Do you see that boy sitting, smiling between the legs of his Dad? That’s my Uncle Bill, the only brother of my father. The photograph was taken in about 1925. Bill grew up in a poor street in a poor part of a large city. In his bedroom he had a home-made crystal set; he collected cigarette cards of cricketers and a model of a biplane hung from his ceiling. He was a boy was my Uncle – one day he fell off the roof of the house; another day, running from the rain, he careered neck first into the single strand washing line. But he survived into an unremarkable young adult life, working in a tile factory only ten minutes walk from his home.
Bill became a toolmaker and somehow he became serious. He joined the Communist Party and read books from The Thinker’s Library. On Sundays he attended church. Then he became engaged to a pretty young redhead called Therese who played violin in the city’s symphony orchestra. Bill liked dancing and playing tennis.
When war broke out and his factory was converted to produce armaments, he was “man-powered” into the essential services. Unable to enlist, Bill rebelled by taking a pile of books to work. Then he sat alongside his lathe reading and refusing to operate his machine. They finally let him go and he joined the 24th Australian Infantry Battalion. In 1945 the dark haired, hazel-eyed machinist was 24 years old and headed for the island of Bougainville in the Pacific.
516 Australian lives were lost at Bougainville. Another 1 572 were wounded. For their part, the Japanese lost an estimated 8 500 young men. The war was over before the battle for Bougainville was brought to a military conclusion.
One day my Grandfather and Grandmother got this handwritten letter:
Dear Mr Andre,
I am writing to offer you my deepest regrets and sympathy on the loss of your son Bill. I was his company commander when he was killed and I feel you would like to know how he met his end. Bill was commanding his section on a patrol to locate enemy positions preparatory to an attack by the company. When only a short distance from the position the enemy opened fire on the patrol and Bill was killed by machine gun fire. Due the great superiority of the enemy and others of our own casualties, it was impossible to recover the body which was found untouched when the position was taken the next day. The information gained by the patrol no doubt saved many lives the next day. I would like you to know, Mr Andre, how greatly I admired your son for his coolness, disregard of danger, and general manliness. I had recommended him for his second stripe just before he was killed. He was always quiet, never complained and his men would follow him into any scrap; in all respects he was a son you could be proud of, as I was proud to serve with him. I can only hope that the people of Australia realise just how much they owe to Bill and his kind, and as fully as we that are left realise it.
Yours most sincerely
Stuart C. Graham
This month my country signed a military treaty with Japan. I know that’s the way of the world and I suppose it’s for the best. But I wish I could have seen my Dad and Uncle Bill discussing it over a beer.