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!!

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