A young soldier right next to me

When Nick Emery’s wife phoned me on 1 May 2018 to say that he’d died,  she sang to me on the phone; it was the same song she sang to him as he was dying. I’d met him twice. His wife had told me on the phone that he might speak about his war if I come to the house. The first visit he was waiting for me, reaching for me at their door, and was straight into it: Let’s start with Alamein, he said.

In May 2017, I spoke about my Shooting Through book project to the group of 30 authors gathered for ACT Writers Hardcopy professional development program. I spoke about how it felt to meet veterans and to be invited to sit with them and to hear their stories. I spoke about a visit with Nick.

Did I plan to include myself in the book in some way, several of the authors wondered, did I plan to write about being a daughter to a former POW and also a graduate historian? No, I replied, I  think that my intrusion would slow the narrative.

Find a way, they said, you need to be in this book. I looked at history books by writers of war history, and read prologues and epilogues with authors writing  from their own voice. I liked these book-ends to the narrative. I loved writing from my gut. My editor read my draft and encouraged me to dig further into my memories about my father and his peers, like Nick.

Here’s a snippet from my prologue in which I tell you what it felt like when a young blond soldier barely out of his teens was right there next to me, bringing me alongside him on mountain goat tracks in the autumn of 1943: 

More than a book launch

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!

Vale William Antony Cole Rudd OAM, VX39694

29 November 2019

Bill died 29 October 2019, 39 days short of his 102nd birthday.
Sapper Bill Rudd was taken prisoner at Alamein 27/7/1942. A POW of the Italians, he escaped in September 1943 and within a fortnight he tentatively stepped into Swiss territory.
In recent decades, Bill became known and deeply respected by POW families and researchers for his extensive research activities, his gathering of accounts by fellow ex-POWs, his generosity in communications to all who sought information to understand more about POW experience.
Bill quietly initiated and supported many commemorative projects. One example: collaborating with New Zealander POW Charles Watkins, the ex-POW duo sourced funds to create and install a plaque to commemorate POWs killed as a result of the torpedo attack on the Nino Bixio, 17 August 1942, and its aftermath. Bill wrote on his Campo 57 website that ‘there were remains of humans hanging in the rigging, and body parts littered the bloody deck’. Charlie: ‘Nothing could be done for those screaming for help in the water. You had to walk over dead bodies to move anywhere.’

Bill Rudd is one of the most remarkable persons I have met. Stumbling upon Bill’s website in 2011, searching for any snippets about the POW context of my father Col and his mate Peter, I saw photos that sit in my father’s Globite case and with further digging I now know where, when, and who snapped these shots. Meeting Bill and becoming a regular correspondent, my curiosity about two POWs snowballed to two thousand when Bill, in his mid-90s, invited me to assist him to compile a nominal roll of Australian POWs in Italy. Bill, always busy, always productive, needed to shift his focus in his late 90s to other projects. I plodded along with this roll. Nominal rolls of a subset, the Campo 106 Australian and New Zealander POWs, are appendices in Shooting Through, a paperback that he will not hold in his hand, nor sit amongst his collection. Bill’s research energies for these rolls outlived those of his valued colleagues Brian Sims and Ken Fenton. Bill thrived on collaborations. Working with and expanding their research foundations regarding Campo 106, I’m privileged.

Since 2011, Bill nurtured my abandoned love for archival and interview research and writing history. I’d completed a bachelor degree in history decades ago, then diverted to other studies and careers. Taking me under his wide wing, mentoring, encouraging, listening, explaining, information-sharing, email bantering, pub lunching, network-building, an ex-POW turned historian took me prisoner.

I’ll miss him. But, as Bill whispered just a few weeks ago, there is much more to do.