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Reflection, not national pride: A grandfather's Anzac lesson


Dan Nancarrow

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Brisbane remembers fallen Anzacs

Thousands turn out for the dawn service at Anzac Square in Brisbane to remember soldiers who have fallen in battle: RAW VISION.

PT0M0S 620 349 journalist Daniel Nancarrow explains why to him, Anzac Day never feels like a day for revelling in national pride.

I get caught up in the idea of battling against the odds, scraping to survive, but not because of the bloody loss of life at Gallipoli the day reflects on.

It has everything to do with my grandfather.

Norm Phillips was 21 when he joined the war effort.

Norm Phillips was 21 when he joined the war effort. Photo: Supplied

Norm Phillips was born in Gympie in July, 1920. Nine days after he was born, his mother died.

His mother's midwife took him home and raised him for 17 years.

Four years later, he left for New Guinea to fight the Japanese in World War II.

Although his marching days are behind him, Norm Phillips still attends Anzac Day ceremonies to honour lost friends.

Although his marching days are behind him, Norm Phillips still attends Anzac Day ceremonies to honour lost friends. Photo: Supplied

A commando for the reinforcement of the 1st independent company, he spent much of his time scouting for the enemy, signalling to the rest of the troops.

There, he lost fellow soldiers. Friends perished in a bomb blast metres from where he took cover in a ditch.

He was passed up for a mission that ended in a Japanese ambush. Those who went were taken prisoner.

1916: A crowd lines the streets to watch the procession of the 41st Battalion through Brisbane on Anzac Day. Click for more photos

Historical Brisbane Anzac Day photos

Photographs of Anzac Day commemorations from Brisbane's history taken from the State Library of Queensland archives. Photo: State Library of Queensland archives

Like so many others, the battle didn't stop when he returned to Australia – he was hospitalised with a nervous condition.

With the help of the church he was able to persevere and built a small family home for my Nanna, uncle and mother, with the help of a friend.

It's the same home where my uncle – Norm's son – eventually passed away in the prime of his life with a brain tumour.

Norm Phillips used the radio skills he learned in the war to make friends of former enemies.

Norm Phillips used the radio skills he learned in the war to make friends of former enemies. Photo: Supplied

The same home where he gradually lost his eyesight.

My grandfather had every reason to be bitter, every reason to curse his luck or maker.

A mother and son taken from him too soon. Friends dying before his eyes. A father nowhere to be seen. Grandchildren he could barely see.

But that wasn't the make of the man.

As his eyesight was reduced to just a glimmer of light out of the corner of his eye, he hung on to that light.

A man who drank no more than a celebratory stout on big occasions, he clung to his health – walking every morning, sunning in the afternoon light.

And he exercised his mind by using the radio skills he picked up in the war to connect with amateur enthusiasts around the world; a massive antenna was erected in his backyard.

From this structure, my grandfather could reach other enthusiasts around the world.

The wall of his radio room was plastered with calling cards from around the world.

Tellingly, the country where he made the closest friends was Japan.

In exchange for learning a new word in Japanese, my grandfather would explain an Australian turn of phrase to their delight. He'd sit me and my brothers up at the controls to attempt a Japanese greeting and farewell.

The next step was his Japanese radio friends visiting Australia.

My brothers and I were fortunate to have parents who accepted us no matter what we chose to pursue in life, no matter what we believed.

But not everyone in our small town was so tolerant.

My Nanna recalls another Gympie man's shock at seeing my family escorting a visitor around town.

"I couldn't believe what I saw," he told her, "Norm Phillips with a Japanese!"

My grandfather understands the outrage. But he does not empathise with it.

"I don't hold anything against the Japanese," he says.

"They were fighting for their country and we were fighting for ours. Irrespective of what atrocities they did...

"My belief is you can't undo the damage that has been done but you can live your life according to your conscience. You do what you think is right.

"And I think it is right that I honour my fallen comrades and at same time be friendly with our enemies - that is why I joined the World Wide Peace Net.

"Others have different ideas, I know that. They hate the Japanese and will always hate the Japanese.

"But they fought for their country because they thought they were doing what they thought was right. We fought for our country because we thought we were fighting for what was right."

As kids, we'd ask my grandfather about the war.

Even then, I knew war was supposed to be awful. But how awful didn't filter through. I spent weekends shooting at my brothers with toy army guns. Painting my face with warpaint. I wanted to hear exciting stories of heroism and bravery.

But he wouldn't say much. His deep and happy tone sliding away softly as he tried to shield us from the reality.

He'd humour us with hand-to-hand combat moves he'd learnt in training, tossing our slight frames over his shoulder as we giggled uncontrollably.

But the truth of his time at war wasn't revealed until we'd grown much older.

For many years, my grandfather would travel down to Brisbane by himself for the annual Anzac Day parade.

Despite his near total blindness at this stage he was still walking around Brisbane unaccompanied for much of the time.

The trip was a mark of his independence in the face of his impairment.

But it was also a chance to meet up with his friends from his division who had survived.

"They're all dead now, the whole four of them," he says.

"But I still go down because of their memory."

Today, my grandfather will again travel down to Brisbane from Gympie. Not by train, but with the help of my father and, later, my brothers.

His health deteriorated, he won't march. He'll unlikely attract the television crews as he did as the blind man being led by his fellow diggers in years gone past.

He'll be chauffeured around in a jeep waving at the crowds he can't see. Remembering those he's lost. Still managing to survive against the odds.

"I miss the march but I can't do anything about it," he said.

"I think about marching alongside them and about the time we spent together up in New Guinea and the times that have gone by and how I'm still, thankfully, alive.

"As long as I live I want to go down and honour them as I do Anzac.

"It's a personal reason attached to all those soldiers who lost their lives for the freedom of our country. That's as far as I am concerned."

7 comments so far

  • Thanks, Dan. This reflects my own experience - interestingly, also from Gympie.

    My grandfathers fought in one war each. Neither wanted to 'celebrate' anything. For them, ANZAC day was a solemn and sorrowful occasion in which they reflected on their lost mates, their experiences and the awfulness of the situation they found themselves in.

    Like you, I played the kid games until the reality was explained to me. I regard the jingoistic flag-waving and other expressions of pride as a misdirected attempt to share something that has to be experienced to be understood. My friends who serve or have served agree.

    It is best to respectfully leave this occasion for their expression and to support them in their experience, not to highjack it to justify the inadequacies of those who will never understand.

    Date and time
    April 25, 2012, 8:17AM
    • So the article and the first commenter believe that we should not honour those that have fought, been maimed, shell shocked and even died to maintain freedom in the world. Interesting but rather poor self centred opinions.

      Date and time
      April 25, 2012, 9:34AM
      • That's an inaccurate reading of the article.

        Dan Nancarrow
        Date and time
        April 25, 2012, 11:18AM
    • Thanks for the article. I too relate to it. My grandfather was in the Kings Own Rifle Brigade and was among the first British troops landed in France in 1914. He was severely injured by a sniper's bullet to the head on 25 April 1915 ... the original Anzac Day! He was trying to rescue two Canadian soldiers injured out in no man's land. Got one back, but when he went for the second the sniper was waiting.
      Anzac Day for me starts with him, but also with an uncle who was killed in WW2 who was a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber, and another uncle who was one of the Rats of Tobruk. While proud of their sacrifices, I cannot hel but reflect on the stupidity of war. I know thehere are times when it is necessary, but long for the day when all wars shall cease!

      Date and time
      April 25, 2012, 10:56AM
      • Thank you for sharing this story. Many people forget that Anzac day is about remembrance and honour. Remembering those like your grandfather who fought for Australia and our way of life, remembering those men who didn't make it back and remembering those that lived through the horrors of war. Honoring those that serve and those that have served, whether it be at a dawn service, a march, or with a quiet beer at the rsl.

        As an ex serving member, I agree that Anzac is not a celebration, it's a day or remembrance, respect and thanks. Today is the day we remember our fallen soldiers, sailors and airmen and women and their sacrifices.

        So if a veteran who witnessed the deaths of so many of his mates, those men as close as family, says they died for nothing, we should not pass judgement on him or his words as we were not there to witness the horror of war.

        So thank you Norm, and the thousands of other veterans here in Australia, we will always remember and honour you for your sacrifice for our country.

        Mi mi
        Date and time
        April 25, 2012, 11:08AM
        • John (9.34am), whose freedom? Freedom for a very small, homogenous, privileged section of the world perhaps. Freedom for most people only came about from 1950-2000, and through peace rather than fighting and killing.

          Whinger Central
          Date and time
          April 25, 2012, 11:27AM
          • I'm with you Dan, as a fourth generation soldier I find the association of jingoistic nationalism being tacked on to Anzac day, much of it for political gain turning my stomach. I know my father sees it the same way, and his father and fathers father would have seen it the same way. For them Anzac day was a day of solemn remembrance and sadness at the waste and death that was and is war. One the of the causes of the wars they fought was that self same jingoistic nationalism that is coming now to dominate Anzac day.

            @john, is that what you took away from that article? Sad that didn't actually read the article properly and understand it.

            Date and time
            April 25, 2012, 12:00PM

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