Wednesday, 26 April 2017

What ever happened to the heroes?

Latest column in The Australian ... No more heroes anymore

It is said that a prophet is not without honour except in his own town. And in every age, heroes are beset by the slings and arrows of cowards, snipers and trolls.

It was a bad week for prophets and heroes recently. It began with the fall of a titan of free speech, the late great Bill Leak, and there is nothing I can add to the avalanche of accolades and praise and laments that followed the death of The Australian’s artist, cartoonist and satirist non pareil, save to register my disgust with the legion of online trolls, perpetually offended political correctness sticklers and armchair culture warriors who exulted in his death and danced on his grave from behind their firewalls of anonymity.

A few days later, the father of this paper’s national chief correspondent and a long-time friend, Hedley Thomas, died. Hedley Sr had been a helicopter pilot flying dangerous missions over the jungle during the Vietnam War. Before the war he had flown Sabres and Vampires. He changed to choppers after breaking his back from the infamous configuration and G-forces exerted by the ungainly fused-tail Vampires.

The treatment of young Australian servicemen upon returning from Vietnam still rankles. Whatever one’s views on the rights or wrongs of supporting an ally’s questionable war, surely these brave chaps deserved better than the jeers and curses and howls of condemnation they were greeted with at home.

Later Hedley Sr fitted the prophet without honour mould, having served and consulted in the Middle East. His personal over-the-horizon radar was unerring; he was one of the voices in the wilderness warning of the rising tide of Islamism a decade or more before the twin towers went down in New York City and the world was knocked off its axis by evil.

On Thursday I was honoured to attend the funeral of my own uncle Vernon Fisher, a shy and self-effacing man who never spoke of his wartime exploits until towards the end of his long life. He died in his sleep at the age of 94, having cheated death three times in short succession on his way to becoming the captain of a Short Stirling bomber for the Royal Air Force.

After a trip from Brisbane to Perth crammed into hammocks on the lowest deck of a relic of a ship with raw sewage coursing down the inside of its hull and swirling in rancid eddies on the deck, Uncle Vernon and some of his mates refused to reboard the ship, preferring to take their chances on another. A few days later, the floating sewer was torpedoed and went down with all hands.

Upon arriving at Southampton and joining the Bomber Command, he decided to have some photos taken in his smart new uniform to send home to his family. Hours after he picked up the proofs, the photo studio, along with the entire side of the street, was flattened by German bombs.

And during his first week training as a Stirling pilot, he was barely aloft when two engines failed, necessitating a crash landing in a field with a full payload of bombs.

The Stirling was an ungainly beast, and with its wings clipped to fit in the RAF hangars, it did not have a very high cruising altitude. This put it not only at peril from the flak from German anti-aircraft fire but in the path of bombs dropped by the much higher-flying Lancasters.

A few months before his death, he told my parents the story of losing his instruments and bearings in thick cloud and fog somewhere over Germany. The cloud cover was so thick and the instrument failure so total that he lost all sense of direction, and wasn’t sure if he was flying in circles, straight ahead or straight down. He had all but given up hope when the clouds parted and he glimpsed the north star, allowing him to correct his course and level the plane.

The service of Australians in Bomber Command was overlooked until it was formally recognised in June 2012 with a memorial in Green Park in London, unveiled by the Queen.

Uncle Vernon never marched on Anzac Day, feeling it wasn’t appropriate, having served in the RAF, not the RAAF. He didn’t quite live to mark the passing of Anzac Day 2017, but on April 25 I’ll be sure to raise a glass to his memory and utter a silent prayer of thanks to Uncle Vernon and his like, and to the memory of Hedley Sr and even Bill Leak, all men who followed their own stars and fought in their own way for the freedoms and a way of life the cowards, snipers and trolls seem to place scant value upon.


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