Remembrance Day Service
Address by gp Capt Norman Geschke obe jp raaf (Retd)
It is an honour for me to be asked to address your 2009 Remembrance Day Service.
I have visited a lot of War Cemeteries and Cenotaphs in Gallipoli, France, England, the Memorial at Runnymede and in the last few weeks, the Bitabaka War Cemetery at Rabaul. As always, I left very emotionally distressed. I cannot help but be upset, particularly when I read the young ages at which many of these servicemen lost their lives.
At Bitabatak, there are about 1,000 graves, a surprising number marked by an unnamed headstone. Many of those buried were non-combatant, logistic and administrative personnel who were executed rather than being treated as PoW’s. At Runnymede, Bitabaka and most other War Cemeteries, there are thousands of names of servicemen missing in action with no known grave. They had no funeral service, and for their families there was left just a depthless void without an appropriate closure.
In the last few weeks in preparing for today, I have just finished reading a number of what I consider to be relevant books. Professor Richard Evan’s book The Reich in Power and The Reich in War. Also, Norman Dixon’s book on The Psychology of Military Incompetence. In the last few days, there have been some articles in the press, one of which was about Mrs Annie Whitelaw who lost five of her seven sons in WWI. The event where four brothers serving together on a naval ship were all killed in the one action. These books and reports, together with numerous war histories and my submissions on the effects of Agent Orange and the totally unnecessary loss of life of Australian Servicemen, caused by the British Atomic trials in Australia, have created the cauldron from which my address has emanated.
Professor Evan’s books are two of the most depressing I have read. They appropriately deal with the legalised thuggery, bestiality and senseless genocide of millions of people who were the victims of an out of control malignant dictatorship. Men, women and children killed simply because they got in the way; they were shot, bludgeoned, gassed and burnt to death by people claiming to be a cultured, civilised and intellectual society.
If ever there was a case for going to war, then WWII against Nazi Germany must be the epitome of logical justification.
Had Nazi Germany won this war, a darkness would have descended on mankind, or what was left of it; it would have been a darkness reaching depths never seen before; a darkness when all persons would have been subject to the diabolical whims of relentless extremists and deranged unconscionable thugs.
The world owes a great debt to all those servicemen and others who thwarted and destroyed the Scourge of the Swastika.
But today we are remembering not only the war against Nazi Germany and Japan, but all the other actions in which our servicemen have taken part, from the Boer War to our current actions in Afghanistan.
Regretfully, overcoming aggression comes at a great cost.
It is not just the life of a person that is lost, it is not just an event which can be satisfied by a military funeral and an annual commemoration service. For the ex-serviceman and woman, it probably means the loss of 50 years of living. It is the loss of a husband, a sweetheart and the father of children. It is a cost to our nation of the expertise and contribution that would have been made to our society had they lived their full entitled life.
I therefore see this Service today, as not being just a Memorial Service to servicemen whose lives were taken away, but also to all those who were affected by the serviceman’s or servicewoman’s death; of the many cases where there is no immediate death but years of suffering - intolerable suffering where death is often a relief.
Today as part of this Service, I want to reflect on what our Nation or more specifically, Governments have done, or rather not done, for service personnel.
On the outbreak of war, Governments and the supposedly patriotic media promote the glamour of serving a country using every emotional device possible. Prime Ministers mislead parliament, while rights are arbitrarily taken from servicemen.
There seems to be a view passed down from Governments to Governments, that when a person volunteers for the Forces, or is conscripted by the “death by ballot system” of Vietnam War, he or she puts their life at the absolute disposal of the Government to be used or wasted or placed in jeopardy at the whim of irresponsible Government or incompetent and unaccountable commanders, who have little regard for the lives of their troops. It was Hindenberg who said, “War to me was like taking the waters” while his soldiers were dying by the thousand and he was comfortably ensconced 40 miles back from the front lines. Field Marshall Haig aided and abetted by some exceedingly incompetent cohorts, was responsible for the enormous loss of life on the Western Front. His commanders and troops were given totally unattainable targets where every assessment of the task showed it was unachievable and would cost enormous casualties. He and his senior officers faithfully followed the British philosophy of expendability and that war was an approved method of postnatal birth control.
Australian senior commanders could see what was happening and the unnecessary slaughter, but were subordinate to the vast British machine and could do little.
The Australian Government, however, did not suffer the same handicap, but allowed thousands of Australians to be used as canon and machine gun fodder. In WWII, the Government was, however, more forceful where Australian interests were at stake.
Gallipoli is today, revered as the catalyst of the ANZAC legend. This, I suspect, to partly justify a disastrous campaign. Ill conceived, ill executed and at the unnecessary cost of thousands of lives. It was a situation where the enemy was virtually telegraphed of our plans and any surprise was lost.
In Vietnam, our troops battled not only the enemy, but also the indiscriminate use of the highly toxic chemicals such as Agent Orange and other toxins. With no adequate protective clothing, these agents not only affected the troops, but also the 2nd and 3rd generations of offspring yet to be born. The effects of using these agents were well known before they were used.
The unwarranted and improper use of minefields, where the mines stolen by the Vietcong and used against our troops caused, it is believed, greater casualties than our mines did against the enemy.
Our casualties were about 500 dead and 3000 injured. I understand that 1 in 10 of the deaths was caused by our mines that were stolen and used by the Vietcong. The injuries from mines were horrendous and caused the loss of legs, arms and sight.
This was a war in which we should not have been involved!
The Gulf of Tonkin episode, which prompted American entry to the war, has now been accepted as not having occurred. It was faked to mislead the American people and others into believing the United States had been attacked and so the war was justified. McNamara, the US Secretary of State, admits the US involvement in Vietnam was a mistake. A mistake which cost 60,000 American fatalities and over 100,000 injured. A mistake which led to the heavy bombing campaign which caused over 800,000 innocent civilian casualties in Laos and Cambodia.
Will history also show that the war in Iraq was also a “mistake” of a similar nature? I believe it will.
Most of us here today, will remember the disgraceful way our Vietnam veterans were treated on their return to Australia from the Vietnam War. No “thank you” for what they did, no glory for their heroic actions. It took many years before their contribution was recognised. These servicemen were doing what they were asked to do. That the war was unpopular or questionable was not the fault of our servicemen. They deserved the praise and reverence we have given to our soldiers of other wars. Iraq and Afghanistan are also unpopular, but we are carrying out our countries demands.
In peacetime, the lack of regard for servicemen’s lives has also been questionable.
On 18th February 1952, Mr Menzies made the statement on the proposal to test atomic weapons at sites in Australia. He said, “In close cooperation with the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia, the test will take place at a site in Australia. It will be conducted in conditions which ensure that there will be no danger whatever from radioactivity to the health of the people or animals in the Commonwealth.”
Unfortunately, this statement was profoundly wrong.
In these atomic trials, Australian servicemen were treated as guinea pigs. Airmen in unprotected clothing flew through the atomic clouds on air sampling duties. The navy and army operated in contaminated areas. Their rewards were a premature death rate through cancer in its various forms. A litany of flawed investigations has allowed successive Governments to cover up the extent of effects to servicemen; and the suffering which has extended to wives and fatherless children.
Servicemen have enlisted to serve their country and accept that this may cause death or permanent injury in war or through accidents in peacetime. But they do not enlist to be used unnecessarily in dangerous and hazardous situations in peacetime at the whim of an uninformed, callous or indifferent Government without being given full knowledge of the risks through briefings, and being provided with protective clothing and proper reliable monitoring equipment.
There is no doubt the way Australian servicemen were used in the British Nuclear Trials caused unnecessary deaths, serious illnesses and considerable suffering to dependants.
The atomic trials in Australia were a classic example of a criminally negligent approach by British Scientists and both British and Australian Governments. They apparently did not care or believed that servicemen were expendable without accountability or responsibility on their part, as long as their political objectives were reached.
There is, of course, the “hindsight” argument. The only justifiable use of the hindsight excuse is where knowledge of what may happen is unavailable and could not reasonably be determined. However, before these trials started, there was a wealth of knowledge of the effects of radiation; the Pitchblende miners, Madame Curie, the clock and watch workers using radium to paint luminous dials, American trials and the analysis of the Hiroshima bomb radiation data and effects.
It is now 50 years since the trials, but the Government has still not dealt properly and fairly with the casualties of this activity.
Then there was the F111 deseal/reseal program where airmen were subject to contamination by working in highly toxic chemicals in the confined space of aircraft tanks.
And more recently, the unbelievable situation over the pay for SAS troops fighting in Afghanistan which took over four months to fix instead of 48 hours.
I fully appreciate that you may not have wanted a Guest Speaker to delve on these matters and I apologise if I have offended anyone. But the treatment of service personnel has concerned me for most of my service and post service life. I do not readily accept injustices or unnecessary and avoidable loss of lives.
Today when we walk away from this Remembrance Day Service, are we going to do so in the comfortable belief of “that is that” for another year, or are we going to think a little more deeply about why the lives were lost, and what more could have been done to save them. How many lives were unnecessarily lost because of lack of preparation, a disregard of whether the war was fully justified or a disregard for the sanctity of lives and what we really owe to our servicemen and their families?
Can we really accept the stupidity of military incompetence of having four brothers serving on the same warship and all being killed when it was sunk? Or that an army could be so callous to have a number of brothers killed during WWI without having the compassion to withdraw some from action. What sacrifices are needed before compassion makes its voice heard?
The scales are far from balanced. Our servicemen and women deserve better.
Many have lost their lives for us. We have a responsibility to do our part and that is to ensure as best we can, that our servicemen and their dependants are not sacrificed by complacency, incompetence, ignorance and by Governments and top brass who regard servicemen as pawns to be used indiscriminately and without accountability.
The Guardée’s comment, “that he knows no greater glory than to die for King and Country” should not be a part of the Australian ethos or a “raison d'être” to justify the unnecessary loss of life.
Australian servicemen are the best we can get. They deserve that we should also reciprocate by supporting them and giving the best we can.
LEST WE FORGET
After a short period in the Army, Norman Geschke entered the Air Force where he served for 30 years. During this time, he commanded a number of flying and administrative units, and held senior staff appointments in administration, organisation, training, and operations such as Senior Weapons Officer at number 82 Bomber Wing, Directorates of Operations and Training, and Air Traffic Control. He was awarded the Queen’s Commendation in 1954 and in 1967 an OBE for his services as Director of RAAF Recruiting. He was ADC tothe Governor General in 1960.
His Air Force career has had some close calls including a mid-air collision while training air gunners in a Mustang; a blocked fuel jettison pipe causing fuel to flow into the Avro Lincoln aircraft fuselage; a navigation exercise which had the hallmarks of a disaster when all airfields in range became closed through thick fog, and that is not all! He flew a Lincoln through an atomic cloud during the nuclear trials in Australia.
Within a period of one month he incurred the displeasure of the RAAF Air Board and the EXTREME displeasure of the Air Board (which was established in 1920 to control and administer the Air Force according to the policies determined by the Air Council). Despite this, he was still promoted to Group Captain but requested this promotion to be cancelled, becoming the first Air Force officer to do so.
In 1971, Norman retired with the rank of Group Captain and became the Business Manager of the Howard Florey Institute, which is the largest brain medical research institute in Australia.
In June 1974, he was appointed Victoria’s first Director of Consumer Affairs and in September 1980 he was appointed Ombudsman for Victoria.
He was awarded Honorary Life Membership in 1992, with the International Ombudsman Institute, in recognition of his service to the Institute and his outstanding contribution to the Ombudsman idea and ethos. At the time of his retirement, he was the world’s longest serving Ombudsman.
He is a Fellow of the Australian Society of Practising Accountants (CPA), an Associate of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries and Administrators, a graduate of the Royal Air Force Staff College, and a Justice of the Peace.
Norman is married to Audrey and they have four children, ten grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
Some of his hobbies include restoring clocks and music boxes, golf, travel and cruising.
Norman has held the office of Past President and is a current member of the Melbourne Mechanical Music Society. He is a Past President and current member of the Defence Forces Welfare Association. His love of clocks led him to membership with the Australian Antiquarian Horological Society. He holds membership with the Royal United Services Institute (which serves the community by promoting a better understanding of defence and national security). Norman is also a member of the Air Force Association, the R&SL, and the Huntingdale Golf Club.
He has previously been the Chairman of the Inter-service Sports Committee, Chairman of the RAAF Road Safety Committee, President of St John’s Children’s Foundation, President of Oakleigh Youth Club, member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce (the Jaycees), and Chairman and member of other organisations and committees.