This year marks the centenary of Armistice Day. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month we shall not only remember the end to World War I but the fallen and all of whom have served in all conflicts.
For 98-year-old Sandy Hill, every day is a day he remembers his mates.
On any given Friday night returned service men and women and associate members gather at the RSL Goolwa Sub-Branch. There’s Paul the club manager, a Richmond tonic who stirs the spirit of Crows fans, then they turn it against a big bloke named Jeffrey, whose only fault in life it seems is that he barracks for Port Adelaide; always an easy target.
Across the room sweet ladies quietly chat, and Mayor Keith enjoys the break from officialdom with earthly conversations if they don’t mention roads and rates. Come the hour of six o’clock president Bob reverently and beautifully delivers the Ode, then bellows the club news without need of a microphone.
The uninitiated are perhaps surprised at the jovial atmosphere given the somewhat sombre symbolism of what this place is about, but nothing shields the objective of remembering the fallen.
Here, everyone is respected, and none are more special than remarkable veterans from World War II – Sandy Hill, a sprightly 98-year-old, a delightful lady Betty Plummer, 96, Ken Bowden and their younger mates Ian Brock and Charley Stevens, both 92.
Given that WWII ended August 15, 1945, and some of our brave young souls enlisted at just 16, the youngest of Australia’s returned service men and women would be 89. The Goolwa RSL Sub-Branch has already honoured its former member and one of the Fleurieu Peninsula’s own, Ron Graetz, who died February last year aged 98, with a huge portrait on the side of the wall on Laurie Lane. The remaining five in their nineties will soon be saluted with similar honour.
Sandy – Pte Stanley Thomas Hill – was a driver in the 151 Australian General Transport from 1943-45. With a wry grin he acknowledged he was “at the front line” in terms our nation’s remaining WWII veterans, and how special he had been made to feel in RSL halls, including Aldgate, where he is a life member, and on occasions like Remembrance Day.
“I can see why some people may not understand how we talk a lot about the fun or the different times during years of war, but it was what got us through everything, and it still does today,” Sandy said.
As if it were yesterday, in his softly spoken manner Sandy related some of his lighter-side pearlers on one of these regular Friday RSL nights, and those within reach chuckled as they heard him even above President Bob.
“I had my 21st birthday in the middle of Cheltenham Racecourse when I enlisted, and this officer asked if anyone had any experience in mechanics,” Sandy recalled. “When they said you got an extra two bob I put my hand up, but I didn’t have one iota about cars; mine was a broken down heap.
“I did a three month course, and it’s how I got into the transport division. For most of the time I was in Buna (Papua New Guinea) as the war started to pass us by. There were times when I drove trucks over swinging bridges with no sides, and I’d have to go at 60 mph to get up the second half otherwise we’d get stuck half way and have to throw the truck over the side.
“We would get a truckload of bananas up in the mountains, enough to feed all us for a fortnight. You had to be careful; you could never go alone because the bloody Kanakas (cannibals) would eat you. They said they got a few when the fighting went through there.
“Boredom was always a problem so I made my own still to make grog, 100% proof with whatever I could find – coconut juice, bananas, currants, whatever; a lot of stuff went in that drum – and I sold it to the Yanks for five quid a bottle.
“I was that busy I had to get my mates to do my washing and make my bed, and one bottle paid their canteen bill for the next three months.
“We’d see pictures (movies) almost every night and boy, did the fellas play cards. I was never a real gambler, but a lot of the blokes made a lot of money and a lot lost a lot. You’d always be sure the blokes from Broken Hill would win.
“One night one of them came up to me and asked to borrow 800 quid. That was a hell of a lot of money in those days, so I did make a bit from the grog I made. I gave the money to him, and later that night he woke me up and gave me back 1200 quid and I’ve never had better interest in my life.
“There was a time when I had to lead a convoy of trucks to Bergen in western Queensland. It was hot as hell this day. I said to the lads, ‘look, there is a pub over there, why not have just one of two drinks and then be on our way…but for heavens sake don’t get into any trouble otherwise we’ll be in strife’.
“There wasn’t a person in the pub, so we got behind the bar and drank it dry; I mean dry. We took up a collection and left it by the till with a note: ‘Is this enough?’
“There was a lot of wastage. One day they dumped a heap as big as my house of singlets and underpants. Every day I’d go and get a new set and there were times when I needed them.”
It was then that Sandy’s mood shifted; the daily change of underpants brought back realities of war, even though in Buna they did not confront the Japanese face-to-face.
Sandy said his transport unit often had to go on DC3 planes to throw tucker out to the Australian and American troops below. “Up and through the mountains we would go and you had to hang on for dear life because the wind would suck you out. There was a lad, not 5ft 6, who as struggling to reach the rail, and he fell out the plane. I can still see his face. I still think of him. With these things we never told the family what really happened; they all died in the line of duty.
“I lost a lot of mates, my word. We’d be in Buna when the sirens would go off and we’d run into the swamp and bury ourselves in mud. The bomb wouldn’t go off if they sank in there, and we’d miss the wire on these daisy cutters. These bombs had 20ft fuse wire whizzing through the air, and before they hit the ground they’d cut everything and everyone down in sight.
“There was the day when there was no siren. I was standing there with two mates, about 12 foot away, and one of these daisy cutters dropped. One of the blokes copped the wire… we only found his boots.”
It is not a pleasant thing for us to read, but an example of a vision of what some have endured through their lives.
With his eyes glistening, Sandy, a great-grandfather of three, said he was eternally grateful for a beautiful life. “It really has been,” he said.
“My lovely wife, Iris, died in 2009 after 68 years of marriage and not a day goes by when I don’t think of her. We met when I called into a local dance at Scott Creek – I was born there – on my way home from going rabbiting. Romantic, isn’t it? (he smiles).
“I have been made to feel blessed. Remembrance Day always makes me feel proud. I do a lot of remembering on Remembrance Day, no doubt about that.
“There were 400 men in 151 Australian General Transport, and there is only Bill Barratt in Alice Springs and myself left. I think of Bill a lot.”
And when Sandy was ready to think of the good days of old again it was time to go home. “Would you like a ride home, Sandy?” one asked. To which this amazing 98-year-old replied: “I’ve got my own car… I’ve got two years left on my licence. No, I don’t need a ride home; do you think I’m old or something?” You’ve got to love him.