They offered last rites, I wanted a drink
THE VETS OF WWII STARTS
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.