April 2016

One family’s story of war

Love Letters from a War “is my family’s story, the story of my people”, writes Margaret-Mary Flynn. “But it is a story shared with so many Australian families, so many little country towns.”

BY Margaret-Mary Flynn

The little town of Walwa nestles in a valley carved by the Murray River as it makes its way from the high country to the sea, far away in South Australia. It has a church, a bush nursing home, a general store, a pub, a school, and a memorial hall. These days, cars make light work of the 100 kilometres from Albury-Wodonga, but when my great-grandparents took up their selection in the nineteenth century, it was as far as you could get before the wilderness of the mountains.

The little community was tight-knit. Still is. They knew everyone’s stories, and they kept them. One of the stories is of their boys who marched away to World War II, and who never came back. One of those boys was my grandfather.

He was Johnny Johnson, like his father before him. He was married to Josie, my grandma. They had come back to Walwa to live because the Depression had forced them out of their home in Melbourne, and he could find work as a carpenter in his home district. His six sons and two daughters could grow up in the rich pastures, and under the clear, bright sky of his home town, in and out of their grandparents’ home, a tiny bush cottage with chickens, a house cow, a horse and buggy, and the soft light of lamps and firelight in the evening.

Life for the young family was not easy – my Dad, Johnnie, and my Uncle Alec, the two oldest boys, trapped rabbits for the family pot, and learned from their father to shoot and fish. Grandma could turn her hand to any domestic task, and was a tiger for work. Nothing was wasted, and life, though simple, was rich and peaceful.

But even in that remote valley, the rumbling of faraway guns of war warned of a world on the brink; an unstoppable German army, tyrants bent on world domination, the end of democracy and decency – ordinary little people forced from their homes; even the seas and oceans, theatres of war. My grandfather went to fight, and his life-long mates, Alan Hunt and Pat Joy, went too.

They were a love-story, my grandparents. They adored one another. My grandma taught me a song when I was little: “There’s something about a soldier”. You can hear Cicely Courtneidge singing it on YouTube if you’ve a mind. It’s a jaunty little march, and includes the lines,

“there’s something about his bearing,
there’s something about his wearing
There’s something about his buttons,
how they shine, shine, shine…”

In the pride of his manhood, her tall, laconic bushman marched away with Albury’s Own 2/23rd to Tobruk, and never came home. A sniper’s bullet smashed his spine as he was climbing back into a gun carrier they had taken out under cover of darkness to bring in the wounded. He died in the field hospital amongst the dunes.

She was carrying their last baby, her eighth child. He was 36. His oldest son, my father, was 14. He became the man of the family for his brothers, and especially his sisters.

I look at my grandfather’s photo in uniform. His face is strong and beautiful. He has his mother’s high cheekbones, and high-bridged nose, and his expression is peaceful, enduring, the lips slightly curved – as if he is pleased and pleasantly surprised to see the viewer. He looks like my Uncle Don, and my Uncle Barry – great-hearted men whom, in the end, nothing could surprise or disappoint. The grief of his loss was never far from any of them. They had worshipped their Dad, and their lives were in so many ways a tribute to him, consciously and unconsciously.

After his death, his effects were returned to Grandma. They included a collection of letters. He had kept every one of those that Josie and the kids had written to him, and Josie had kept all of his. She put them all in a calico flour-bag which remained in the chest of drawers for many years. As one of my aunts said, “We knew they were there, but they were too sad to read.” An edited selection featured in a book, Love Letters From A War, written by my uncle, Len Johnson.

The brothers and sisters realised the value of this unique collection, and they were presented to the Australian War Museum as a gift to the people of Australia. In 2002, film-maker Wain Fimeri discovered the collection and approached the family to use the material. It became the movie, Love Letters from a War, which was screened in 2003, to wide acclaim.

It is my family’s story, the story of my people. But it is a story shared with so many Australian families, so many little country towns. Pat and Alan didn’t come home either, and the rent in the fabric of their families is just as present as it is in ours. Memories are long for what might have been.

Recalling the announcement of the end of the war, my Uncle Len wrote in 2002:

“I walked out of school and went home to Mum. The sun shone on flags flying from rooftops, chimneys, gateposts and fences… I turned the corner into Newmarket Street, and looked up at number 23, our house. Mum had pushed a small, tattered paper red ensign into a crack between bricks beside the front door. I could see that she was trying her hardest to celebrate with the rest but I knew it was just a brave display. Other husbands might well be returning, but she would be alone for the remainder of her life… For us the war would never end.”

Lest We Forget.

Margaret-Mary Flynn

Margaret-Mary Flynn is a writer and editor with a background in education, teaching English, literature, history and religious education. She has recently graduated with a Master of Arts (Spirituality) from the University of Divinity, specialising in spiritual direction, and early Christian and monastic spirituality. She lives in Bendigo with her husband, has three adult children and three grandchildren, and enjoys reading and writing, the domestic arts, yoga and gardening.

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