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I never heard my father talk about the war.

 

I never heard my father talk about the war.

Dad, a New Zealander found himself in Germany in 1938 studying printing presses, typesetting and journalism. As things were getting quite difficult Dad escaped to England. Because of his stutter Dad was unable to join the armed forces so initially served in the Merchant Navy on trans-Atlantic convoys. After Dad’s ship was sunk he remained in London for the remainder of the war volunteering as a fire warden and working printing official documents. But because of his war time experiences Dad’s health, especially his nerves were never the same.

War scars! War, any violence inflicted whether inflicted upon by a perpetrator or inflicted on as a victim – scars. These scars stay – they haunt you, they eat away at you. Behind the surface smile a battle wages.

One of the saddest funerals I have ever attended was that of Private Grant Kirby. I taught Grant at St Laurence’s College. He was killed by a road side explosive in Afghanistan in 2010. Sure, there was the guard of honour, sure his coffin was covered in the Australian flag, sure his slouch hat had pride of place – but all gathered had a gaping hole inside with this great man tragically and violently taken from us. His two lovely daughters would never have his strong arm to steady them as they walked down the aisle.

My uncle Joseph Faust, Zena’s beloved brother, almost certainly did not know that his first cousin Charles Faust was killed when his Wellington bomber was shot down over Greece on June 2nd 1944. At that time, Joe was a Prisoner of War, along with tens of thousands of other Australians, New Zealanders and British soldiers, working on the infamous Burma Railway. Charles’ bomber was laying mines in Khalkis Harbour in an attempt to frustrate the Germans reinforcing and resupplying their troops around Athens.

Two of the crew, the two pilots, Flight Sargent L W Cook, and Flight Sargent J Hamilton (both in the RAF) survived the crash and were captured by the Germans. Charles Faust (the Navigator), another Australian F J Keegan, a Kiwi, J A Ashdown and another Englishman, P M Murphy all lost their lives.

About the time that Charles Faust, a 21 year old farming lad from Proserpine was killed, Uncle Joe was rounded up by his Japanese captors and along with several thousand of the ‘fittest’ Prisoners of War was taken by train to Saigon. Here they boarded a convoy of troop ships to take them to Japan to work in factories and in the mines there in support of the Japanese war effort. On the night of September 12th 1944 the American submarine Sealion torpedoed the troopship Joe was on believing it to be either full of Japanese troops or supplies for Japan. We know that the ship, the Rakuyo Maru, took a long time to sink. Joe and others made rafts. Joe along with his good friend Reg Valmadre were on a raft. Reg, a good swimmer was swimming out, finding exhausted men floating in the water and bringing them back to the raft. Here Joe attempted to hold on to them. Sadly, when the sun came up on the morning of September 13th they had all perished.

War, any war is terrible. It is not glorious nor kind. Real war is not marching bands and waving crowds, flags and medals and feel good speeches. Wars are not fought by the Generals nor the politicians. The Vladimir Putin’s of this world do not get their hands dirty directly. They strut and blame and manipulate and control.

Some poor widow in a cold Russian village pays the price for Putin’s ego, as does a child who will now grow up fatherless. Some elderly Ukrainian peasant farmer who simply sought to grow old tending his crops and his wife wishing to regal grandchildren with stories from their youth pay the price for an unjust war. They know cold and they know hunger, house destroyed, home a distant memory and life as they knew it ripped from their arms by a warped nationalism and political greed. Young Ukrainian soldiers who only a few short years ago worked as architects or teachers now clasp rifles and feel a deep weariness in their bones. This is the reality of war.

So what do we remember on Anzac day? Why the thousands of quiet journeys to gather around cenotaphs in the pre-dawn chill? Why bugles and flags, wreaths and silence, odes and salutes?

It is certainly not glorifying war: the litany of domestic violence and broken relationships born from post traumatic stress disorder, the hidden stalker of Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq and more. It is certainly not glorifying war: lives lost, those left behind left lonely and abandoned, children as orphans and the parent burying their fresh faced child.

We remember and we celebrate courage: ordinary courage. The ordinary courage of a shop keeper’s son (Uncle Joe) who runs across ground in the Malaya campaign to see to a wounded comrade. The ordinary courage of a cattle farmer’s son (Charlie Faust) who climbs into a Wellington bomber knowing they are relatively defenceless as they come in at low altitude and low speed to lay mines. The ordinary courage of a journalist’s son from Napier (Frank Price) who searches among the rubble of a bombed out London looking for signs of life with air raid sirens blaring in the background. The ordinary courage of Gary and Dianne’s son (Grant Kirby) as he patrolled a troubled land hoping to gift it with a little peace.

Charlie, Joe, Grant and Frank were all so ordinary and yet extraordinary. We remember and we celebrate truth and justice, love and generosity in the face of evil and aggression. We remember and we celebrate a profound belief in freedom, in the right all people share to live in peace and harmony. We remember and we celebrate the courage of ordinary people to stand and be counted, to stare down evil and ego so that those who come after them might know peace.

Edmund Burke once said, “All it will take for evil to triumph in the world is for enough good people to do nothing!” Well Charlie and Joe and Frank and Grant did something and did it over and over and over again.

As a child I can remember the sadness in my mother’s eyes when she spoke about Uncle Joe. Zena loved Joe and missed him terribly. As a child I can remember Zena reciting ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae.

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row. That mark our place; and in the sky, the larks, still bravely singing, fly scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago, we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, and now we lie, in Flanders fields!”

Just on a year ago I had the privilege of walking some 400 km of the Camino in the North of Spain. When I set out on my pilgrimage, one of the first things I noticed were the beautiful red poppies – the wild flowers – that adorned the sides of the path and splashed red here and there in the fields. We must never forget, for if we do, Grant and Frank, Charlie and Joe and dying and their pain were in vain. Yes, those poppies, that last post, those flags half masked all whisper to us that for the sake of our children, we must never forget!

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.

Lest we forget!

On the left, Charlie’s grave in Athens. On the right, Auntie Pat, my Uncle Joe Faust and my wonderful mother Zena.

1 thought on “I never heard my father talk about the war.”

  1. Good morning Damien.
    I never heard…. drew me to another place today. My Dad was a sufferer of war all his life. A teenager when he left our shores and a broken man with stripes on his sleeves when he returned. His life and ours were forever marked by his experiences. He rejoined in 2nd WW and was discharged. He would hear of the young men he had trained, being killed in action. Then my mother lost her youngest brother in that war blown up in New Guinea. For the rest of her life she hated those perpetrators, returning a new TV set when she found it was made in Japan. One day I will write the good story of a saintly man, a Catholic priest, a former Army Chaplain who accompanied my father and therefore us, throughout his life.
    Thankyou Damien for sharing your stories today, those memories so dear to you are an inspiration to us all. God bless you Damien.

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