Uncle Kevin's letters home from the war


Uncle Kevin

I never met my uncle Kevin, who was killed on 9 February 1942 in Singapore. However we were fortunate to have a collection of his letters home from Malaya and reading his letters gives a brief glimpse into his life at war.

Kevin was the quarter master of the 2/20th battalion, in the 8th Division. Those who survived the Imperial Japanese army’s advance through Malaya and Singapore spent the next three and half years as prisoners of war.

Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, gave us some insight into their story. Reading Uncle Kevin’s letters gave me another glimpse of life for those Australian soldiers.

In his last letter to my father, dated 21 December 1941, he thanks dad for the Canteen Order, but laments the fact the Canteen is not operating and hopes it will reopen soon. Interestingly he then says 'Up to the time of writing this note, …we have not fired a shot – except for ranging practice and ammo testing.’ He signs off in a simple manner: ‘Well its getting dark now and lights of any consequence are taboo, so Cheerio, Kevin.” Less than seven weeks later Uncle Kevin was killed.

Given the censors, he is not going to give away much information so his letters are about basic things such as the pungent beer, the rain and mud, currency conversion, and most importantly the mail he has received and concern for his blind widowed mother.

The same day he wrote to his mother, my grandmother: ‘I wanted to get a line away before this just to let you know that we were OK. …All the fellows are in great spirits over here and are very bucked to know that at last Australia has woken up to the fact that there’s a war on, in which they are very much involved.’

His letters were light-hearted, ‘One night about five days before this show started, I bet one fellow an even bottle of ‘Tiger’ (beer) that hostilities would break out before the following Monday. (I haven’t collected it yet). However, I was telling Hutch (the pay sergeant) about it and he blindly offered me $10.00 to nothing that it wouldn’t break out before my birthday (22nd March). Well naturally, I accepted the bet – it was “money for dirt” as Sandy Powell says.’ I never learnt if he collected on his bet.

He then signs off to my grandmother, 'We’ve still to get our first shock yet but after the first few enemy "bangs" I guess there will be nothing to it.'

Some years later, Dad sent a copy of the letter to one of Kevin’s fellow soldiers, hoping to learn more about what happened to his brother. In the letter to Dad, it said ‘We were on a track about a hundred yards or so from the water at the junction of the main road that lead back to Singapore past the aerodrome. After the artillery barrage and landing we were cut off and surrounded by dawn so it was then that Captain Betteridge decided on a break out by truck towards the drome some few miles away. Kevin decided to go on foot through the rubber. That is the last we saw of him’.

Mum and I visited his grave in Kranji War Cemetery in 1994. There are 4465 graves, and memorials for 24,346 other allied personnel. The rows of graves, carefully maintained, can be shocking to see. I remember reflecting as I looked at his grave, and those of others about how young they all were. Uncle Kevin was 25, and that was old.  Lest we forget.

Kerry Murphy profile photoKerry Murphy is a Sydney immigration lawyer who writes regularly for Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Kerry Murphy, Anzac Day, Anzac, war



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Kerry, your account bespeaks familial affection that is very understandable. I appreciate your sharing it. You paint a vivid picture of your uncle. But I want to challenge your final three words: “Lest we forget”. This lies at the root of the problem about Anzac Day. It has become a lazy codeword for a vague guilt-trip. You probably mean nothing but that you won't forget your uncle. But the unspoken meaning behind these words as they are repeated elsewhere is “Don’t forget their sacrifice for you.” This is very dishonest. It is not at all obvious or certain that most soldiers in any of the wars thought loftily about philosophical principles of their contemporary or future Australia. Many will have found themselves there out of a vaguer sense of duty to country (or Empire), or other things: bravado, exuberance, peer pressure. It seems from many examples of censored letters that they were ordinary men who missed their families and tried to keep a brave face. Why therefore do we feel we have to ennoble them beyond normal human behaviours? “Lest We Forget” indeed. How can anyone not be conscious of their deaths or suffering, since we are reminded religiously every year? But if they were sacrificial victims, they were mostly placed there by force of circumstances and politics, and we shouldn't forget that either. We should cease the divinisation of our soldier ancestors and just love them as ordinary humans.

SMK | 23 April 2015  

SMK: " We should cease the divinisation of our soldier ancestors and just love them as ordinary humans." Certainly we should not glorify dying for a cause above devoting one's life for the betterment of others, but perhaps we should use the former to realise the value of the latter, and be more appreciative of the lifelong struggle of parents and others who make many personal sacrifices to help to ensure coming generations are able to better achieve their potential for self fulfilment and happiness.

Robert Liddy | 24 April 2015  

...In the midst of utter devastation and chaos, a father left his wife securely at home and rushed to the school where his son was supposed to be, only to discover that the building had been flattened as a pancake. After the traumatic initial shock, this man remembered the promise he had made to his son: “No matter what, I’ll always be there for you!” And tears began to fill his eyes. As he looked at the pile of debris that once was the school, it looked hopeless, but he kept remembering his commitment to his son. He began to concentrate on where he walked his son to school each morning. Remembering his son’s classroom would be in the back right corner of the building, he rushed there and started digging through the rubble. As he was digging, other forlorn parents arrived, clutching their hearts, saying, “My son!” “My daughter!” Other well-meaning parents tried pulling him off what was left of the school, saying: “It’s too late!” “They’re dead!” “You can’t help!” “Go home!” “Come on, face reality, there’s nothing you can do!” “You’re just going to make things worse!” To each parent, he responded with one line: “Are you going to help me now?” And then he proceeded to dig for his son, stone by stone. The fire chief showed up and tried to pull him off the school’s debris, saying, “Fires are breaking out, explosions are happening everywhere. You’re in danger. We’ll take care of it. Please go home.” To which this loving, caring Armenian father asked, “Are you going to help me now?” The police came and said, “You’re angry, distraught, and it’s over. You’re endangering others. We’ll take care of it. Go home.” No one helped. Courageously, he proceeded alone because he needed to know for himself: “Is my boy alive, or is he dead?” He dug for eight hours…12 hours…24, and 36 hours. Then, in the 38th hour, he pulled back a boulder and heard his son’s voice. The man screamed his son’s name, “Armand!” He heard back, “Dad? It’s me, Dad! I told the other kids not to worry. I told them that if you were alive, you’d save me, and when you saved me, they’d be saved. You promised, ‘No matter what, I’ll always be there for you!’ You did it, Dad!” “There are 14 of us left out of 33, Dad. We’re scared, hungry, thirsty, and thankful you’re here. When the building collapsed, it made a wedge, like a triangle, and it saved us.” “Come on out, boy!” “No, Dad! Let the other kids come out first, because I know you’ll get me. No matter what, I know you’ll be there for me.” I agree : We should cease the divinisation of our soldier ancestors and just love them as ordinary humans. As this boy's father his son. As this son his father. Lest we forget. Armenian earthquake1989. Source Net.

AO | 24 April 2015  

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