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My pop's Anzac nightmares

  • 24 April 2014

'That was fairly close.' Even to my 15-year-old mind it sounded like an understatement. My maternal grandfather, Graeme Mills — Poppa — had just finished describing a long, hard night in New Guinea during the Second World War, when, as a stretcher bearer, he'd tended to two landmine victims, including one who had lost his leg. He spent the night darting between the two maimed men, providing physical aid, and whatever comfort and assurance was possible. Turns out he was lucky that he didn't end up laid out alongside them: the next morning he discovered that the entire narrow ridge was riddled with mines.

I carelessly lost the original recording of that interview, which I conducted as part of a high school assignment around Anzac Day; to my knowledge, it was one of the few times Poppa spoke so openly about those experiences. But I still have a copy of the article I wrote, which captures snippets of his voice, along with my observation that his 'face is expressionless; he is simply an old man reminiscing about events from his past'. There is also a youthful jingoism contained in my closing line, 'Those who returned, we should thank for the life we are able to lead today. For those who fell — Lest We Forget.'

In my naivety I missed the gravity of Poppa's stories. He was, I noted in the article, 'apparently ignorant to exactly how exciting' they were. Of course, to someone who lived through those experiences, 'exciting' probably doesn't come into it. Poppa was a Salvationist and a cornet player, who joined the military so that he could play in its marching band, which had impressed him with a performance in his hometown of Broadford in country Victoria. When the war broke out six months later it was duty, not adventure, that took him to New Guinea as part of the brutal Salamaua–Lae campaign.

I don't know how he felt about Anzac Day. Unlike the Vietnam veteran brother of Julie Kean, who wrote in Eureka Street this week, he did participate in the annual parade, and years prior to the interview he was proud to allow me to wear his medals for a parade at my primary school. But his memories of the war read to me now not as thrilling tales of derring-do but as a kind of sustained anxiety dream. 'We were fired upon by a Japanese Woodpecker