Story Club - Don't Mention the War

This story was written for the Story Club, a Sydney story-telling group that meets monthly in a pub in Surry Hills. It is a story told through the eyes and in the words of my Dad, based on a diary he kept as a Prisoner of War during World War II. Most of the war years story words are verbatim from the diary, which I have kept and intend giving to the Australian War Memorial.

As told on behalf of my late father Ernest Victor Emerson 1915-1978

My mother was a clever, beautiful woman, always neat and clean who showed me all the love she could with her eyes – for she was deaf and dumb and highly emotional.

We understood each other perfectly, which is probably why I learned to read and write at a very early age. At five years of age I could converse by talking on my fingers. My reading of the sign language was very slow but my lovely mother taught me to smile and to think; to be cheerful and to wonder. She sheltered and protected me because she needed me so much.

This produced in me timidity in meeting strangers and for many years I was never self-reliant.  I always had to have somebody to give me a lead and lots of encouragement in anything I did, and the thought of a scolding for not being able to do what I was asked would reduce me to an emotional mess, in which I could not speak.

My father was a policeman at Cabramatta. Among my two sisters and younger brother, for some reason my father reserved his severest punishment for me, often hitting me with his belt - buckle first.


But he did make sure I got a good education, sending me to Yanco Agricultural College in Leeton. He didn’t want me back at Christmas though, so I stayed at the boarding school with the caretaker over the holiday period.

When the Second World War broke out I was cutting timber in the Pilliga Forest west of the Warrumbungle Mountains in a town called Gwabegar.

Enlisting in nearby Coonamble I joined the 2/3rd Battalion AIF and landed the job of carrying messages on a motorbike at the Battle of Bardia in Syria and at Tobruk. We routed the Italians but our next task was much harder, taking on the Jerries in Greece and then Crete.

I was shot through the calf and although the bullet went straight through my leg, after a few days on the run my foot swelled up and I had to cut off my boot.

Six months in a hospital under the care of the most decent people ended when one man, a Greek Cypriot, notified the Italians I was an Australian soldier in hiding.

I was arrested and taken to a POW camp in Italy.

We didn’t like our Italian captors. One day we brewed schnapps and our mate Sox Symons got drunk. An Italian guard shot him in the stomach at a distance of six feet and we helplessly watched him die.

In September 1943 the news came through that Italy had capitulated, signing an armistice with the Allies.

The Italian guards told us we would be handed over to the Americans, but instead we were guarded with machine guns until the Germans arrived.

We were loaded onto railway trucks and transported to Stalag VIIIA near the town of Gorlitz in eastern Germany.

On September 25th 1943, I wrote in my diary, which I hid in the lining of my great coat: “The Russians in the adjoining compound are in very low condition and desperate. Under threat of shooting they still come under the barbed wire to our compound to get what little food they can.”

From Gorlitz we were taken further to Stalag VIIIC near the small town of Klettendorf. Most days we were taken to a local sugar beet factory. We could walk freely around the town. We could escape if we really wanted to. But where to? We were deep inside Germany’s occupied territories. After five days, two Americans who’d escaped from our camp gave themselves up after succumbing to the cold and snow.

In my diary I recorded that I gave a Russian girl “a piece of chocolate today, and, as I looked at her and her companions, I realised for what we are fighting.  Many of them are without boots with feet cracked and bleeding but still forced to work.”

On Christmas Eve 1943 we worked till noon, then prepared for a concert at night. Many of the boys decided to visit their girlfriends, so out they went by the secret passage. There was much schnapps drunk and the evening finished in real Aussie holiday spirit with about five fights and everybody happy. The German corporal in charge, tired of stopping fights, decided to let ‘em go and was as much interested in the outcome as we other spectators.

During my captivity I became pen pals with a Welsh nurse working in a London hospital, trying to repair the smashed bodies of Allied airmen.

Margery would become my wife – we married three weeks after the war.

She was later to tell our youngest son of a British aviator who was carried to them from an airfield on a stretcher. He seemed okay but when they lifted him onto a bed his spine fell away.

Life in the camp was miserable. In an adjoining room I saw an American, Jack Barnes, who was suffering with the worst case of frostbite I have ever seen. Both feet, from the toes to the insteps were absolutely black, but normal in size. From the insteps to the shins they were swollen like legs of pickled mutton from which the puss and blood dripped slowly. The smell was horrible. The blackened parts of the feet were hanging off. I learned that such must be the case with frostbite. The affected part must be allowed to take its course and drop off naturally before any surgical operation can be attempted, otherwise the line of demarcation caused by the frost continues to rise above the amputation and the patient is no better off.

By April 1945, almost four years after I was captured, the British were claiming big advances into Germany.

We’d been transferred from our compound but the Germans didn’t know where to take us. Refugees passed both ways; no one knew where they were going. They were escaping from war, which was pursuing them everywhere. Tired and hungry they were pitiable to see.

We watched from the road on April 9th 1945 as the Yank air force heavies flew over Dresden. The formation leader let loose a smoke bomb which appeared to be the signal for the formation to release bombs by the trails of smoke which were left behind. Fighter aircraft strafed German columns on the autobahn nearby.

None of us knew where to go in the mayhem that followed the war’s official end. We met German soldiers nine days later and asked for food and directions. They gave us both. We walked into Czechoslovakia with Germans who were terrified of the Russians. The Russians had proved just as brutal as the SS were during the Russian occupation in the early years of war.  Civilians were shot, throats of women and children were cut, the women suffering so after being raped. 

The Germans still did not want to leave us until we were further behind the Americans’ lines.

On May 14th we arrived at Nuremberg aerodrome. I was up in a plane for the first time. It was a grand feeling. We flew to Belgium and then onto Dunfold aerodrome in England where we received tea and cakes and one pound sterling.

Soon after, Marge and I got married. Under army orders I was to embark without Marge for Australia upon the troop ship Mauritania. Five weeks later we passed through the Sydney Heads. I recalled that ferries, launches and all types of smaller craft kept up a continuous cock-a-doodle-doo. The boys took everything calmly and we docked at Circular Quay.

We began to disembark from the ship onto waiting double-decker buses by which we were transported to the Showgrounds and were paid and issued with leave passes and coupons and sent to the Y.M.C.A. pavilion where relatives were waiting for us. That is, it appeared, for everybody except me.

When my name was read out nobody was there to meet me.

Lucky for me, a Harry Emerson was on the ship and was picked up by his wife Barbara who years before, from their home in Strathfield, had heard the boom of the Australian navy trying to destroy the Japanese midget submarines that had entered the same Sydney Harbour.

Marge joined me months later in century heat and we settled in a little sawmilling town called Milliwindi in the Pilliga near where it all started, at Gwabegar.

Doug Pincham, a fellow POW, who owned a sawmill at Milliwindi, had offered me a share of the mill if I went back with him to work the mill. But there was no share – I was a saw miller.

A few years later we had a son. There was no school in this tiny timber town – so tiny that it no longer exists – so we needed to go to a town that had a primary school.

And so, Marge, pregnant with another baby, moved a few miles with me to a little country town that had a Catholic school.

St John’s Convent School had been set up by the Sisters of St Joseph, inspired by Mary McKillop who I understand is now officially a saint.

Maybe it was from my time in Italy and Germany, or maybe it was from my hard childhood, but I began drinking heavily.

The boys’ mother had a terrible temper and we fought all the time.

I’m sorry I used to call her a Pommy bitch and I should have done more to stop her from holding our older boy back from school every morning.

He was good at arithmetic but ended up failing it because Marge wouldn’t let him get to his first class on time.

And the two boys cried and cried when Marge wouldn’t let them get onto the school bus for the annual athletics carnival involving all the regional country towns. I only realised later how embarrassed they were for letting their school down.

I should have been stronger – but I couldn’t be.

One day I decided to give up the grog.

Marge and I agreed that the whole family would be happier because there wouldn’t be so many rows.

But I never gave up my mates.

Every Anzac Day we’d gather at the Town Hall and march down the main street to the RSL Club.

There we’d hold the Anzac Day service and play the Last Post and remember our fallen comrades.

Our youngest boy later would talk about how he smelled the Rosemary sprigs that we’d pick from the RSL Club hedge and display in our lapels.

It was another 20 years before our boy realised the significance of the Rosemary that you’ll find on your lamb roast – when he went to the Dardanelles for the 75th anniversary of the Anzac landing and found Rosemary bushes growing over all the old battlefields at Lone Pine and The Neck.

Although I’d given up the grog, Marge never seemed to get happier.

It was a long way from Wales to the Pilliga Forest and I’m sure it never got so hot in Wales and there weren’t so many flies in Pommy land.

Marge would descend into rages and then lock herself in the bedroom for days on end and take sleeping tablets. She often threatened to knock herself off. I’m sure the two boys were terrified.

Every Christmas we’d fight. It’d usually start because we put the Christmas decorations up the wrong way or something.

Christmas Day would be a disaster. Maybe it was because Marge and I found it all too stressful.

I’d threaten to piss off and leave the family. But by the end of Christmas Day things would start to settle down. One Christmas I was looking out the window from the dining room table in our fibro house and noticed the lawn needed cutting and said I’d have to mow it tomorrow. But then I remembered I was leaving, so I added, “Before I piss off!”

We all had a big laugh, which was sad really, because I’d accidentally broken the tension of my two boys thinking they’d never see their dad again.

Being off the grog didn’t seem to make any difference so I went back on it.

Our oldest boy left home as quickly as he could – to go to Newcastle to train as a metallurgist at the BHP steelworks.

The younger one, who I called Pud or Mussiguts, turned 15 and played in the regional Rugby League competition against Coonabarabran, Coonamble, Coolah, Gilgandra, Dunedoo and Mudgee.

He trained on Friday nights and waited for me to come home from the RSL Club before Marge, who worked till 9.00 o’clock in the local pub.

If Marge got home before me it’d be on and the row would go all weekend.

My son joined with some mates from school and built a three-story tree house in the local creek bed where he used to sleep when a really big blue was on.

One night I had to come and shout across the creek for him to come with me to the hospital, because his Mum had taken an overdose of sleeping pills.

With all of this and a drought in the bush, I lost my job so we moved to the Big Smoke in Sydney.

By now our youngest son was finishing school and going to university.

I remember telling him when he grew his hair long and grew a beard that one of them had to go. He said Jesus had both. That was the end of the conversation.

So my long-haired, bearded son started arguing with me. He reckoned he knew it all.

He said that by going up the Croydon Park RSL Club and talking about all my mates I was glorifying war.

That upset me. They were my best mates and they were dying – many in their 50s.

We’d go off to Rookwood Cemetery at Lidcombe with a tape recording of the Last Post and an Australian flag and bury them.

I never glorified war.

My youngest son now has had three children.

Just last week, the eldest of them asked my son about Kent State University where four young people were gunned down for protesting Richard Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam War into Cambodia.

My son’s boy was very angry that this could have happened. Two of the four who were shot dead were just walking to the next class. They died that day because of needless violence about a needless war.

My son’s middle child travelled with his Dad to Vietnam where they spent hours talking to the son of a Viet Cong fighter. His Dad was taken away and killed, but he’d killed Americans too – emerging from the tunnels at night to kill and then retreat into the darkness, sustained underground by eating dried noodles.

From my stories of Libya, Greece, Crete, Italy and Germany and my son’s own experience of Vietnam where more than a million people died, we have learned a lot.

My son has resolved to pass on that learning to his own children.

Sadly I couldn’t be with you this evening, because I died in 1978 and Marge joined me at Rookwood Cemetery a few years later.

And we lost our eldest only a few months ago – which I’m told the ABC kindly acknowledged at the end of a show called Kitchen Cabinet.

But my youngest son, Craig, is talking to you now on my behalf and we have come to a peaceful agreement: there is no glory in war. And now that I’m resting, I’m happy not to mention the war ever again.

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