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.

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