Through the Eyes of a Child
I’m the tallest, Wayne next, Judith and Mark (the baby of the family)
Dad met my mother in January 1946; it was love at first sight. One look at this golden haired blue eyed girl and he was smitten. He couldn’t wait to have her which meant marriage in those days. In his mind children were not really on the near horizon because some bright spark doctor made front page headlines, stating exPOW’s would not sire children for at least 5 years due to their prolonged deprivation and suffering. Just six months later they were married and eleven months later I came along as did so many others; as a result in 1947 a prolific number of babies were born to these exPOW’s.
Our first home which was shared with another couple with twin boys also born in 1947; the house was filled with children; ‘Uncle Max’ was a happy man, full of fun and laughter. Dad had a mate to talk to on the dark times and Uncle Max acted as a buffer. This was a good time. While the horror was still new, the euphoria of release and freedom and family went somewhat to assuaging the memories.
A second pregnancy soon followed for both couples; my brother Wayne was born and a sister for the twins, in 1949. This happy time was not to last as soon the other family wanted to set up their own home and moved to Ocean Grove.
In 1952, Mum and Dad took a leap of faith and started a toy business and we moved to Glenferrie Rd Hawthorn. My mother was a tailor; she made native animals and other woodland critters to her designs and patterns.
All the cutting and sewing was done by her, money was invested by family, his parents not only put up money, but also came and served in the shop to give a hand. The handcrafted toys were added to premade toys and books in the shop and things were looking very positive. Dad was the sales rep for this business on selling the handmade toys to other toy shops.
We lived above the shop; the work-shed was in the backyard where Mum worked and we played in the small yard outside the door. A big break came to excite all when a big order came from the USA for native animals in native animal skins. Everyone was over the moon and looked forward to big profits. Dad sourced the skins, paid for them and manufacturing started. The bottom fell out of our world when a law was passed banning the exportation of Native animal skins. The company in America wanted their money back but it was gone! The supplier of the skins wouldn’t take the skins back to refund the money; the only recourse open to my parents was bankruptcy. Family lost their money too; this left a bad taste and sour feelings for years. A further tragedy was a miscarriage that Dad and Mum felt deeply.
An end to another dream; with no academic training, very little choices to look forward to; only unskilled jobs, driving taxis, buses, working in factories and junk yards, anything to earn an income for his growing family as in 1955 Judith came along.
Swallowing his pride in 1956, Dad applied for a War Service Loan, they bought a home in a newly developing suburb out in the boon docks; open paddocks on the other side of the road and most other side streets around our way were just sand tracks.
Most were newish homes, our house was brand new; Mum & Dad bought off the plans. A plain white weather board house, three bedrooms, a lounge dining room, one bathroom, small kitchen and laundry off the side; the hot water service in the ceiling. Gone were the days of the old boiler to light for the bath sitting under falling ash; but there were other horrors instead.
The thunder box (toilet) up the back yard; was the terror of our existence; our previous home was connected to the sewage with a flushing chain, very civilised. Oakleigh South had no such amenities and was the pits; even the local primary school only had pans that had to be changed, every week, by the pan man; awful smelling things!
The nightmare of going to the toilet found us girls peeing after dark on the grass rather than the thunder box with the haunting fear of spiders always lurking in the dark ready to jump out at us. The song about the red-back spider on the toilet seat was an ever present fear to us every day and the fear that the bright moon would show our pale bums exposed to anyone wanting to look over our fence. Oh the horror and shame!
Our father was still being haunted with nightmares of his own that we had no understanding of at the time. His POW experience of unimaginable torment and torture at the hands of those cruel and inhuman jailers was getting harder to ignore. We didn’t know about the starvation and death that hounded them day after day and was the reason so few of his mates came home. We didn’t understand why he would be so angry when we wouldn’t eat our food and be grateful for what we had on our plate.
His angry outbursts were a daily occurrence and could be triggered by any number of things that we had no understanding of or inkling as to what had brought on the latest tirade. At his time Dad worked long hours and there was no daily POW mate on hand to talk to and ease his troubled mind. Dad was on his own in the dark as he never talked about his experiences with Mum and certainly not with his very young children. The Army had told the men not to talk about their experience, something most of them took to heart.
Comments by others of “oh yes such a horrible experience” when they knew Dad had been a POW in Changi and on the Thai Burma Railway, but none told us what that actually meant; even today most don’t fully understand nor what a miracle it was that any survived.
Mostly my mother was the target of his anger but not always, he drank to forget the horror but there was never enough money to provide drink for everyday of the week. There were three stages to his moods, Pay-day would see him go straight to the pub after work and drink as much as he could before the pubs were shut at 6pm. This was called the 6 o’clock swill; he would buy enough beer to carry home for the rest of the week and give what money was left to Mum. Although Mum never really understood how amazing she was at managing – but manage she did.
She had an account with the local dairy, ran up a tab for the milk and bread; first thing Friday morning this would be paid, then to the post office to pay their war service loan, any bills; then to spent what was left at the green grocer and grocer shop. By Friday night her purse was empty!
Our ‘Uncle Jack’ another POW mate, would arrive on Saturday with enough meat for the week from his butcher shop. His generosity meant we had meat as there was never enough money for such luxuries.
When Dad had beer to drink he was happy; on Sunday’s mates would arrive for a standing invitation to come and ‘join him’ for what was called their ‘Catholic Hour’. Beer was shared and drunk until it was all gone.
Monday and Tuesday were drying out and grumpy days, Wednesday was hanging out for pay day, till the cycle could start over again. These were the worst times with him ready to go off at the slightest thing; we would all tip toe around trying not to upset him but it didn’t matter there would always be something to send him off into a rage; violence yelling and screaming were just part of our everyday life. By this time my mother was more resentful, not having any real understanding she thought he could control himself. Dad felt her withdrawal and it just added to his pain.
In 1958 Mark arrived and 5 Months later our Nana died at our home. We were all shattered as she was a lovely kind lady whose genteel ways even soften Dad. Ever the gentleman for her, she would share a small drink with him in the evenings, something our mother could not bring herself to do. Mum hated beer or wine, a nice ‘Fluffy Duck’ was her choice. Nana’s death left a hole in our lives so Dad went out, put a down payment on a TV, and gave the docket, to Mum to find the money to pay it off. When TV hit Australia in 1956 everyone was mesmerised. Very few families had one; suddenly children whose families did; became very popular. When we got ours it was all we wanted to do of an evening! Gone were the games that involved the whole family, ‘Pick up Sticks’, Dominoes, ‘Scrabble’ and many others were now out. The programs didn’t go for long – starting at around 4pm and finished by 9pm. Not that we were up at that time as ‘bed times was 7.30 pm’ for all us kids regardless of age.
There were some support groups such as the exPOW’s of Victoria, RSL, and his own Battalion 2/29th Association. Everything put on by them was an occasion for Dad to reunite with his POW mates and, when the families were invited, - us too.
I loved the POW picnics at Edithvale at Christmas time when we would all go to the picnic park and have all the other kids to play with as well as being on the much loved beach.
Dad invited friends as well, no one was left out. The men at the POW picnics sat around one table while the women sat around another. Separation of the sexes meant the men could talk and not worry about upsetting their wives.
Dad is the third from the left sitting down with the green top on. Fourth from left is his mate Alan (Benny) Irving also 2/29th.
Father Christmas would come with toys for the kids and while the men sat around drinking the women would feed us kids, then they joined in with their men folk. Dad was in his best form telling funny stories and having such a good time that we were able to go and play and have a good time too. Dad’s need for his mates became greater as the years went on as they were the only ones who truly understood what he was going through and to whom he could talk openly.
By the 1970’s many were now living around our area and all belonged to the same RSL, all attended the Shrine Service for the Battle of Muir in January each year, the 2/29th Battalion reunion and ANZAC day in “April, when Dad would always march proudly with his mates; wives were included also but for Dad it was still very much a ‘man’s world and women had their place at home with the kids so were not encourage to attend these things.
Although there were no luxuries, holidays or outings, visitors on the weekends, to drink with Dad, was common, the door was always open to all his mates. I didn’t understand the importance of his exPOW mates or how his very survival, and theirs, had depended on each other, nor how intense that period of time was for them all. I resented them and thought Dad cared more for them than he did for us. I grew to hate those damaged men who turned up at any time of day or night looking for company to get them through yet another day. At the time I didn’t recognise Dad’s need of their company just as much as they needed him. Only with each other could they understand what was tormenting them on a daily basis, only with each other could they talk about the horror and how to get through another day. I was far too young and ignorant of all that had gone before as these men never talked about it with their families, not even their wives. The edict issued by the Army at the time, ‘not to go on about all this rubbish, just get on with it’ was the order of the day. However, as during their time as captives; they continued to support each other privately year after year.
Playing cards was also a big part of our lives, on weekends, if Dad was in the mood; five hundred was the card game of choice. We kids would watch in fascination from the side lines never being allowed to play. My poor mother got stuck with Dad as her partner, any losses being her fault and wins his skill. It was a rite of passage for us, when we were finally allowed to sit at the kitchen table and take part in this game we knew we were ‘grown up’.
In 1963 Dad got a car, for his use primarily, he didn’t even take Mum shopping but on rare occasions on a weekend he would say “Let’s go for a drive”, giving us 5 minutes to get in the car or be left. A mad rush followed to get us ready and in the car because NO one doubted him when he said he would go without us. The ride would consist of belting down Wells’ Rd, a whip passed Frankston Pier and off like a bat out of hell back up Well’s Rd to home. No stopping along the way, no leisurely stroll along the beach and NO ice cream or any other treat. I remember one time, sitting in the back seat looking out the window; spotting a tyre going past. “Look Dad” I said, “There’s someone’s tyre!” He calmly took his foot off the accelerator and let the car come slowly to a stop which then tipped over onto the tyre-less wheel hub. Dad collected the tyre, put it back on and off we went again. Dad’s driving skills were truly second to none.
Dad was still battling his demons but still a hard worker. He had a job as a ‘lagger’ at this time, and fell two storeys, broke several bones in his lower back and was told he would probably never walk again but the doctors didn’t know of the steely resolve of the survivors of POW’s of Japan. Dad hated hospitals and, against medical advice, he soon demanded to go home.
It was three years living on the smell of an oily rag, and extensive rehabilitation, before any compensation was paid for the accident that should never happened if sufficient safety railing had been in place! Dad was forced to apply for less physical jobs that allowed him freedom of movement; no more labouring or long driving jobs, instead he applied for sales jobs, and finally found his niche in life. He could sell fridges to Eskimos and his job as a sales rep for a small real estate company, led to Sales Manager with a sales team as the company grew and grew with his input.
A directorship followed and he was making good money at last. Although he was doing well the stress at work soon brought his demons to the fore again and it all became too much for him.
He found it harder and harder to meet each day with the skills needed and in the end his nerves finally gave out; he couldn’t face the day and went into a deep decline. Again he was helped by the wonderful exPOW doctors and other professionals in the 2/29th who knew the ropes and in about 1986 was awarded the TPI pension.
The DVA have helped so many exPOW’s; the tireless educational work of doctors like Sir Edward (Weary) Dunlop, Dr Roy Markham Mills and many unnamed others who served and cared for their men in the worst of conditions with little or no medical equipment; their continued dedication back home on government committees and positions where they could make a difference to government policies for treatment and care of the surviving POW’s of WWII. Anyone who knew these doctors knew that regardless of their personal position they would do anything in their power to help all POW’s including continued education on the various conditions suffered as a direct result of the punishing regime they were forced to endure for such a prolonged period of time.