A couple of Sundays ago I went to church. And not just any church – I attended St David’s Cathedral. There I spoke, at a service that was a cross between an Anzac day gathering and the conventional Sunday morning proceedings usual to a venerable Anglican cathedral. It was the hundredth anniversary of Legacy, and that’s why I was there. Legacy came to my family’s rescue in our coastal town, after the far-too-early death of my father. It is the most admirable of organisations, and I was pleased and flattered to have been asked to speak. I was one of three, and my fellow speakers were class acts, so I had to be at my speaker’s best. I was escorted to the elaborate podium by the verger (‘verged’ I think the process is called), and gave it my best shot in the few allotted minutes. It meant a lot to me then, and I’m pleased to put it ‘out there’ now for anyone to read, with thanks to Legacy. (Here, should you wish to see it, you will find the Order of Service for the event.)
Speech given for Legacy’s 100th Anniversary
St David’s Cathedral, Hobart, 12th March 2023
My father was a Warrant Officer in the 2nd 40th – The Tasmanian battalion, so called – because its rank-and-file personnel were overwhelmingly recruited in Tasmania. Dad went to Timor to help defend the Dutch airstrip at Koepang – a suicide mission as it turned out, no air support, inadequately and inappropriately armed, a without back up, or a capacity to retreat. “Tasmania’s own Gallipoli”, I’m accustomed to calling it.
Be that as it may, Dad was captured, along with the entire battalion, and spent most of the war on the Burma Railway, until, late in the war, he was part of the contingent shipped from the Railway on leaky rustbuckets to Japan itself, there to serve as slave labour in Japanese heavy industry. The coal mines at Omuta in the case of my father. Dad was there when the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, just across the bay, though of course, he had, at the time, never heard of an atomic bomb. But he was out in the compound, and he saw it.*
On the Railway, Dad, as an NCO in charge of work parties, stood between his men and the routine brutality of the guards. I went to the Railway myself a few years ago. Tropical rainforest is not difficult to walk through, especially when there is a clearly identifiable embankment to walk along. And, by myself, I did just that. And then I got spooked. The rainforest was protected in a National Park, so it was just as it was when my Dad was there – and it would have seemed perfectly natural if an emaciated being clad only in a loin cloth were to step from behind a clump of bamboo. And if that skeletal being was my Dad, he’d be the kid and I’d be the old man. The thought was unbearable. I fled.
After four years of this my father returned home, a young man still. In civilian life he ran an old-fashioned grocery store, and went quietly bald. He was much loved in the town. On Anzac Day, as a former regimental sergeant major, he called the march, in stentorian tones I never knew he possessed. No-one could have been prouder than I was. And then, still a young man – he was 47; I was 14 – he sat upright one night in bed, and died.
I was distraught – and I am distraught still.
Sally Dingo is the daughter of a second fortieth man, and ex-POW, from Penguin. Sally has written of the consequences of being born into a returned man’s household. Many of those households were dysfunctional – I’m pleased to say mine was not. And Sally said to me that that she could tell which kids in the schoolyard had fathers who had been POWs. I’d never thought of it before, but now that I did, yes, that’s just how it was. We were a caste of our own. We didn’t know the facts – we just knew that Ronnie over there, and Pamela over here, were the children of POWs. We were different, in some indefinable way.
Into this alternative reality stepped Legacy. Legacy guided me through my grief-stricken adolescence into manhood. It helped me know my place in the world. It provided my mother with the emotional and material support she needed to get on with her life. It gave me the material assistance I needed to go to university, and to successfully negotiate that alien environment. No-one in my extended family had ever been to uni, and I was a raw boy from the North-West Coast, a gatecrasher at a party I had no right to be at – or so it felt. But always at my back, always with a reassuring hand on my shoulder, stood these marvellous people from Legacy. There was even a Legacy-appointed good shepherd at University – the wonderfully eccentric and formidably intelligent Professor of Geology, Sam Carey. I’ll never forget his first meeting with a group of us newly-enrolled Legacy students. We were sitting in his impressive, book-lined office, when he pushed a button somewhere, and a section of his library pivoted around to reveal a drinks cabinet. In those days academics drank sherry – and so it was that a group of wide-eyed students from far-flung Legacy families, had their first timid taste of sherry. For some of us it was also the last.
I can’t remember when Legacy ceased to be an active presence in my life. But for many years it guided me, my mother and my siblings gently along. It provided the emotional and material infrastructure for my personal growth and wellbeing. I will be forever grateful – it was, and is, an institution of inestimable worth and importance. And I am so very pleased to be given an opportunity to speak of it today.
*About the image
The photograph on this page was taken by Hiromichi Matsuda (1900-1969), who was working at the Kawanami Shipyard on Koyagi-jima Island, to the south-west of Nagasaki, when the “Fat Man” atomic bomb exploded over that city on the 9th of August 1945. Omuta, where my father was imprisoned, is north-east of Nagasaki, near Kumamoto, on Fukuoka Island. Dad didn’t talk of his time as a POW but, on one occasion, he told Mum (it must have been Mum) that the sky filled with a large, shapeless cloud of debris when the bomb was dropped. It was certainly not the conventional mushroom cloud that he saw. This amazing photo seems to confirm it. I have written a little of this before – in the last essay in Vandiemonian Essays.
As your browser may have cropped it, the full image is reproduced again here. The image itself is in the public domain, and can be sourced from Atomic Archive (https://www.atomicarchive.com/media/photographs/nagasaki/image-2.html), or Wikimedia. Additional information about Hiromichi Matsuda is thanks to Atomic Photographers (https://atomicphotographers.com/photographers/hiromichi-matsuda/).