Engraved on every Australian war memorial from Mullumbimby to Kununurra are three words: Lest We Forget. It is an imperious, stern refrain, reminding us of the incalculable loss war has has brought to families and towns across Australia.
But far from simply urging us to think of loved ones who fought and died or current soldiers in conflict zones, it now seems to carry the collective burden of who we are as Australians. Yet like our de facto anthem Waltzing Matilda, its meaning is far from clear. As Anzac Day has morphed into the nation’s rallying point, World War II veteran John Evans would like us to focus on what we are remembering.
‘We gotta teach people about what can happen and the consequences of war, otherwise they could forget. It has been taken out of the history books; especially in Europe and Japan it has been deleted. People have to understand. Lest we forget the real history.’
John’s is a rather unusual story. He did not have to sign up. He worked in Sydney in a metal-plating factory, a ‘protected industry’ during the war years, so he needed permission from his employer to join. He got that, and the day he turned 19 fronted up to the recruitment depot. His mother was inconsolable.
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘duty’ as a moral or legal obligation, a responsibility. With today’s emphasis on personal motivation and living our dreams, the concept seems outdated, antiquated. Yet John’s response, like many of his generation’s, was sincere.
‘I was listening at night [on the radio] to the Battle of Britain and what was going on over there,’ he says. ‘All wars are made of young people who think they are bulletproof and headed for adventure.’
As a young boy he had devoured the popular Biggles flying series of books, so the airforce was his natural choice. He was one of more than 37,000 Australian men who became RAAF aircrew through the Empire Air Training Scheme. It was a massive venture that took soldiers through years of specialised training across Australia and Canada. Yet he very nearly missed out.
Born in Chippendale in 1922, John Richard Evans was one of a family of fourteen. His father worked on the railways. It was pre-dole.
‘In a large family things were tight and any money that came in was readily accepted. So when I turned 14 – that was on a Friday – I left school, and on the Monday I went off to work.’
Yet along with attending night classes for his apprenticeship as a metal worker, John also began studying for his Intermediate Certificate – the equivalent of Year 9 – at night after work. It was a lucky decision as the RAAF demanded a minimum of Intermediate level education from its pilots.
After another six months of day job along with night courses in preliminary aeronautics, navigation and Morse code, John officially ‘went in’ on Friday December 5, 1941. On Sunday 7, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour.
A year and a half later, in the dead of a Canadian winter, he finally got his ‘wings’ and was attached to the 451 Spitfire Squadron. He was dispatched to England and flew countless training exercises with the bomber crews who were suffering extremely heavy losses.
‘You saw what happened to those Lancasters and Halifaxes when they came back, the damage… God knows how they got back… and those that didn’t make it.
Stiff upper lip
‘A lot of bomber crew actually had PTSD and couldn’t fly and they were virtually confirmed as LMF – lack of moral fibre – and demoted. They were bomb shocked… but that was the standard that was applied, stiff upper lip and all that.’
It was during this period that British Bomber Command was beginning to order strikes against civilian targets in Germany, culminating in the attack on Dresden, leaving devastating casualties.
‘I don’t believe in war, put it that way,’ says John, ‘but in Europe you couldn’t think of not doing something about it. Yes, Lest We Forget means to remember what happened to them [the soldiers], but also what happened to civilians as well.’
During two busy years in England and Scotland John trained others and was trained. He met his wife, Rosemary Gilbert, the love of his life, who worked with Flying Control, and he trained some more. ‘Finally I had to go down to Bomber Command in London and ask why I was still there.’
He got his posting in late 1945. The Spitfire Squadron was assigned to making runs over the Channel to Holland to bomb the sites of the deadly V2 rocket (Vengeance) that Hitler had aimed directly at Britain in the dying days of WWII.
‘My first mission was cancelled for some reason… and that was it, the war was over. I was rather disappointed that I did not save a lot of lives but I am thankful I never killed anybody, although I was prepared to do it.’
At 92, John has the palest blue eyes. He is soft-spoken and, from our conversation, clearly fair-minded.
Fairness is a trademark of the Australian way of life, a covenant we rely on, and despite tough seeding conditions in 2015, it won’t let go; it holds on to our collective psyche like Kikuyu.
At its most extreme it manifests in the Tall Poppy Syndrome – the desire for unnatural equality. And at its best, it is uncomplicated selflessness. You do your bit.
Says John: ‘I always believe in doing right and being treated like I treat everybody else. Where I could help, I helped.’