Monday, 22 July 2013

Goodbye and Rest in Peace, My beautiful Gran!

This is the eulogy that my cousin Ang and I wrote and presented in tribute to our beloved Gran at her funeral on the 26th June 2013.  She passed away a week earlier on the 19th June in Melbourne after a short illness that she fought head on with a level of determination, hope and selflessness that I can barely fathom.  Gran was amazing, right to the very end of her wonderful life.  She was the inspiration behind my decision to record her father Jim Cowey's story and Gran's example will continue to inspire me and spur me on until it is completed.  
I will always miss you, Gran.  I will always love you.  XOXOXOXO
We are here to celebrate the life of our Gran, Marj. It was so lovely to hear the reflections from her family just now. It's not at all surprising that Marj was loved so deeply and so dearly by us all. But what is surprising is just how much she fit into her life, the things she achieved and experienced and how rich her life was. Marj was a person who quietly went about things, and we hope today to shed some light on her time on Earth.

Marj lived in the Mallee for the majority of her life and was so at home here, some may actually not know she was born in Melbourne. She came into the world on the 26th May 1921, and she was nearly born in a Melbourne icon. Marj said her mother was travelling by tram when she went into labour and things were moving along rather quickly. Apparently Marj's mother was quite close to delivering right there and then, even as the tram lurched and dinged along Flemington Road that late autumn day. But her mother was able to get to hospital in time, avoiding a public birth!

It may surprise most of you to learn that Marj was actually a fourth cousin to the Queen, through the Queen mother's family. But more importantly to Marj, she was the eldest daughter of Annie and Jim Cowey. She was born after her elder brother, who died when he was 15 days old, but Marj was always “the eldest”. The Cowey family lived at a little home at George's Road in The Patch in the Dandenong Ranges. In time, Marj would be joined by her siblings Meg, Jim, Dave, Joan and Bruce. They all lived together on an 18 acre farm that produced market produce such as apples and berries, and a wide variety of vegetables and fruit they would eat themselves or barter for other goods. They also had cows, chickens, horses and pigs, as well as pets.

Gran far right
Marj's earliest memory was as a tiny girl sat upon her father's knee. She would place her little fist in a deep hole in her father's forearm, a scar from a severe gunshot wound he received at Gallipoli. Marj would sleep in this position, feeling secure in his arms. She also remembered him crying out in the middle of the night when his dreams haunted his sleep. His war service affected the whole family.

Gran (L) and her sister Meg holding Young Jim
Marj and her siblings all went to school at Kallista, 2 ½ miles from The Patch. The children would walk to and from school everyday, rain, hail or shine. The girls would take the direct route while the boys always went the back way, getting up to mischief and almost always facing the strap when they turned up to school late. Marj said the girls wouldn't let her play basketball due to what they saw as her unfair height advantage, so she had to join in with the boys and play cricket. In addition to the 3Rs and sport, Kallista students would participate in outdoor education: the boys would grow vegetables, while the girls would grow flowerbeds.
Gran (L), Dave, Meg, Joan and Bruce.  Love the piglets!
It was her early years at school, and at home on the farm, that Marj's love for nature and the outdoors was born. You can understand why when you visit the Dandenongs and see how beautiful it is with it's towering Mountain Ash and tree ferns underneath. The forest was alive with the calls of kookaburras and the gurgling of streams rushing through the gullies and it really was an idyllic place to grow up and explore. When she was 12, Marj wrote in to the junior pages of The Argus newspaper. She told a story of when she dropped some bread near a dam and a frog jumped out quickly joined by ½ a dozen more. Some days on the walk home from school Marj and the kids would visit their cousins and play but if they were home later than 5 o'clock they would miss out on tea. They quick soon cottoned-on to this punishment and filled their school bags with apples beforehand. But if their father went out to a meeting, their mother Annie would sneak a meal to her children. Other days Marj would carry home a Hessian bag of bones from the butcher and they would scrape the meat off them to make a meal, as they did not have very much meat to eat. But Marj always considered her family lucky. During the depression years they had the food they had grown themselves to survive, where others did not.

L-R: Meg, Joan, Bruce, Gran, David and Young Jim
After school, Marj put her own prospects aside to support and work as a partner on her father's farm at The Patch. It is true that without her labour, the farm would not have ran, as her father could not manage it alone with his post-WW1 issues. Quite literally he would down tools and go bivouac in the hills for days on end, attempting to protect his family from the Germans he thought were lurking there. Marj was the consistent worker who kept the farm ticking over for the family. As the younger ones grew they too would take on work. But Marj carried a particularly heavy burden without complaint. The famous author Jeannie Gunn who wrote “We of the Never Never” was a Cowey family friend. She fought on behalf of the family to receive a larger pension from the Army and in her submission described Marj as a “fine self-sacrificing girl” who was effectively doing all the heavy work on the farm herself.

Gran in the Land Army
Marj, like her father and brothers, actively served her country during WW2. She wasn't able to join the Navy which was her first choice, and she tried to join the Army at Victoria Barracks but she was referred to the Women's Land Army. She enlisted and ended up working on farms for two years during WW2, replacing the man power lost due to the men fighting overseas. Her first deployment was at Holt's farm in Sale where Marj was responsible for maintaining 20 pigsties but also other jobs like treating any flyblown sheep. She was then assigned to a dairy farm at Heyfield. Marj quick soon realised that she didn't like milking cows. She deliberately took her time at the job and her Manager quipped “It will be time to start milking again by the time you've finished this lot!!”. But her strategy worked and she was put in charge of scrubbing the cream cans instead of milking. She had a horse at this farm called “Major” and she dearly loved the animal.

It was during her last placement at an orchard in Pakenham that she heard some terrible news. Her brother Jim, who was serving in the RAAF No. 18 NEI Squadron, was missing, presumed dead, when his plane was shot down by the Japanese over Indonesia. Before the war and throughout their childhood, Jim and Marj were very close. They used to go out often and together they attended light opera productions at the Princess Theatre or the Plaza in Melbourne's CBD, where Marj remembered the ladies used to hang their shawls over the balconies while they enjoyed the show. Jim was a special sibling and friend to Marj and his death came as a heavy blow to her.

After WW2, Marj travelled to England and ended up living there for 2 ½ years. She went over as a chaperone to a young English girl who was sent to Australia during the war, but was not happy when this girl ditched her at the docks in favour of a young man who was waiting for her. Marj should have looked up her 4th cousin, but instead she visited the family of a penpal. Marj found work mainly as a kitchen hand to earn a means to get by, but in her time off would visit the English branches of her family and she also enjoyed the opening night of “The Merry Widow”.  Marj was called home again to help her father on the farm in 1947. On the journey back to Australia, her ship stopped at Port Said where she ate sweetbreads and had her first taste of native coffee. She later took in the Botanical Gardens at Colombo where she was struck by the number of beggars with crippled legs. 
Once settled back in Australia, her sister Meg asked Marj to travel up north to make her wedding dress. Meg was teaching in the Pier Milan School and was about to marry Harry McErvale. It while she was in the Mallee that Marj met her future husband Allan Stacey. Allan was from Myall, west of Sea Lake, and he owned a block of land in the area but also lived with the McErvale family for a time. Not long after Marj and Allan met, for some reason Marj decided she was going to relocate to Sea Lake. She found a steady job at Lamara's Cafe in town, and we have heard reports that Allan quick soon become a regular customer!

In 1950, Marj and Allan married at the The Patch and their wedding was the first in the new church there.

Marj made a particularly grand entrance, one that made the pages of The Sun newspaper. The wedding car couldn't make it up the hill after a heavy rain and the congregation had to push the car up to the church so she could meet her sweetheart at the altar.

After their honeymoon in the Spa Country at Daylesford, Marj and Allan made a home together farming at Sea Lake. Together they would have 2 children: Marjorie Jean and Kenneth Allan.

The Stacey family
Gran was always a very hard worker, an outdoors woman. She was involved in all aspects of farm life at Sea Lake. She would help out around the paddocks, in the sheep yards and manage the bookwork. Along with this, she also made delicious lunches and smoko for the shearers, bringing the bounty down to the shearing shed in her large basket, dressed in her boots, work pants, blouse and wide brimmed hat, most times with her apron on.
Mum has fond memories of the amazing flowers Gran grew, especially in the early days at the farm. The sights and smells of her freesias, daffodils, annuals, stocks and bulbs - many influences from the Dandenongs – were something to behold. Gran would thoughtfully pick a posy of flowers when they were at their best and give them to her family or friends when she dropped in to visit.

Gran and Dar have always been avid gardeners, dedicating about ½ acre to their vegie patch. There were more than 15 varieties of fruit trees and vines, along with over 30 different seasonal crops, including sunflowers and peanuts. It was like a market garden, the fruit and vegetables it yielded were incredible. As grandkids we used to walk along the huge branches of the mulberry tree picking the berries for Gran’s kitchen, returning with purple feet, hands and mouths! We loved to sample the produce, learn about the growing processes and play in Gran's hothouse, the dirt scraping under the sliding door. Gran would propagate plants, raise seedlings and always have a cutting in water on the window sill. She liked to shared her crop with others, sending people home with fresh, stewed or preserved fruit and vegetables to enjoy.

At the heart of the Stacey family home was Gran's kitchen. Jars crowded every available surface to preserve all her fruit, jams and pickles. There would always be something on the stove or in the oven. Her lamb stew with pearl barley, boiled fruit cake, stewed fruit and custard, raspberry slice and the famous “Willie cake”, are all warm reminders of Gran. She would always have the radio playing in the kitchen- in the early years it was the sound of the serial “Blue Hills” that Mum and Uncle Ken remember, The Country Hour was sacred and all the reports were listened to intently. More recently Gran and Dar listened to Macca on Sunday mornings, and the cricket and footy were always of interest, especially when Sydney Swans were playing.
After we placed a plaque on Gran's father Jim Cowey's grave in Sea Lake in 2010.  With siblings Joan and Dave and 39th Battalion veterans Alan Moore, Harry Barkla, Peter Holloway, Don Daniels, John Akhust and George Cops.  
I'm glad I got to share this day with Gran and the 39th!
Gran was so interested in things – her knowledge was wide and varied on so many topics. As a child it felt like you could ask Gran anything and she’d know the answer – like the nesting habits of birds or how to tie a certain knot? This knowledge was gained from her personal life experiences and also her love of reading and writing. There were always piles of reading material in the lounge. She was an avid reader and subscriber to the Readers Digest, Australian Geographic, farming journals, Weekly Times and various craft series. Gran was a great letter writer, enjoying correspondence from 22 penfriends over the years, including Catherine Rothchild from America, Ruth Cowey in Texas and Grace in England. One was unable to speak English but that didn’t stop Gran writing and learning more about different cultures, with the help of an interpreter. All of these things contributed to Gran’s vast knowledge. Only a few weeks ago when visiting Gran, she could instantly recall the quantities and tips for making quince jam, and that Melbourne cup was the perfect time to plant pumpkins. Gran was like a walking encyclopaedia with her knowledge on all things plants, sewing, cooking, preserves, craft, well, most things really.
Handmade gifts from Gran to treasure
 Gran was very skilful when it came to handicrafts. She encouraged us grandkids to learn these skills – craft, leatherwork, knitting, carpentry, patchwork and sewing. I remember Gran helping us make rag dolls when we visited, then stitching little clothes for them to wear. She even helped us make patchwork curtains for the cubby house. There were grey camp blankets, edged, with our initials on them; matching tracksuits when we were little and ‘quillows’ as we grew older. Gran even sewed Mum’s first pair of bras! There were always bits of material around that we could make something with.

Gran was heavily involved with local community work. She was an active member of the Country Women’s Association (CWA) and was secretary of the local branch of the Victorian Farmers Union during some tough farming years (and was also the only female member). Gran and Dar were key members of the Sea Lake Croquet Club – investing countless hours as umpires, players, and administrators – at various levels of competition. They would always encourage the younger generations to learn the game they loved.

Son Ken in Cub uniform at The Patch
Gran played a pivotal role in the Girl Guides movement, being a local guide leader and District Commissioner. She would regularly drive guides and leaders to meetings and help organise and attend Jamborees. Gran would prepare lots of equipment for camps, help new girls with uniforms, spend hours measuring and organising drop sheets, ropes, and kit bags in preparation for camps. Uncle Ken and Mum were very active in the Cub, Scouts and Guiding movements due to Gran’s involvement and encouragement.

Both Gran and Dar would see to it that Mum and Uncle Ken could travel to the Jamborees but also go on family trips to places like Wyperfield National Park to practice their outdoor skills and explore nature. As a family, they would also holiday every year visiting places of interest all over Victoria. Usually the holiday would last a couple of weeks, and they would always end their trips at The Patch where the caravan was parked under the cherry plum trees and they spent time with their extended family. A more recent highlight for Gran and Dar was travelling to Darwin and also an overseas trip to New Zealand where they had a wonderful holiday together touring all around the country and bringing home a mountain of photos to share the trip.
Gran and her brother and sisters Dave, Joan and Meg.
In later years Gran and Dar joined the Sea Lake Senior Citizens Club. They found particular enjoyment in performing with the all-singing, all-dancing ‘EverGreens’. It’s not everyday you have a 6 foot, green-legged dancing leprechaun on stage performing with a Cheshire cat grin – but that was our Gran!  She really enjoyed being jovial and having a good time.
The famous Leprechaun!
Gran playing the Squatter in one of her many performances!
Gran had a strong belief in God and was a faithful servant throughout her life. She cared about people and raised their concerns to make their lot better in life. Gran was a lay preacher and was a regular participant in bible discussion groups. Gran and Dar enjoyed going to the annual Sea Lake family church camp in Halls Gap, continuing to attend right up until last year. This was a special time catching up with the wider church family. Gran enjoyed the company of the young in age and the young at heart, equally. It wasn’t uncommon to see Gran sitting at the tables at Norval playing Rummikub, doing a jigsaw puzzle or teaching one of the young ones how to knit. She enjoyed the songs, the discussions, the beautiful scenery and the friendships.
Gran & Dar holding hands during a hike at Halls Gap, on Church Camp.
In 2007, Gran and Dar sold the farm and relocated to Swan Hill.

Gran & Dar with 2 of their great grandies: my children Aidan and Aoife
Another great grandie Sierra

Gran continued to be involved in community activities joining the Swan Hill Uniting Church, the Croquet Club, the Trefoil Guild and the ‘Book Worms’ craft group. Friends from these associations enjoyed Gran’s fellowship, listening to her stories and sharing a laugh.

It’s been lovely this past week being close with family and reflecting on Gran’s life. Equally lovely has been the number of people who have phoned, sent flowers, or stopped me in the streets of Sea Lake to pass on their condolences and tell me what an amazing woman Gran was. Even years after moving from the farm, people up and down the street speak fondly of ‘Marj’ and all that she is.

Gran with Ang, Me (holding Aoife), Rose, Cherz (blond) and Ash - all her granddaughters

We are all influenced by strong people in our lives, and Gran has been a constant inspiration for her family. Given the social expectations of women in her era, it is important to appreciate how unique Gran was. Her belief in herself and her capabilities has shaped how we, as her descendants view ourselves; her traits are something that future generations can aspire to. Gran was an amazing person - she was interesting, selfless, authentic, showing integrity and faithfulness. She was determined and showed perseverance and had a cheeky sense of humour. If more people were as interested in the good things in life, like Gran, the world would be a better place for future generations. Teach your kids and grandkids life skills, tell them stories about the ‘old days’, challenge their thinking, encourage them to be the best that they can be - because these are the gifts from Gran that we’ll cherish forever.
60th Wedding Anniversary:  Allan and Marj reunited with their wedding party (sister Joan and best man Bill) in 2010

We could never mention every aspect of her life today, but we were all so blessed to have Marj, our Gran, in our lives.
About to plant a kiss on Dar!

Whether she was by your side each and every day for over 62 years as your rock and soulmate, or whether she was the most loving, caring Mother a child could hope for; whether she was a Gran who was interested and interesting to her brood of grandies, or as a dear, thoughtful friend to so many, Marj, Gran, has made a lasting impression on us all.

You may remember a touch, a kiss, a cuddle, a smile, a sparkle in her eye, a voice at the end of the telephone, a laugh, a pat on the arm, a letter in the postbox, a friendly chat in the street, a kind gesture. Gran was community-minded, compassionate, generous, encouraging and kind. She was strong, capable and hopeful. She was always loving, loyal and utterly devoted to her family. Her faith and trust in God was unshakable.

A representation of Gran's life

It is with heavy hearts we say goodbye to you, our darling Gran. 
You are an enormous loss to our family, but we thank God for your wonderful life. 
Your legacy of love will live on forever inside of us.


Tuesday, 18 June 2013

RIP Rev Peter Holloway

Family, friends and comrades of the 39th battalion said goodbye to Rev Peter Holloway today at St Paul's Church in Westmeadows.  He was then laid to rest in Bulla.  RIP Peter.  

Peter was a fellow member of the 39th Battalion.  He officiated at Jim Cowey's funeral in 1968.

The KTF website wrote: 
"Peter was raised on a dairy farm in Bairnsdale Victoria, schooled at Ivanhoe Anglican Grammar School and initially became a bank officer in 1937. He began studying for holy orders shortly afterward. When World War II broke out, he sought and received permission from his Bishop to enlist. He volunteered for the famous militia unit, the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion, not as a padre but as a Digger."

This is a photo of Peter with my kids at the 70th Kokoda Day commemorations at The Shrine last year. Inset is Peter during WW2, a young man full of life and love.  Peter quietly celebrated his 21st birthday while preparing biscuit bombers to support Australia's fight against the Japanese on the Kokoda Track.  He was one of the older young blokes (some were 18 and 19), but they were all young when you compared them to Jim Cowey who was 52 at the time.  Peter fought with the 39th Battalion in the bitter beachhead battles of Buna, Gona and Sanananda, in the final stages of the campaign.  By that stage Jim was back home in Australia, debilitated from his efforts spent on the Kokoda Track.

After the war Peter ministered religion as an Anglican priest for 64 years.  It was in his capacity as Vicar of the Chelsea parish in Melbourne, the parish where Jim's son David Cowey worshipped, that Peter was asked to give Jim Cowey his "send off" at the Springvale Crematorium.

Peter returned to Kokoda twice in the latter years of his life. During his last time at Ower's Corner in 2009, he was approached by a trekker who had just completed the arduous pilgrimage over the Owen Stanley Range. She recognised him as a Digger of the Papuan campaign, hugged him, thanked him, and emotionally proclaimed "I did this for you!".
Peter replied, 

We did it for you.

Peter's generation, and the one before, were something else!   That story took my breath away, the way Peter so elegantly surmised the enormous sacrifice our countrymen made for us in one of the most significant battles for Australia.  It brought tears to my eyes.
It was lovely to have known Rev Peter Holloway and I will miss his editorials in the 39th Battalion Association publication "The Good Guts".  I will miss his loving, thoughtful remarks at Kokoda Day and the way he led the prayers and the spirituality of the Association.  Rev Peter Holloway was demonstratively passionate as he actively commemorated his comrades and fought to ensure their sacrifice would not be forgotten, especially those who never came home.  Lest we forget.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Wallace James Cowey - Remembrance Day 2012, Ballarat

Usually on Remembrance Day, as on ANZAC Day, my thoughts naturally turn to my great grandfather Jim Cowey, or my other great grandfather who also served in WW1, Walter Clifford Stacey.  Wattie, or "Pa-pa" as I knew him, served on the Western Front with the 7th Battalion AIF.  He enlisted in 1916 at the age of 22.  Pa-pa was returned to Australia in 1917 when he became severely ill with tuberculosis.  He survived his ordeal, married and had two children, one of which is my Grandfather Dar.
My great grandfather Walter Clifford Stacey is on the
Sea Lake District Roll of Honour, last column. (photo Tim Fitzgerald)

But Remembrance Day 2012 was different.  I had in the preceding days interviewed my grandmother regarding another aspect of her father's life, when in passing Gran relived a memory involving her brother, Wallace James Cowey.  Gran and all her family called him Jim, like his father.  The conversation sparked something in me that became apparent during the silence on Remembrance Day.  Young Jim and his legacy was all I could think about.
Wallace James Cowey was born on the 6th December 1924.  He was the eldest surviving boy of the Cowey family.  The first boy born to Jim and Annie, their eldest child Bruce, passed away only 15 days after being born.  Annie then gave birth to two daughters, Marjorie (my grandmother) and Margaret, before Young Jim came along.
My Gran Marjorie (L) and her sister Margaret holding brother Jim in ~1926
L-R: Margaret, Dorothy, Bruce (the youngest), Marjorie, David and Wallace -Young Jim.

Jim was a trainee clerk with the Victorian Railways when he joined the RAAF in February 1943.  Perhaps being the son of a decorated veteran influenced Young Jim to enlist in the armed services, and I'm not sure if he saw his father come home from Kokoda before he himself enlisted.  Young Jim served initially as a cadet, then aircrew, before taking an active part in missions early in 1944, when he was posted to No. 18 Netherland East Indies Squadron.

The Australian War Memorial records that from January 1943 onwards, the squadron, flying Mitchell B-25 bombers, "were constantly engaged in patrols, bombing raids, and anti-shipping attacks, often operating at the limit of their range. Casualties mounted steadily. In April, the squadron moved to Batchelor, a base closer to Darwin, and with considerably better facilities. Raids over the occupied NEI continued at an increasing pace, and many enemy transport vessels were destroyed in low-level attacks as the unit’s reputation grew". (

Jim was promoted to Sergeant, became a ‘tail gunner’, and began flying out of Batchelor Airstrip in the Northern Territory on operations over what we now know as Indonesia.  On the 18th of May, 1944, Jim's crew on N5-177 joined 3 other Mitchell bombers that flew out of Batchelor to undertake an offensive sweep over Saumlaki Village in the Tanimbar Islands.  The four bombers swooped over the village, the N5-177 at low altitude, strafing as they went.  But tragically, Young Jim's bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire, from the north of the village.  A fire started in one of the engines.  The bomber was crippled.  It flipped over and slammed into the earth from 200ft.  Jim and the 5 other crewmen aboard were killed instantly when the aircraft exploded into flames on impact.

Wallace James Cowey - forever young, died 18th May 1944, aged 19.

Young Jim Cowey's name is located at panel 101 at the Australian War Memorial
Thank you to Inge and John Ballingall for the beautiful photos

It perhaps seems odd, but until that sunny Remembrance Day ceremony in Ballarat, it hadn't dawned upon me that Gran was perhaps the last living person that could lucidly remember Young Jim.  A young man who served his country and made the ultimate sacrifice.  At that time I knew little about him, likewise the majority of my family, I imagine.  During the silence I thought about how I would feel if I lost my own brother, like Gran did, and how devastating that would be.  Then I wondered what must go through your mind in those quiet moments.  Do you imagine his face? A smile, a gesture, a joke he told, or a particular memory?  Do you think of the good times, or do you imagine his last moments?  I felt a small degree of Gran's grief and loss that day, but also alarmingly a vacuum inside me where I believe should have been an understanding of the essence of my great uncle.  Young Jim's time on earth ran out long before he could marry and have children of his own, before he could create descendants to remember him and pass down stories of his life to their children.  But to this day, 69 years after Young Jim's death, my dear Gran still remembers.  She still sheds tears for her little brother lost defending Australia, lost most likely as he was trying to emulate what his father did in both World Wars.  For my dear Gran to carry grief all those years so close to her heart, still so raw, touches me deeply.  My Gran's huge loss and grief for her brother affects me whenever a reflective silence is respected. 

My experience on Remembrance Day made me realise I have an opportunity to make a lasting memorial to Young Jim in the book about his father.   His "memory" can be recorded in A Fighting Life.  So with that thought, I began interviewing my grandmother about her brother.  It is my hope that Young Jim's story, tied so closely to his father's, may also live on beyond the time of those who knew him personally.  That is what I hope to achieve for my great uncle Young Jim, and my dear Gran.

Today, Gran is in hospital waiting to be airlifted to Melbourne for urgent treatment.  Love you, Gran, more than words can say!

The cenotaph in Ballarat after the ceremony, Remembrance Day 2012

A "Mud over Blood" wreath laid by Tim Fitzgerald, custodian of the 39th battalion (1st AIF) banner.  There are close connections between it and the 39th battalion of WW2, of which Jim Cowey MC served at Kokoda.  
Interestingly for me, the colour patch of the 7th Battalion AIF (Pa-pa Stacey's battalion) is also brown over red.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The official opening of the Kokoda Memorial Terrace

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

That famous Dickens phrase seems to sum up my experience on the day of the unveiling of the Kokoda Memorial Terrace.  Perhaps I'm slightly overreacting, yet it truly was a day of ups and downs, of illness, death, of remembrance and gratitude, of support and criticism.  However, with benefit of hindsight, my experience of that day was largely positive and certainly a proud moment for me.

The Kokoda Memorial Terrace started as a project idea fuelled by the passion of two 39th battalion veterans: John Akhurst and Alan Moore (aka Kanga).  These two men amazed me and many others with their voracity and tireless efforts to lobby for and plan the upgrade of the Kokoda Memorial/1000 Steps area in Ferntree Gully.  The pair were increasingly frustrated that the historical signage along the 1000 Steps was being passed by due to the popularity of the walk being used for fitness training.  Those who were pounding up and down the steps to improve their health didn't have time to stop and take in the history along the way, and those who did were nearly trampled over and some berated by the hoards of aspiring athletes for getting in their way.  So plans were drawn up for a terrace at the foot of the 1000 Steps.  It was to be a place with a dual purpose: education and remembrance.  Consideration of those who did not come home was at the forefront of the design.  The ultimate concept of the Kokoda Memorial Terrace was to provide a place where school children and the general public could go and be educated about the Papuan campaign, Kokoda, the military units involved and the many personalities that made history 70 years ago.  Yet it would also provide a quiet, beautiful and moving space where loved ones, veterans and of course the public, could reflect upon and remember the fallen who were sacrificed for Australia's democracy.  John and Kanga's commitment and drive would see (in their words) "Stage 1" of the project to fruition in August 2012.

I was asked to contribute to the memorial by the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion Association, of which I am a member due to my great grandfather being a veteran of the unit.  I can remember when Geoff Pledge contacted me in 2011 with that request, how overjoyed and excited I was to be involved in such an important project.  I was very happy that I had the opportunity to highlight my great grandfather's involvement in the story of the 39th at Kokoda.  Also, I thought of how meaningful it was that this monument would be located on Jim's turf, The Dandenong Ranges, where he grew up and honed some of the skills he would rely upon in his life as a soldier.

My contribution included writing a short piece on my great Grandfather, which would then be edited to fit in with tone of the whole monument, as it would be made up of submissions from many different sources.

So the day came for my family and I to head down to Ferntree Gully to see the the Kokoda Memorial Terrace officially opened.  The day before Mike, the kids and I travelled down to Belgrave, rode Puffing Billy and then met up with my parents in Melbourne's far eastern suburbs for dinner and to stay the night.  That day I felt a little bit under the weather, having headaches was sniffly and generally felt not quite up to par.  We had a fun day however, and I thoroughly enjoyed travelling through the country of towering Mountain Ash trees and the beautiful ferny undergrowth that was home to Jim and his family, including my grandmother.  It truly is a beautiful place and one that I feel a connection to, perhaps because I've written so much about it, and because that is where part of my heritage is rooted.

Fast forward to the night before the opening, when I should have been soundly sleeping.  I awoke at some ungodly hour with searing pain in my face and even behind my eye.  It was hellish.  I quickly found out that paracetamol would do me no good, which was a terrible realisation as I had nothing stronger to numb the pain.  I was dosing myself every couple of hours and it had little to no effect.  I could not sleep.  I felt I needed to rip the skin off my face and tear out my eye, the pain was so unbearable.  I was getting frantic and desperate.  I was *this close* to getting Mike to take me to hospital.  The only thing that stopped me was that I didn't want to miss the opening!  I would be utterly disappointed.  I probably made myself worse with thoughts such as "How can I get through the day tomorrow?".  In a last ditch effort, I decided to have a very hot shower and direct the water on my face to try to relieve the agony I was in.  What else could I do?  It seemed to help a little, but I couldn't stay in the shower all day.  I just had to put mind over matter and somehow endure the terrible discomfort.  As the water washed over me, I steeled my resolve and got my head in order.  I tried to pep myself up.  A soliloquy of "It's only a few hours and then you can fall in a heap" and "Think of the Diggers, they went through worse than this" was on continuous play in my mind.  I dressed and also attempted to mask my exhaustion with layers of makeup that did little to hide the evidence.  I put on my "game face", and then it was time to go. 

We arrived at the Dandenong Ranges National Park.  The new Kokoda Memorial Terrace instantly impressed me.  What I saw was a raised area at the south end crowned with four thin pillars reaching up to the sky,  impersonating the dead-straight soaring forest immediately around it.  The four pillars mirror the ones actually on the Kokoda Track at Isurava, each inscribed with one word: Courage, Endurance, Mateship and Sacrifice.  Steps in the shape of an amphitheatre lead up to 11 panels of information, images, maps, and profiles of some of the men who fought.  They all formed a sweeping curve leading to the start of the 1000 Steps Walk.

I quickly walked through to the new terrace, drawn to the panel my great grandfather was featured on.  This is what I saw:

There it was!  Jim Cowey's story, flanked by the stories of 39th battalion legends Ralph Honner, Sam Templeton and JD McKay.  Pretty impressive company.  I thought the new terrace was fantastic.  The black glass and framework was modern and sleek yet somehow it still fit in seamlessly with the natural surroundings - the information panels could have been abstract shadows under the tall timber of the National Park.  As you can see from the above pictures, they also reflected the surroundings which gave the panels an almost transparent quality when you stood up close.  The space quietly imposed itself and I was so happy it did not seem at all out of place in the National Park.

Soon after, it was time for the opening ceremony to begin.  7 grandchildren, 2 great grandchildren and 2 great great grandchildren (my kids) of Jim Cowey MC were able to make it to the official unveiling.  Very significantly, the moving service was held of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Isurava.  The stand out was a speech made by Alan "Kanga" Moore, completely off the cuff.  He is an excellent speaker and tells an animated story you cannot help be involved in.  Veterans and family of veterans unveiled the pillars and the Terrace was officially opened.  In that moment I was particularly proud to have Jim Cowey recognised so close to where he grew up at The Patch, just 10km east of the memorial.  I emphasise east, as unfortunately on the memorial it was recorded as south.  A small mistake perhaps, but I felt disappointed the error was made as I had not contributed that in my submission (I wrote "He grew up 10kms from this memorial").

Not long after the ceremony, Jim's descendants gathered around "his" panel to catch up.  If I'm truthful, it was a strange and in some cases strained catch up, but I guess the discomfort I was in may have skewed my perception of the time.  There was certainly something on the minds of some of the group, as there was a lot of quiet talking and even a few tears that my immediate family and I had no clue of what was happening, but we were aware of nonetheless.  We found out much later that Jim's daughter (in my previous post) had sadly passed away that morning before the unveiling, after a long illness.  It was strange that no one told us then.  It was also a bit unusual that not one family member came to speak to me and say, "The panel looks good".  I was not looking for congratulations, but it would have been nice to talk about what we were all there for!  I certainly did not expect someone to have a go at me.  One of the family present came up to me and denounced,
"You've got it wrong, he wasn't born in Brunswick, he was born in Ballarat".  
"Hello to you too!", I thought sarcastically.
At this stage of the morning I was getting quite agitated, needing some more painkillers, but on top of that, I was definitely taken aback by this criticism.  I make it my business to get everything absolutely correct (hence my disappointment about "south" vs "east").  My careful research is the backbone on which my writing layers over.  I honed my investigative skills tracing my family lines back to the 1700s and have uncovered so much about my great grandfather's story.  If I have something incorrect, it is my personal belief my whole book about him will be for nothing - invalid.  I took offence to this claim and said, quite peevishly,
"He wasn't born in Ballarat, He was born in Brunswick.  I have his birth certificate".  (I also have all his service records and medical records, and in all Jim Cowey writes in his own hand that he was born in Brunswick).
To this I was told,
"Those things can be wrong, you know.  You should talk to X about it, she's the one that told me".
I couldn't believe it, not only were some not talking to me, they were talking about me and this so-called mistake.  I was so annoyed by this stage, and in increasing pain, I just had to walk away.  I saw my good friend Bruce nearby and he said,
"Come up real good, didn't it!".
I could have hugged him!  That's what friends are for!

But apart from that, it was not all doom and gloom on the day.  I was very interested to see and speak to my Dad's cousin who brought along a display of postcards Jim wrote to his future wife from Egypt, in the February before Gallipoli.  I had a nice chat to another cousin.  My Auntie gave me some written anecdotes from Auntie Joan, some I had already but some were new to me and I can use in my book.  I thought it was fantastic to see "Old Jim" Cowey and J.D. McKay side by side again, this time up on the memorial, and I really enjoyed catching up with J.D.'s daughter Lorraine and Peter Cochrane and meeting J.D's extended family.  I had a lovely chat and a nice photo taken with John Akhurst which I will treasure.  He told me not to worry about the little mistake, patted me on the arm and said
"At least he's up there, being recognised".
And John is right.

If you are ever in the area, I recommend you visit the Kokoda Memorial Terrace.  You could read the panels before you train on the 1000 steps, and each step may become more meaningful than a purely physical challenge.  Need some motivation?  It also might give you a new appreciation of the men who battled for Australia and our freedoms.  What our men endured in Papua is simply amazing to me.

My final though should return to the 39th Battalion veterans, John Akhurst and Alan Moore.  These men must be applauded for all their hard work getting the Kokoda Memorial Terrace project up and running.  They continue to fight for their comrades, even in their 90s!  They fight for recognition and remembrance of their mates, for both those who came home and those who never saw Australia again.  In the end, John and Alan have achieved a beautiful space for us and future generations to reflect upon the sacrifice of all our men who fought in Papua. What a legacy you leave John and Alan!  Congratulations, and thank you!

My Kokoda Memorial Terrace album on facebook

P.S. - you will find "lovely" photographs of me in much pain in that album, so please be forgiving of the state I was in!!  Later that night I went into emergency in Ballarat and was admitted with acute sinusitis.  I was on a drip for two days and eventually had an operation.  Therefore, I kind of feel a certain satisfaction that the level of pain I was in was justifiably so and was not me being a wuss!!

Monday, 18 February 2013

The passing of another of Jim's children

The year of 2012 saw another of Jim's children pass away.  My great Auntie Joan was Jim and Annie Cowey's 3rd and youngest daughter.  On the 26th August 2012, the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Isurava where her father fought to the limits of his endurance, Auntie Joan passed away.

Auntie Joan left behind many sweet and amusing anecdotes of her early family life at The Patch.  She was also very kind to answer specific questions I had about her father.  I hope to include some if not all of her recollections and imagery in my book, to paint a fuller picture of Jim Cowey and of course his loving and supporting family, of which she was a part.

RIP Auntie Joan.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A friend's connection to Kokoda

Here is a link to a story written by a friend of mine, Bruce McClean, who I met when we trekked Kokoda together.

Douglas McClean MC 

The subject is Bruce's Great Uncle, Douglas McClean MC.  Doug McClean's Military Cross was the "first (awarded) in the South Pacific area as well as being on Australian territory".   You will agree he was a legend!

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Kokoda Day 2012 - 70th Anniversary

On the 8th of August 2012, it was 70 years since Kokoda was retaken by A Coy of the 39th Battalion - my great grandfather Jim Cowey's company.   On that day, Jim himself fired the flare to signal to Battalion HQ (located in Deniki) that Kokoda was once again held by the Australians.  But the signal was not seen.  Soon after, heavy fighting with the better prepared and equipped Japanese Imperial Army took place and the Kokoda legend was born.  During that battle, the 39th battalion faced a formidable foe who at the time were considered the best jungle fighters in the world.  The Australians were pushed to their limits without adequate ammunition or supplies or training in jungle warfare to support their defence of Kokoda and the strategic airstrip.  After almost 2 days of fighting and using almost all ammunition at their disposal, Captain Symington (in command of A Coy) decided there was no other option available to him but to order his men to withdraw back to Deniki.  


It is in the withdrawal that my great grandfather made a decision that would change the immediate fate of 8 or 9 young men in his company.  Jim Cowey stayed behind at Kokoda after the main body of A Coy had left.  He knew there were young blokes left behind who did not get the message to withdraw.  Like a mother hen protecting her young, 52-year-old-Jim gathered these boys up and remained "as cool as a cucumber" throughout his stressful and highly dangerous undertaking.  At this time, "grenades were still exploding in weapon pits and the Japanese were thrusting their bayonets under huts" in search of cut-off Australians.  In this hostile environment, Jim Cowey calmly organised his gathered crew into single file and together they simply walked out of Kokoda in the dark under Jim's leadership - over the bridge, across the airstrip and into the relative safety of the jungle.  Jim kept watch over his young comrades while they slept that night and the next day they went in search of the main body of A Coy.  They stumbled upon a Japanese machine gun crew along the way and Jim disposed of them, continuing his display of calm confidence.  But the heat was then on, so Jim's group again went bush.  After a time, they came upon the village of Naro and there they found the main body of A Coy.  There was quiet celebration in Naro that day, as Jim's group had been written off by their comrades, thought to have been surely lost in the fierce, close fighting at Kokoda.  Jim's story was to continue in Papua....


For many, many years, the 39th Battalion veterans, their family members and descendants (and the general public) have been making an annual pilgrimage to The Shrine in Melbourne for Kokoda Day.  For the official 70th Anniversary commemorations, a special Kokoda Day was planned with the Governor General Quentin Bryce in attendance to deliver an address.  Interestingly, we share a birthday, and also she was born the December in the year the Kokoda battles actually took place.  

For this special Kokoda Day, I brought my 2 young children with me to The Shrine so that they could be present as direct descendants of a 39th Battalion veteran.  I took Aidan (then 5) out of school for the day but still dressed him in his uniform, I guess as a mark of respect for the occasion.  My daughter Aoife had just turned 3 the weekend before and together we travelled down to Melbourne in the family car.

On the way we talked about Jim Cowey, and I explained to my kids that there was "2 big wars" that their great great grandfather fought in and that this special day was all about the second time he fought.  (Coincidentally, the 8th of August 2012 was also the 94th anniversary of the "Black Day" of Germany's WW1 campaign, where the Allies, including Jim's then 46th Battalion with whom he held rank of Lieutenant, ferociously attacked the German defences along the Western Front.  That was 24 years before Kokoda).  My kids listened when I said we were going to meet people who knew him, people he taught and that we'd also meet families of people who fought with him.  I tried to articulate to them the solemness of the day and that there would be a lot of quiet times that we would have to be still and listening for.  I guess it was a big ask for them to remain still and quiet for the whole ceremony, but I wanted them to be there, to be a part of it.  It was important.  Unfortunately, it didn't exactly work out the way I had hoped (dreamed? :) ).  The kids were a little fidgety after the car-ride and were wanting to giggle with each other during the ceremony in the Crypt.  I was quite on edge trying to keep them both in line and respectful, wary of the solemn atmosphere and the veterans themselves, who on this day were revisiting their war service and without doubt would not appreciate a "display" from young children when they were trying to commemorate their fallen comrades.  In the end, I guess I sacrificed my own enjoyment of the day by choosing to keep the kids quiet instead of concentrating completely on the speeches made.  But I was glad that I was there as a great granddaughter of James Picken Cowey, MC.  I was glad that my children were there too, and even more importantly, that they got to meet the veterans and families of those Jim Cowey served with, some who he even saved during the campaign that formed part of the Battle for Australia, 70 years ago.

We were welcomed very briefly to the ceremony by the current President of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion Association, Norm Stockdale.  The Governor General Quentin Bryce then spoke and the veterans really seemed to appreciate her address and in all were quite impressed with her representation and attention to them on the day.  Rev Peter Holloway led the gathered crowd in prayers and Alan "Kanga" Moore recited the Ode. Overwhelmingly however, the most moving part of the ceremony for me was when 39th battalion veteran George Cops came to the microphone.  Mr Cops is a lovely man and I've been lucky to meet him and his wife and family, and they truly are "good people", always friendly, welcoming and ready for a chat.  My children by this stage had settled down and so a poignant silence enveloped us that made Mr Cops' delivery even more special.  His voice filled The Crypt as he read out the names of the fallen, his very own friends and comrades.  Many names resonated from A Coy's story....Johnny Stormont, Vern Scattergood, Bill Drummond, Tony Ruwolt and Jim's friend George Mowat.  But the sheer number of names, of mostly young men cut down in their prime so that we may enjoy our freedoms, was striking to me.  As are the statistics: after the Owen Stanley Campaign only 185 able-bodied men were left out of 500 soldiers who started up the track.  After being reinforced with a further 600 men, the 39th continued to fight at the beachhead battles of Gona, Buna and Sanananda and at the end of the bitter fighting against the Japanese, only 7 officers and 25 other ranks remained fit for active duty!  On the Kokoda Track and the beachheads, the 39th Battalion, and more importantly Australia, lost 135 men in Papua.  Hearing their names read aloud really drove home that point.  It truly was an emotional moment.

Afterwards, we enjoyed meeting up with the 39th Battalion veterans and their families, and those who also make up the greater "39th Battalion family".  I am proud and honoured to call them my friends now too.  

Lorraine Cochrane, daughter of 39th battalion veteran J.D. McKay MM DSM with Aoife and Aidan Lynch, the great great Grandchildren of Jim Cowey MC!  JD always maintained that Jim Cowey saved his life at Kokoda - JD was in the group of young men that Jim led out.
39th battalion veteran John Akhurst with my children. John was a friend of Jim Cowey and they met up again after the Kokoda campaign at the Sellheim Camp in QLD - Jim was going home and John was on his way back to Papua to fight in the beachhead battles. John says that Jim gave him the "head's up" about what to expect from the Japanese, which he said he was lucky to have.

39th battalion veteran Rev Peter Holloway with Aidan and Aoife after the Kokoda Day ceremony. Peter officiated at Jim Cowey's funeral in 1968.

My Kokoda Day Album