Volunteer Air Observer Corps

V2020Today is Anzac Day Down Under and many genealogy bloggers from Australia and New Zealand will be writing about their families’ military history. This year I was inspired to write about my mother’s (Joan McSherry) civilian service during the war, after listening to an excellent talk from Caloundra Family History member, Ian Edwardson via Zoom. Sometimes we focus so much on members of the military forces that we forget that civilian life continued on the home front and many people contributed to support the military in some way. As my direct line family members were railway workers, they were regarded as essential services and so did not join the forces. It makes me feel like a bit of a fraud when it comes to Anzac Day services. When they called for experienced railway workers to service the trainlines at the Western Front in World War I, my paternal grandfather, Denis Kunkel, enlisted in late 1917. You can read his story here.

Volunteer Air Observer Corps

My mother’s service was civilian but with military overtones. She joined the Volunteer Air Observer Corps (VAOC) when she was about 16, or close to 17. She served with them for two years until the end of the war. I’ve read that there were interviews and tests before people were admitted but Mum doesn’t recall this and says she joined after seeing an advertisement – perhaps the one included here? The purpose of the VAOC was to monitor the skies for enemy aircraft and alert the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) if they were seen. Recruitment for the VAOC was undertaken through the Women’s Air Training Corps (WATC) and it was through this organisation that observers were trained to identify different types of Japanese aircraft based on profile, engines etc. The training was done at Archerfield aerodrome in Brisbane’s south-west. The WATC was also regarded as a training ground for women who later might wish to join the WAAAF, the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Airforce. Goodness, all these acronyms – it might even be the military!

WATC VOAC Telegraph 17 Nov 1942 p4

Aircraft Recognition Classes (1942, November 17). The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947), p. 4 (CITY FINAL LAST MINUTE NEWS).  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article172597476

Perhaps unsurprisingly (because it’s about the women after all and they were civilians), it’s hard to find detailed information. There is a book about the VAOC that looks pertinent but it’s in the Queensland State Library, and so currently in lockdown. So, turning to Trove (again) is the solution. In addition to which I’ve tried to pick Mum’s memory and that of a friend who was also in the VAOC.

These are Mum’s words which she’d written down a while ago:

Volunteer Air Observers had to have a thorough knowledge of all types of Japanese planes. You went to a beautiful old home on the hill in the Clayfield (a suburb of Brisbane), overlooking Eagle Farm Aerodrome, then the only one in Brisbane. Archerfield was the Air Force base. This beautiful home had a particular area, separate to the house, which was laid out with required facilities for observing. This included a pair of binoculars to watch the airport and a telephone. If a Japanese plane landed at the airport (or presumably was sighted), you immediately notified Head Quarters via the phone set up in the room.

In conversation Joan told me that she’d catch the tram from Buranda to Clayfield every Sunday after Mass, then walk up the hill to the house, and would be on duty for two hours. It must have been tiring peering out through binoculars or looking at the sky consistently for two hours. Fortunately, they were spared the anxiety of an enemy aircraft, though as the North was bombed in 1942, it must have seemed entirely possible. Mum would be dressed in civvies when “spotting”, not her uniform, which would only be worn for meetings or special events. When she was promoted to sergeant, she was required to wear her khaki uniform for these events.

WAAAF Staff room

In a W.A.A.A.F. Staff Room (1942, February 19). The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947), p. 5 (Second Edition). http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article172698162

The WATC held a stall on Saturday morning selling a variety of things including small hand-made toys. This raised money for the free lunches they served to the WAAAFs at a canteen at Old Courier House (corner of Queen and Edward, which is now a bank, I think). A special relaxation area had been fitted out and made available for the WAAAF women when off duty – a place to just relax. Mum’s friend, Donna, who was a bit younger and hadn’t been trained to do the plane spotting was very involved in this side of the activities of the WATC.

Apart from learning about identifying planes, mum also went out to Archerfield to see some of the WATC work there and learn a little about motor car engines. We didn’t own a car until the late 1960s so it’s a shame she never got to put that to use.

It wasn’t all work and no play. Occasionally the WATC and VAOC would have balls or dances to raise funds. They also had some picnics and we’re lucky enough to have a couple of photos taken at one of these. The WATC celebrated their 5th Birthday week from 9th-15th July 1944 and Mum has a souvenir booklet from the day on which there are many signatures including that of the Queensland Commandant, Yvonne Jones, and Australian flying ace, Nancy Bird Walton, who was the Australian Commandant . I wonder if any of my readers will recognise the names of any of the women who also signed. Two of mum’s long term friends are included in the list, Joyce and Donna.

On 15 August 1945, Victory in the Pacific Day, when the war ended for Australia, there was great excitement in Brisbane and mum and her friend were allowed to leave work to go and celebrate. Dad was less fortunate, as the shift workers were required on duty and missed out on the day’s exuberance.

family scan091 (2)

Found in mum’s autograph book. I wonder if she entered it on VP Day. 3 dots and a dash mean the letter V  in morse code.

 

jol-files-2015-08-vpday

Brisbane people will see the humour of this: the City Hall celebrating joyfully.

After the war finished, life returned to normal, but Mum missed the verve of those years. They were given a celebration at Victoria Barracks after the war, but apparently it wasn’t written up in the paper. How rarely does Trove let me down?

KUNKEL Joan WATC reunion

Joan receiving her “Australia Remembers” certificate: L to R: Y McComb King, Senator Parer, Nancy Bird Walton, Joan Kunkel wearing badges of both the WATC and VAOC.

In December 1995, surviving members of the WATC were invited to a morning tea at the United Services Club in Brisbane to receive an “Australia Remembers” commemorative certificate for serving with the WATC during the war years. The event was hosted by Senator Warwick Parer[i],  Mrs Yvonne McComb King (formerly Jones) and Mrs Nancy Bird Walton were honoured guests and co-hosts. Both Mum and her friend Donna were able to attend, and I was surprised to discover when reading the advertisement for the event, that mum had been a sergeant, which she had never mentioned previously.

You can click on any of the images to make them large enough to read.

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An example of the VAOC from the Australian War Memorial.

VOAC AWM 4085497

 

 

[i] Liberal Senator for Queensland and Shadow Minister for Tourism, Aviation and Customs.

The Price of Peace

P2020It may be that, on a daily basis, I take our country’s peace for granted rather than give thanks for it. Yes, it has things that could be done better or differently, but overall we are indeed the Lucky Country when it comes to peace. Yes, I am aware that our Indigenous Australians paid a high price when the country was settled and since. However, many people have come to our shores to find peace and safety, escaping persecution or wars. I certainly don’t subscribe to the “if you don’t love it, leave” philosophy. I often wonder whether people with those bumper stickers would immediately leave their spouses/partners the minute they had a disagreement. So, yes, I give thanks that we live on an island continent far from many of the world’s trouble spots.

bottle tree plaqueBWcrop

The memorial plaque for James Thomas Paterson on Roma’s bottletree planting in honour of its World War I Diggers

Since we became a nation in 1901, and even before, our people have been involved in wars, largely to support the Empire of which we were a part. Many of our people paid a high price: loss of life, incapacity and physical handicaps, loss of family members, post-traumatic stress, domestic violence, loss of human potential. As so many were lost on foreign battlefields with little chance that family members would ever be able to visit their graves (where they even exist), the role of war memorials has played a huge role as a locus of bereavement and recognition of service. Is there a town in the country where one can’t be found? I suspect not.

Maintaining peace can be as strenuous as winning a war. Margaret MacMillan, Canadian Historian.

Ancestors and the Price of Peace

It seems likely that most Australian families have members who volunteered to serve or were enlisted. Perhaps mine is somewhat unusual because with so many railwaymen in protected or essential service, branches of the family tree had little or no representation. It’s for this reason that I’ve been less inclined to engage with Anzac Day ceremonies because I feel like a fraud.

It wasn’t until I lived in Milne Bay in the early 1970s that the full sense of the war in Papua New Guinea became clearer to me despite previously reading books and poetry about it. I wrote about that here. Similarly touring the Western Front in Europe brought the loss to humanity overwhelmingly evident.

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The memorial overlooks Milne Bay: a far more tranquil scene than 77 years ago.

Each year the Australian and New Zealand genealogy bloggers typically post a story about ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day. You can see some of mine by searching in the box in the top right.

The price of peace paid by my families include the deaths of James Paterson[i] (grandson of George and Mary Kunkel) and James Gavin[ii] (grandson of Denis and Ellen Gavin) during World War I. Hugh Moran[iii] was taken Prisoner of War in Italy and Germany during World War II for several years. William Rudolph (Robert) Kunkel was Missing in Action in the Korean War and his family never knew what happened beyond the firefight when he was captured.

It’s hard to imagine what their families went through both during the war and afterwards. Letters found in the service records can be heartbreaking.

Personal thoughts

medal3 cropMy paternal grandfather served in World War I, however I have no memory of him ever attending an Anzac Day service, although he was a member of the Returned Servicemen’s League/

As a child, I remember seeing men with war injuries (missing arms or legs), selling newspapers on the street corner. Or men hitting the bottle or drunk – drowning their memories no doubt.  We came to a better understanding of the Bombing of Darwin once we moved to the Northern Territory to live.  Or realising that my husband would have “won” the national service lottery for Vietnam if his official place of abode during university hadn’t been Papua New Guinea.

I remember Dad telling me that he couldn’t attend the Victory in the Pacific celebrations in Brisbane because he was on shift with the railways at the time. Or hearing a (very) little about his knowledge of the Battle of Brisbane.. the conflict between Australian servicemen and the Americans who were based here and thought to be “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. I’ve also realised I need to ask mum what she did on VP day.

VP Day Brisbane

Victory in the Pacific celebrations Brisbane from awm.gov.au. Out of copyright.

It’s also interesting to observe that the practice of having cadet corps in high schools seems to have largely disappeared over the decades. When I was at high school many schools, and I’d suggest all private schools, had their own army or air force cadets.

Those families with serving men and women across the decades will have quite a different experience from mine. It doesn’t change that I am very grateful indeed to live in a peaceful country,  thanks in part to the high price that has been paid.

You can read some of my past posts for Anzac Day or Remembrance Day by using the search bar on the top right of this blog, or the drop down categories box– something else to do in our covid-isolation?

What is your families’ tradition of military service and what price was paid to gain peace?

For some sources to use when searching for Australian Military History and service.

Australian War Memorial

Commonwealth War Graves Commission for deaths and places of burial or memorials.

National Archives of Australia: Attestation documents digitised for WWI service people and some for later conflicts.

Quote from https://www.brainyquote.com

[i] 05 April 1917 Age 28 VILLERS-BRETONNEUX MEMORIAL http://cwgc.org

[ii] 19 July 1916 Age 30 RUE-PETILLON MILITARY CEMETERY, FLEURBAIX I. K. 39.from http://cwgc.org

[iii] https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/DetailsReports/ItemDetail.aspx?Barcode=4850146&isAv=N

Anzac Centenary 2015: A Gallipoli “Everyman” Victor Joseph Sanders

The man I am writing about in this year’s Trans-Tasman ANZAC Day blog Challenge (commemoration?) is not a relative. Initially I looked for someone who lived close to my One Place Study, Murphy’s Creek, and chose a man about whom I’d write. At midnight last night, something niggled me to look up men from Toowoomba and my decision was made.

9th battalion colour patch

9th battalion colour patch

Victor Charles Sanders was a member of Queensland’s 9th Battalion, one of those men who arrived in wooden boats just before dawn on that first Anzac Day 100 years ago. Before the morning was out, perhaps even before the sun rose fully over the Gallipoli Peninsula he was dead, his life sacrificed in the Empire’s cause.

Vic Sanders, as he appears to have been known, was not a fresh-faced young man, just looking for adventure. He had been born in the Queensland country town of Warwick 33 years and 11 months previously. Although Warwick-born his family had lived in Toowoomba for a while because he’d been educated at North Toowoomba State School[i]. By the time he enlisted, Vic had also travelled beyond Australia’s borders. His Roll of Honour Circular states that immediately before signing up he had been the “manager of (a) plantation in New Hebrides” and his attestation file lists his occupation as an “overseer”.

Victor Joseph Saunders
Image from The Queenslander 10 Oct 1914

Victor Charles Sanders stood 5ft 9½ inches tall and weighed 10 stone 11½ lbs: in current measurements, that’s 176cm and 78 kg. He had a dark complexion, possibly from his time in the tropics, and brown eyes and hair. He enlisted on 26 August 1914, and was given the regimental number of 502 and allocated to the 9th Battalion, a Queensland unit. His parents were Thomas Harrison Sanders and Elizabeth Keith Sanders[ii]. At the time of enlistment, Victor listed his mother as next-of-kin, living with her daughter, Emily Elizabeth and son-in-law Charles Fortescue, a jeweller in Toowoomba.

Meanwhile Victor’s nephew[iii], 21 year old Charles Fortescue[iv] had already applied for a commission on 17 August and was also attached, as a Lieutenant, to the 9th Battalion[v]. Later notes in Vic’s file indicates that he was attached to D Company, the same as his uncle and this is confirmed by the Embarkation Rolls at the Australian War Memorial (AWM).

The Transport Ship, Omrah, leaves Pinkenba whart, Brisbane with the 9th Battalion.

The Transport Ship, Omrah, leaves Pinkenba whart, Brisbane with the 9th Battalion. Did Victor’s mother and his sister and husband come to see their sons set sail?

After training Victor and his military colleagues sailed from the Pinkenba wharf in Brisbane on the transport ship Omrah on 24 September 1914, no doubt hastened by the belief the war would be over before Christmas.

While on board they undertook classes and training and when they arrived in Albany, WA, they apparently undertook a training march though I’ve found no reference to that in Trove and haven’t explored the brigade or battalion diaries.

Members of the 9th Battalion on a tender going ashore from the HMT Omrah (A5), for a route march at Albany. AWM Image CO2493

Members of the 9th Battalion on a tender going ashore from the HMT Omrah (A5), for a route march at Albany. AWM Image CO2493

I haven’t pursued what happened to the battalion in Egypt until they embarked on the ship Ionian, firstly to Mudros Harbour.

HMAT Ionian loading to take the troops to Gallipoli. AWM Image A02143

HMAT Ionian loading to take the troops to Gallipoli. AWM Image A02143

The 3rd Brigade diaries tell of the training the men did in preparation for the Gallipoli landing but the men weren’t too impressed and prophetic of what was to happen:

It was a laughable affair (on 19 April). Sergeant Polley was leading us all over the country, looking for the rest of the platoon. We would have been shot, over and over again. After several attempts, the exercise was given up as a bad job so we returned to our boats about midnight.[vi]

C

AWM Image CO2496. Lt Fortescue is 2nd from right in front row, on board Omrah.

The actual landing would have echoes of this but without the opportunity to backtrack to the boats. However the die had been cast, and the men were to go ahead. They were by turns nervous, excited, frightened…all perfectly normal and reasonable responses. However before they were launched off into the depths of their first battle the men were given hot food before embarkation, fed a decent meal rather than the usual army fare of sandwiches and hard biscuits[vii], thanks to Colonel Brudenell White’s detailed planning.

The Troops on the battleships were woken at 1 am, given a hot meal and a drink while the tows were being got ready, and by 1.30 am were ready for mustering into companies. This operation was carried out with impressive efficiency: no one spoke; orders were given in whispers. The only sounds were shuffling boots and muttered curses as men slipped on the ladders leading down to the boats. But for many, the tension of that still night magnified the sounds.[viii]

A tranquil day at Anzac in June 2014.

A tranquil day at Anzac in June 2014.

The night was still and clear, the sea as smooth as glass, much as it was today on the 100th anniversary of the landing. Unfortunately the moon silhouetted the ships, alerting the Turkish front line, who while they were unsure whether they were war ships or transports, the limited Turkish shore platoons and reserve units were now on standby until the relief contingents could be brought forward[ix].

On the boats, the men were silent awaiting their baptism of battle. To Victor’s nephew, Lieutenant Charles Fortescue, it seemed “the noise of the pinnaces being filled, in the stillness of the night, was enough to make the whole world vibrate”[x].

Major Fortescue, spoke of a solid mass of Turkish bullets and a cacophany of bugle calls. ..However official historian Charles Bean disagreed. He concluded “was the beach the inferno of bursting shells and barbed-wire entanglements and falling men that has sometimes been described or painted?” Turkish artillery, in particular, didn’t start to fire shrapnel until 5.10am (some reports said 4.45 am), or about an hour after the first Australians landed[xi].” Bean’s theory fits with what is known from the Turkish archives: they were hanging on at all costs until they could be supported by relief troops.

Meanwhile the Battalion’s succinct diary reports that “It was apparent that the naval people has missed their direction it was discovered afterwards that we were two miles north of the position intended. The landing was effected under rifle fire and the troops pressed forward. The enemy gave way and the advance continued. Turkish reinforcements saved the rush and our troops were driven back and hastily entrenched on a commanding position. Turks attacked again about midnight but were repulsed. The Australians displayed great bravery and held on tenaciously[xii]. It would be interesting to read a diary by Peter Stewart (378, 9th Battalion) to get a sense of the ordinary soldier’s take on the chaos of the day.[xiii]

The first roll call of the 9th Battalion at Gallipoli a few days after the landing. The lack of numbers makes it more understandable how Vic Sanders' fate could have been unclear. AWM Image JO6121.

The first roll call of the 9th Battalion at Gallipoli a few days after the landing. The lack of numbers makes it more understandable how Vic Sanders’ fate could have been unclear. AWM Image JO6121.

In the midst of this confusion of that first battle by the ANZACs, Victor Joseph Sanders was killed or died. Perhaps he was among those shot before landing, perhaps he was among those who drowned due to the depth of water, or perhaps he died later in the morning as the 9th Battalion made its assault towards Plugge’s Plateau and was lost among the crevices and gullies of those ridges rising up from Hell’s Spit at Anzac Cove.

What is certain is that Victor Sanders was missing in action (MIA) from that first Anzac morning and was never seen again and his poor family was left in a limbo of confusion as to what had happened to him. Initial reports suggested he was MIA (missing in action). Later his cousin, William Sanders (#2430) had written to his father that Vic was in hospital in Lemnos which presumably he believed since no one could be cruel enough to raise such hopes in his family. The fact that Victor was in his nephew’s company and Charles Fortescue didn’t know what happened to him speaks volumes for the ambiguity and confusion of that first Anzac Day.

From Vic Sanders' Attestion File.

From Vic Sanders’ Attestation File.

In August 1915, Vic Sanders’ brother-in-law, Charles Fortescue snr, wrote to his local Parliamentary member, Mr Bloom, for assistance saying “As you can imagine, the women folk are exceedingly worried. From what the wife told me it will evidently be a considerable time before the Department get any information in the ordinary way”. He offers to pay for telegrams to the hospital at Lemnos but the responses remains negative.

Eventually, in January 1918, Victor’s mother received a parcel of his belongings despatched per the Marathon. Included were 4 belts, housewife, photos, 2 knives, pouch, comb, corkscrew, “house” game, 2 notebooks and letters. What a treasure they must have been for his mother and siblings. For them to have survived it seems likely that either his pack was found though his body was not, or more likely, that he left them on the ship in case his number was up.

As the months, and years, passed the questions remained. It’s hard to imagine two families living under the same roof, one proud of their son Charles Fortescue who was awarded his Military Medal and one worrying about the truth of whether their son and brother was missing, in hospital or killed in action or long since deceased.

For me, it was Vic’s nephew, Major Charles Fortescue’s, report on July 11th  1921 that clinches his death “he landed on Gallipoli with the 9th Bn about 4:30am on the morning of 25th April 1915 with the company to which I belonged. No information has ever been received as to what happened to him from shortly after he landed”.

And yet, on 29 July 1921, a letter from the OIC Base Records says “The Imperial War Graves Commission has sanctioned a continuance of the search, and in the event of a more favourable report forthcoming, next-of-kin will be at once advised.[xiv] By then it is too late for his mother, Elizabeth, who died on 25 July 1920 – perhaps she had given up hope of her son returning.

Despite the lack of pleading letters in Victor’s military file (so common among records for deceased servicemen) the loss and confusion is clear. No doubt his mother’s grief remained until her death in 1920.

To my mind Victor Joseph Sanders serves as “Everyman” of the Gallipoli campaign. One of the earliest who landed on Gallipoli’s shores at Anzac Cove, his fate remains shrouded in mystery. He is not mourned in annual In Memoriam notices for continued periods – perhaps his family felt that would jinx his survival.  That the details of his death are unknown even to close relatives highlights the continued ambiguity and confusion of that first day of battle. The length of time until his death was declared by a Military tribunal in France in June 1916 evokes the trauma and tension of his family’s wait.

I’d have liked to find a photo of Victor among the Queenslander’s WWI images, but unfortunately it’s likely he’s among those whose details are obscured in the Queenslander newspaper editions of 3 and 10 October 1914. When I get a chance I’ll check the indexes at John Oxley Library.

Despite the grief his family bore, it perhaps made it easier that he was not married and did not leave behind a widow or child.

Lone Pine Cemetery, Gallipoli. P Cass, June 2014.

Lone Pine Cemetery, Gallipoli. P Cass, June 2014.

Victor Joseph Sanders is remembered on the Lone Pine Memorial at Gallipoli, just one of many whose bodies were never found and never laid to rest. He is also remembered on the grave of his mother and sister in the Anglican section of the Drayton Cemetery Toowoomba (though with anomalies in fate and age). It was his eldest brother, JW Sanders, who inherited the memorial scroll and plaque, King’s Message, 1914-1915 Star (#2169), Victory Medal (488) and British War Medal (513). Hopefully they are being lovingly cared for and treasured by Victor’s family to this day.

Victor Sanders E600

Lest We Forget.

The words of modern Turkey’s founder, and a Gallipoli military leader, show respect and consolation for the families.

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[i] Australian War Memorial Honour Roll circular http://static.awm.gov.au/images/collection/pdf/RCDIG1068892–878-.pdf

[ii] Ironically Vic’s mother had connections with the Qld railway line and so was probably familiar with Murphy’s Creek, one of my One Place Studies. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article25320723. Parents details from attestation files and Qld BDM online indexes.

[iii] The relationship is stated in the Roll of Honour circular.

[iv] Son of Charles Fortescue, a Toowoomba jeweller, and Emily Elizabeth Sanders. Awarded a Military Cross for his actions on April 25th-29th during operations near Gaba Tepe “For gallant conduct. He twice led charges against the enemy and rendered good service in collecting reinforcements and organising stragglers”[iv]. (Charles Fortescue, Lt, requested commission 17 Aug 1914, aged 21y 3 mos, jeweller.

[v] Having only just returned from Canberra, it’s frustrating to discover Major Fortescue has private papers held by the Australian War Memorial, including details of the landing at Gallipoli. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/2DRL/0497/

[vi] 36 Days. Dolan, H, Macmillan Digital Australia, Sydney, 2010. (ebook location 4156)

[vii] ibid. (ebook location 4717)

[viii] http://www.anzacsite.gov.au/1landing/bgrnd.html

[ix] Defending Gallipoli: the Turkish Story. Broadbent, H, Melbourne University Press, 2015.  (ebook location 411)

[x] http://www.anzacsite.gov.au/1landing/bgrnd.html

[xi] Bean, however, didn’t go along with men like Major Fortescue, who spoke of a solid mass of Turkish bullets and a cacophany of bugle calls. “Neither then nor at any time later,” Bean concluded, “was the beach the inferno of bursting shells and barbed-wire entanglements and falling men that has sometimes been described or painted.” Turkish artillery, in particular, didn’t start to fire shrapnel until 5.10am (some reports said 4.45 am), or about an hour after the first Australians landed.

[xii] 9th Battalion War Diary, April 1915. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/awm4/23/26/ Series AWM 4 Item 23/26/5

[xiii] http://hdl.handle.net/10462/eadarc/2071

[xiv] Attestation file, Victor Joseph Sanders.

Postcards to the Front 1917

Fred Fisher sent this photo to his brother Les from Etaples in September 1917. At the time Les

Fred Fisher sent this photo to his brother Les from Etaples in September 1917. At the time Les was in hospital in Dartford, Kent.

We first met Frederick Charles Fisher in my previous post for the Trans-Tasman Anzac Day Blog Challenge. Fred was a handsome, imposing young man, tall and strong, and no doubt cut a fine figure in his uniform.

1497 Rosary postcard two front low  - Copy

1496 Rosary Card 2 rear low  - Copy

This postcard, from “Ena”, is dated 22 November 1917 and posted in Swindon, England.

While he was serving with the 19th Battalion during the War, Fred obviously had an impact on this young lady. Was she his sweetheart or just a friend? With the rosary theme to each card, it seems likely she was also a Catholic herself.  It seems to me she was desperate to hear from him and perhaps never did. Did he break her heart?  Perhaps he just never got round to writing in the demands of battle and then it was too late.

1531 rosary back low

Postcard dated 12 December 1917.

1530 Rosary front low

 

Postcard sent 22 December 1917.

Postcard sent 22 December 1917.

1494 Rosary postcard  - Copy

 

 

 

 

 

The tone of the letters makes it obvious she kept waiting for his reply, but it seems naive that you couldn’t understand why he didn’t write. Even allowing for the level of censorship it would seem obvious that many things might interrupt his ability to write back, or to receive letters, though plainly he did get these cards.

Had they met while Fred was in England on a furlough or while he was involved with the Championship of England run at Salisbury in September 1917?

His Aussie family know no more about Ena than is shown on these postcards to the Front.

1518 Fred Fisher left low

 

1519 Fred Fisher and others 1917 low

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then there’s this “ring-in” among the Fisher family collection. Who was writing to Gaston Duhamel? Had that person promised Gaston to post him a letter while they were on furlough? Did the card never get sent?

1502 Versailles front  low1503 Postcard to Gaston low

Lest We Forget: William Rudolph (Robert) Kunkel (1930-1952)

Robert and Innes Kunkel on their wedding day

William Rudolph Kunkel, known to his family as Robert Kunkel, was the son of William Thomas (Bill) Kunkel and his wife, Rosetta (Hilda) Kunkel nee Brechbuhl, and great-grandson of George Mathias and Mary Kunkel, the founding couple of the Australian Kunkel family. Bill and Hilda’s other child was Marguerite Elizabeth (Jill) Kunkel. The family moved around as Bill’s job with the Queensland Government Railway (QGR) took him around the state, ultimately settling at Howard, near Maryborough. Anyone wishing to know more about this family should contact me via comment on this post.

William Rudolph Kunkel was born in Brisbane on 14 November 1930 and as a young lad of 16 went to work with Queensland Rail in early 1947 as a nipper in the Maryborough District. Although his railway appointment was confirmed in 1948 he left the railway soon after, and on 18 December 1950 signed up with the Australian Regular Army for a six year period. His service record tells us that he only had “reasonable primary” education. He was a labourer, 5 ft 9.5 ins (176.5cms) with brown hair and brown eyes. On 7 April 1951 he married his wife Innis. The couple had no children. Robert went to Korea with the 1st Battalion, departing on the Devonshire on 3 March 1952, with a few days in Kure, Japan en route (as well as visiting on a later leave).

There is a photo on a website called Memories of Korea by George Hutchinson, the caption for which says “the other lad is Pat Kunkel (Qld)”. I had previously thought this might be Robert, misnamed, but now believe it to be his cousin, Gregory Patrick Kunkel, now listed on the Korean nominal roll. I have tried to contact the author of the website in the past without success in the hope of getting any extra insights or further information about it and to confirm it was Gregory Patrick (usually known as Greg to his family).

The Australian War Memorial website lists William Rudolph Kunkel on the Australian Roll of Honour as wounded and missing in action, presumed dead, on 16 November 1952. The roll includes his official service photograph. Robert’s service record indicates that his status was missing in action until 12 February 1953 when his status was updated to “now reported missing in action, wounded and believed prisoner of war”. His wife became his next of kin after their marriage, and her younger sister remembered the day the message came to say he was missing.

Cousin Greg Kunkel also tried to find out more about what happened to Robert while he too was serving in Korea. On Robert’s file is a statement from Greg that an RC Chaplain, Captain Shine,[i] had heard a Chinese radio announcement mentioning Robert’s name but investigation by the Army indicated this had been incorrect. Nonetheless his parents continued to be convinced that a propaganda broadcast had been heard on 18 November 1952 which mentioned their son’s name and his Rockhampton address. It appears that Bill and Hilda had managed to talk to some of Robert’s colleagues on their return from Korea. Their advice was that he had been badly wounded above both knees by a burst of machine gun fire and was last seen “surrounded by Mongolians and being well and truly tortured”. It seems hard to reconcile this with the findings of the Court of Inquiry which investigated the incident and strange that servicemen would relay this level of detail to their colleague’s parents. It’s apparent  that Hilda was desperately trying to get the Army to focus on her missing son and help her to find out more about his fate.

The official War Diaries for 1 Battalion RAR are now digitised and available online and are invaluable in learning more about a battle or event. Having encountered enemy patrols on the night of 15 November 1952, two fighting patrols were sent out on the night of 16 November. The diary states that in addition there was a nightly standing patrol at the position code-named Calgary which “had a sharp clash with a strong enemy patrol” that night. Casualties from the action amounted to: Own tps (troops) 3 KIA, 1 MIA (wounded and believed PW) and 4 WIA. Enemy: 5 KIA counted.

A fighting patrol from B Company was sent out at 0130 on 17 November to Calgary and was subjected to “intense enemy arty (artillery) and mor (mortar) fire” and it was assumed that “the enemy action was designed to prevent reinforcements moving to Calgary while the enemy was making a strong bid to take that post and capture a PW (my note-Pte Kunkel)”. At first light, and under heavy mist, the bodies of the three Australian men killed in the “sharp clash” were recovered but “no sign was found of Pte Kunkel, the missing member”.[ii] Another patrol was similarly unsuccessful.

Amidst the serious military reports over the next few days, a glimpse of the person behind the reports is seen. Deep penetration bombing of a light machine gun placement missed its target but landed in a Chinese cooking fire from which the Australian troops took pleasure, thinking of the “fried rice added to the enemy’s morning menu”: a flash of Aussie humour.

MIA and POW must be among the hardest of war casualties for families to come to terms with – there would always be the glimmer of hope that the loved one might return, or more learned about his fate. Robert’s Army file includes many letters from his mother to the authorities and his parents plainly left no stone unturned trying to find out more about their son, including travelling to Melbourne to meet Army officials, and appealing to the Red Cross, United Nations Forces, and their parliamentary representatives. Similarly Robert’s wife wrote many letters trying to find out more of her husband’s fate. During Robert’s parents’ visit to Melbourne in September 1953 they were in a “very distressed state of mind believing their son to be alive and a prisoner of war”.[iii] They were possibly also partly frustrated that all official correspondence was sent to Robert’s wife as next of kin. The political situation at the time was difficult and letters to POWs were not being accepted by the North Korean authorities but despite reassurance from various officials the family continued to feel that their case was not being given due consideration.

My father remembered his cousin Robert going to Korea, said to be a gunner and radio operator, and that he never came back. Dad said his Uncle Bill never recovered from the loss of his son and from not knowing what happened to him. Dad also mentioned that over the years Army officers kept coming back to interview Bill & Hilda. Now my father was usually a cynic so perhaps he overstated the case, but if this is correct, you would have to ask why they harboured questions. Did they think he had defected voluntarily? Perhaps an inadvertent comment by Robert’s mother Hilda in a 1954 letter seeking help had triggered this question. She had said that “no personal belongings returned (WHY), his best friends were Chinese right from 16 months of age” and there is a question mark against this comment by the official reading it, perhaps because it seems such a non sequitur.

The Army lists his effects including a framed photograph, crucifix, wallet, smoker’s pipe, ring and a receipt for registered letter. Also among his effects was a tin containing film negatives and 87 photographs as well as 120 films and a Welmy camera – he was obviously something of a photographer and perhaps he’d bought the camera and the film while on a recent leave in Japan or in transit to Korea. In mid-1953 his belongings were still being held in Japan pending news of his fate and in 1954 had not been received by his wife. It’s unknown whether his family ever received his effects but his photographs would have been fascinating.

The Army file for William Rudolph (Robert) Kunkel is comprehensive, detailing the Court of Inquiry which commenced “in the field, Korea” on 12 January 1953 to “investigate the circumstances appertaining to the disappearance of 1/1641 Pte Kunkel W R on the night of 16 November 1952”. There were 10 points to investigate in relation to the event including why the wounded soldier was not brought back to the base, what efforts had been made to retrieve him subsequently, and whether there was any negligence involved. The results of this inquiry resulted in the revised description of his status as wounded, believed taken prisoner.

William Rudolph (aka Robert) Kunkel’s name is listed on the Australian War Memorial’s “in Memoriam” listing for Korea.

It’s likely that the terms of reference explain why some parties were interviewed and others weren’t. Certainly some were away from the area but I found it strange that some people weren’t interviewed by the court, although of course there was a war going on at the same time. The patrol leader, Corporal W Crotty was interviewed and one other member of the patrol, two others were away, one on a course (B R Mau[iv]) and one in hospital (S Brent), and three of the patrol were killed in this action (Reisener, Head, Castle). A Private M Pollard had been replaced on the patrol by Robert Kunkel because the latter wanted to stick with Crotty as they usually did patrols together and the changeover was approved by the Sgt Kavanagh – a fatal and fateful decision by Robert. Pte Kunkel was wounded in a grenade attack around 22:30 and was heard to call out “I’m hit, Mau, I’m hit….” and later moaning and “leave me alone you bastards, let me die”. Both Pte B R Mau and Cpl Crotty were close friends[v] of Kunkel’s and Crotty recognised his voice when he called out. A report by Sgt E J McNulty of 5 Platoon also heard a similar statement. Fearful this was a Chinese trick, they were not drawn out of cover, but a Pte Westcott, also in that patrol, recognised Kunkel’s voice as he knew him well. When searching Calgary they found the deceased members of the patrol but could not find Robert Kunkel although there were signs of track marks from bodies being dragged away. While the military-speak is considered and technical, there is certainly enough detail to distress any close family member or friend. We can only hope that Robert died quickly of his wounds before the enemy interrogation as assumed by the Court of Inquiry. After the cessation of the war, interviews with returned Australian POWs shed no light on the fate of Pte W R Kunkel.

In February 1955, over two years after he was wounded, the Army wrote to Robert’s wife to say officially he was missing, presumed deceased, on or after 16 November 1952. His name is inscribed on the Korean War Honour Board at the Australian War Memorial. In a quirk of fate, a William Marion Kunkel of the USA Army was also MIA, presumed dead in Korea. Meanwhile determined veterans and their relations are working tirelessly to try to identify any remains recovered from Korea and to raise the profile of MIA cases with the Australian government.

Robert’s memory, and that of 43 others Missing in Action in Korea, deserves to live on and it is for this reason that I’ve written this commorative post. Lest we forget.


[ii]  War Diary, 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, 16 and 17 November 1952 on http://www.awm.gov.au

[iii] Service Record Pte W R Kunkel.

[iv] Brian Ransfield Mau was from Hamilton, Waikato, New Zealand.

[v] Per Corporal Crotty during the Court of Inquiry.

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