Resplendent in a stained khaki uniform, just as Australian soldiers would have worn after months of service in the dirt and dust of North Africa, bugler Ian stands steady at the front of the hall of Tobruk House, Melbourne, Saturday 29 February 2020.
Sixty guests settle their chatter. Ian plays Last Post. Faces peer out from fading photographs lining the hall’s walls; portals of portraits depicting wartime figures and events. A parade of POW faces and Italian places loom large from the screen, their images reformatted and enlarged, larger than life more than 75 years on.
Ian hits a wonky bugle note. This brief imperfection is poignant: the soldiers were ordinary men, caught in extraordinary circumstances; they were not heroes, not perfect at every duty or challenge. Rats of Tobruk Association veterans and volunteers gathered and sat in this hall since soon after the war, reminiscing on shared events of tragedy and humour, yarning about times of frailty and fortune.
I’m thrilled to be seated on the hall’s tiny triangular stage alongside my fellow speakers: Cate Carrigan and Peter Monteath. Michelle Scott Tucker skilfully guides our conversation and questioning. There is much we can discuss, many issues to explore and we fill our 45 minutes with what we can, and what flows in the conversation. In the kitchen at the back of the hall, a trio of aproned Rats of Tobruk Association ladies happily whip up scones and slices, piping out cream and laying out china plates and teacups, as ladies auxiliaries have done for decades.
POWs’ relatives came from within Victoria and from interstate. Panel’s chatter done with, the guests yearn for chats over cuppas – the daughters, sons, grandsons, great-nephews and nieces to POWs who’d faced various fates in Italy after escaping Campo 106 prison farms: POWs who trekked across the Swiss alps or southward to meet Allied lines, POWs who were embraced by Italian helpers in safe houses and in Italian Resistance bands until 1945 POWs who were recaptured shy of the Swiss frontier, POWs brutally executed by fascists.
Descendants to POWs speak with each other about how their POWs spoke little about their war. Italian researchers and POW widows discuss the shared history between the Australian and New Zealander POWs and the Italian populace during the war and in the postwar decades.
My son Aden, grandson to POW Col Booth meet, for the first time, a grandson to Col’s POW mate who saved his life, Peter Erickson. To honour this memory, Col named my older brother after Peter Erickson. After two decades, I’d reconnected in recent weeks to my brother Peter. I asked him what Col had told him. With that extra detail, I tell these young men more about the critical incident shared by their grandfathers when Peter saved Col’s life in September 1943.
Guests mingle and come to me for first-time face-to-face meeting, book signing and chat. A tall-statured great-nephew to Doug Smedley (killed 1944 in Italy) is ushered aside for a chat by the firm arm of Myra, a dainty dedicated volunteer to Doug’s unit, the 2/23 Battalion. Amongst those poring over old family photos, exchanging anecdotes and business cards, are researchers and also representatives of several military unit Associations, the 2/24th, 2/23rd and 3LAA, as well as Rats of Tobruk Association.
My research mate Bill Rudd would have loved the gathering of these people, but his seemingly indefatigable energies slipped away, and he left us all four months ago. Shooting Through owes much to him. He delighted in giving assistance to many projects and that is just one of his lasting legacies. Many people became connected through the networking and research behind Shooting Through, the most special thing about it all. At the book’s launch, conversations continued, new collaborations and new journeys began.
A small china plate with brownie and cake awaited me until the crowd had thinned. The tea had gone cold. I was thrilled. I loved this day!