I write to share a heartwarming story for Anzac Day about my pop, Mr Ronald FitzGerald, who has had the same home at Empire Bay Central Coast for over 40 years.
He frequents the local Anzac celebrations, personally invited as a special guest each year. War veterans Ronald Fitzgerald, 95, and Cecil Poole, 94, met a few months ago when they were serendipitously placed in the same room together in hospital after both falling ill. The two men introduced themselves in their shared hospital room and began chatting. Ron FitzGerald, ‘Fitzie’, was an active sportsman in his lifetime who worked for over 40 years for the Registrar-General and is married to Dalice. Cecil Poole, a former painter, is also an avid sportsman and married to Sheila. Ronald has three children with Dalice and Cecil and Sheila have six children. Both families now have grandchildren and also great-grandchildren.
“Cecil and I continued our conversation to discover more incredible similarities that day,” Ronald explained. “We discovered we used to live 20 homes away from each other. “Further chatter led us to find that Cecil’s daughter and son-in-law happen to be great friends with my daughter. “What a small world.” They were both laughing at these similarities in families and homes when a nurse entered. She looked at their charts and made a statement that both men were veterans. “I asked what branch of the forces he was in and Cecil replied ‘Army, in the 55 Australian infantry battalion’. “To which I replied in surprise that was the same battalion as me.”
After discovering they had both been stationed in Papua New Guinea’s Pacific War campaign they chatted more about the horrors of war and complete senselessness of it all. Cecil went on to mention he had had several close calls and was “lucky to make it.” Ron probed further while confessing that he too had had some very frightening near misses during his time in the campaign. Cecil went on to explain his lucky escape on one particular day when he was on a wharf awaiting to board a 4480-ton passenger and cargo vessel He remembered exactly where he was, standing two rows back, bustling amongst the crowds of young men.
Now thoroughly engrossed in Cecil’s retelling of that fateful day Ron promptly interjected: “At Port Moresby, what was the name of the ship?” “Yes, Port Moresby, how did you know?” Cecil replied. “The ship was called the Macdhui, it was June 17.” With shock, Ronald concurred that he knew that day all too well. Because he too was to board that ship at that very port, on that very day in 1942 as the hordes of young men lined up. As several began to board the Macdhui, they heard the piercing threat of the air raid alarm suddenly cut through the sky. “I remember the air raid alarm sounding,” said Ronald. “We were ordered not to board.
“As we disbursed with haste, the ship pulled away from the wharf. “Moments later we heard a horrible explosion.” The men all turned to see the Macdhui receive its first in a series of crushing blows from a Japanese bomb. More soon followed. As fire broke out, Captain J Campbell, the ship’s commanding officer, ordered the men to abandon the Macdhui. Aggressively bombed several times, she was sunk due to extensive damage from the Japanese air raid on Port Moresby. In hospital this year, both men recounted the day and the terror and waste of war. “A wicked waste of time in the prime of our lives,” Ron stated.
The men were silent for a time in remembrance of friends and comrades lost. The men returned home after the war to families and futures so closely aligned it was almost as if they had planned it that way. They have spoken since but unfortunately, Cecil is currently quite ill, after another fall, in Lady Davidson Hospital. Their families were overwhelmed at the similarities and amazing history the men shared. The pride at their and other Australian soldiers and veterans was only more cemented. “Three generations of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren may not be here today if either of us had been on that ship,” they said.
“Yes, I survived and went on to do something very special,” joked Ron. “I got a hole in one at 88 and even Greg Norman hasn’t done that,” he laughed. Both avid golfers, yet another commonality for the two friends, Cecil even named golf as his “religion”. When asked what he will be doing on April 25, Ron said: “Anzac Day shows our respect for those who did not return so I will be paying my respects.” This Anzac day I know I will be thinking of these two gentlemen and the incredible twists of fate and luck that saw them formally meet for the very first time after so many near misses. For the gallant, noble and brave that are sadly no longer with us this Anzac Day, Lest we forget.
Email, 20 Apr 2018 Virginia Brown, Empire Bay