Willcocks, Flight Sergeant Willcocks’ nephew, got in touch, and sent me a few photos. He also sent them to Peter Dunn who manages the ‘Oz at War’ website which is where, in 2012, I originally found some details on the crash, and Peter’s posted them there as well, but I thought I’d add them here for completion, along with some photos of the graves as they are now in Bundaberg:

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Ignations Willcocks is second from right in this photo

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Funeral of the victims of the Beaufort crash

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William and Frances, Ignatius’s parents, visit his grave

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The Air Force section of Bundaberg Cemetery as it is today

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Ignatius Willcock’s headstone in Bundaberg

Because someone in his family cared enough to try to find out more about him, Flight Sergeant Willcock’s story and photos are now being shared around and are available for other people to find. In a small way, it helps to ensure that his story is remembered.

And that’s why we do it!

 

Thanks to Vince Willcocks for the photos.

Text © 2017 Adam Purcell

Behind the Wire – Photographic Exhibition at the Shrine

I went down to the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne recently to see their current exhibition, a photographic project by Australian documentary photographer Susan Gordon-Brown called Behind the Wire. It is a collection of some 50 portraits of Australian veterans of the Vietnam War, presented together with a short blurb from interviews completed with each veteran over a three-year period. There are cooks, dentists, drivers, gunners, infantrymen, pilots and civilian nurses, among other trades, in the collection.

Some of the portraits are beautiful. They’re not particularly flashy, taken with natural light in most cases, but it’s in part their simplicity that appeals. It’s clear to see that these faces have seen some terrible things – and, sadly, in one way or another, these people are all still coping with their experiences many decades later.

Indeed, part of why I wanted to see the exhibition was because of the parallels with my own post-interview photos of Bomber Command veterans. At the local Keilor East ceremony a week before Anzac Day in April I met a Vietnam veteran named Bill, a local man who was there with his grand-daughter. And that made me realise that there are parallels between the men of Bomber Command and the men who served in Vietnam. Both fought in campaigns that have become controversial. Once they came home, there was no official support – no counselling, no recognition. And both sets of veterans have only started talking about their experiences in much later years.

I spent a couple of hours soaking the whole exhibition in. Highly recommended.

The exhibition is on at the Shrine until 23 October at the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne. Further information can be found on the Behind the Wire website

Incidentally, wandering around the grounds outside the Shrine I finally discovered that there is, in fact, a plaque dedicated to 467 and 463 Squadrons. It’s on the southern edge, in what I’d call prime position – under the first tree on the right when you’re looking down from the Shrine’s southern steps. It’s a simple memorial, but it’s nice to have found a focal point for remembering the two Squadrons in Melbourne.

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(c) 2016 Adam Purcell

Bomber Command Commemoration Day 2016: Melbourne

It was raining steadily while I waited at Canberra Airport for my flight to Melbourne last Sunday morning. As we boarded our aeroplane a Qantas International B747 – an unusual visitor to Canberra – not so much landed as splashed down, unheralded but spectacularly, on the main runway.  It turns out it was a flight from Hong Kong that had missed out in the atrocious weather conditions prevailing in Sydney and diverted. The weather – caused by a pair of big fat low pressure systems sitting just off the south eastern coast of Australia – had already forced the Canberra Bomber Command Commemorative Day ceremony to move into the cloisters of the Australian War Memorial, away from the sodden lawn. It was just as wet in Melbourne.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the appalling conditions might have kept people away from the fifth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day service at the Shrine of Remembrance.

One would be wrong. This year saw the biggest turnout yet in the southern capital. Twelve veterans of Bomber Command were among more than 160 people who attended. There were veterans and their wives and families – one veteran headed a party of no less than ten of his extended family. There were politicians and serving members of the Royal Australian Air Force. There were members of the Australian Air Cadets and there were staff and students of BCCAV’s partner school, Carey Baptist Grammar. And there were members of the general public, with or without a direct connection to Bomber Command. In the Auditorium it was standing room only. At least it was dry.

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There were speeches from Shrine Governor Major Maggie More and Chaplain John Brownbill. But the keynote address was from the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Commodore Geoff Harland, Commander of the Air Force Training Group. In an excellent address (available for download here), Air Commodore Harland highlighted some of the statistics of life in Bomber Command: 125,000 aircrew served, of which 55,573 were killed:38,462 Britons, 9,980 Canadians, 4,050 Australians, 1,703 New Zealanders and 1300 from Poland, Free France, the USA, Norway and India.

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“It is crucial that we remember the sacrifice these numbers represent,” Air Commodore Harland said. “As a modern aviator I marvel at the bravery of these young men… the example they set for is in terms of commitment, valour and sacrifice is instructive to us all and, I would argue, sets an unmoveable foundation for the values we hold so dear in our modern Air Force.”

“To forget is not an option.”

The wreath-laying ceremony followed the Air Commodore’s address.

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Bomber Command veteran Laurie Williams

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Students from Carey Baptist Grammar lay their wreath.

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For the formal commemorative part of the ceremony, Carey Baptist Grammar Middle School Co-Captain Sophie Westcott read the Ode. It was the first time that a student from Bomber Command Commemorative Association Victoria’s Partner School has carried out an official role at this service and it was well-received.

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Sophie Westcott of Carey Baptist Grammar recites the Ode

By the time it was over we came outside to discover that the weather had closed in even more. The top half of nearby Eureka Tower (975’) had disappeared completely into the murk. We knew that the Royal Victorian Aero Club contingent were grounded at Moorabbin, but there was some hope that a lone Mustang, flying from Tyabb, might yet be able to get through. There were a lot of people squeezed into the foyer enjoying a chat with some light refreshments, and as one of the organisers I was in some demand, talking to people I already knew, some I’d been corresponding with and several I’d not met before. Then I got tapped on the shoulder.

“There are two TV crews set up in the forecourt!”

Oh boy. As the Media Officer for the Bomber Command Commemorative Association Victoria, I’ve been busy drafting and distributing press releases and emails to various media organisations over several months, hoping for a bit of coverage. And someone had actually turned up! So I trekked around to the front of the Shrine where there were, indeed, two camera crews, one from the ABC and one from Channel 7. I was able to brief them about the flypast.

Sadly, at the appointed hour, nothing happened except that, if it were possible, the cloud base seemed to lower even more. The Mustang did actually get airborne at Tyabb but, restricted to VFR flight only, could not find a safe way through the clouds. The pilot made a very prudent decision to return to base, and the skies over Melbourne remained quiet. It was disappointing that we had some media interest but they were unable to get the shots that they wanted. But there’s nothing we can do about the weather, and I was thankful enough that it had been sufficient to get a) out of Canberra and b) into Melbourne on time earlier in the day.

We did get some other media coverage though, and this led directly to one of my favourite stories about this year’s ceremony. A few weeks ago, I got a phone call from a reporter from the Mornington News who had heard about this ceremony but was looking for a local angle. I subsequently facilitated contact with Jean Smith, a 94-year-old veteran of the Womens’ Auxiliary Air Force who lives on the Peninsula (who I interviewed for the IBCC in March). The resulting coverage in the News was pretty good (link here).

The best bit? Jean told me after the ceremony that she had told the reporter she was so keen to attend the ceremony that she was saving her pennies to pay for a taxi to the city, a journey of an hour and a half each way. “It was a throwaway line really,” she said – but the reporter printed it. Within days, no fewer than three members of the public had separately contacted the newspaper offering to drive Jean to Melbourne for the ceremony.

And so on Sunday morning, Jean arrived at the Shrine of Remembrance, driven by a friendly member of the general public. It was the embodiment of Air Commodore Harland’s words:

We must take pause to remember the collective sacrifice of this group, we must remember those who perished and cherish those who survived and those who are still with us and say ‘thank you’ and know that that will never be enough.

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The Australian Air Cadets provided an honour guard

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Shrine Governor Major Maggie More

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Chaplain John Brownbill

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A veteran comforts his wife

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© 2016 Adam Purcell