Thursday, October 20, 2011

What constitutes a War Grave?

I was asked this by Joan a couple of weeks ago, and it has rattled around my head ever since.

Within the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) in Canberra, there exists an Office of Australian War Graves (OAWG). Many of the rules that the OAWG operates under have been set by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It is not necessary to have died in combat, or in a war zone, to qualify for assistance and commemoration. It is sufficient that a service-person die from a war related injury.

Let us go straight to the specifics of my father's case, as I am on firmer ground there. My father joined the AIF in October 1941 (he had wanted to join the Navy but needed his fathers permission, but upon turning 21 could make his own decision), and was demobbed in December 1945, having spent 12 months in New Guinea as a despatch rider. He would take official messages from one command post to another. To do this, he would ride a motor bike or, when the jungle became impassable, he would take a small boat in and out of Milne Bay. He never mentioned being shot at on land, but did tell stories of being shot at out in the water.

Whilst at Milne Bay (Dad rarely used the term New Guinea), Dad got a couple of doses of two strains of malaria, which were treated for the rest of his life. He also came a gutser off this bike, sliding down a slippery, pot-holed track, which stuffed his right knee, causing him considerable pain right up until the last week of his life. However, neither of these afflictions qualified him under the rules used by the OAWG. What did qualify him, was that during his service in New Guinea he took up smoking. He did not smoke before his service, and I can remember him smoking as a child in Hornsby, which he left in 1955. So, my guess is that he smoked (not heavily) for about 12 years.

Immediately post-demob, Dad was awarded 10% incapacity because of his knee, plus free medical in a repat hospital but not private. This meant he received a service pension. By the time he went onto the Old Age Pension (OAP), he was receiving a service pension at the 70% rate. By the time he went into the nursing home, his service pension was larger than his OAP. However, he was not receiving a 100% pension. If he had been, then he would have qualified for an OAWG immediately without me lifting a finger. Had he been a POW or a VC, likewise immediate qualification. But he was neither.

DVA works on a series of 'Statements of Principles' which are, and I quote 'legislative instruments that set out the factors which can connect particular injuries, diseases or death, with service'. Hence, the claimant states his medical condition, they are related to a SoP, and either officially accepted or rejected. It all goes on the record. At the time of his death, Dad had 5 accepted SoPs on the record. Luckily enough, 4 of these accorded with cause of death on his death certificate, things like emphysema and arteriosclerosis. I feel certain that had Dad wished to apply again to the DVA, he could have been totally accepted during his life time. However, the last time he applied (to get to the 70%) was in 1992 because he could not stand filling in the forms and answering the questions. So, I did it instead.

It was quite obvious to me that he qualified. However, to ease the passage, both my step-mother and I applied through Legacy. They have people who have been trained by DVA in what information to look for and how to fill out the forms. Once Dad's death was accepted as 'war caused', my step-mother automatically qualified as a 'war widow' (even though they only met in 1978), and received a considerable increase in pension, plus her own gold card. And, funnily enough, I did not have to apply to the OAWG in Canberra. I had already spoken with them at the time of Dad's death and had all the forms ready to go. However, THEY contacted me once the DVA had made its determination. One government department talking to another. Will wonders never cease.

A war grave means that the government pays for the internment. Not for the funeral, not the cremation. Dad did not want anything; he wanted to be scattered. But I reckoned this was because he had no idea what he qualified for. The biggest thing in my father's life was his war service. He kept up with all his war mates for the rest of his life. Indeed, he was the organiser. The only thing he wanted on his coffin was an Australian flag. I insisted upon flowers, too, but hey, that's me. So I have found a niche in a gazebo wall at Botany Cemetery, which is immediately over-flown by an Australian flag which is raised every day.

Now, if I were paying for this niche it would cost me $1,650 for the niche (in perpetuity, as is the NSW way) and for the brass plate. The OAWG pays the cemetery $891 for a particular (unalterable) style. I could do it my way - and pay - or do it their way and get it all paid for. The two styles are obvious in the photographs. The OAWG style is limited to 70 characters including spaces, and allows pretty much only name rank and serial number. I tossed up both alternatives, but have opted for the OAWG style. We have complications in Dad's extended family which meant I was never going to satisfy everyone.

I reckon it should all be done by sometime in February 2012.

The two outside images below were taken during Dad's time at Milne Bay. The middle image I found during my recent wander through the AWM in Canberra. It is an image of Amy Myers, and it interested me because of the cigarette in her hand. One of the stories near her talked about how the boredom for the troops was alleviated by cigarette rations!! The DVA is aware that many smoking habits commenced during miltary service. It, and the government, do not want to endure court cases, so just accept smoking diseases as war related.

One more thing that Joan asked about was the use of the service emblem which can be seen on the plaques in the photographs. This is mandatory on the OAWG maintained memorials, but can also be displayed on private plaques, upon application. It is hardly ever denied, but they insist it not be altered/defaced. As well as a plaque on his ashes, Dad will also have a plaque in the War Cemetery at Rookwood. All servicemen, acknowledged to have died of war-related causes, are given this additional honour.

I will try to answer questiions, if you still have them.


freefalling said...

I dunno why - I just felt so terribly sad after reading this.

Julie said...

Perhaps because they were so young, so bored, so hooked on tobacco. For me it is just a process. Dad had a long life. Not a perfect life - who does? But a long one. He wanted me holding his hand as he died. I was.

Now I am doing this ... no idea if he is pissed off at me or not. Don't mind really. It all makes sense in my head.

Just thought. I am about to go up the north coast to spend 4 days with my brothers. So dont think poorly of me if I dont respond until Monday sometime.

Joan Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the explanation. My Mum and Dad refused to get a pension, they were going to keep themselves. Eventually, towards the end of Dad's life I persuaded him that he would be eligible for a veterans pension and he did go for that - it made all the difference. The men and women of that era really did carry their war service with pride.

I found a photo of my Mum at the war memorial. She was a Lieutenant in the signals corps.

Neither of them took up smoking in the forces, they were committed to "abstaining from strong drink, and tobacco".

diane b said...

It is all so complicated, any wonder some people give up trying to get anything even if they deserved it. I reckon anyone who went to war deserve heaps of recognition and support. They must all suffer some type of trauma. My parents resented that servicemen were allowed benefits but civilians like them who suffered awful bombing attacks in London were not given any support. War sucks.

Pauleen said...

I always follow and enjoy your stories Julie but this one had personal relevance because my husband's family lived in the Milne Bay district for many years as did I for a lesser time. I wasn't at all surprised at the comment about the jungle being really is and was incredible country. My husband, as a teenager, worked on the plantation where the Aussies had been situated. I have a story about it over on my blog at

My own father was in the railway -a protected/restricted occupation. During the war he even supervised Italian internees. When I tried to simply get him a certificate of service (no pension, no rewards) it was refused because he wasn't confined to a military barracks as I recall. He, and my mother, were quite disappointed.

I'm glad your quest has been successful and the fact that you feel you've done the right thing is the important bit.