They are our forgotten legion who etched their own heroics of a different kind a century ago. As we commemorate the 100th year of the sacrifices at Gallipoli, there are those who returned from war and were rewarded. They are the settlement soldiers.
Just one year into the First World War where the Anzac tradition was born settlement land was offered to discharged soldiers under schemes administered by the state governments, and within a decade we had new towns sprouting and 23,000 new farms over 9 million hecatres.
It continued after the Second World War, and now a century on, able seaman Ken McWhinney, a frail 88-year-old working his 750 hectare property in a remote part of Kangaroo Island off the South Australian coast, is possibly the last of the working settlement soldiers.
There were numerous recipients of the scheme, but most, if not all have passed their farms on to their sons, sold, or passed way. But not Ken. He still tends to his flock of sheep that has dwindled by almost two-thirds to 1500 because of spiralling costs, barely bringing enough income to run the farm and pay for the groceries his wife Dianna collects at the end of their 5km corrugated driveway from the mailman.
This year marks their 60th year on the farm, and the 70th anniversary on September 7 that Ken witnessed Lieutenant General Masatane Kanda of the Imperial Japanese Army board the HMAS Diamantina in previously untold extraordinary circumstances to surrender the Bougainville campaign.
Life has been tough for Ken and Dianna on the farm, but they don’t complain. Not even right now with their daughter, Wendy, who lives at Kapinnie on the West Coast, battling terminal lung cancer despite having never smoked. They have another daughter, Trina, who lives in Queensland and a son Bill, who occasionally does a 1000km-plus round trip from Coobowie on Yorke Peninsula to help Ken do the extra-tough jobs.
“I was one of the lucky ones to get some land,” Ken said. “Now they’ve all gone from around this neck of the woods. There used to be 174 soldier settler farms here on the island; now there are only seven left including me, but the other six have been taken over by their sons.”
The Soldier Settlement Scheme started in Murray Bridge and Kangaroo Island in 1915, expanded to New South Wales and Victoria a year later, and Queensland in 1917. Recipients were virtually given land with peppercorn rent under the proviso they worked the land for a minimum five year term, but most of the early land packages were so inhospitable many veterans walked off their dust bowls distraught. The conditions changed after World War II, but the challenges remained arduous.
“It’s been a good life on the farm; pretty hard though with wool prices going up and down,” Ken said. “We switched to cattle for a while but things went bad in the market. For three years we didn’t really have an income.
“We don’t get droughts like they get on the mainland, but I always reckon you get the impact of a drought over here every year by the time you pay your freight costs on the ferry.
“The worst was back in ’59 I’ll tell you. We had only 15 inches of rain – we had 35 the previous year – and we got eaten out by crop chasers… grubs. They’re beetles that fly. They eat the pasture and our place was nearly like a gravel park. I had to put my sheep out on agistment and sell what I could. But over here you learn to recover.”
However, not even a hard day’s night by the beetles, or a bone-crunching daily drive in his 1990 EA Ford – it’s rusted out from the sea spray, badly needs new shock absorbers and Ken reckons it’s the oldest car on KI – can be compared with his memories of war.
Ken, who was born in Melbourne and moved with his family to Sydney because his father, Alex, was a manager with the original Rosella Foods company, recalled the fear when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941. Amazingly, he knows every key war date; he says you never forget them.
“I was 14 and it was frightening,” Ken said. “The Japs were going their hardest and people were scrambling to get out of Sydney. Many just sold up and got out.
“We were made to look like we were scared too when we left on the 29th of January, 1942 because of dad’s work, but it wasn’t like that. My dad was wounded twice in France during World War I, and he wasn’t afraid.
“Just after we left Sydney Singapore fell to the Japanese, and when we arrived in Adelaide on the 19th of February, 1942 Darwin was bombed. I was 15 when I spent my first month at school in Adelaide digging out bomb shelters across the road from the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
“I got a job making power alcohol (ethanol) at a distillery for the war; brewing sugar and water in fermenting tanks. I could see the war was winding down a bit and my best shot at seeing some action was joining the navy when I was 17… you had to be 18 to enlist in the army and the training was too long for the RAAF. I guess I saw it as an adventure.
“I was on the (HMAS) Diamantina doing a few bombardments and a bit of patrolling off New Guinea. The Japs were shelling our headquarters of the Army; their 18 pounders were out of range so they gave us the job of trying to quieten the Japs down. We’d fire a couple of hundred shells and go back to Torokina and stock up with ammunition. On our days off we’d go surfing – we loved it.
“The Japs were bottled up on the north east side of Bougainville and on the 6th of August we couldn’t understand why our mission was postponed. Then we heard on the radio they had dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and everything changed. Blokes were doing a Congo line on the beaches… we used to get two bottles of beer a week when we were in port, and this day they gave us an extra two.
“On the 7th of September one of our corvettes was supposed to pick up Lieutenant General Kanda and take him to Torokina for the surrender ceremony, but when he saw it he wouldn’t go aboard. He said he’d lose face if he didn’t have a bigger ship, so with the Diamantina (now in the Queensland Maritime Museum, Brisbane) being twice as big it was our job.
“Another time we had to pick up Lieutenant-General Stanley Savige, who led our campaign, and it was rare for one ship to have transported two of the biggest-named opposing generals.
“To get Kanda, we had to send a barge you wouldn’t give two bob for to bring him to the ship, and it did well to get through a mine field.”
Ken then gave a chilling account of seeing Lieutenant General Kanda face-to-face; his steely eyes. He said you could feel the hatred among the Australians, especially by those who had brothers or mates in the prisoner-of-war camps. And then the imaginable happened to such a high-ranking and proud leader of the Imperial Japanese Army in a time of profound tension.
“As Kanda stretched to get on board our ship the top button of his pants went flying and he suddenly found himself trying not to fall overboard and to stop his pants from falling down,” Ken said.
“We got him on board; he was holding on to his pants for dear life.
“We had to take him down to the sick bay to get him a safety pin to fix his pants before we could go to the surrender ceremony.”
Yet, for all this somewhat embarrassment for someone so important, no one laughed; not even a snigger. “We could only think about what they (the Japanese) had done to our blokes in the camps,” Ken said. He recalled how the coming days they transported Australian POWs in Singapore and Malay with many having had their feet blown off from the mines they had set in sandy tracks, and those from Changi so close to death. “The poor beggars were like skeletons with skin stretched over them,” he said.
“I discovered war wasn’t the adventure I thought it would be.”
Kanda was sentenced to 14 years for his war crimes, but served only four. He died in 1983, aged 92.
Ken said war taught him a lot of things about life – even surfing which seems so obscure in the bigger picture. Incredibly, it was only a heart attack two years ago that forced him to stop body surfing in the big waves off KI. He is known as a legend to all the young surfers on the island.
“War teaches you to make the most of life,” Ken said. “It makes you appreciate what we have. I had just turned 19 when the war ended so I didn’t go through anywhere near as much as so many others.
“I have seen a lot of braver people than me in my life time, but then Dianna and I have never known anyone gutsier than our daughter (Wendy). Like a lot of cancer sufferers; she has gone through her own hell.”