Friday, February 24, 2012


Sydney Harbour Bridge 1944
 In the early years of the war Australia lay largely cocooned, isolated and far away from any threats of actual aggression.  As usual though we were quick to mobilise army, air force and navy units to send overseas.  Mother England was threatened and needed our help. Then suddenly the status quo altered.  Japan entered the equation, Pearl Harbour was bombed and suddenly we realised the fighting was getting awfully close to home.

Close yes, but not actually in our own backyard, not yet.


My world comprised a tightly knit family circle in Sydney’s beachside suburb of Bondi.  The youngest of the tribe I was surrounded by much older cousins and far too young to appreciate the sudden change in clothing worn by the younger men in my family.

Uncle Bill and Grandfather 1942
Dad came home one day dressed in khaki clothing that I guess didn’t look all that flash.  So did my uncles. There was an awful lot of serious talk going on, and my American grandfather, who at the time I didn’t realise was any different to any one else’s, suddenly wasn’t around quite so often to pander to my every wish and whim.

He was too busy reading the paper, analysing the war news and bringing home stray sailors and soldiers who all sounded just like him.  And their uniforms looked like the ones I saw in the movies when Mum took me to the Saturday matinee.  Maybe I even thought they were all movie stars.

I’m pretty sure my grown up cousins Leota and Gloria thought they were.


Leota and Gloria were always bringing new boyfriends home, not all of them in uniform; our milkman was one who kept calling as opposed to being invited, but Leota apparently, at that stage anyway, didn't rate him as boyfriend material even though he sometimes produced rare bottles of cream. 

She must have changed her mind later though because after the war she married him. 

As you can see there was a huge difference between my cousins and me as this 1940 photo with Leota shows.

But back in the midst of war news from the front and our efforts to cope with all manner of shortages, we experienced our own super catastrophe. The old 'high pedestal embedded in terrazzo with pull the chain loo' broke down, on all fronts, completely. 

Apparently, not a thing could be done to it much less in it. It seemed all Sydney's plumbers along with their plungers and associated spare parts had been sucked into the war effort and were now impossible to flush out.

Life became extremely difficult as we all trooped down to the beach to use public facilities on the esplanade or in an absolute emergency the Faunce’s loo next door.  We soon discovered that Theo, the milkman, apart from being a persistent suitor had other hidden qualities.  He was as my Grandmother put it a man of many talents and he set these to good use scrounging an almost new second hand cistern and even a shiny toilet bowl to replace the old cracked irreparable one.

As Gran reminded us, life could be much worse, we could be in England dodging bombs and spending the nights in air raid shelters.


Despite our complacency  the war did arrive in Sydney.  Not that I fully understood what happened.  I remembered that one particular night, yes... and it’s consequences for Mum and me and my Aunts and cousins.  We were all shunted off to country Inverell,  evacuation I think they called it.  Again small me was too young to understand the word and its meaning.

Years later, I read all about the 1942 submarine raids on Sydney Harbour, but my shielded memories of the night it happened are of sirens and confusion.  In the midst of all this, my father and Grandfather disappeared into the night; but what they saw or heard I have no idea. There was an awful  lot of adult ‘shooshing’ and ‘karkenavoicer’ going on.

It took a while for the general population to find out a bit more damage had been done by enemy bombs than any of us guessed at the time.

Unknown to those in authority Japanese submarines had been sneaking up and down the east coast for some time until in the early hours of May 31st 1942, they launched three midget submarines off the entrance to Sydney’s heavily fortified Harbour.

Over the next few hours the submarines did their best to destroy the busy naval facilities around the port.  One failed to clear an anti-torpedo net and the crew self destructed.  The second sub fired its two torpedoes at the USS cruiser Chicago, the missiles going astray, one running ashore on the naval facility at Garden Island, the other passing under a Dutch submarine before striking the harbour bed beneath the depot ship HMAS Kuttabul where the vessel exploded and sank killing 21 sailors.

That second sub escaped unscathed.  The third midget submarine was later sighted at the entrance to the harbour and was depth charged and later destroyed.

A month later a submarine shelled the eastern suburbs of Sydney and the town of Newcastle to the north.  Unlike the Darwin raid with its heavy loss of life, this attack caused only minor damage.



I grew up with that word ‘karkenavoicer’ constantly ringing in my ears.  I always thought it was just another remnant of  Gran’s Fiji childhood.  She was always saying things like ‘vinaka’ or ‘samoce’ or ‘kerikeri’ instead of good night or good morning or even making sure I said please before grabbing a biscuit or whatever.   

I soon cottoned on to the ‘karkenvoicer’ word though,  it meant my little big ears weren’t meant to understand what was being said by the adults around me.  During the fallout from the Japanese bombing that was a word I heard often. 

The immediate result though, for my mother and I plus assorted aunts and cousins came soon after as we were hurriedly packed and detrained to the then little known town of Inverell near Glen Innes.   I imagine the men folk had to stay behind to look after the batches of home brew happily fermenting on the veranda back at Curlewis Street.

To us city women the small country town seemed somewhere back of beyond, though its choice wasn’t as random as I imagined.  Aunt Viti had been working there at the local newspaper for some months and helped ease us into hastily arranged accommodation.

Mother told me years later the girls all had a wonderful time in Inverell with card parties and fund raising dances at the local hall. I came down with German measles, an unpatriotic complaint, and spent most of the time covered in sticky ointment and cold tea in a darkened room.

Later in adulthood and knowing all we now know about the so-called Brisbane Line, I often wondered why Grandfather moved us north and closer to possible action rather than south.  Maybe he thought the enemy wouldn’t want to go bush.

During the Inverell sojourn for me, at least there was one bright spot. My Aunt Viti married Uncle Erwin and I suddenly acquired a new eight-year-old cousin.   I thought Kurt was very special because he had a bike and once my spots had stopped being contagious he wheeled me around the park opposite the boarding house where Mum and I were billeted. 

As I grew older and listened to the gossip around me, I learned that Uncle Erwin and Kurt were Austrians and together with his mother had left behind their  home and his parents and sister to escape the Nazis and their concentration camps.  There was a lot more to that story that neither Kurt nor I found out about until we were both grown up and Uncle Erwin was dead.

Sadly, by then, it was too late for Kurt to rediscover a lost mother and unknown half brothers and sister living all that time barely a state away; but not too late to discover his parents family history of wartime torture back in Austria, concentration camps and death.



A badly shaken Sydney eventually settled down after the Japanese sub scare and we all returned home. Around this time Dad was invalided out of the army and began working at a Woolworths store in the city.  We moved into a flat in Glenayr Avenue at the Bondi Seven Ways, only a short walk from Curlewis Street so my life continued to revolve around my grandparents. The war raged on, though to a four year old it all seemed very remote.


Like most other families in those days the entire Brown Parker tribe were car-less.  Nearly everyone relied on public transport, in particular the trams.

In fact for some reason or other, some wit in describing a fast getaway coined the phrase, ‘he shot through like a Bondi Tram.’ It’s a slang term still used today.

If  you wanted to go to the city, you took either a tram or a double decker bus.  The bus started and finished at Central Station where we could then board a train to other suburbs like Parramatta, Hurstville or Dulwich Hill where some of Dad's relations lived.  Sometimes we even took the longer rail trip to Newcastle to visit Uncle Bert and Aunt Mary and cousins Rosemary, Margaret, Barbara and John.  That was usually an all day affair and we always arrived back in Sydney at nightfall tired out with the clacketty clack of the train and the nonstop chatter and gossip with the rellies.

The tram journey into town took us on a meandering ride from the beach front along Curlewis Street skirting the harbour side suburbs of Rose Bay, Bellevue Hill and Rushcutters Bay, then into the notorious Kings Cross and onto the city,  turning past Hyde Park to David Jones and ending up at Circular Quay.  

From Circular Quay it was a thrilling ride across the harbour on one of the big ferries to the zoo at Taronga Park or even further on to Manly where a short walk brought us out to another beach:  Not that we were ever deprived of sun and surf with Bondi Beach on our own doorstep.

If we didn't use the bus or the tram there was always shanks pony. In those days people thought nothing of walking the two or three blocks to Hall Street to the post office and the grocery stores or even going further on fun walks around the cliffs to the beach inlets at Turramurra and Coogee.  Sometimes after a late card session or a party at Uncle Bob’s and Aunt Molly’s flat at Waverley we walked home counting stars or singing songs like A Long Road to Tipperary or the Road to Gundagai.  Everyone did things like that in those days.

Mum and Dad did own a car for a short period back then, a very short period indeed.  I gather Dad bought it with winnings from a successful flutter on the races, or the gee gee's as he called them.  It wouldn't have been a huge win because the car was the smallest vehicle on four wheels you could ever imagine. 

Focus on a drab Model T and cut it in half, then squash the sides in until there is just enough room for driver and front passenger,  round it out at back with a half sized dickey seat and there it was, a cross between a rocket and a coffin.

Possibly an early 1930's Morris Minor or an even earlier Model A Ford roadster.  It had obviously seen better days but it was ours when no one else in the immediate family possessed a car at all.

I can remember taking one brief but memorable excursion, the car, Mum and Dad and me.  It was planned as a picnic to Parramatta and we packed in the obligatory blanket along with a hamper of cold meat, probably the left over’s of a leg of mutton, salad in a glass bowl, (no plastic then)  and most definitely I should imagine, an apple pie. 

I wouldn't have been surprised if Dad didn't have a map and a survival kit as well, because Bondi to Parramatta was a huge trip to undertake in the forties, particularly for a driver of little or no experience.  We made it as far as Darlinghurst, a matter of a few miles, when the little car ran out of poof, right in the middle of the cross roads and straddled across two lanes of tram traffic.

Dad got out to push the car off the rails.  Mother was mortified as tram passengers jeered and shouted and one wit yelled out, "Pick it up and put it in your pocket ya galah."

I can't recall ever seeing that car again.


Picnics back then were far more formal than today's casual visits to the beach and the bush.  For a start, we didn't have a picnic basket and the esky hadn’t been invented so the salad, cold meat, mayonnaise and the ubiquitous apple pie, blanket, tablecloth, plates and cutlery were all transported on the tram or bus in a small suitcase.  Aunty May and Gran would always  be decked out in skirt and twin set over corset and stockings. 

Photo shoots were taken pretty seriously with Aunty May refusing even to look at the camera.  The most favoured destination was the botanical gardens looking out over the Harbour and Cockatoo Island. 

At other times though, we went to the zoo at Taronga Park departing on the Harbour ferry from Circular Quay.   It's all still there of course, mostly just as I remember it, except for today’s iconic Opera House and the high-rise buildings, the electric trains and the freeways curling and twisting across the city.  

As you can see, Sydney back then may have been on a war footing, but apart from rationing and the news from the front, life really continued on uninterrupted and with very little change.

To my pint sized eyes anyway.



Robyn Mortimer ©2012

Thursday, February 16, 2012



Memory isn’t always an accurate filing system when it comes to recording family history.  My daughter, for instance, is constantly exasperated and not always amused when my version of childhood events differs from hers. 

It took a while for the penny to drop, a while before I realised her memories were shaped very differently to mine.  I imagine our respective ages at various points in time had a lot to do with it. 

A bend here, a twist there were either non events in her scheme of reckoning or grossly misrepresented and not given their full due by mine.  No doubt, the same problem existed with my mother and her mother and so on and so forth throughout our family’s long and detailed history.  I imagine the same could be said of any family. Yours for instance.

Fortunately, for me, there is no Rewa, nor Maggie, Geraldine, Isabel or Laura around to tell me I have it all wrong.  No ladies from the past ready with a red pencil, critical and furious enough to run a red slash through a line here or a thought there.

Just as well.  I am perfectly content with my version of events, though I do wish some of these long ago ladies had kept diaries, if only to give my brain box a bit of a rest.


If  I close my eyes tight,  race back through the misty tangle of seventy odd years I can almost  reach out and touch the past; be there again all bright eyed and eager, little me in the midst of an early childhood memory.  When this particular memory took place I would have been no more than three or four years old.

Thinking back, I imagine the short walk I took that day probably wasn’t a one off occasion. In fact I'd bet London to a brick on that when Grandfather sent me toddling down the road the short half block to the local SP bookie with a piece of paper and a black and white humbug to suck along the way it was a well traversed trail.  My memory fails to record the result of that particular transaction but knowing my family's luck at the racetrack I suspect the horse is still running.

When I think of home, my first home, I think immediately of Bondi.  In fact my bonding with Bondi Beach took place way back in 1938 when I was barely a few weeks old.  I have to wonder what on earth my mother Rewa was thinking,  I mean look at the photo at the start of this story, she herself is hardly dressed for a day at the beach, neither am I. 

Bondi Beach has been part of Sydney’s history since the mid 1800’s, back in the days when wearing a figure hugging swimming costume was illegal and that was just for the men.  The ladies weren’t allowed to swim at all.


Swimming and costumes improved drastically as the years went by.

But back then, when I was about 4 years old, it was wartime, World War 2, and my parents, Rewa and Guy and I were living in Bondi with my maternal grandparents and Uncle Bill, Aunty May and their three children, Leota, Gloria and Barry. Accommodation was hard to come by.

 Six adults, two teenage girls, tiny me and a ten year old male cousin all crammed together into a three bedroom upstairs flat (apartment or unit for you Americans) in Curlewis Street. 

Just the human element alone was crowded enough, but when you consider we shared the flat with all the old time paraphernalia of homemade beer, it became downright amazing.

I remember kerosene tins on the veranda in various stages of fermentation, panic as an occasional tall slender brown bottle blew its cap flooding the air with the sweet, potent smell of hops and molasses.

No doubt the tell tale aroma drifted far and wide.  Even now when I visit a brewery and breathe in the old familiar brew I'm transported back to a time when I was that little girl, the apple of my extended  family’s eye.

Grandfather was an American, a Yankee from Indiana USA.  A portly if not rotund man with shrewd, hooded blue eyes as treasured old photographs show. He invariably dressed in dark sombre three-piece suits, complete with fob watch, chain, and a rather distinguished looking homburg.

You will remember him as ChasBert my gentle little Maggie’s other half, the grandfather with the dual identity. Gran first met up with him in Fiji but that’s a story I’ve already related.  You can read their saga by Googling in either Fiji or Ancestors in the search engine above on the right.

As the war progressed and Pearl Harbour thrust the United States  into World War 2 and ultimately to the streets of Sydney,  he delighted in picking up stray American servicemen; bringing them back to the flat at Curlewis Street to meet the family.  They in turn brought with them nylons and cigarettes and tins of condensed milk and wonder of wonders, chocolates. With these highly prized luxuries together with the home brew, Dad, Uncle Bill and Grandpa set up a thriving black market.

My eldest cousin Leota was not to be confused with Aunt Leota who lived in Melbourne; nor Great Aunt Leota who lived in Peru, Indiana.  Cousin Leota and my mother were born only a few years apart and were more like sisters than aunt and niece.  A petite and stylish redhead Leota joined the WAAFs and learned to service cars and drive motor transports.

Better still she lived work days in the barracks and that helped free up some space at home.

        Cousin Gloria, a year or two younger than her sister Leota, was a tall and lovely good natured blonde, always smiling. Nothing ever fazed Glor, she just floated about in her own personal cocoon, just too young to join the armed services. 

On occasions Gloria must have tried Aunty May's patience to breaking point because I can still see her trying to brush the blond straighter than straight hair and hitting Glor over the head with the brush when she squirmed and yelped.

I will always remember too, the day Aunty May sent her down to the beach at Bondi with a message for Mother who was enjoying a sun bake on the sand while I paddled in the shallows.  Gloria arrived in a sun frock and sandals handed over the message then joined me at the water’s edge.  As the waves rolled back and forth, she kept edging in further and further until before long cousin Glor was fully immersed, wet clinging dress and all, happily bobbing up and down in the waves. It was quite a sight.

Leota and Gloria were a great hit as well with Grandfather’s hijacked yanks. Life in those days, 1942, circulated around war news, ration cards and coca-cola, and young men called Tony and Lyle and Herb in smart army, navy and air force uniforms that even I could tell were somehow different to those worn by my Uncles Bill and Bob.

On the radio, we listened to Glen Miller and his band playing ‘A String of Pearls’ while The Andrew Sisters sang on about ‘working for the Yankee dollar...’ or 'Drinking Rum and Coca Cola'. Everyone knew the syncopating rhythm for ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ and the haunting World War 1 German hit ‘Lili Marlene’

I was too young to know it was an old song popular on both sides of this new war as it had been back in the first world war.

Bondi Beach lay shrouded under barbed wire and gun placements; rationing meant a lot of fiddling with coupons and the black market: but the closest we, meaning the family at home, came to actual battle was during the Cinesound news casts at the Kings Cinema, a block back from the beach.  About then I began to dimly understand what war was all about. 

The talk revolving around me was about our boys over there, wherever there was, and the fact that more were on the way.  The family gathered hushed around the radio, odd words filtering through tears and worried faces.  My uncle Bob was over there somewhere, in the desert in Egypt as I later found out.
Conflict and death might have been worlds away on a defining map, but for all the grownups around me the fear was very real. 

Going to the ‘pictures’ was the big event of the week.  Before the main movie we sat through cartoons, then the news casts when the screen filled with graphic news reports from abroad.  In the black and white footage of the day, we saw the muddy, steaming jungles of New Guinea, harrowing scenes of refugees in Europe, battle scenes from the African desert, Rommel and Monty and the Rats of Tobruk. 

By now, our boys were fighting on all these fronts and my shriek of recognition in the darkened theatre, That's Tony as a bloodied and torn airman was shown being dragged from a damaged plane on an island somewhere in the Pacific wasn’t surprising.  Tony was an American pilot my grandfather had brought home just a few weeks before, and suddenly for me the war was very real.

After all that newsreel drama it didn’t seem right to settle back and watch Roy Rogers and Dale Evans riding into a peaceful sunset or Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney clowning about in some frothy studio extravaganza.  Later, as the Hollywood propaganda machine really got going, we sampled movie versions of the war through tearjerker films like Mrs Miniver, and Foreign Correspondent, and even Casablanca.

Everyone said we were safe down here in Australia, the war would never reach us.  

But it did.



Robyn Mortimer ©2012

Sunday, February 5, 2012



     It’s not by intent that the majority of my ancestor stories seemingly  concentrate on the maternal side of my family, about the relations from Sussex and Fiji and the American grandfather of the dual names, ChasBert Brown-Parker.  It’s just that I knew them better, they and their history were my childhood companions.

  Dad’s side of the family though was another kettle of fish entirely.  My mother put a stop to any close fraternising; she and they you could say were not enamoured of each other.  Then Dad’s death while I was still a teenager meant I lost the one person who could, maybe, have filled me in on their past.

  This chapter concerns one man and his grandson born 70 years apart... both named Charles Brown... both combat hero’s, in my eyes at least.  One on the veldts of South Africa the other in the steamy jungles of Vietnam.

Ken McFayden Australian War Museum
A while ago in Australia’s history, in 1900 to be exact, mother England and it’s South Africa colonies were at loggerheads with the Boers.  Capetown, the southern tip of the vast African continent had ceased to be merely a convenient restocking stopover for sailing ships enroute to  the new colonies of Australia and New Zealand. 
During the Napoleonic wars Britain had acquired the republics of Dutch-Afrikaner settlements, and these alongside their own English speaking colonies forged an uneasy relationship, barely tolerating one another throughout the early 1800’s.  Then, in the 1880’s gold and diamonds were discovered, mainly in the Boer republics, English diggers started a gold rush, an imbalance of British and Boer settlers caused further friction, until suddenly the southern parts of the continent were at war.
Australia answered the British Empire’s call for troops with contingents of fighting men. 
These were recruited in waves, the first were the militia of already established colonial forces. The second were the ‘bushmen’, country lads recruited from rural areas and paid for by public subscription and donations from wealthy landowners, while the third were known as the ‘draft contingents’ raised by individual state governments and the newly established Commonwealth government.  Up to Federation the six Australian colonies had maintained separate government.
Grandfather Charles Brown, my father’s father answered the second call in Hillgrove, a small gold mining settlement high on an escarpment overlooking the vastness of Wollomombi Gorge.
He duly became a private in the First Australian Mounted Rifles. All  the recruits were eager young men seeking adventure, sons and grandsons of convicts and gentry alike.  They were in the main natural born horsemen, had an affinity with the land and were excellent marksmen.  Their skill with rifle while mounted was unsurpassed.  
Charles though was not a young boy when he sailed off to war, he joined up when he was 28 years of age.
His father, my great Grandfather, William Brown was a Scotsman from  Blairgowrie in Perthshire.  In 1860 as a  17 year old he arrived in the Colonies giving his occupation as a butler.  Just five years later he marries an Irish immigrant from Cork,  Ellen Vaughan and in doing so he unwittingly seals the future of his fourth born son Charles.
The witness to the marriage, or best man as we would describe him now,  was Samuel Marshall, the 19 year old son of my great-great Grandparents, the convict Samuel Marshall and his wife, the Convict’s Daughter, Catherine Spalding.  Young Sam in the goodness of time would see his brother John’s daughter Bella Marshall marry Charles, the 30 year old son of his good friends William and Ellen Brown.
But before his romance and marriage to Bella, Charles has a war time rendezvous with the Boers in South Africa.
The more heart stirring logistics of war are often hidden in the drama and bloodshed of actual conflict.  Apart from a passing reference to cost and transport little space is allotted to a soldiers most necessary accoutrements. 
In the case of Trooper Charles Brown’s B Squadron, the one item he and his comrades in arms treated with the utmost respect, the one item they implicitly trusted their lives with was their mount, their horse, the speedy little nag that would carry them and their weapons into the bloody jaws of war.
Such was their horse’s value and necessity the troops of the 1st Mounted all had spares in reserve and they  traveled together on the sea voyage from their homeland in Australia to the great unknown that lay ahead.
Over 300,000 horses died in the years of the South African battle.  In Port Elizabeth, where the photograph of one horse being unloaded from the decks of a troop ship was taken,  there is a bronze Horse Memorial, a lasting tribute to the memory of these unsung equine heroes.
 For the sole purpose of war a rough total of 360,000 horses were shipped into South Africa from as far afield as Europe, North America, Argentina and Burma, with 35,000 alone arriving from Australia. Grandfather Charles would arrive home with tragic memories though, in one battle alone he had two horses shot dead beneath him.

Charles, or Scotty as he was no doubt called by his mates... both father and son had broad Scots accents, sent letters home regularly, some of which his father in Liverpool forwarded on to local newspapers.  (Otherwise we wouldn't be reading the letters now.)
Early in March of 1900, Grandfather’s squadron arrived at the Modder River, scene of the famous battle  just  in time to witness the surrender of the controversial Boer General, Piet Cronje.
Cronje, in civilian life a burgher or farmer,  had led his men against the British troops in guerrilla style battle. Prior to his surrender it was said he lost 8,000 men in bitter months long fighting.  After his surrender when he finally appeared before the British commander Lord Roberts at Paardeberg the Boer General strenuously begged not to be separated from his wife, Frau Cronje. 
Rather unkind I thought, after all circumstances of war no doubt dictated her unwashed condition, Cronje’s wife was described by one English correspondent as being a ‘thin dirty bedraggled old lady’.
In a letter home written just a day or two after the surrender, Grandfather tells that his squadron was put on guard duty around the camp at the Modder River...
at night we are guarding about 8000 Boers.  They are a wild looking lot and give us a bit of trouble sometimes.  400 of us were camped around them last night with us mounted (on our horses) all night.’
He goes on to add...
 ‘I saw Cronje and his wife.  He is a funny looking fellow.  He was surrounded (in battle)  for five days before he would surrender and his wife, who begged and prayed of him to give up, got wounded in the fight.   She always went with him when he was fighting so she must be a brave woman.’
‘Cronje is being well treated and the day he came down after surrendering we were all called out to give him a salute.’
In fact an English officer observing the captured General and his wife at breakfast next morning sent over a cigar, but when the General had smoked and enjoyed that one he asked for another and was refused.
General Piet Cronje commandant general of the Traansvaal Republic and his wife Hester were transported along with 1000 prisoners of war from Capetown to St Helena in the Bermudas where Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821..
The prisoner of war camp on St Helena was one of numerous British camps situated throughout the world.  While most of the prisoners were housed in shanty type accommodation at a site known as Deadwood, the Cronje’s were allotted  comfortable two story housing in Kent House some distance away.
The Cronje’s are pictured in the  grounds of the cottage from where he would ride to visit his men in their prison at Deadwood.
Boer General Piet Cronje and his wife Hester– prisoners on St Helena
 Obviously prison life has agreed with the Cronje’s both husband and wife, no longer could the newspaper correspondents description of her as being thin and bedraggled apply.  But at least he had his wish, the two weren’t separated.

     Never let it be said that Mother England neglected her troops in the field. Their comfort and well being on the veldts of South Africa were obviously uttermost in Queen Victoria’s mind.

    As the festive season approached, back home in England Her Royal Highness had countless little workers busily packing tin upon tin of choice chocolates for distribution to her brave soldiers at the front.

        Presumably they were meant as a Christmas or New Year gift though many didn’t arrive at the front until months after the celebrations.
  Over 40,000 tins were packed by England’s then three top chocolate producers, Rowntree’s, Cadbury’s and Fry.  The tins were of uniform size with only slight apparent difference in production.  Officers  however received larger tins.
Perhaps their appetites were bigger than those of enlisted men.
The photo shows the Queen’s Chocolates being distributed to troops at the Modder River in February 1900.

A fortnight after Grandfather’s encounter with Cronje  two letters from soldiers at the front are published in Liverpool papers, one from Private Brown the other from Private Mason.
 in his  letter written from Bloemfontein on March 17th 1900,  Grandfather describes an encounter against a larger force of Boers ...
I have a few minutes to myself so I will send you a little news..... ‘300 of us attacked 11,000 Boers at Loofontein and we were under fire  for nearly five hours, the bullets falling round about us like hailstones...we killed a terrible lot of Boers.’
Ted Smith a Liverpool comrade, is attached to us and we were fighting together in the last fight.’
Their squadron  arrived in South Africa too late to become involved in the disastrous British defeats of  late 1899 when over 2,300 men were killed or wounded in three separate engagements.  But the First Australian Rifles, part of the second wave of recruits of which both Brown and Mason were part, were present during the relief of Kimberley in February and in battle at Paardeberg later in the same month.
Another letter home dated March 20  from Private Mason, a comrade  in arms also from Liverpool, describes fighting on the Modder River...
... ‘I had my horse shot from under me but escaped personal injury...the stench arising from dead soldiers and horses is almost unbearable in some places...’
In his letter Charles has shortened the spelling of the town, Bloemfontein.  He then goes on to tell about the squadron’s horses...
we are all going to get new horses, we want them badly as ours all have sore backs.’
He tells his father about the high cost of tobacco, 5 shillings a cake... ‘but I did without them.’  A drastic but effective way to give up smoking.
Even though he escaped some of the bloodiest encounters there is no doubt Grandfather Charles has experienced both the reality and the futility of war,  he ends the current letter with this cryptic comment...
when I get home I will read you the contents of my pocket book and then you can form some idea of what war is like.’
A notebook that didn’t survive the ongoing years.

First Australian Horse without horses
Another letter dated April 2nd .  Charles writes from Spyfontein, on the railway line 11 miles from Kimberley. The letter has been posted from Bloemfontein where he and the Squadron have been sent to acquire new uniforms...


...‘Bloemfontein again tomorrow to get some clothes and not before we want them...then to Delagoa Bay which will be another trip on the boat for about a week.  It is getting very cold here...we had a bit of a fight the other day. 
There were only 30 Boers and 15 of us.  We had a great go in, killing 20 of them and only one of our men was wounded. We had to fight our way to the place where we are now camped.  It has been raining hard...I pity some of the poor fellows who have to sleep out.  I have been sleeping in a very dry place since we got here.‘
Just four months later, June 31st, Charles writes yet another letter to his parents from Wynberg near Capetown where we find him recuperating from a bout of fever. (Though later it is described as typhoid.)

 His letter continues...
‘...I am O.K. and getting as fat as ever.  I was sent down from Bloemfontein about a week ago to Capetown.  I think they will send all of us who are sick home soon.  In fact we expect to leave any day for Sydney. ...I would sooner be up with my company than in the hospital, but they will not send us up after having fever.  Two boats leave Capetown every week with about 1000 troops.’ (Presumably with sick and wounded.)
‘I do not take much interest in the war now was a bit of hard luck that I took sick just as we were near the end.  I heard today that one of our officers was killed last week and three men wounded.’
‘Sleeping out did not hurt me, it was the water that gave me the fever.’
For Grandfather Charles Brown his war is over, his parents thankful his life has been spared.  

The South African war however continues, and while perhaps a majority of Australians will in time become disillusioned with Britain’s military conduct of the Boer War,  it will be many years before the full story of a harsh war and its heavy death toll is told...The ugly story of wartime concentration camps housing and starving the women and children of the Boers.  The execution of Australian troops, the true story of Breaker Morant.  The all to real futility of war that Trooper Charles Brown confined to his note book for his father to read when his son returned home.
In August of the same year the people of Liverpool, in a public gathering complete with bunting, flags and brass band welcomes home two of their soldiers, Private C. Brown of Liverpool and Private F. Mason of Hoxton Park.
Liverpool, the town of his birth where his parents and siblings still reside, organises a gala welcome. Great Grandfather William is a prominent businessman and a long time member of the Order of Foresters.  A parade through the streets is organised, the Mayor and dignitaries welcome the two soldiers onto the dais in front of a large crowd.
Member of Parliament Mr T.W. Taylor makes a speech lauding the actions of the two men who answered their countries call to arms.  He goes on to state the war in South Africa has done much to ‘cement the British Empire’ than any other incident in English history.  He mentions that Private Brown had taken part in seven battles and had two horses shot under him.
Another VIP, Dr Beattie expresses his sincere pleasure in taking part in the proceedings, Private Brown and Mason, he adds, had borne the British flag in South Africa and had returned home invalided and he was proud to welcome them.
That night both Troopers are treated to a smoke concert at Mrs Marsden’s Commercial Hotel.   But while Charles was born in Liverpool and had lived there most of his life, he had actually joined up in Hillgrove.
 Two days later on a Saturday night, to rousing music played by the town’s band, he is officially welcomed home together with another local soldier, Private W. Gribble.   Both men had arrived back in Australia together on the ship Persic.

The Hillgrove Brass Band
The town of Hillgrove at this stage is still intact with a large population and a busy commercial district.  But within a few years mining will suffer a setback and, as unbelievable as it seems, the towns buildings will be dismantled.  Hotels, public buildings, churches, homes, offices, all will be reduced to timber, tin and brick and relocated far from this beautiful escarpment .  Many ended up in the thriving town of Armidale.
All of this though is still in the unknown future,  two years on Charles will wed his Bella Marshall in Hillgrove, and though my father is not born in the general area of the town he will be named Guy, perhaps in memory of the rushing tumbling Guy Fawkes River that tumbled into the Wollombi  Gorge on its meandering journey to the Pacific Ocean.
Trooper Charles Brown will never meet Guy’s son, Charles Brown, which is a pity, he and his grandfather the Boer War veteran would surely have found they had a lot in common.
Charlie and Dad, Guy Brown, 3 years before our father's death.
I had no direct contact with my Boer War grandfather, Charles Brown, my father’s father. He died before my birth, and later, as I was growing up I saw and mixed with the Brown family only rarely, so I heard few stories about him...
Yet there is a parallel between Charles, the Boer war grandfather, and yet another man with the same name,  Charles Brown; he is my  baby brother and only sibling.

I can be forgiven for calling him a baby, there is after all the twelve year age difference between us.  Because our parents were both more often in ill health rather  than active and well it was left to me to look after him, the baby in our family.
 Through the ages of twelve, thirteen and on when either or both Mum and Dad were rushed to hospital I held the fort until my Grandmother Maggie made the rush trip from Sydney to Brisbane.  I loved him dearly and I still do.

Then by the time my little brother began his growing up years  I was married and starting my own family.
Charlie was four years old when our father Guy Brown died in a military Repatriation Hospital in Brisbane.  With Dad’s death went any chance of learning about Dad’s family; about his own father’s Boer war experience for instance, the personal details that rarely accompany official records.
My paternal Grandmother, Bella Marshall whose own grandmother  I’ve written about in ‘The Convicts Daughter’  did live long enough to meet her youngest grandson, Charlie Brown when he was barely five years old and I was seventeen.
But again, the seeds of genealogical inquisitiveness had yet to emerge and I failed to ask the questions I would love answered now.
There must be an inherent trait in all young men that calls them instantly to war when danger threatens.  In brother Charlie’s case it was the Vietnam War.
Vietnam was the 1970’s war that our returned soldiers rarely talk about; the war they bottle up inside themselves, quietly and privately reliving and experiencing time and again the horror they lived through as young men in that far away Asian country.
I have always respected my brother’s privacy, but once others, former fellow servicemen,  had broken through the silence, publishing  first hand accounts of the particular war he and they had shared,  I felt the time was right to place his life where it belongs,  with his proud family and beside the memory of another young man who fought a very different type of war, not in helicopters but on a tough speedy little horse.
To avoid intruding too much on my brother's personal  life I will limit his Vietnam story to the accounts written by others.

Charlie Brown was a young, very young helicopter crewman with 9 Squadron RAAF Iroquois based in Vung Tau. He has rarely, and then only briefly, spoken to me about his time in Vietnam. What I now know about his Vietnam service I have found through the few newspaper interviews others have given and eventually gone public with.
At seventeen, Charlie enlisted as a Royal Australia Air Force ground defence guard, but at the time the following event took place he was a rear gunner on one of the ‘Bushranger’ Iroquois helicopters operating out of Nui Dat.
The following story was related and published on the internet by a retired Salvation Army Officer, Bob Stephens,  in his youth a fellow helicopter crewman in the Vietnam conflict.
On the particular day this event occurred Bob’s aircraft was taking part in a medivac mission when his helicopter was shot down in the Long Hai  hills resulting in their army medic, John Gillespie’s death along with other supporting servicemen on the ground...
Charlie was a rear gunner on one of the Bushranger gunships  circling above, assisting the downed aircraft with covering fire until the surviving crew could be rescued.
Bob Stephens, in the 2008 interview I found on the web, didn’t dwell on the horrors of that particular day, nor did he even hint at the heroics of any of the participants:  His purpose in going public was to talk about the little known philanthropic activities that he and three other former air force mates had been quietly performing  in Vietnam during the past few years.
Those four ex-servicemen were Bob Stephens, Roy Zegers the door gunner on his downed chopper, and helicopter aircrew mates Peter Johnson and Charlie Brown, crewman and door gunner respectively on one of the Bushranger gunships that provided covering fire until  Bob Stephens could be rescued.
It was left to another website supplied by Keith White to describe the unfolding events of that fateful day, April 17, 1971.
This is the graphic description of what happened when Corporals Stephens and Gillespie aboard the medivac helicopter arrived to rescue injured personnel in the midst of battle.

(The lead up to the medivac – four South Vietnamese Regional Force soldiers have been injured by a mine explosion and difficult terrain demanded a helicopter evacuation.  The Long Hai hills – caves and dense timber has long harboured a major Viet Cong base and the medivac requires the protection of helicopter gunships.)

‘Late afternoon April 17, Iroquois A2-767, captained by Flying Officer Mike Castles was scrambled for an urgent dustoff (medivac) in the Long Hai Hills.  Due to the location two Bushrangers escorted the lightly armed dustoff helicopter on its mercy mission.
 On arriving in the area it was found there was no clearing.  It was necessary for the chopper to hover so that the winch and stretcher could be used to extract a South Vietnamese soldier, who had both legs blown off at the knees by a land mine.
Crash site in the Long Hai Hills where L/Cpl John Gillespie died in the helicopter medivac crash in April 1971.  Cpl Tom Blackhurst also died in the same incident.
The wounded soldier had just been strapped into the stretcher on the ground when the Viet Cong opened fire on the chopper, hitting it repeatedly.  Despite the gun fire Cpl R.A. Stephens started the winching operation while LAC Roy Zegers replied to the enemy’s fire.
The Iroquois took more hits and all of a sudden there was silence as the engine stopped and the doomed helicopter fell out of the sky.  Cpl Stephens watched with horror as the legless soldier on the ground below got out of the stretcher and crawled away from the falling chopper.
 The chopper crashed into a boulder strewn area occupied by South Vietnamese troops and their advisors resulting in one American and one Australian soldier being killed by flying debris.
The two pilots and LAC Zegers managed to get clear of the burning wreck.  However Cpl Gillespie, an army medical orderly, had his legs firmly pinned in the wreckage and Cpl Stephens remained behind to free him.  It was impossible to do so and Stephens just managed to scramble clear as the aircrafts fuel and ammunition exploded.
Cpl Stephens applied first aid to the wounded co pilot Tony Ford while a vicious fire fight was taking place around him  between the ARVN and the Viet Cong.  He continued caring for the wounded until a rescue helicopter landed to evacuate the dead and wounded.
 The South Vietnamese soldier they had attempted to rescue was one of the dead’.
And there the story rested until some 35 years later when four former comrades met up again in a Brisbane coffee shop.

Charlie arrived home to a joyful reunion with his family and began assimilating back into everyday suburban life.
But this is when Australia, a broad mainstream of Australia, let our boys from the Vietnam war down.
When I wrote about Grandfather Charles Brown returning home from South Africa to brass bands and waving cheering crowds I was chronicling yet another traditional homecoming to a hero returning home from the war.  The same joyous welcome accompanied the men and women returning from the Great War of 1914-18, from the Second World War and even from the Korean War.
The welcome ceremonies were in effect an assurance of a job well done, a valve that eased off some of the pressure of war.
The war in Vietnam though was not a popular one to a great many Australians.  It had been marked at home by rowdy demonstrations and street marches.
Vietnam and everyone connected with it acquired a tainted image. 
When the boys, many of them  National Service Trainees, arrived home it was to a conspicuous silence.  The  perceived blame, if there was any blame, for the country’s participation in the fight against the Viet Cong should have been laid solely at the door of politicians.
Instead it widened to include the young men who had risked their lives in the service of their country.  Many had no choice in the matter, their participation, on their 20th birthday was controlled by the luck of a ballot.  Over 15,000 young men, all conscripts served in Army Corps alongside regular troops in Vietnam.
The Australian Navy and Air Force did not use the National Service Ballot for Vietnam.   My brother  enlisted long before his 20th birthday.
This slap in the face to an Army and body of fighting men and women would have long reaching consequences that are still being felt today.

Surviving participants of that tragic day  back in 1971 didn’t see each other again until 2006 when Stephens, Zegers, Pete Johnson and Charlie Brown met up in Brisbane over coffee and lunch.
Bob Stephens at the time was the Chief Commissioner for the Salvation Army Red Shield Defence Services.  For those from an ARA background, Bob was the chief ‘Sallyman ’, responsible for philanthropic representatives in support of Army units in the Australian Defence Forces.
Pete Johnson and Charlie Brown had already made a quiet trip to Vietnam, involving themselves in giving aid to needy Viet veterans and their families and to orphans in various centres.
Over the coffee and chatter Pete and Charlie revealed they soon intended  making a return trip to Vung Tau and the Long Hais area.  With regret Stephens felt it was not yet the right time for him to go back to Vietnam, he was still undergoing treatment for post traumatic stress.  A year later in 2008 he did join them on another trip.
As Bob tells the story the four men retraced their war time steps , confronting their personal battles , meeting and befriending some of the men, the Vietcong, they had fought against all those years before.
Pete and Charlie met a former VC, a Lt from D445 Btn by the name of Hi Nung who had been appointed by the People’s Party in Hanoi as the ‘caretaker’ of the Long Hais battlefield in the old Province of Phuoc Tuy.   Nung lived with his family in a typical ‘shanty’ with a thatched roof that leaked badly in the wet.  Pete and Charlie paid $US800 to have a galvanised corrugated iron roof installed.
Bob with Hi Nung and Baby San & their new dentures.
Nung also had some blood heart issues and after a medical examination Roy Zegers paid $US5000 for treatment. Roy later met a former VC Colonel, Sau Thu, who led the attack on the Australians at Long Tan in 1966. Sau Thu received a head wound in the battle and as a result was left profoundly deaf in his left ear. 

Roy paid for him to have a hearing device implant.  Both Vietnamese men were overwhelmed by his kindness and generosity.
The four made further trips to Vietnam quietly helping their former foe where they could and were instrumental in locating long missing bodies of fallen Australian serviceman that were either later marked with a commemorative plaque or repatriated back home.
The efforts of these four Australians were sincerely appreciated by the Vietnamese and all four received formal invitations by the former Viet Cong General, Hi Quan, to attend the VC Veterans’ Day.  A rare privilege and an honour; foreigners have never before been invited to these events.
Their help wasn’t just centred on their former adversary, the soldiers of the Viet Cong;  the four... Charlie, Pete, Roy and Bob quietly helped the children of Vietnam as well, supplying food, clothes and toys to the children’s orphanage at Baria. 
Bob closed his story with the observation that perhaps some fellow Australians might not entirely approve their action in giving help to the former enemy;  ‘but’, as he explained;  ‘they, the Viet Cong,  had to do what they had to do, and we had to do the same.  Now we can put the past behind us and try to treat each other with respect, as former warriors’.
All four men have fought their personal battles with post traumatic stress and each feel their visits to Vietnam have helped give them some closure on their wartime experiences.  To this day they continue their visits to Vietnam.
I am much older now, my baby brother has passed the sixty mark, yet it has taken all these years for me to discover and fully appreciate his incredible bravery under fire, and his ongoing integrity.

Charlie Brown’s father, Guy, and his grandfather, Trooper Charles Brown the  Boer War veteran, would have been enormously proud of their offspring.

Robyn Mortimer ©2012