Lesley Brown was just 21 when he was sent to the Darwin battlefields in 1942. He watched his friends die while the Australian city was levelled to the ground.
- Lesley Brown will be the only South Australian World War II veteran attending a service
- Australians will be encouraged to stand in their driveways to mark Anzac Day
- Ex-Military Rehabilitation Centre has organised care packages for veterans
Eight months after atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima, the British Commonwealth Occupation Force volunteer stood at ground zero, surveying the damage.
The 99-year-old World War II veteran has been marching at Anzac Day parades ever since. But today will be different.
“We didn’t have a weapon when they sent us to Darwin, we were just a bunch of kids going somewhere we’d never been before,” Mr Brown said.
“We’d never fired a rifle.”
With fond memories of watching an Anzac Day march from the age of seven, Mr Brown described serving his country with pride.
“To be part of the Australian Army is an honour, no matter what would happen, I would put my country first,” he said.
“The Anzac Day parade stirs something deep in every soldier. I do it, but I do it because of my battalion, the 27th South Australian, Scottish Regiment.”
RSL SA Ambassador Bill Denny, WWII veteran Les Brown and his carer Darren Renshaw in Adelaide. (ABC News: Dean Faulkner)
There will be no Anzac Day parades due to the coronavirus restrictions, and Mr Brown will be the only digger in South Australia to attend a service.
He is going to read The Ode at the Repatriation Hospital service.
Jack Thomas is 99 years old. He was a prisoner of war in Java. This will be one of the first years he has missed a dawn service or marched in the Anzac Day parade.
He was disappointed he would not see his friends.
He lost many of them over the years, but he will still remember them all on Anzac Day. The same way he did as a young boy.
“I must have been in the pusher; these were horse and cart days. They were not the days of motor cars, there was probably a band playing with all these men marching,” he said.
RSL SA ambassador Bill Denny said he hoped Australians stood in their driveways at dawn this morning as part of the national “Light up the Dawn” movement.
“It becomes particularly important on a day like today because our World War II generation are fast vanishing sadly, there’s probably in South Australia 1,500 surviving, only 70 marched last year,” he said.
“Every year is important because it’s our time to say thank you and recognise the strength and adversity and resilience of a generation that delivered so much to us and more importantly recognise those that gave their lives in our service.”
The Adelaide dawn service — which was broadcast live for people to watch from home — still took place but with only a few guests invited to pay their respects on behalf of the community.
Coronavirus forced ex-military support service to close
The coronavirus restrictions have not only impacted dawn services across the country, but it has also forced the Ex-Military Rehabilitation Centre (XMRC) to close its doors.
The centre could no longer provide services such as a men’s shed and workshops, so Dion Cowdray decided to support veterans by running a care package delivery service.
Adelaide veteran Alice Theunen now relies on that care package.
She is a double amputee, losing both her legs after leaving the army, is unable to leave her home and struggles to complete some tasks.
“I can’t sit straight and to get in my car and drive up the shop, it’s a real big job,” she said.
A few months ago, the pain increased, leaving her unable to drive right as the coronavirus hit. The worst part for Ms Theunen was losing her independence.
After seeing a social media post by the XMRC, she reached out and was later provided with a package of fresh fruit, vegetables, a meat tray and supermarket essentials like toilet paper.
It has become a lifeline for ex-servicemen and women like Ms Theunen.
“I’m over the moon. It’s going to set me up for weeks, I haven’t seen bacon for so long,” she said.
Dion Cowdray has set up the delivery service for veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
Mr Cowdray started the care packages when he was looking for a way to support members, and he received a small grant from Veterans SA to buy products from local suppliers.
“It all came together and then once I had it there ready to go I had trouble finding anybody to deliver it to,” he said.
That all changed when his Facebook post was seen by 15,000 people and shared throughout the tight-knit veteran community.
“It’s totally gone a bit gangbusters on the approach of people asking for care packages now,” Mr Cowdray said.
There is such a high demand he’s even delivering to veterans living two to three hours away but the small amount of funding has run out.
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‘Social isolation exacerbates psychological issues’
Veterans SA spokesman Justin Brown said the coronavirus measures had put increasing pressure on some returned servicemen and women who were doing it tough.
“That social isolation really exacerbates any kind of emotional or psychological issues they might be having,” he said.
Mr Brown called on the community to do what they can to support the delivery service, adding the basic supplies will be needed by many veterans until the coronavirus restrictions were lifted.
The care packages also provide a socially distant but friendly face to people like Lesley Brown, showing them they are not forgotten, especially in the lead-up to Anzac Day.