Kai (9) and Taj (6) Stitt had something really special for ANZAC parade at South Kolan State School. Each of them was going to honour a great great grandfather who served Australia in World War 2. Kai was honouring Bert Wight who served in the RAAF and Taj was honouring Keith Conroy. What made it special was that they were able wear replicas of Bert and Keith’s medals and what made it even more special was Taj was wearing one of Keith genuine medals. It was awarded to him posthumously.
Grandmother Johanne Stitt had gone to the war service record office to find what each grandfather had been awarded. She wanted to buy replicas for Kai and Taj for South Kolan School’s ANZAC parade. She wanted to also order the equivalent of the medals in ribbons for Charlee and Billy Ironside to wear at their ANZAC parade in Townsville.
However, Johanne discovered an omission from the record. After a lot of digging and a lot of help from the records office, she uncovered that Keith Conroy had never received one of his awards and so it was awarded to him posthumously. That meant that Taj was going to South Kolan State School ANZAC parade wearing an original medal.
Keith Conroy joined the army in Sydney and was fortunate enough to serve around Sydney during the whole of WW2. He was honoured this ANZAC day by Ashley in Brisbane, Taj in South Kolan and Billy in Townsville. They all wore his medals. Little diggers honouring their own Little Digger.
Keith staying around Sydney was very fortunate for his family, who lived in Paddington in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. He would come home on leave and would light the copper, cut the wood and do a whole lot of things around the house that were difficult for the woman. Keith’s wife Isobel lived with her grandmother Elizabeth Brown (who was the daughter of 2 convicts) and their little girl Valerie. Isobel had cerebral palsy from a birth injury and required a lot of help around the house.
Valerie, who is the great grandmother of Kai, Taj, Charlee, Billy, Maddie and Ashley was just 6 years old and she went to school at Darlinghurst Primary School.
Things were very challenging for children during the war. They had to have ration tickets as well as money for almost everything they wanted to buy. They could almost never have sweets because everything was in short supply.
Children and their families lived in constant fear of being invaded by the Japanese. It became more of a real threat after 2 miniature submarines infiltrated Sydney Harbour, sunk some shipping and took some lives.
The thing the Japanese were really trying to do was to have the population living in fear of attack and they succeeded very well at this.
Schools had air-raid drills, so that children knew what to do if there was ever an air-raid. The school-yard had deep trenches with concrete walls. There were seats for the children to sit on along the walls of the trenches. Wardens who wore gas masks and had metal helmets supervised the drills.
Sydney lived in real fear of air-raids, not just during the day, but also at night. When the air-raid siren sounded at night, everybody had to reduce their lighting to at absolute minimum and draw their curtains, so that there was no light visible from outside.
If any light was visible from your house, wardens would bang on your door and demand that you turned down the lights and seal your curtains properly.
Just to ensure that the population was kept in a constant state of anxiety, the Japanese would occasionally shell the major cities like Sydney and Newcastle from submarines. These tactics would inflict little real damage, but proved that the Japanese could get through defenses.
The level of anxiety in Sydney was very visible at the beach. Iconic beaches like Manly Beach had barbed-wire barricades. This was intended to slow down the enemy coming from the sea. The war was a real threat to civilians, it wasn’t faced only by the troops. The war was right in Sydney and that is why it was important to have people like Keith serving in Australia.
Valerie was a lucky girl because she saw her Dad quite often, other children didn’t see their dad for years and very sadly, some children never saw their dad again after he left on a troop ship.
While Keith was working hard to make sure that Sydney was defended and Australia was working well with its new United States allies, the other grandpa, Bert Wight was in service in the RAAF in the Northern Territory.
Before joining up, Bert Wight worked at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) at Fisherman’s Bend in Melbourne. He was engaged in what was termed an ‘essential service’ and was therefore exempted from military service. However, when Bert had a major argument with wife Dorrie and she kicked him out, he was really angry and in a fit of pique joined the RAAF. He was posted to Batchelor Air-base in the Northern Territory, which is around 100km south of Darwin. Batchelor became a major air-base and was home to a joint Dutch East Indies Air Force and the US Air-Force as well as the RAAF.
The Dutch had been overrun in Indonesia (Netherland East Indies) by the Japanese and in Holland by the Germans. A special joint squadron was formed with the RAAF. The Dutch war-time parliament ran in exile from Brussels.
Batchelor became a centre of the Dutch world-wide intelligence radio network. The Dutch had predicted the rise of the Japanese through their intelligence network in the early 1930’s. The No 18 NEI (Netherlands East Indies) Squadron of the RAAF flew B25-Mitchell bombers. It was on one of these planes the Bert flew over NEI as an observer.
Kai wore Bert’s medals to the ANZAC parade. He was very proud of his great great grandfather whose original medals are still in the family.
In the meantime, up in Townsville, Charlee and Billy were attending their own ANZAC service.
Life in Townsville was very much effected by World War 2. There were multiple bombing raids on this northern outpost by the Japanese. It was Queensland’s most northern centre of significant resistance to the Japanese advance.
Townsville was geographically closer to where Bert served, than distant Melbourne, where his family lived during the war. Families had to live together during the war to try to get by. Bert’s aged father lived with Dorrie and his 2 boys, Bill and Jim.
Bert served as a dornier and this meant that he carried intelligence on his American Air-Force Harley Davidson (or Indian) motorcycle. He was honoured by Madelyn in Brisbane, Kai in South Kolan and Charlee in Townsville. They wore his medals this ANZAC day.
It’s 4.20am. No sign yet of first light. The birds haven’t even given their first hint of welcome to a new day. But Maddy (9), Ashley (7) and Kellan (4) are greeting it with gusto – they’re enthusiastically getting ready for an early start.
And the great thing is, that 98 years after that military blunder that squandered young lives and impoverished us of talent for a generation, we forget the blunder, and honour those sacrifices that gave the 2 young Antipodean nations identity. Maddy, Ashley and Kellan wanted to go to the Dawn Service to remember.
Maddy got up and carefully pinned on Great Great Grandpa Bert Wight’s replica medals. She’s honouring Bert who served in the RAAF.
He joined the air force in 1942 after working in the Australian Air Force Factory. Bert was seconded to the US Air Force. They had a major base at Batchelor in the NT.
Bert carried intelligence, wore black arms, packed a pistol and was able to go through all checkpoints without being stopped.
One of his jobs was to get the film for the photos taken during bombing raids. He took the film directly from the aircraft to take them to HQ, so that nobody could interfere with them. This was for intelligence purposes for effectiveness of the mission but also to ensure that bombs weren’t dropped over the sea instead of on the targets.
Bert told stories of going out to retrieve planes that crash-landed and his most graphic story was of seeing a tail-gunner’s remains hosed out of the rear gun turret of the plane.
He admitted to soiling his britches when he was an observer on a raid over Indonesia. Fortunately Bert didn’t actually sustain any physical injuries during the war.
Ashley carefully pinned on Great Great Grandpa Keith Conroy’s replica medals. She’s honouring Keith who served in the Army in the supply and resupply area.
He mainly served around Sydney, which also took him to Muswellbrook and Holsworthy.
He actually did sustain 2 injury’s whilst serving his country. He was in the back of a truck which lurched forward and he was thrown to the ground and broke his wrist. Friendly fire?
After 6 weeks, he returned to service and found an army horse tangled in wire. As he tried to free it, the horse kicked out and broke the other wrist. Unfriendly fire?
Our intrepid little patriots headed off toward the Cenotaph at Redlands RSL at 0450 hours, after being dropped off by Nana. They were amongst thousands who wanted to snare a close spot, but not even 4.50am was early enough to get a place where you could see everything. But all things considered our spot wasn’t too bad. We were right beside the Air Force Cadets and saw them begin their march.
Everybody held together really well, but the Teddies did tire at one stage.
After the service, we looked at the tributes on the cenotaph and then had a look around and saw some old equipment from WW2. Some of which reminded us of some of Grandpa Wight’s experiences.
Bert really ingratiated himself to his Yankee boss by getting his Jeep going. Bert was a motor mechanic by trade.
The Jeep hadn’t started straight off the boat. It turned out that grease had been placed in the distributor to prevent rust during the sea voyage to Australia and as a result it had no spark. Bert had it figured in no time flat.
Bert made this favour count for all it was worth!
So Bert was able to make 2 things from his civvy life work for him. He was a mechanic and used his skills to get in sweet with the boss. He raced motorbikes and got to ride one as one of his main jobs.
There were some tears from our smallest intrepid patriot. Kellan was all happy while he was snuggled up to Mum (Kylie). But when he stood up during a little lapse in concentration, Maddy jumped into the vacant spot and he was out!
Kellan wasn’t happy and neither was Teddy. Eventually, being the baby, he prevailed and sweated Maddy out to reclaimed home base.
To add a really nice touch to ANZAC 2013, an official from the RSL noticed a Mum and 3 children (plus 3 teddies) leaving the ceremony and called them over. He had a poppy for each child. Something to top off the Dawn Service experience.
As we walked over and waited for Nana to pick us up, we walked by the entrance to the RSL precinct, which spelled out the message that we came to hear. LEST WE FORGET.
Bill was absolutely bluffed about the ‘We’re watching you’ warning from Police Sergeant Eiser and Constable Stagg. The cops were as good as their word. Every time Bill had to go into Tambo, he had it confirmed that they watching.
In the end, it just wasn’t worth going to the pub. Every vehicle had ODE decals on the doors and stood out like a sore thumb. If he went incognito in the Land-Rover, it would break down and consume more repair time and more money on parts. In any case, it had Mineral Sands signwriting on it and would be readily noticeable.
Bill had been on a serious alcoholic slide for a couple of years. He had drunk his way through much of the initial payment for the Fraser Island mineral sands. If there were more options for single mothers in 1957, he would have been on his own.
But Bill’s slide was arrested with a jolt, after he weighed up some options.
He had no doubt that the Sergeant Eiser didn’t need much incentive to put him in the lockup. With Val now at home, the Sergeant no longer had to work out what to do with the children. There was nothing to stop a little ‘holiday’ happening.
Basically, there was no way he could have a drink in peace, so why bother?
Bill decided that he may as well give the grog away altogether. So he did.
The pendulum swung to the opposite extreme.
Bill and Val joined the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Adventists made teetotallers look like indulgers. The Church embraced most aspects of the Temperance Movement of the mid-nineteenth century and took it a bit further. “Moderation in the things that are good for you, and abstinence from those things that are bad for you.” Hard to argue with when you think about it.
Good Adventists didn’t smoke or drink alcohol, didn’t drink tea or coffee, didn’t eat meat, didn’t go to the movies, didn’t work on Saturday, didn’t shop on Saturday, didn’t swim on Saturday…. and paid 10% of their income in tithe.
Adventists topped the teatotallers.
Tea and coffee hit the Adventist list of things that are not good for you and thereby made the ‘thou shalt not’ list. In that sense, Adventist went further than the Temperance Movement teatotallers.
But that was just what Bill needed.
He could never have just one drink.
However, Bill never gave tea away. He would have his tea, even if it meant being a Badventist.
All Bill’s pendulum opposite jolt took was a call to his father Bert, who was working on the Seventh Day Adventist Mona Mona Mission near Kuranda. Before Bill knew it, Adventist Colporteur George Walker was on the case and on the doorstep. Ironically, as an ex-detective, George was on the case.
So there we have it. Some ‘Bossy Matron and Caring Cop love’ probably kept a family together.
Now here’s the thing about the ‘topping the teatotallers’ Adventist experience…. Bill and Val enjoyed quality family time and they never got on better together.
As for the tithing, that didn’t seem to do much harm. They worked their way out of debt and were starting to save.
In fact, they could have had savings at the end of the Heartbreak Corner experience, except they had a hungry Land-Rover to feed, but that’s another story.
Val was in Tambo Hospital confined with her 4th child who had been delivered on 7th September, 1957. Bill was compelled to be superdad for a week.
As it happened, early in that very week, a truck came to the Oil Rig.
Bill needed to operate the crane truck to help unload it and then load it up again.
Bill was in a real bind. He couldn’t operate the crane truck with the 3 children in the truck, because they would be too distracting. He couldn’t leave them at large, because he couldn’t be sure that the children wouldn’t get in the road and into harms way.
What could he do?
The only solution seemed to be to lock them in one of the altents. That’s just what he did. He locked all 3 in the kitchen Altent and dealt with the matter at hand.
When the truck was seen to and gone, he open the door of Altent. Nothing could have prepared him for the what awaited him. 3 children can do a lot an hour, even without assistance. They had managed to get into and open almost everything imaginable – powdered milk, honey, flour…..
The place was a disaster. The kids were a mess. And Bill was on his own. It was like an overdone food-fight scene from a Disney movie.
He did the best he could to clean up the kitchen and the kids.
Now by this time in addition to the mess from the children there were dirty nappies, dirty clothes and now dirty kids and a dirty kitchen. He’d been batching in primitive conditions for much of the week.
Bill had to make a serious attack on the washing and that was quite a process at the best of times.
There were were 2 tubs on a washing stand that Bill had made. One tub was used for washing and the other was for rinsing the clothes.
A kerosene tin was used to boil the clothes that needed boiling since no copper was available. Polyester clothes were a real hit because they didn’t need boiling.
The water had to be carried in buckets from the three 44 gallon drums which were the water storage.
Those same tubs were used for bathing. They had handle and were lifted down from the wash-stand at bath time. In winter, which was freezing cold, the tub was placed near the cooking fire, which was between the 2 Altents. On the fire-side, you boiled and on the other side you froze – all in the same tub at the same time.
And then there were the dishes…..
Blokes, if you think it is tough to manage these days, spare a thought for Bill, who all round had a pretty tough week. He was being superdad in circumstances that were about as difficult as you could get. But, at the insistence of Hospital Boss and Sergeant Eiser, he manned up and got through it. Job done!
It was visiting hours at Tambo Hospital on the 9th September, 1957.
Bill had visited out of hours on Sunday night to plead with Val to come home.
Bill brought the 3 children in the 25 miles from Oil Rig to pick up their new brother and their mother.
They travelled in the crane truck rather than the ute, because the ute had a stoved-in mudguard from Bill hitting a pig.
He brought the children expectantly into the maternity ward. They would sort out the arrangements and Val would come home with him.
Life was about to return to normal except for the minor distraction of the most celebrated son.
But suddenly, that party was over.
In marched the Matron.
‘Nurse, take these children and give them a bath and something to eat.’, she ordered. The nurse dutifully whisked the children off and Bill was left impotently protesting, ‘They are clean and I’ve fed them’.
There was little doubt that the Police Sergeant Eiser and the Matron had a little child welfare network going and they knew just how to handle fellows like Bill – no ifs or buts.
Bill seethed as he put up with the indignity. He could still hear the Sergeant’s warning, ‘We’re watching you.’ Any objection here would probably involve another lecture from the Sergeant and maybe some time in the lockup.
What was even worse, Val was not coming home. The Matron had put her foot down. ‘Your wife needs rest and she is staying here’, she said in a way that did not brook argument.
She was bossy enough herself in those days when the matron ruled with a rod of iron. There was little doubt that she had the backing of the local law enforcement officers.
Visiting hours over, Bill bundled the super-clean and well-fed children into the crane truck and lumbered 25 mile back to the Oil Rig, resigned to whole week as superdad.
In Bill’s own phraseology, his ears hung down like a mule, as he made his way back over the 25 bumpy miles back to Oil Rig in the crane truck.
He was resigned to his fate, but worse was yet to come.
Bill was shaken by his run in with the law. But unabashed.
He had been beaten by the law, but he sure showed that boer pig who was boss.
He drank steadily all day Sunday 8th September, 1957 and dealt with the kids as best he could, but basically they drove him crazy.
Bill didn’t make it for visiting hours. Sergeant Eiser’s ‘We’re watching you’ warning was still ringing in his ears. He didn’t feel like coming under the watchful eye of the Sergeant or Constable Andy Stagg with ODE decals all over his vehicle.
He was now a solo parent and it was in the most difficult circumstances. He had the obligations of his job with ODE and he had a big maintenance program on the Oil Rig. In addition, he also had to show visitors around and load and unload trucks as they came to dismantle the Oil Rig. The Oil Rig had finished its work and the drill hole had been capped.
Bill had to carry water from 5 mile away at the bore. After bringing it back in 44 gallon drums, they then had to dip buckets into the drums and carry water for household use, washing and bathing.
There were no neighbours for miles around. There was no family for hundreds of miles.
There was no electricity.
Cooking was done on an open fire between the 2 Altents with a few pot and pans.
They didn’t live in a house, they lived in 2 Altents. One was for the kitchen and the other for the bedroom and there was open ground in between.
And then there was the kids.
Johanne was 2½ and highly strung and if her routine was interrupted one little bit, she lost it.
Lynda was 15 months, highly mobile and into everything.
Bill was desperate, he couldn’t keep this up. He formed a desperate plan and headed for Tambo to put it into action.
He drove to the hospital without attracting the attention of Andy or the Sergeant.
He locked the kids in the vehicle and broke into the maternity ward.
‘I can’t just leave’, she reasoned, ‘the baby is in the nursery’. He pleaded for a while longer, and she relented and said, ‘I’ll talk to the Matron and get out tomorrow.’
He left and headed back home to the Oil Rig with the prospect of some welcome relief on the morrow.
Val drove into Tambo, a little anxious, anticipating the changes wrought by bitumen roads, paved streets and modernisation, but really hoping for the familiar to manifest itself.
It was 55 years since Bill had wallowed into town first the first time at the wheel of the Plymouth Belvedere in June, 1957. Bill had come to take up a job as a roughneck at ODE’s Oil Rig, 25 miles out along the Tambo-Alpha Road.
It was 54 years since Val had trundled out of town at the wheel of a 1940’s Land-Rover towards a Channel Country thirsting in the clutches of drought. That was in April, 1958.
We drove past the Welcome to Tambo sign and did a quick reconnoitre seeking places of the past looking for a connection with the present. Feeling welcome, yes, but wondering what it would be like to visit the places of the distant past.
Millers Store – completely gone – business and premises. A classic general store in a country town that supported the rural community – incredible range, personal service. Col Miller obviously not here. Val had expected that he would never leave.
The Bakery – business – gone, but the building lives on as the home of the Tambo Teddies. A typical bakery in 1957 it did the basics well, nothing fancy like you see in the little boutique bakeries of today. The owner was possibly Col Pengilly and used to drive his bread to Alpha in his truck along the Tambo-Alpha Road past the ODE Oil Rig.
The Post Office – totally intact. Ahh, the times that Bill & Val travelled the 25 miles in from the Oil Rig to Tambo to check the mail and hope that the cheque from ODE’s head office in Sydney was waiting for them.
The Hospital – once a regional facility – downsized and downgraded to a Primary Health Centre. Val came to Tambo with 3 little ones and the next child 3 months away. Val gave birth in the no longer existing maternity section.
The Club Hotel – Bill’s favourite pub – intact and still selling beer and food. We went there for dinner. There are stories to tell about this place.
The Royal Carrangarra Hotel – Bill’s other favourite pub – intact and still selling the essentials. In 1957, it was the new hotel having just been constructed. And much to the chagrin of the locals, was virtually totally booked out by those damn yanks from the Oil Rig. And to those damn yanks, it was hardly good enough. To be good enough it would need to have been ‘AA boy… All American’.
The Police Station and Lockup – where Bill was so close to being a guest – totally renewed. Bill was so close to spending time in the lockup he’d have been happy to know that it is totally gone and there is a new police station and lockup.
The reconnoitre done, it was time to get the lowdown on where to start looking for the Oil Rig site. So as my custom is, I went to the bar of the Club Hotel and looked for a local who might know. In 5 minutes flat we hit paydirt with Teddy Peacock who had been around since 1965. We stayed for dinner.
Then off to the budget option in accommodation at the Tambo Caravan Park where our host Daphne Cartwright was friendly and shared plenty of good information to help us in our quest. Daphne wears many hats and is a veritable local encyclopaedia. She’s only been in town since 1988 but she knows her way around.
On our return to Heartbreak Corner, we zoomed along in veritable lounge chairs, on bitumen road in a vehicle manufactured in Japan.
We listen to stereo music of choice – John Williamson’s Warragul – probably not everybody’s choice, but ours.
Every now and again we tweak the air-conditioning to maintain that perfect level of ambiance for travelling comfort.
A lifetime ago, Val wallowed along the corrugated dusty road to the outback in an overstated Yank Tank.
The windows were open, quarter-glass directing wind to the cool the driver and front passenger. If they passed a vehicle from the other direction, that had to quickly roll the up windows to avoid being smothered in dust. And they followed at a very respectable distance to avoid the dust cloud kicked up by the vehicle in front.
There was the radio for entertainment, when a station was close enough. The radio if it was going to prevail had complete with the roar of wind from open windows. And the seats, their 1957 Plymouth Belvedere had a lounge chair in the front and a lounge chair in the back.
Bill loved American big and beautiful and when he received the first tranche of money from their mineral sands lease being taken up, he paid the deposit to finance a beautiful green version of this car. Have a listen to how it didn’t run. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8yB0aNbxh0
After the rest of the money failed to materialise, Bill and Val were stuck with the big Yank Tank and the payments that went with it. Job prospects in Maryborough were poor and so this beauty had to go west for Bill to earn its keep. That’s what set them on the road to Heartbreak Corner.
The trek to Heartbreak Corner was taken just 12 years after WW2 had finished and the US was Australia’s new friend. The general populace were still learning more of the horrors of the Japanese treatment of Australian POW’s in Changai, on the Burma Railway and in other places. A wallowing Yank Tank was in perfect keeping with the times.
54 years later, we returned to Heartbreak Corner in a Mitsubishi Pajero.
It was Mitsubishi that made the Zero which had a 12 to 1 kill rate against the allies. It was a faster, more maneuverable fighter plane that the allied aircraft could not compete with until 1942.
How times have changed. It would have been unthinkable to drive a Mitsubishi in 1957. And now, I wouldn’t even think about buying a American Motor Vehicle. Although, in Spain, where Pajero means ‘wanker’, I would be driving a Montero.