They of­fered last rites, I wanted a drink

THE VETS OF WWII STARTS

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - FRONT PAGE -

On An­zac Day, a small, hunched fig­ure in a wheelchair will lead the 7th Di­vi­sion down Ge­orge Street. Kokoda vet­eran Dick Payten is 97, but his age will never stop him hon­our­ing his fallen mates. “I will re­mem­ber them un­til I die,” he said.

Daphne Dunne will re­mem­ber, too. The 98 98-year-old will march with the Vic­to­ria Cross earned by her first hus­band, who was just 24 when he sac­ri­ficed him­self to spare the lives of his sol­diers in the dy­ing months of World War II.

“I would rather have him than the medals, any day,” she said.

For these men and women, World War II is s not ot a c chap­ter in a his­tory text­book. . It shaped their lives; it looms large in their mem­o­ries. Among the 40,000 young men lost were their mates, their broth­ers, their hus­bands.

But this link to an ex­tra­or­di­nary chap­ter in Aus­tralia’s his­tory is slip­ping away. The last post rings for World War II vete veter­ans as in c churches u c es a and d me­mo­rial e oa halls a s about 5000 times a year. There are only about 21,000 left, and their av­er­age age is 94.

From the war’s early con­flicts, there are even fewer. Only 73 Rats of To­bruk sur­vive. Of all those who suf­fered through Ja­panese pris­oner of war camps, only about seven re­main. World War II army nurses, who had to be 25 years old to en­list, are centenarians or soon will be.

This year, the Sun­day Tele­graph is com­mem­o­rat­ing AN­ZAC Day by shar­ing and record­ing the sto­ries of the men and women who served, fought or lost loved

ones dur­ing those har­row­ing six years in Aus­tralia’s his­tory.

These men and women sur­vived mar­itime dis­as­ters, res­cued POWS and were gravely in­jured in bat­tle. They broke glass ceil­ings for women in the mil­i­tary, nursed bro­ken men and suf­fered grief that has lasted a life­time.

“In my opin­ion, this gen­er­a­tion that’s now leav­ing us very quickly is the best gen­er­a­tion this coun­try has ever pro­duced,” Dr Bren­dan Nel­son, di­rec­tor of the Aus­tralian War Me­mo­rial, said.

“They were born in the af­ter­math of the

war that was, they grew up in the Great De­pres­sion, they came to their adult lives in the shadow of the war that was com­ing, and then one mil­lion of them mo­bilised to de­fend our vi­tal in­ter­ests.

“They were a gen­er­a­tion that re­garded their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to one an­other, our na­tion and our fu­ture as tran­scend­ing — val­ues were more im­por­tant than value, prin­ci­ple more im­por­tant than po­si­tion.

“We owe them an im­mense debt. And within a decade they will be gone.”

One of Dr Nel­son’s great re­grets is fail­ing to talk to World War I veter­ans when he was a young doc­tor in Ade­laide. “I was do­ing a spinal tap for a vet­eran, and he said: ‘Christ, this is worse than bloody Pozieres,” he said. “I just let it pass.”

He asks this gen­er­a­tion not to make the same mis­take. “You and I can’t un­der­stand what war is like,” he said. “But we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to try. A sig­nif­i­cant part of that is en­cour­ag­ing them to tell their sto­ries, not just for our ben­e­fit — it’s im­por­tant and ther­a­peu­tic for them.”

The pres­i­dent of the NSW RSL, James Brown, an Army vet­eran and au­thor of An­zac’s Long Shadow, said veter­ans’ sto­ries were liv­ing his­tory, and a re­minder that Aus­tralians have not al­ways been able to take peace for granted.

“Sev­enty five years ago, se­cu­rity was some­thing that needed to be fought for, and worth risk­ing lives to achieve,” he said. “This An­zac Day, veter­ans will pause to re­mem­ber their mates, the tough times, and the laughs they’ve had to­gether. It’s a day to re­flect on those sol­diers, sailors, air­men and air­women who’ve gone be­fore.

“To ap­pre­ci­ate be­ing part of Aus­tralia’s mil­i­tary tra­di­tions and his­tory. To think about how we can keep Aus­tralia safe and free in fu­ture years, and the hard work it takes to avoid the spec­tre of war.”

World War II veter­ans Bill Ryan, 96, Joyce James, Daphne Dunne, 98, Mor­ris Wil­cox­son, 93, Dick Payten, 97, Bill Allen, 91, Davis Wheeler, 97 and Guy Grif­fith 95. Pic­ture: Tim Hunter.

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