Reflection, not national pride: A grandfather's Anzac lesson
brisbanetimes.com.au 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. 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. 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.
Historical Brisbane Anzac Day photos
1916: A crowd lines the streets to watch the procession of the 41st Battalion through Brisbane on Anzac Day. 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. 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."