Rememberance Day has just past and our thoughts turn to the many young Australians who have risked their lives fignting for Australia. Australian Family Stories is a new web site for tales about Australian and Australians. Is it surprising that three of the four stories sent to me since the site opened, are about war? What does this say about us, as Australians?
Our troops first set sail to fight in a war on 3rd March 1885. An infantry contingent from NSW, travelled to Africa, to help England defend Khartoum in the Sudan. The young men, who volunteered to across the globe to fight in England’s war, were full of enthusiasm. What an adventure!
Since that time, have Australians ever refused to go to war when Britain, or more recently the US, requested our assistance?
Percy’s War is a reader’s tale about a twenty year old labourer who volunteered to fight in the First World War. What is remarkable about this short story is the unusual nature of Percy’s war experience and the statistics provided by the writer, Jill Slack. Apparently 37% of the total male population of Australia, between the ages of eighteen and forty-four, fought in World War I. Of those 14% died, 40% were wounded and 21% suffered from illness. In fact, serious illness was the main experience of those who served at Gallipoli.
Percy Ashton served in the Middle East throughout the war. No doubt he saw a lot of fighting. What is remarkable, is the number of times Percy that was evacuated due to illness. He suffered from a wide range of bacterial and fungal diseases. His record begs the question, ‘Why did so many healthy young men succumb to illness during the First World War’? The answer lies in the nature of that war. Thousands of troops lived in narrow trenches that were freezing in winter and muddy, mosquito infested quagmires in summer. They were surrounded by rotting corpses. Imagine the horror, imagine the flies and imagine the smell. Apparently, shells were constantly flying overhead. To evade a bullet from a sniper, one had to walk through the trenches doubled over. Opposing soldiers flung grenades into enemy trenches. You would never know when a grenade would go off beside you. In these conditions you had to eat and sleep for days. Personal hygiene was always a problem. Even when you were rotated away from the Front, your rest period would be plagued with the fears associated with returning to battle. When these factors are considered, the miracle is that only 21% of our soldiers suffered illness.
The second story was a biography of a friend’s father. When the Korean War began he was a nineteen year old postal worker, bored with his life in Sydney. The Australian Government asked for volunteers to serve with the United Nations in Korea. Ernie Holden answered the call. He, like so many others, thought it would be an adventure, thought he was serving his country and thought he was invincible. Time had marched on and the methods of killing were different. The results were not. Seventeen thousand Australian troops went to Korea. Three hundred and thirty nine were killed including five of Ernie’s mates. One thousand two hundred were injured, include Ernie Holden. He and a mate strayed into a mine field and were badly wounded. They lay in the mine field overnight not knowing whether they would see the light of day. When day break arrived, they were rescued. The Chinese held their fire while the stretcher contingent rescued them. To this day, Ernie carries eleven pieces of shrapnel in his body from the landmine, enough to set off the metal detectors in airports.
The third and most amazing story is a memoir published by June Collins. Goodbye Junie Moondeals with the Vietnam War. Like the currently popular Australian film, ‘The Sapphires’, June entertained the troops in Vietnam and like the film, her story is a rivetingly good read.
Goodbye Junie Moon is a book that interweaves two stories. June’s childhood, of riches and poverty in Australia during the 1950’s, is juxtaposed with her life as an exotic dancer in Vietnam during the war. Following a failed marriage, she decided to follow her dream of becoming a dancer. After learning her trade and dancing in clubs in Australia, June was obtained a job in the Philippines. Various engagements in Japan and Korea follow then June is offered a contract in Vietnam importing and selling jewellery to the American Troops. Once there, she has second thoughts about the job description and began entertaining the troops instead.
In 1966, June was a curvaceous young blond. She toured across the length and breadth of South Vietnam performing for troops very close to battle zones. Initially she was a magician’s assistant, then an exotic dancer with her own troupe of Pilipino entertainers. The solders loved her.
When June began to tour her own entertainers she became aware of a get rich quick scheme involving the sergeants running the American Army Clubs. They were safe in the big towns. They never saw active service but demanded money from the performers who worked on the front line. Incensed, June reported them, gathered evidence against them and eventually addressed the US Senate hearings into corruption amongst the Armed Services in Vietnam. She co-authored ‘The Khaki Mafia’ with Robin Moore (The French Connection). That story was fiction based on fact. This is the true story of what happened in Vietnam.
These three stories give a personal insight into young Australian’s at war. They make you think about the conflicts that we, as a nation have been involved in. The speak of ordinary heroism as well as the horror, slaughter and corruption of the battlefield.
Personal stories bring history to life.