Anzac Day Has A Smell

April 25, 2011  
(This is Part 2.  For Part 1, a recollection of my childhood Anzac Days, pop over to my guest post here)

Australia lost their last living link with the Gallipoli story when Digger Alec Campbell – the final surviving Aussie participant in the Gallipoli campaign - died in 2002. And we said goodbye to our last surviving World War I veteran in 2009 (110 year old Jack Ross; although he did not see active duty outside of Australia). Second World War veterans are now in their eighties and nineties and will soon be part of Australia’s past history like their comrades before them, and Aussie Korean War veterans will not march too far behind. Eventually, when my father’s generation have passed, the Australian veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will take pride of place on the white folding chairs at the front of Dawn Services around the country.

All of these men and women. All of those stories. Each one an integral part of Australia’s history.

As I was growing up, war was one of those things I thought I knew about. I had a Vietnam veteran for a father, so I was closer to the real deal than most of my classmates, but as Dad’s kids, we got the sanitized version; the amusement of the ration packs, the cardinal rule of always, always changing one’s socks daily to combat rotting feet in the ever-damp jungle conditions, the heroic death of a mate (once, after a few drinks, Dad let it slip that it had been a landmine – “Let’s just say it wasn’t a pleasant way to die. We all watched him just disappear into thin air.”) We never questioned the tales, never delved any deeper. It was unspoken – best not to ask Dad about what it was really like. No, let him continue to tell the stories he wants to tell – like the times he (thrice!) lost his 'stripes' (was demoted) for insubordination, or the time he got violently ill eating French bread from a street vendor in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and threw up on a superior officer’s shoes, earning him 24 hrs standing upright and alone in the middle of the company barracks. But the reality of what he – and countless millions before him – endured as a serviceman was staggering. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was a very real part of many soldier’s lives, including my father’s. We learned strange things like the correct way to walk around his sleeping form – never, ever tiptoe – and also what a map was. You think you know what a map is? Try memorizing its description the army way – “A map is a portion of the earth’s surface, drawn to scale, usually on paper, showing both natural and artificial features”. And yes, we all knew that by heart before the age of ten.

Dad lost mates, people he had trained with and with whom he entrusted his life, as he was entrusted with theirs. Imagine your five best friends. Now imagine them marching off to war with the very real prospect of losing a couple on a battlefield. It’s incomprehensible, isn’t it? But for our Diggers, a reality.

Sixty thousand Australian men and women served in Vietnam, with five hundred and twenty-one not returning home. As the first war being chronicled on the nightly news, tensions were high, and protests back home and in the United States were a continual feature. And Australia was conscripting, never a popular choice (Dad went voluntarily). When the veterans returned, they were openly mocked in the street. There was none of the glory that had been given to returning First and Second World War veterans. Even some of the old veterans themselves held concerns, with some RSL Clubs excluding Vietnam veterans from joining as members during the sixties and seventies, and some even extended this exclusion to cover the Anzac Day parades as well.

Eventually, Australian Vietnam veterans were given an official “Welcome Home” parade in Sydney on October 3, 1987. It was my eighth birthday. And finally talks began for a national memorial for fallen Vietnam soldiers – some fifteen-plus years after Australia’s involvement in Vietnam ended.

Five years later to the day, on October 3, 1992, the Vietnam Forces National Memorial was dedicated in Canberra – and I turned thirteen.

Anzac Day belongs to my Dad and to every veteran, living or dead, that has ever served our country with the honour and dignity passed down from those original men and boys who landed at Gallipoli. And for all of you without direct military links, Anzac Day is for you as well. This is part of who we are, our national identity.

Tepid party pies included.

(Photo credit - "Red Poppy" by Annies Pics via Flickr Creative Commons)


River said...

My first husband was a Viet.Vet.
I met him just after he'd got back. The PTSD, oh wow! I learned never to wake him with a shake on the shoulder, never to sneak up behind him and say Boo!, never EVER to buy fireworks, never to pop a balloon where he could hear it. The kids did like the ration packs though, especially the tiny tubes of jam and the tubes of condensed milk. The weetbix they gladly gave to me while they fought over the chocolate ration.
I commented over at your guest post too.

Karen (admin) said...

Oh gosh, I remember every single thing you just mentioned River. For Dad, it was better to walk firmly (with noise) around him than to tiptoe and the sound of a helicopter put him on instant edge. Absolutely identified with "I Was Only Nineteen", as did a lot of Vets.

And the ration packs! Remember the condensed milk and jam, LOL! Dad stayed in the reserves for a few years after returning home and occasionally brought some home to us kids.

Dad met my mother at the wedding of an army friend who was marrying Mum's sister. Mum was a divorced 20yo Protestant mother of two. Dad was a recently returned Irish Catholic soldier. My sister was born 6 months later. She was three months premature. Uh-huh! (I was the 'accidental baby' born 7 years later). They married two years before I was born and stayed together for 30 years but eventually divorced.

Catch the Kids said...

It's very right that we honour the spirit of our diggers and that Anzac Day is such a part of being Australian. Great post.

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