Tomorrow – like tens of thousands of other people in Australia and New Zealand, and other places too – I’ll be getting up early. I’ll pin a red paper poppy to my lapel and walk a few blocks to the small war memorial in a park near my home. There, I’ll sit and listen to readings and prayers, and wait for the spine-tingling moment when the bugler plays “The Last Post”. I’ll murmur “We will remember them…” in unison with the strangers around me.
Much larger gatherings will be happening around the country. April 25 is ANZAC Day, the day we remember the men and women of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. Those who served, those who died – and those who still do – in our armed forces. It began as a commemoration for World War I, but now encompasses every war since then.
As I sit and listen to the words spoken tomorrow, my heart and mind will really be with just one soldier. A 19-year-old who went to war in 1939 and returned a different man. The same is true of so many, but ANZAC Day is a time of story-telling. My father never really told his story, leaving us with fragments of it to piece together.
My father spent more than half of World War II in German prisoner of war camps. The only time he ever talked about it was after a few beers on ANZAC Day. And even then, it was mostly with his army buddies. When we were kids, he’d tell us it was “just like Hogan’s Heroes“.
When World War II broke out, Dad and three of his seven brothers were quick to enlist. Remarkably, they all came back. In December 1939, lying about his age – you had to be 21 to join up – Dad was soon heading overseas with the New Zealand Army’s 21st Battalion. He saw action in Egypt and in the Battle of Crete and turned 21 in the Libyan desert. Less than two months later, on November 28, 1941, he was taken prisoner.
While aboard a cargo ship carrying 2000 Allied prisoners to Italy, he was injured when the ship was torpedoed off the coast of Greece on December 9, 1941. He was lucky to get out alive, and his injured knees caused him pain for the rest of his life.
After about six months being held in Greece, the prisoners were taken to Italian prison camps for about 18 months before being transferred to the notorious German prison camp Stalag 8B. As the Allied Forces advanced, the prisoners were marched from camp to camp. One march saw my father trek about 900 miles (around 1450km) over three months, from Lamsdorf in Poland to Frankfurt in Germany. Through it all, letters arrived in his mother’s mail intermittently, signs that he was alive, at least. She kept them all, and when she died they passed back into our hands, fragile thin pieces of paper, the copper-plate writing still firm, the messages short and unfailingly reassuring (but censored).
Liberation by the Americans came on April 8, 1945. By then, Dad weighed just six stone (38kg). He was flown back to England, where he stayed for six months before sailing home to New Zealand, arriving just three days before Christmas 1945.
My father was not a religious man. But in 1997, he produced an unusual set of rosary beads which he gave to my daughter on her confirmation. As our family was not Catholic, I asked him where they had come from. His voice shaking a little, he told me that while on that long wartime “death march” people lined the streets to see the prisoners go past. As they passed through a village, a woman stepped from the crowd and put the rosary in his hand. He kept it all those years, through all those hard times, through all the intervening years, but had never mentioned it.
So that’s my father’s war story. It’s a skeleton story, a mere outline of the real one. The real story is one I’ll never know, to my enormous regret. I wish I had asked more questions, probed more deeply, persisted. ANZAC Day drinks would have been the perfect time…
The rosary is broken; the crucifix is missing. But to me, it’s still a miracle that it survived at all. And I thank that woman, whoever she was, for singling out my father’s hand to press it into. For even in war, the sight of those skin-and-bone young soldiers trudging past on their way to who-knows-where, touched her heart and her humanity. Perhaps something in his face told her my father needed that sign.
Tomorrow, as on every ANZAC Day, at Dawn Services and later ones through the morning, Australians and New Zealanders will march, pray, think and remember.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Lest we forget.