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Thursday, 18 August 2005
Page: 143

Mr WILKIE (11:39 AM) —Before I speak on this particular motion I would like to thank Lieutenant Colonel Bob Worswick, who is with us in the public gallery today, for his assistance in planning this speech and for his service to our nation. Lieutenant Colonel Worswick has, for his sins, been attached to my office this week as part of the Defence Force Parliamentary Program, which allows members of parliament the opportunity to experience life in the services and members of the Armed Forces to spend some time here experiencing the not so interesting life of a member of parliament.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—He will know that I represent Australia’s largest army base.

Mr WILKIE —Like my colleagues, I thank the House for the opportunity to remember the deeds of the great Australians who contributed to the Allied victory in the Pacific 60 years ago and to whom we all owe a collective debt. However, before I pay tribute to the veterans of the war in the Pacific, I would like to acknowledge veterans of the war in Vietnam. It was 39 years ago today that the 100-odd soldiers from Delta Company of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment engaged in battle with approximately 2½ thousand Vietcong in a rubber plantation at Long Tan. We choose this day to remember the sacrifices of all Australians who served in Vietnam. On behalf of all members of the House, I extend our thanks and best wishes to our Vietnam veterans and their families.

When the Japanese announced their surrender on 15 August 1945, it was a time to rejoice for the people of Perth. Prime Minister Chifley’s proclamation that the war was over led to spontaneous celebrations among the people of Perth, who flocked to the streets to join the celebration. Soldiers and citizens stood side by side on Barrack Street, dancing, waving flags and enjoying the freedom for which they and their service men and women had sacrificed so much. After six long years of unremitting hardship and sacrifice, the families and friends of those who had served overseas looked forward to the return of their loved ones. But we must never forget that some of our countrymen did not return. They made the other ultimate sacrifice, while others endured unimaginable hardship as prisoners of war. Australia paid tribute to the veterans of the Pacific theatre last weekend. I am grateful to have this opportunity to echo the sentiments of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and my colleagues in the House.

For me, this is a very personal tribute. While we all owe a great debt to those who served this country in the Pacific theatre, I have an individual debt to an unnamed Catalina pilot who did his bit for Australia and a great deal for my family. Indeed, had it not been for the gallant actions of the men of the Royal Australian Air Force who flew Catalina flying boats in the Pacific theatre, I may not have been here today to pay tribute to the Australian heroes of the war in the Pacific. Like many of his generation, my father, Bill Wilkie, answered the call to serve his country. With the war on our nation’s doorstep, my father joined the Army and found himself in the jungles of the Pacific fighting the Japanese. Like many of his colleagues, he spoke very little of his experiences in the war. They did what they had to, without a fuss. As many will tell you, they do not think they are heroes; they simply did their duty.

But I think we are right to venerate them. In war, people are judged by their deeds and some are accorded the status of hero for exceptional acts of courage. However, I feel that the first and most important act of courage is to step forward and answer the call to arms. Just as Australians before them had done—and continue to do to this day—these otherwise ordinary Australians stepped forward and said, ‘I’ll go.’ In doing so, they left their families, their loved ones and our shore, not knowing if they would return. I often wonder how many of us today would do what they did for their country.

There is one small anecdote from my father’s time in the Pacific that I wish to share with the House today. Just before the end of the war, my father and his mates were discovered by the Japanese and they had a fight on their hands. My father was wounded in the leg, and he and his mates sought the assistance of their comrades in arms in the Air Force. This is where I wish to pay tribute to the gallant Catalina pilots, including those still with us today as members of the Catalina Club of Western Australia. With the Japanese closing in on my father and his mates, a Catalina flying boat was dispatched to extricate them from their unenviable position. After deftly landing the plane on a short stretch of river and picking up my father and his mates, it took great skill and courage, and a very good deal of luck, to get the aircraft aloft again and the passengers back to safety. In fact, I am told by my father that, when they were trying to get down the river and get airborne, they had thrown overboard everything they possibly could to lighten the load. They had to bounce the aircraft on the river and they collected a tree on the way out, so they were very fortunate indeed to get out of it. Had it not been for the courage and skill of the Catalina pilot, I would not be here today addressing the House. And so it is that I strongly believe we should remember the deeds of all these men and the example they provide for all Australians, particularly those of us elected to represent the people of Australia.

There are many examples of individual and collective bravery. For me, there is one deed that epitomises the Australian spirit and serves as a fine example for members of the House. Lieutenant Colonel William Owen was the Commanding Officer of the 39th Battalion in New Guinea, whom Peter Brune describes as ‘those ragged bloody heroes’. With the Japanese about to attack his battalion, Owen selflessly walked around his battalion’s perimeter, reassuring his men and making final preparations for the impending battle.

Had he been a lesser man, Owen would have sought the safety of a muddy hole in the ground and may have lived to the end of that day. But Owen was a leader. Having prepared his men for battle, his role as their leader was now to set an example and inspire them to do great deeds. One of Owen’s subordinates said, ‘Sir, I think you are taking an unnecessary risk walking around among the troops like that.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ve got to do it,’ and he was killed half an hour later.

I would ask the members of the House to reflect on Lieutenant Colonel Owen’s courage. When faced with adversity he put the welfare of his subordinates before his own safety. He had the courage of his convictions to make a stand, choosing a hard right rather than an easy wrong. Above all, he did not back down. His subordinates considered him a fine man. From the comfort of the House we cannot imagine the war he and his men endured. I do not dare try to compare myself or my colleagues to William Owen. But we fight our own battles every day on behalf of those who elected us. I wonder how many of us will be remembered by our constituents as fine men or women for the work we do on their behalf in the House.

Like many of my colleagues, I was fortunate to share in the VP Day celebrations last weekend and privileged to meet some of the men and women of Perth who fought in the Pacific theatre in World War II. As the member for Swan, I am honoured to represent the 2,000 veterans and widows of the Pacific theatre within my electorate, and I take this opportunity to remind the House that the people of Perth have strong and enduring ties to all three of the services. Although we formally paid tribute to these men and women last weekend, we should remember that there are many selfless individuals and groups that support our veterans and their families every day. In particular, we should recognise the work done by the War Widows Guild, Legacy and the Returned and Services League.

I am pleased to have been able to support the efforts of three of the RSL branches in my electorate. Last month I attended a ceremony of the Manning sub-branch and met a number of the veterans of the war in the Pacific. I recognise two of those individuals—Jack Davies and Bob Gardner. Jack and Bob both served in the Pacific during the war, and both are foundation members of the Manning sub-branch of the RSL, having joined after they had demobilised in 1946. At a ceremony recently, Jack and Bob were presented with the RSL’s highest award, the Meritorious Service Medal, for 50 years service to the RSL. There are only two meritorious service medals awarded each year, so it was particularly noteworthy that they were awarded to two members of the same sub-branch this year.

I am also pleased to report the commemoration held by the Como sub-branch last month for 60 of their veterans and widows. Similarly, in November, the city of South Perth sub-branch will remember the victory in the Pacific with the rededication of a plaque commemorating the sacrifices made by the citizens of Perth in all wars.

I was recently advised by the Catalina Club of Western Australia that they have a World War II Catalina flying boat in storage in Midland. The Catalina Club of Western Australia want to develop a suitable display so that all residents of Perth and visitors to Perth can share in the history of the Catalina squadron. I believe that the government should look at funding this great initiative, just as they have funded the Salute to Veterans initiative commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. I am told by the chaps from the Catalina Club that this aircraft is totally intact, the engines work and it could be put on the river and flown tomorrow if desired; but they need somewhere to house it. They really want to put it on display so that everybody can see it. It is one of only very few remaining Catalinas that are in this state, and it would be a pity not to put it on display.

Although the war in the Pacific brought the war home to Australia, we should not dwell too long on the tragedy of the Pacific campaign but, instead, rejoice in the knowledge that many of those who answered the call were able to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the war with us.

I have had the good fortune to represent the many veterans of Swan who served in the Pacific theatre such as Gertrude Mary McManus, who is now 94. Mrs McManus was serving as a nurse in the Australian general hospital in Singapore and was one of the last to be evacuated when Singapore fell to the Japanese. She is just one of the veterans residing in Swan whom I will be privileged to meet over the next few months and present with a commemorative medallion.

Before I close, I think it is appropriate to remember that the men and women of the Australian Defence Force continue to serve their country with distinction and, as a resident of Perth, I am regularly reminded of this. So it is that I wish to pay tribute to the Navy personnel of HMAS Stirling and the men of the SAS, some of whom will soon be departing for Afghanistan. I am sure that all members of the House share my admiration for these men and women and wish them godspeed and a safe return to their families when their duty is done.