Remembering Nimbin's last Anzac Day before WWII

by John B Thompson

Reading the excellent article in the March 2012 Bulletin, Lismore Remembers the Fallen, brought to memory some personal remembrances of World War II and its aftermath.

The first Anzac Day I remember occurred in 1939. Once the march of WWI veterans, who had assembled in Cecil Street and led by Major Norman Brown, a well known local citizen, had terminated at the War Memorial in the centre of Nimbin village, the Service began. I recall it because my Uncle, George Oliver from Booyong, gave the Anzac Address. (He was a Councillor on Gundurimba Shire for twenty-five years and President of the Shire in 1934 and from 1945 to 1953. He was also a leading North Coast Presbyterian and Mason.) A large crowd had gathered for the Anzac Service. Uncle George stood on the back of Trainor Stewart's dray to address the gathering. As a five year old I heard him utter words that have remained with me all my life -- "War clouds are gathering over Europe".

Five months later those clouds carried the storm of war to the world. The Prime Minister of Great Britain, The Hon. Neville Chamberlain, on 3rd September 1939 declared war on Germany and soon after on the same day Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies declared that Australia was at war with Germany. Three months later on 8th December Australia's Prime Minister John Curtin declared war on Japan.

The whole world, Nimbin included, changed in an instant. Many local men and women went to war. Then began the exodus of men from our family to enlist for military service. Too many families suffered the same heart wrenching experience in those dark years.

From my mother's family: ? Ewing Walmsley, enlisting in March 1940, was captured in Greece in 1941 by the German army and released from Stalag XV111A Prisoner of War camp in Germany in 1945. ? George Walmsley enlisted in September 1940 and died of disease in New Guinea in May 1945. The first time I saw my mother weep was in Kyogle when she heard that Uncle George was dead. I felt very frightened and helpless watching my mother cry. ? William Walmsley, Mum's eldest brother, transferred from the Militia Forces of the Commonwealth of Australia into the AIF in July 1942. He was killed in action in New Guinea in December 1942. ? Edgar Moore, who married my mother's sister Eda after the war, joined the army in May 1941 and was incarcerated in Changi prisoner of war camp from July 1943 until September 1945. He died in 1956 from illness contracted in Changi. ? Norman Davis, Mum's brother-in-law, enlisted in July 1941 and was discharged in October 1945. With the exception of William who enlisted at Tomago and Norman at Ballina, the others enlisted at Kyogle, Ewing and George living at Bundgeam and Edgar Moore at Green Pigeon. From my father's family: ? Jack Thompson enlisted in July 1941 and was discharged in November 1945. ? My father, Henry Thompson, enlisted in October 1941 and was discharged in October 1945. Both enlisted in Nimbin.

Many other Nimbin and North Coast men and women known to our family enlisted in the Armed Forces. Some never returned home.

One of the many was twenty-two year old Ayrton Gibson Sunderland who lived on a neighbouring dairy farm on Crofton Road. My parents, Henry and Millie Thompson, worked on the Michael Thompson family farm just a mile down the road from the Sunderland property. Ayrton died as a Japanese Prisoner of War on 16th September 1944.

What I remember is Mrs. Sunderland crying, mourning her son's death.

My own family was very fortunate because Henry, my father, unlike most servicemen and women, never left Australia. He was deemed too old to go overseas to fight. He spent the war between Frenchs Forest Army Camp in NSW and Rocklea Army Camp in Queensland as a Craftsman (Motor Mechanic). He had two weeks' leave each year when he came to his Crofton Road home. When he served at Rocklea and had enough weekend leave he sometimes caught a goods train to Kyogle from which town he commenced the arduous twenty mile walk to Nimbin. He often 'caught a lift' with a passing motorist who had enough rationed petrol to drive his vehicle. Only once did he walk the entire distance in the few times he came home.

WWII did not bring much change to our mode of living. We had air-raid drills at school when there was a dry spell. Trenches, dug by the local Voluntary Defence Corp (the VDC) in the school yard, became mud after rain and drills were cancelled. The trench site became the school vegetable patch after the war. Posters were plastered around the school warning us not to talk about the war because the enemy would be listening. We wondered who the enemy might be in Nimbin!

One night during the war we had a trial blackout over the entire district. Members of the VDC, including Uncle Mike Thompson, were given the arduous task of patrolling all the local roads on horses to ensure that all residents were co-operating. They had a difficult job as many of the farm houses were situated hundreds of yards off the roads. Mum hung blankets over the three windows in our home. Most people probably blew out their kerosene lamps and went to bed.

We saw war aeroplanes fly over our locality. One was a black plane which many claimed to be a lost Japanese aircraft; another was a Lockheed "Lightning" type aircraft which flew very low over our Crofton Road home and disappeared over the "Lion's Head" at the head of the valley. On a most memorable occasion an RAAF bomber flew over Nimbin. All the pupils were out in the playground when this took place to see this enormous aeroplane. We were told that it was piloted by the son of the then Principal, Mr. Albert Miles.

Our family, along with many other families, produced green camouflage nets; a neighbouring family, the Hensens, conducted barn dances for the war effort; concerts were held in the Nimbin School of Arts in aid of our soldiers; hundreds of socks were knitted for them; churches gave all soldiers a prayer book and New Testament and prayed for our men to come home safely.

The end of WWII on 2 September 1945 with the surrender of Japan bought a celebration such as Nimbin and, no doubt, all of Australia had never seen. My mother drove to Nimbin and took us home from school. Maybe she remembered her two dead brothers and another still a prisoner of war in Germany.

We welcomed Dad home a month later. He simply resumed farming. Ewing Walmsley was welcomed back to Bundgeam with a family gathering that lasted a couple of days between milkings. Jack Thompson came home from New Guinea a sick man. He became a cream carrier picking up Crofton Road farmers' cream destined for Nimbin's Norco butter factory.

Such was some of our family experience of war which began for me at the 1939 Anzac Day Service at Nimbin.

John B Thompson. (Published in the Richmond River Historical Soc. Bulletin June 2012. Vol.23, No 2.)