Ahead of Remembrance Day on November 11, residents of the Carinity Shalom seniors’ community in Rockhampton have shared their reminiscences of life during World War II – both in Europe and Australia.
These oral histories of Rockhampton seniors were recorded and collated by Carinity Shalom Aged Care Activities Officer Donna Hinchliffe.
Donna says: “Through the hard, frightening and often very lonely years they endured there was a common thread: a sense of ‘one for all’ for the duration of the war, to ensure that all those that came after lived in a better world.”
RYSZARD “RICHIE” ZIEBICKI
“Richie” was 12 years old when Germany invaded his homeland Poland in September 1939. He would spend most of his teenage years in forced labour camps.
“At the age of 15-and-a-half I was randomly selected for forced labour in Germany along with two other boys from my village, Gielniow,” Richie says.
“After several days of travel, we arrived at Wilhemshaven in the north of Germany. We were taken to a camp – a Russian prisoner of war camp – and started work at a coal business.
“The coal arrived by boat or train and my job was to unload 50kg bags and deliver by trailer mainly to army barracks, navy bases and businesses in the city, where I had to stow the bags in the cellars.
“As we weren’t prisoners of war we asked to be transferred to a civilian camp. Because we lost work time we were given 25 lashes on our backside.”
Richie was given one meal at night, consisting of stew or soup and bread.
“If we could scavenge any food from any other source, it was a treat. Sometimes when delivering coal to the cellars we would deliberately knock a jar of preserved food off the shelf and quickly pocket some,” Richie says.
“One of my jobs was to take the coal business owner’s wife and little girls to the bunker in the event of an air raid. When the Allied planes kept coming and the bombs were falling we were scared but we wanted them to keep coming.
“Towards the end of the war… I saw the Polish Army coming. I knew that the war would soon be over.”
“My earliest memories are of the air raid shelter in our backyard and the compulsory blackout blinds at our windows. War seemed distant in those days,” Grace recalls.
By 1943 air raids and bombings were a constant threat. At her school in London, Grace’s lessons were often interrupted by the sound of the air raid siren.
“We would all have to leave the building and go en-masse to the shelters. Sometimes it was just a drill, occasionally the real thing. We all had to wear gas masks. Many children were evacuated to safer places,” Grace says.
“I remember many nights huddled in or on a large cupboard under the stairs while planes were overhead and bombs dropping outside while we were huddled in utter darkness.
“We experienced several close shaves when bombs were dropped nearby. One blew our front door off its hinges, but we were all safe inside.”
Joan remembers when World War II arrived: her then boyfriend, George, was called up for military service.
She visited George at his training camp in Bauple as his Unit in the 11th Field Ambulance had just been given their orders to move to Charters Towers and Townsville – and then on to Papua New Guinea.
Joan recalls the weekend as the best ever as George proposed to her and they were married in a hastily arranged wedding before he was shipped out.
George’s division was posted to Milne Bay and where heavy fighting resulted in large numbers of causalities.
Joan fondly remembers receiving letters from George, but he was not allowed to discuss the war. He did not talk much of the war or attend ANZAC marches until many years later.
Joan says during the war everything was in short supply and rationed “but we all helped out each other and got on with life.”
Joyce was living on her family dairy farm at Baralaba when World War II broke out. Exempt from active service as they were needed to help “feed the nation and the boys at war”, her father and eldest brother became members of the Home Guard.
Joyce vividly recalls the day three men came with a telegraph to tell her mother that her young son, who had enlisted in the army, had contracted a disease in the military camp at Brisbane Showgrounds and was gravely ill.
Life was hard with rationing – everyone had ration books for food and clothing – but Joyce says people in the district helped each other out.
She recalls wartime was better for farmers than for the people in the big cities because living on the land – and especially a dairy farm – you could have milk, make your own butter and grow your own vegetables.
During the early years of her marriage, Joyce’s husband Ronald did not talk much of his time in the army except that he had helped to establish a base in Jacquinot Bay in Papua New Guinea.
Lorna’s first memory of World War II was her brother Donald trying to enlist in the air force but failing his physical. This prompted Lorna to think hard about doing her bit for the war effort.
Aged 19, she went to the local recruiting office in Rockhampton and was drafted to the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service as a seamstress, and relocated to Brisbane.
Lorna recalls fondly her mother being very proud of her in uniform doing her bit for the war effort.
“People everywhere were talking war all the time and lots thought it would not last long at first, but gradually everyone realised that it was going to be a long war,” Lorna says.
Lorna feels that Remembrance Day makes servicemen and women feel appreciated and “gives them a chance to remember those that never came home”.