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Memories of long ago

Feature

Memories of long ago

On returning to Hellfire Pass for Anzac Day in 2013, veteran and former prisoner of war Jack Thomas described the air as being ‘heavy with memories of long ago’. While commemorative missions are primarily undertaken to commemorate significant anniversaries in Australia’s military heritage or to dedicate Australian memorials overseas, the missions have a significant effect on those veterans who make the journey.

Photo of Hellfire Pass, Thailand, taken in 2009.

During the Second World War almost 10 000 Australian prisoners of war laboured on construction of the Burma–Thailand Railway in appalling physical conditions. April 2013 marked the 70th anniversary of work commencing on the notorious Hellfire Pass, a deep cutting in the Konyu section of the line, which cost the lives of hundreds of Allied POWs. (DVA Vals 2009-hellfire pass)

DVA’s Principal Medical Adviser, Dr Killer AO, who has accompanied many missions, says ‘in some ways it changes their lives, they’re different people. If you see them at the beginning of the mission and you see them at the end, they’re changed men and women. We don’t want veterans to think that they’ve been on a campaign and they haven’t helped the country or the world.’

Missions typically involve a return to significant battlefields and locations, and commemorative services, functions and events. Veteran participants are representatives of all veterans of a battle or campaign. Priority for membership in mission parties is to ensure places for veterans and to enable veterans to participate in commemorative activities with other veterans who have had similar experiences.

Commemorative missions began in 1990, with a mission to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign; at the time, it was a collaborative effort involving a number of organisations, including the Returned & Services League. In 1995, commemorative missions became a DVA responsibility, with a mission to Gallipoli for the 80th anniversary. Between that mission and 30 June 2013, DVA has managed more than 30 commemorative missions, with more planned in the coming years.

For many veterans who participate in missions, it is a rare time in which they will talk about what they used to do and how it has affected them. Most find it a moving occasion to commemorate those who have served, and those who were lost. As one veteran said at Hellfire Pass, ‘I can go home now content; I’ve said my goodbyes.’

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