Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Last Post

RAAF Chaplains' insignia
No, I'm not finishing this blog!

Remembrance Day has stirred up memories, as it and ANZAC Day always do, of my Grandfather the Rev. WFG* . At his funeral, the local sub-branch of the RSL (Returned Services League, Australia's version of the British and American Legions) organised a trumpeter to play the last post as his casket was lowered into the grave. At the end of a very emotional day having to keep it together to read Psalm 23:4 during the service and to be a pallbearer, that totally unhinged me and I let the tears flow uninhibited. Hearing the last post since always brings this memory back and leaves me a bit teary.

He was a member of the Royal Australian Air Force in it's infancy in the 1920s when he was an LAC (Leading Aircraftsman, equivalent to a private in the army, working as a clerk). In later life he was very proud to be presented with a copy of the order issued to found the air base at Laverton featuring his initials at the bottom of the order sheet as the man who typed the order. He left to become a minister in the Presbyterian Church, though he served in the pre-war Citizens' Military Force, the precursor to today's Army Reserve.

Grandpa served in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II as a chaplain with postings to training bases in the N.S.W. Riverina like Narrandera and Wagga Wagga, to Darwin at the time the Japanese were bombing it with a regularity to suggest that invasion was imminent, and eventually to New Guinea towards the end of the war.

Grandpa's war service as a chaplain may not be as exciting as some others, he faced his share of danger; his first night in Darwin coincided with a Japanese air raid which sent a great hunk of metal through his tent just where he'd been moments before. Lifting his head up after the all clear sounded, he found he was sharing his slit trench with his older brother whom he hadn't seen for years!

He was also rostered to pastoral duties in the outlying Melville islands to minister to the Coastwatch stations and the Aboriginal communities. HMAS Patricia Cam was the ship on ferry duty at the time and my grandfather was rostered to take the trip to the outlying islands, but for some reason or other he swapped his rostered trip after a request from a Methodist chaplain. Luckily for my grandfather he agreed to the swap, as the little ship was bombed and strafed by a Japanese sea plane which landed and took the Methodist prisoner, never to be seen again. It turned out he was eventually beheaded. The randomness of chance prevented my grandfather from being the victim of decapitation by the Japanese. A chilling thought!

While posted in Darwin, he too often had to write letters of comfort to the wives and parents of airmen who disappeared on reconnaissance or bombing missions over the Japanese held territories. He held many funeral services where there were no bodies to bury. Like a lot of his generation, his antipathy to all things Japanese lasted a long time, to the extent that the family had to do a lot of hard arguing to persuade him to buy a Toyota in the 1970s. He mellowed in his old age, admitting that the current generations weren't to blame for the sins of the past. 

After the war he returned to civilian life although he continued to serve in the CMF, rising to senior chaplain in the Victorian CMF with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

During the 1960s he was the minister of the parish of Coleraine in Western Victoria which was in the electorate of the future Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who infamously engineered the constitutional crisis of 1975 resulting in the dismissal of the Whitlam Labour government. Fraser was then Minister of the Army in the Holt Liberal government and often attended my grandfather's services. While not sharing his politics, my grandfather had a lot of time for him as he did a lot for the struggling soldier settlers (veterans of WW1 & 2 who had been given grants of farmland by the government) of the area and was always shook hands with him after the services he attended. One sermon Grandpa gave in his presence criticised Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War and afterwards Fraser refused to shake Grandpa's hand!

My grandfather also served as chaplain aboard the Achille Lauro (later infamous for being hijacked by Palestinian extremists who executed some of their hostages in 1985) in 1966 ministering to British migrants (or ten pound Poms, as they were known, because that's all it cost to emigrate) on the long voyage to their new home.

He was full of stories about his younger days, most of which I'd heard multiple times, but on one occasion when I drove him to Melbourne to one of his last reunions of the Pre-WWII RAAF Association, he told me some rather racy stories about his youth, including one involving my grandfather, a medical student friend of his and a group of nurses going on a boozy picnic and all ending up skinny-dipping together in the Yarra River! I can tell you that I just about drove off the road in shock after hearing that one!

The mournful strains of the Last Post always remind me of my grandfather and all those of his incredible generation.

Lest we forget.

*name changed to protect the innocent, as per Mrs. R's request!


  1. Well he can still make living men smile. I can understand perfectly what he meant about the Laverton order, since I felt the same way about something I did, but still can't talk about in detail, but which I think led to several ah, Levantine victories, and wouldn't if I hadn't have typed the thing up. Just like he said with his. I know what he meant.

    (Not that it was my idea, but still)

  2. Sounds like your Grandpa had a great life, full of adventures, you must be very proud of him.

  3. What a guy! Very enjoyable read Rosbif. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Very good post. November 11 is both a proud, and sad day.


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