Dad passed away early last year. He was a POW in Austria during WWII, here are some pictures of that experience.
Dad as Pow Stalag XVIII
James Drummond Meyenn was from a distant generation to most of us: a child born on 27/71917 & raised in Australia during and after the Great War, a young Great Depression worker in the 1930’s and a prisoner of war in Austria for five years after joining the AIF in 1939 – the high light of that year, 1939, was his marriage to my mother Beatha Pender.
No doubt these events formed his social and political views – he was very aware of what he saw as social constraints many of his generation faced, he said to me once ‘My biggest regret is neither Mum or I had a chance to make the most of things’ . Socially he was a bit of loner but he did enjoy socialising in the way Australian men of that era did – he liked to drink after work at the pub. He once confided in me that he would not have done that if he had his time again. My memories of him during my childhood and teenage years are in fact coloured somewhat by his later afternoon antics, but far be it for me to point the finger at someone who might like a bevie or two.
Dad went to school in Wentworth NSW, his father managed a series of large fruit blocks along the Murray and hence he began his school in NSW. From what I recall Dad telling me, school was spartan and not particularly interesting. He left school sometime around year 9 or about 13 to 14 years of age- that would make it about 1930 or 1931, the height of the Great Depression. He worked for his father but left to ride a bike with a mate around NSW looking for work. He later moved to Geelong to attend the local Technical School and was learning to be a motor mechanic when war broke out. It was in Geelong on the 25th of October with the rank of private that he signed up to the AIF in 1939 (service number vx2010) and also married Mum in December of that year, they meet whilst dancing and it turned out that he was somewhat younger than Mum, a fact Mum didn’t know until she signed the marriage license, so she confided in me one day. Apparently, this was not the done thing, but none the less I would like to think they were much in love and with war looming, and his pending departure, marriage seemed the right course, irrespective of the their age difference, which after all was all of about 8 years!
Dad served as a private in the army and as far as I am aware he was part of the 17th brigade of the 6th division recruited in Victoria and formed on the 13th of October 1939, I am unsure but I recall him explaining he was in the 2nd/7th battalion. He experienced the middle east and also some fighting in Greece before he was captured on Crete – Menzies was PM at the time, more on my father’s attitude to him latter, but he was responsible for committing the troops to defend Greece (http://www.ww2australia.gov.au/greatrisk/), rather than returning them home to fight in New Guinea against the Japanese – possibly a blessing in hindsight. I am unsure the exact date of his capture (he was POW number 3864) but it would have been sometime between April and May of 1941. After capture he was moved to Stalag XVIII A in Wolfsberg, Austria (http://www.stalag18a.org.uk – at this site you can see his name on the roll of prisoners). This was obviously a difficult time, but Dad spoke well of his treatment and in fact spoke to the guards about his German heritage – some even warned him to keep very quiet about his surname – it sounded Jewish apparently! He told few stories about this time expect to say that when you get hungry you would eat anything, this was in reference to a horse that disappeared into the cooking sheds one day – most refused to eat that night. I have some photos of this time and will post them in July when I go home for a few months. He was discharged on the 28th of September 1945 – I think this date refers to his return to Australia. After the war was over he spent some time in the UK, traveling to Scotland to visit Muthill the birth place of his mother Mary, and recalled this time with great affection – Cathie and I visited the pub briefly in 2004, Dad still recalled the couple of hours he spent there in 1945, alas it has now become a B&B.
On his return to Australia in 1946 his father said to him ‘that will knock the fight out of you’, a remark which said more about Hughie than anything you could put in words – he was a right prick, there iIt’s in print Dad. I remember Hughie going on about the fact I had lost the pocket knife he gave me – I said, sorry ‘Pop’ and he just ranted on, I was about 12 years old at the time and just told him to ‘get stuffed’! He was apparently very tough on the three brothers: Alan, Dad and Albert. Albert was a free spirit and died towards the end of 1970’s – drank and smoked a touch too much, and Alan died in the 1990s in Rochester Victoria where I believe he lived most of his life. Dad was close to Al but not so with Alan – I don’t know the reasons, but like many things about Dad, reasons were sometimes difficult to determine – ‘it is just so, son’ he would sometimes say.
Returned life, especially for ex-prisoners, after the war was hard, very hard: this would have been particularly so for my Mother, a gentle, educated and musical person yet obviously with a determination to see it through. Dad returned in a very poor mental and physical state, he spent many months convalescing at the Caulfield hospital, a fact he constantly remarked on if I drove him by there, as it is near where we lived in Melbourne. There was no counseling or acknowledgment in those days, especially by the powers to be, just a grudging respect, possibly only between those that returned, but certainly a hatred of anyone in authority.
A son was born called John, my brother, but an illness claimed him before he was One, this must have been a very difficult time. My mother said it hit Dad hard – ‘drank 2 bottles of Scotch, had never seen anyone drink that much’, she said one day. Dad had joined the Post Office as many returned service people did, a job for life – a reward of sorts! Imagine living at Greensbough in 1946 just after the war and traveling by train each day into Spencer Street. I chatted with Dad about these times when he was in the nursing home, I got the impression he enjoyed it out there, it was in the country. The country was never far from Dad’s thoughts I would say.
The 6 o’clock swill was in full swing in those days, and Dad was in the habit of taking a couple of bottles (travelers) on the train – in an old Gladstone bag, possibly the one that had his papers in it, it is now in my cupboard – I am not sure how long the train took to get to Greensbough but one would expect it would take about at least 60mins, and then he either walked or rode his bike home to Mum, arriving home say about 7.30pm at the earliest. And, then he would be gone by about 7am in the morning, I image Mum would have wondered what hit her out there, but she was a resilient type.
Along I came in 1953, a bit of an oversight, with Mum being 42 – I also tried hard to do the wrong thing, even at the early age of 9months by pulling a jug of hot water over me. This created mayhem – and trips into the Childrens’ hospital, but to everyone’s relief I survived. My father was always very protective of my burn and did not allow me to play any contact sport – in fact I really only played football after he left home to return to Melbourne in 1969 i.e. not around to stop me.
I may have some of the chronology of the above wrong but it is mostly accurate.
We now journey through Swan Hill, back to Melbourne and then Canberra in 1960. Mum loved Canberra and I don’t think she ever really forgave Dad when we moved up to Murrwillumbah in 1963. In Canberra Dad had made the moves to go to University, dabbled in painting and a few other interests but for whatever reason did not pursue any of these further in Canberra, a matter my mother often commented on (‘listen too much to his so called mates’, she would say), maybe sub-conscientiously this is why I stuck at the study – he also told me recently that he nearly bought a pineapple farm, something I didn’t know and started me wondering what a son of pineapple grower would have turned out to be. Possibly he had dreams and desires that were just too difficult to realise. As a kid I thought Murrwillumbah was ok, but it was not easy for me in a new school and new town – I still have memories of wondering if I fitted in and if I was accepted, even through into High School. I think Dad was also uncertain where he fitted, possibly this is a common experience for returned service people, especially if they had spent time in a prisoner of war camp. My mate of those times David Proudfoot took me under his wing, and he has some fascinating recollections which are outlined below.
Dad had what were considered odd views in Murwillumbah. For those that don’t know the local member was Doug Anthony of the Country Party – the mere mention of the CP resulted in ‘those bastards’ being muttered. Dad was of the left and worked tirelessly for the ALP in Murrwillumbah, something I am proud of now, but was unsure of at the times, he was known in the ALP and would have stood as a candidate except the decision was made to go with a local dairy farmer by the name of John Constable. They became good mates and I spent a number of hours at the farm as they plotted the downfall of Menzies and the rise of the proletariat. My friend from school days Daivd Proudfoot has amazing recollections of Dad’s views – he was converted to leftist views so it seems and recalls a visit we all made to Parliament House in 1967 to have lunch with Senator Tony Mullverhill – apparently the plotting against the enemy Menzies was much to the fore, all I can recall is Tony returning Mum’s lamb chops as they were under cooked!
As I indicated earlier Dad’s views were formed by experiencing privation and being the victim of things out of his control, to him Menzies and liberals embodied the enemy. But this did result in a reasonably negative outlook – it was this we used to not see eye-to-eye on. In the town I was often the butt of jokes ‘your Dad is a commie’ I clearly I recall some people yelling out! Dicks, which is what I thought then and still do now – Dad would be proud of that I think.
Dad moved back down to Melbourne when I was in year 10 in 1968 or early 1969, I am not sure the exact reason but I think it had something to do with my mothers desire to experience some culture, I don’t think she really ever settled in to M’bah. I traveled down a few times to visit, in those days, 1968-70, it took two to three days on the train. I loved the freedom but also the fact that Dad was not at home – he knew this to, and made the comment to me one day ‘that was the making of you when I left home’ – a perceptive comment. Relationships between fathers and sons are, it seems, often problematic, so it was with us.
He was always keen that I do well at school and was proud of the fact that I did well at University, understood that I finally was awarded my Doctorate and was pleased I had been, to him, accepted by the other side when I went to work at Wesley – Menzies was educated there, a fact I loved to tell Dad.
Dad and Mum lived with us in Melbourne from late 1982, so I got to see a lot of them. They both loved the children and whilst Dad had always seen the share market as the devil and borrowing money as even worse he seemed to relax these rules when he bought some shares for his grand kids and seemed happy I took out a mortgage to extend the house!
I nearly shot my father once, not deliberately of course, but we used to go off into the bush around M’bah and shoot at things, I was a good shot – he always used to like to go and have a look at the target, ‘don’t point the gun’, he didn’t need to add ‘at me’, well I didn’t but I did leave it loaded and resting on my knee, it slipped – oddly he did not get cross, maybe because I still had the gun.
David Proudfoot recalls the following:
I have some great lasting memories of your dad: driving that grey ’64 Holden station wagon all the way to and round Victoria with your mother in a state of constant trepidation and two adolescent boys rather excited by the overtaking etc.; the time we both got the razor strap at your place after one too many poor decisions (helped ourselves to an extra raspberry vinegar I think) about something or other; the footy games we went to at Kardinia Park & the first semi-final at the MCG when Geelong beat Collingwood; lunch at Parliament House with Senator Ron Mulverhill; and his (Drummond’s) dyed-in-the-wool Labor stalwart’s disdain for RG Menzies and conservative parties, personalities and governments.
Just remembered, driving up to Southport today, another classic moment. I think he was your mum’s cousin, – Claude? – an artist or collector of somewhat dubious sexuality (unacceptably & unfashionably gay for the times actually) whose place we visited [this was in Brighton near where Tommy Bents statue is now]. I remember your dad making some very uncomplimentary remarks about Claude, his occupation & his “friend” prior to the visit. He said very little during our time there and kept a considerable distance from the happy gentlemen.
I also remember (being of Scottish descent) your parents not allowing me to spend any of my treasured & then very new and valuable $20 note on the trip. Their generosity even extended to a somewhat unappreciated lobster lunch at a restaurant on Port Phillip Bay
I recall the sheep station [Mum’s relations lived on a property near Skipton], your dad’s relation’s dairy farm outside Swan Hill, Alf the horse trainer who told us about Red Handed who went on to win the Melbourne Cup in November 1967, Hughie Meyenn & his Mallee-fired heater and Drummond making a quick stop on the Great Ocean Road for a Foster’s Lager with a Wolff Schnapps chaser at some scenic pub just off the road.
These recollections point to Dad’s generous side.
Here is another one.
After Mum passed away Dad took to visiting her old friend Joan down in Geelong, staying overnight. It must of occurred to him one day that this was not the done thing as he ventured to tell Cathie and I, ‘Since me prostate operation I can’t get an erection’, he then turned around and left, it took a few minutes to figure out the context, but I think I worked it out!
There was also the time George got the chop – (a roster in M’bah who lived in the backyard), he kicked Dad in the both legs, one spur embedded in each – left a nasty wound, and I still have the spurs in a tin! Well it took the old man a few minutes to let the temper (he had one) settle so he could see, and not long after George was running around the backyard less a head, with a stream of abuse following him! I think it made it into the pot but nobody could eat it – a bit like the previously mentioned horse!
And, there was the time he fell over coming up the steps to the house in M’bah. We had 70 odd steps and a big tree fern just before the last little bit up to the front door. Mum and I got into the habit of watching him negotiate the climb after lodge or ALP functions and this day we were rewarded when he toppled over and flatten the said tree fern – most amusing and lead to a bit digging and replanting in the morning, turned out Mum loved the tree.
He had habit of stopping off for a drink, mentioned by David above, whilst the occupants of the car stayed in the car – this hit an abrupt end when he tried it with Cathie and the baby Nicola – suffice it to say he did not cross swords with her again, I don’t think he got that drink either until he got home.
As Dad got older he still retained many of his ways and one day Lisa and he did not quite argument on the best way to deal with a dying stray cat in the back yard. Lisa did give it a name (was it another George, can’t remember) anyway, I prodded it a few times and told Lisa it was dead just as the bloody thing moved, Dad picked up an axe and said I’ll fix it, well Lisa and he had fantastic set to, the language……………………
On the 7th March, 2012 I am visiting Stalag XVIIIa in Wolfsberg Austria, making a small presentation of some pictures and Dad’ dog tags, it seems the right place for them.
Anyway, rest in peace Dad.