EVERY Anzac Day, Queanbeyan World War II veteran Charlie McManus finds himself travelling back 70 years into the past and thinking about his schoolmates from Bunbury – Jimmy House and Lionel Gibson.
The three boys all signed up for the defence forces and served overseas in the war. Only McManus made it back home again.
‘‘You think of them all the time, but especially on Anzac Day,’’ McManus said.
His military service began in 1942 when he signed on with the Royal Australian Navy as a signalman. He’d spend the early stages of the war escorting convoys along the East Coast of Australia on a patrol vessel, a job that wasn’t without its hazards.
“On our very first convoy we lost a ship, a tanker that hit a mine. People were talking of Guy Fawkes night ... it blew up, and it lit the whole ocean up,” he said.
“No survivors either. Poor buggers.”
The action continued further north, off Papua New Guinea, with McManus’s patrol boat involved in a range of jobs, including escorts, patrols, anti-sub runs and covert missions behind the lines, dropping off intelligence officers into enemy territory.
On one such mission, McManus and his crewmates nearly met their end after a Japanese vessel discovered them picking up intelligence officers late one night in 1943.
“Just as these two blokes were clambering on board the searchlights fell on us and they opened up,” he remembers.
“We made a dash for it with shells lobbing down all around us. We made it out too, because they never quite got their range.”
The crew would spend the next fortnight creeping back to base by night while patrol boats searched for them relentlessly. By day the Australian patrol boat would hole up in inlets and creeks, with the crew camouflaging the vessel with palm leaves.
“They were pretty hairy times, alright,” McManus said.
After the war the Navy nearly had to drag him off the ship for a two-year stint at HMAS Harman, just west of Queanbeyan.
“I tried every trick in the book to get out of it. I didn’t want to go back on shore and back to boring old work,” he laughed.
But soon after he would meet his wife Yvonne, and raise three sons in Queanbeyan. He’d become president of the local RSL, head of Legacy, Queanbeyan scout master, director of the hospital board, and sit on local council.
He moved on from the Navy in 1955 – ‘‘a good life for a single man, but not when you’re married with kids’’ – and joined the public service, working as administrator of Christmas Island in 1970 and later as administrator of Cocos/Keeling islands for a four-year stretch – ‘‘a beautiful place, but very lonely’’.
In 2002, the RSL awarded McManus the prestigious Anzac of the Year award as recognition of his national service.
These days McManus lives a fairly solitary life in his leafy Queanbeyan home. His wife Yvonne sadly passed away 22 years ago. He’s one of the last remaining World War II veterans in the community.
‘‘There’s not many of us left. I think I only saw three from World War II yesterday, two of who I know,’’ he said.
Sitting at home on a sunny Thursday morning with another Anzac Day behind him, thoughts of his school mates and the mischief they got up to still come flooding back.
‘‘I went to see Jimmy’s parent’s when I got back from the war,’’ he said.
‘‘It didn’t go well. His mother was very upset, saying things like ‘‘How come you came back and my son didn’t?
‘‘I think of them all quite often actually.’’