Australian Parliament House’s Spring Program offers a unique chance to go behind its soaring white…
Lest we forget, and may we also remember.
I am no war historian, but like many families in Australia: there is war in my history.
In 2013 former Prime Minister Paul Keating stated in his Memorial Day address “100 years ago, the horror of all ages came together to open the curtain on mankind’s greatest century of violence, the 20th century.”
I recommend revisiting the speech in its entirety here for a recap of war and how Keating described war in the last century.
Today though, is not just about remembering the greater perspective, it is necessary to remember the terrible stories. One story, one person at a time.
This makes it all the more real for those of us lucky enough to have grown up away from war. I have discovered that it does not take long for these stories to get lost.
I grew up in a generation where our grandparents fought and survived WWII. My own grandfather was a fighter pilot in both Europe and the Pacific, he played a significant role at the battle of Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea, yet I did not grow up hearing his stories.
He didn’t tell his stories.
Of course I learned history at school, but how does a fifteen-year old in country NSW fathom millions of deaths on the other side of the world, fifty years earlier?
When I was fifteen, the internet was of the early dial up variety, DVDs did not exist yet, social media was nearly a decade away and the term “terrorism” had not yet been conceived in its current form. When I was fifteen, fifty years earlier may as well have been five hundred years earlier. I was naïve, but perhaps those in my Grandfather’s generation wanted it that way.
Why would you tell your little granddaughter the atrocities of war when you fought so hard that she wouldn’t have to experience it?
The only hint I ever gleaned was the story of the time my own father was drawn out of a mandatory ballot to go to war, and my grandfather simply said, “No son of mine is going to war. You’re not going”. Soon after that the government changed, and mandatory conscription was reversed, so it was a moot point. But that was the closest I got to a war story.
How can we remember if we never knew to start with?
We are nearing the end of this generation of veterans and it is so often that only near the end that many of the stories are shared.
For my grandfather this was the case. We never, ever spoke about the war, nor his role in it. Once he returned he just went about living his life. And live it he did. He became a dentist and established himself in the Coffs Harbour community. He got married and had four children and nine grandchildren.
His first wife, my beautiful grandmother Joyce, died many years before I was born. My grandfather remarried the wonderful Judy and they shared a love of flying for decades to come (Judy remains active in the flying communities). Then a few years before his death, my grandfather wanted to tell his story.
A documentary maker sought him out, as did writers of history books. He played a major role in the documentary The Roar of The Kitty Hawk, and there is a chapter on him in several war history books.
The Sydney Morning Herald did a large obituary to him when he finally did pass, I sang at my grandfather’s funeral and Mel Hupfeld (now Air Vice Marshall of the Royal Australian Air Force) spoke the eulogy.
So, who on Earth was my grandfather?
I knew him only as this gentle man who liked to feed the rosellas and go flying in his little Cesna. I also know that my Dad is an image of his father, and likewise, I am the image of my father. I can walk down the streets of my grandfather’s town with my dad only to have old, old men stop us, “You must be Roy Riddel’s son, and you’re clearly his granddaughter”. So who is this person of which I continue the gene pool so strongly?
Last year I went to visit my Dad and during the weeklong holiday I read The Hunger Games trilogy. Once I finished, my father gave me a book and said “Read Chapter Ten”. It was a history book, with a first hand account of my grandfather’s time during World War Two. In ten pages, I read a story so intense and horrific that an audience would find the plot line unbelievable should they see it on screen.
In Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea they were shooting the enemy on the ground by the end of the runway. My grandfather flew spitfires in Europe and then Kittyhawks in Papua New Guinea, he had mid air dog-fights with the Japanese zero fighter planes that had killed his friend.
I know that there are stories that remain untold from his time on the ground because they were too horrific to recount. The closest I have come to learning these stories is the opening quote in the obituary for my grandfather in the SMH from 2008, “They cut off my mate’s head. They didn’t have to do that, did they?”.
For a long time my Grandfather’s photo was on display in the Australian War Memorial under a Kitty Hawk. He stood in PNG with some mates around the plane. But it took decades to learn just some of the stories about what really happened.
And so it is that I think, in order for humans to understand and to remember, we need singular stories. We do not easily connect with data.
That’s why I (admittedly briefly) wanted to focus on one man’s story today. As we pause to remember.
Remembrance Day. We need to know the stories in order to remember them. We need to tell the stories in order to know them.
As we continue past the Twentieth Century, the wars have not stopped. I follow a well-known Facebook Page called Humans Of New York, known as HONY for short. The man who runs the page takes photos of anyone and everyone, and tells part of their story in short, and sometimes longer posts.
For the last few summers he has travelled to the middle east and told the stories of people he meets there. Recently, he went to Kos in Greece to speak to those arriving by boat from Syria. The stories were horrific. Stories of beheadings, drownings, hiding, threats, beatings.
These feel like a world away, but they are things my own grandfather saw too, not as a civilian in war, but fighting them.
As for today, I don’t know the answer, except for this:
Talk to your grand parents.
I know that I am grateful for what I have and that I will endeavour to have compassion for those less fortunate.
And that for my part, I will tell stories so that we can remember, and then…
Lest We Forget.
Slider image of poppy close up courtesy of Shutterstock