THE GIRL FROM COOLANGATTA

The merry light in the eyes of the girl from Coolangatta clouded as she remembered her ‘lovely boys’ from the Kokoda Track.

One of them had arrived in her 47th Army Camp Hospital at Port Moresby late in 1942 after five days on a stretcher with a bullet through his chest.

Joffrette Case recalled: There were so many wounded, they had run out of sutures. The doctors used the last on his front. They closed his back with safety pins

He lived and corresponded with the woman who was tall and striking and got letters from the Diggers about her laugh and her tender care until her death in April 2006.

They were so young some were only 18. So many didn’t make it home.

The Diggers on the Kokoda Track and the New Guinea campaign were up against a brave and determined enemy who yielded ground only when dead. In a fierce war fought at almost point blank range, many of Joffrette’s ‘lovely boys’ died in quick bursts of gunfire.

Two of them were Lt.Laurence Powell and Lance Corporal Clarrie Skelton, mates from Coolangatta and both members of the 2/25th Battalion which had been withdrawn from the Middle East to meet the Japanese threat in New Guinea.

Both died on the same day 9 November 1942 at Gorira in one of the grimmest days in the Battalion’s history. They advanced on well prepared Japanese positions defended with heavy and light machine guns with cleared fields of fire. Ten other Australians died with them and the wounded ran into double figures

Captain Joffrette of the Australian Army Nursing Service never got to nurse either of the two men, particularly Laurie Powell with whom she shared a classroom at the old Coolangatta State School on Kirra Hill.

Her father, Sergeant Casey, was stationed at Coolangatta from 1922. His son Arthur attended the school with Joffrette Bridges Casey, named after General Joffre of the French Army and Australian General Bridges who died at Gallipoli.

At 90, Joffrette showed me her medals and I knew four of them because my father also had them from service in New Guinea and Borneo. The fifth was a Merchant Navy medal. What was an Army nurse doing on a merchant ship?

The answer was on a secret mission at a moment’s notice in 1940 which saw her bundled onto a train from Brisbane to Bowen and onto the Zealandia at Bowen.

Neither the Captain nor the crew knew she was coming and the only way to take her on board legally was to make her a member of the crew. Her eyes twinkled as she showed me her crew card.

The mission was to Manila in the Philippines just before the Japanese invasion that drove General Douglas MacArthur to Australia in defeat and saw his American forces consigned to the Bataan death march and brutal captivity that was a foretaste of the Australian experience in Changi and on the Burma railway. The Zealandia was sent to rescue evacuees, particularly women and children, who had escaped the equally brutal Japanese seizure of Hong Kong.

The voyage home was a nightmare with cases of tropical diseases, dysentery and sick children. Shortly afterwards the Zealandia was sunk in the first Japanese raid on Darwin.

Joffrette had become a nurse after her father was transferred first to Brisbane and then to Julia Creek. She survived the war, unlike another Army nurse from Coolangatta, Esther Sarah Jean Stewart, one of a party of nurses marched into the surf on Banka Island by the Japanese in 1942 and machine-gunned. When she married, she only had to drop the ‘y’ to become Joffrette Case.

Besides Laurie Powell and Clarrie Skelton, two other past pupils of the school on Kirra Point also died in World War Two. The Powell’s had lost another son, Lance, earlier in 1942 in the RAAF over Burma. In 1944, RAAF Warrant Officer Vivian Dickson did not return from a mission over Sofia, Bulgaria

All four are commemorated on a small white obelisk that had stood in the grounds of the school for the past 57 years. The school was replaced by a new one at Kirra in 1977 and became a Special School. That too closed in 2005.

Now the obelisk itself has been rescued from obscurity and the danger of vandalism and transferred by the Gold Coast South- Twin Towns Branch of the Association to the Kirra School. Refurbished, it shares pride of place in the new Gallipoli garden with a pine tree grown from seed from Lone Pine in another place where many young Australians died against heavy odds.

It was re-dedicated on Remembrance Day, 11 November at a ceremony presided over by the Minister for Veterans Affairs, the Hon. De-Anne Kelly MP. .
Detective work by the Co-ordinator, Allen Callaghan a past pupil of the school from 1945 to 1953 and National and Queensland Media Officer for the N.S.A.A. - located the Dickson, Powell and Skelton families, who gathered for the service.

Each presented the Coolangatta School with framed photos that show today’s young pupils that the names on the Memorial belonged to young, fit, active men who had life ahead of them until the Fuehrer and the Emperor unleashed war.

They found other past pupils including golfer Charlie Earp, footballer Barry Muir, Vince Creagh son of the headmaster in the 1950s - and Bev Erskine who was part of the J C Williamson’s Theatrical organisation and now runs her own secretarial business on the Gold Coast.

The Southport School provided the cadets who mounted guard on the Memorial to honour the Powell Brothers who completed their secondary education there.

The Queensland Police Service honoured Vivian Dickson , son of Sergeant James Dickson of the Coolangatta Police and Constable Casey, father of Joffrette.
The Kirra Surf Club honoured the five Powell Brothers who were members in the 1930s Lance, Laurie, Raymond, Ivan and Jack. And 9 year old Eryn Dolan, of Coolangatta State School, honoured her great uncle, Clarrie Skelton
Vivian Dickson Laurie Powell Lance Powell Clarrie Skelton

On Anzac Day, 2006, the School added two more names of past pupils to the Memorial.They are 2nd Lt.John Fraser and Private Lex Adams, both of whom were killed on active service in Vietnam

Lt.Fraser, 23, a National Serviceman of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australia Regiment, stepped on a land mine on patrol in the Long Hai hills on 24 March, 1968.
His father, Mr.Jim Fraser, was a newsagent at Kirra and later founded the first free newspaper on the Gold Coast. His brother, Fred Fraser, a well-known Gold Coast sports journalist, died this month

Private Adams, aged 23, of 2nd Battalion, R.A.R., was killed in action in a Viet Cong Bunker System in Phuoc Tuy province on 31 March, 1971. He and his brother had been fostered by the Norris family.
1 Platoon 2 RAR (Under operational Control by 3 RAR) engaged the enemy in a very large and well fortified bunker system located on the Song Rai. Withdrawing from the contact was difficult however wounded were eventually removed with the assistance of reinforcements who defended the position and assisted in the dustoff. Lex Adams was one of 7 wounded in action during this contact. Lex subsequently died of his wounds. At the age of three, Lex and his brother John were fostered by the Norris family. An A grade stydent, he obtained a university degree in optometry before enlisting with friends in 1968. A mortarman and rifleman with 2 RAR, he was killed in action in a bunker system in Phuoc Tuy Province on March 31st 1971. He left a daughter, Lisa, the Norris family and brother John.

 

The small white obelisk and its simple plaques bearing the six names shines in the sun again, like their memory.

Hon. De-Anne Kelly Allen Callaghan Don Beck Hon.De-Anne Kelly 11th November Hon. De-Anne Kelly
Father John Reid, Pupils Coolangatta State School TSS Honour Guard Present and Past Pupils Coolangatta State School 11 November 2005
Wreaths on Memorial F111s Unloading Memorial Coolangatta State School
Work Party old Coolangatta State School Servicemen and women Vivian Dickson (centre) MickWinders (right)

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