Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Anzac Day: deserving of respect

In preparation for tomorrow I had drafted a post which reflected on whether the celebratory antics of some of those who participate in Anzac Day events is appropriate, and on whether today's Australian military is worthy of the respect we are asked to offer on this day of commemoration.

I read it, edited it, re-read it, edited it some more, agonised a bit and decided it was trite rubbish and ought not to be published.

Instead I offer you the following small personal journey.

Until recently I worked for the Australian Government in a role connected with medals.  I had a reader's ticket at the National Archives, a working knowledge of the Australian War Memorial collection and, had I chosen to do so, the ability to use my weekends researching peoples' war records for profit.  About two years ago it occurred to me that my Pa (my Dad's Dad) had served in World War II and I should probably find out where he served and what medals he'd been awarded, if any.

Pa died before I was even at university, and I didn't ever recall him talking about his war service.  I'd never seen any medals of his or any evidence of his service at all, beyond a kitch 1940's night-light in the shape of a RAAF serviceman, in the sleep-out at their house in Traralgon.  I knew that Pa had been in the RAAF and had been posted to Darwin at some point, and that that's where he was when Dad was born in 1942.  Beyond knowing that he wasn't a pilot, I didn't know anything about his war service.

So I started with the Australian Archives.  It's possible for anyone (not even a family member) to request access to a former WWII serviceman's file.  Although a physical file can be delivered to the reading room in Canberra more quickly, the most accessible way of doing this is to request digitisation of the file.  Depending on demand it can take anything from three to six months for the file to be scanned and made available through the Archives' website.  In my case it only took three months.

The file was fascinating.  It was arranged in reverse chronological order, as all good files are.  His discharge papers on top, his enlistment application and references at the back.  A passport-sized photo that had been clipped to the file was faithfully scanned.  Here it is:

Leonard Daniel Phillips

This photo would have been taken in February 1942, when he was enlisted in the RAAF Reserve.  It's a very ordinary photo.  A man who had been a cobbler, a salesman, a boiler-maker, a husband, a father-to-be.  Someone who decided that his country needed his skills during a world war.  It may be reading too much into it, but he looks stern and determined, perhaps a little melancholy.  He doesn't look unsure or timid.

I learned that my Pa had volunteered to be enlisted for a technical trade in the RAAF.  The references from his various employers spoke of a "total abstainer", a hard-working soul who would give faithful service.  By all accounts he did exactly that.

He trained as an instrument-maker, first in country Victoria then in South Australia, before being posted up to the Northern Territory with the Recovery and Salvage Unit based at Pell Airstrip.  As I understand things, there he repaired damaged aeronautical instrumentation.  Over the course of a 12-month deployment he would have experienced his fair share of air-raids, together with the heat, humidity, dust and flies of the top-end.

If you've ever been to Darwin and driven down the Stuart Highway you'll have seen the WWII era airstrips built next to the highway.  None of them are now functional, existing mostly as cleared strips of land, some with broken tarmac indicating where the airstrip used to be.  At the height of the Japanese threat to northern Australia the RAAF launched its defence from something over a dozen airstrips in the Northern Territory.  Pell airstrip is where Pa's unit was based, and I had only recently learned this when I, Mrs G and the minions went to visit friends in Darwin in 2010.  I decided to make a pilgrimage.

There's really nothing to be seen of the airstrip at Pell, and no evidence of the camp at all.  But I looked around the baking landscape and acknowledged that, apart from occasional leave to Darwin, my Pa had spent a year here, fixing tiny complex bits of metal.  To have scuffed my feet through the same dust as he may have trodden was like nothing I'd ever done before.  It was a personal connection to a time and a place that was otherwise gone.

On his return from Pell Pa was posted to the training base at Sale, in Gippsland, where he again repaired instruments from damaged planes, but these ones had been damaged while pilots learned to fly, instead of evading the enemy.  This posting was probably something of a reward for his doing the hard yards in the Northern Territory, because it was as close as the RAAF could post him to his wife and son in Traralgon.  That was his last posting before demobilisation in late 1945.  He left the RAAF as a Leading Aircraftsman.

Near the front of Pa's file was a record of the medals he'd been awarded.  They are all service medals, which means they were awarded for the completion of minimum service requirements rather than for distinguishing himself above others.  (His file also records that his conduct was completely unblemished, which would have pleased his referees no end!)  The medals recognise his service in the most dangerous zones of service on Australian soil during the war.

At the time I learned about the medals I was in regular professional contact with Defence's Directorate of Honours and Awards, but I didn't want to take advantage of that connection.  Instead I phoned their 1800 number and enquired whether Pa's medals had been issued and, if so, to whom.  It turned out that they remained unclaimed.

Now, I know that Pa would very occasionally go to his local RSL to catch up with a few wartime colleagues, but he never made a thing of it.  To my knowledge he never marched on Anzac Day or Remembrance Day.  And, as I noted above, he never spoke about his wartime experience within my hearing.  So it was completely in character, as far as I knew, for him to have never claimed his medals.

Well, I could do something about that.  I got my Dad to sign the form claiming the medals as Pa's surviving next of kin.  Since they were never issued in the first instance they could be issued as originals, not as replicas.  Dad has them now, with plans to have them mounted.

The whole process, from when I began research to the issue of the medals, took about 18 months.

As I mentioned earlier, I had intended to write a post about respect, and in a sense I think I have.  I never disrespected my Pa, and through this research I found a dozen new reasons to admire what he did in the war and how he conducted himself afterwards.

There are many Australians now who have no direct family connection to a wartime role.   I know that there are people in the community who dislike the emphasis placed on Australia's military history through days of commemoration such as Anzac Day.  But when you reflect on the experience of people like my Pa - a person who used his skills to keep our pilots safe and in the air, and was on posting in a very remote part of the country when his son was born - these days of commemoration are not all about war-mongers.  These days are about remembering ordinary people who rose to the challenge when their country needed them.

There is a place for heroes on Anzac Day.  They are exemplars of conduct and character in extreme circumstances.  But we should also remember all those ordinary people torn from their normal lives to form part of an enormous machine that, eventually, preserved our way of life.  Remember them, and believe that you could do the same if asked.

1 comment:

  1. Nice one darls. I believe it's a really important day and like how you've acknowledged your pa xxxx


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