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Anzac spirit still shines brightly

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Anzac spirit still shines brightly

Sunshine Coast veterans remain in service to their community through their work within RSL sub-branches. WORDS: Caitlin Zerafa.

Phillip Wilkins is a spritely character who, at 97 years young, embodies the spirit of the Anzacs.

Trained in explosives during World War II, the veteran today is a valued member of his local RSL sub-branch and is fuelled by no less than eight cups of long black coffee a day.

The Kawana local is passionate about keeping the legacy of Anzac Day in the hearts and minds of locals and has been a pioneer in ensuing his own network of veterans remains connected.

Anzac Day is an opportunity to commemorate and honour all Australian and New Zealand personnel who have served their country across history and continue to serve today.

This year marks 109 years since Anzac troops first landed at Gallipoli during World War I in 1915.

In an effort to keep the day relevant and ensure its meaning is carried on to the next generation, RSL (Returned and Services League) districts across Australia continue to provide a support network for veterans and their families, and education for the community.

Born near Griffith in New South Wales and growing up on a grain, sheep and cattle farm, Mr Wilkins completed his army training near Wagga Wagga. However, the war ended in 1945 before the then 18-year-old was deployed.

“I was in explosives. That’s what I was trained in and I came out with five fingers on each hand, so I was doing all right,” Mr Wilkins says with a laugh.

“They didn’t know what to do with us because the war had ended.

“So, they sent us up to New Guinea and we were there for six months cleaning up after the conflict.

“The harbour was full of sunken ships and our role was to get rid of (ammunition) in a lot of the tunnels.

“It was quite strange. There wasn’t a building standing. Not a thing standing. Even the coconut trees were blown down.

“It was a hostile area, really.”

Mr Wilkins considers himself one of the lucky ones who did not have to serve during active conflict but knows all too well the sacrifice of the Anzacs. His father was in the Light Horse Brigade in World War I and his older brother Frank was in the Air Force during World War II.

“I had a brother who was four years my senior and he joined the Air Force and went down in a Lancaster bombing over Germany and that’s where he’s buried. He was 21 years of age.”

Following his service in the Army, Mr Wilkins went into the building industry with his father where he worked until his retirement in his 70s.

Mr Wilkins moved to the Sunshine Coast 25 years ago and is now part of the Kawana Waters RSL Sub-Branch.

In his more recent years, Mr Wilkins has found a passion for connecting with fellow veterans. This led him to create a group known as the Mouldy Oldies, comprising other World War II veterans at the Kawana Waters Sub-Branch.

“I sat on my front porch one morning, having a cup of coffee, thinking how many World War II guys are doing the same thing this morning with nobody to talk to, just a coffee,” he recalls.

“So, I decided that I’d find out how many were in our sub-branch.

“There were 16 on the books, but only eight of us were mobile and we formed the Mouldy Oldies.

“The eight of the originals are down to two, and I’m one of them. We’ve almost reached the end of the road. We meet once a month and we have coffee and the wives would come along with the veterans, and they still come along.

“All the ladies quite enjoy it. They jabber away and have a great time and I’m proud of that.”

Savvy with technology and computers, and inspired by the little he knew about his own father, Mr Wilkins also encourages sub-branch members around Australia to write down their memories.

“My dad passed away when I was 24 and I hadn’t reached the age where I was hounding him for information and I knew nothing about his early life,” Mr Wilkins says.

“I thought ,‘I’m not going to do that to my kids’. So, I wrote my own, which they all want to read, but I said no way are they reading it while I’m still alive.

“I encouraged others to write their own and there are a few of these around now.”

Mr Wilkins and his late wife Robin raised three children and shared seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

“I’m proud of my family,” he says.

Speaking on the relevance of Anzac Day in today’s world, Mr Wilkins says it is heartwarming to see younger generations embrace the tradition, evident in the growth in attendees at local services.

“It’s important that we are still aware of what (veterans) did,” he says.

“I think of my dad … and my brother in the Air Force.

“My dad was in the trenches for three years. I think of my life and how much better it was than his. Even though it was rough, it was better than his.

“I respect them and I think people should remember that and I hope they do.

“I go to the dawn service regularly and the crowds are getting bigger.

“It’s not dying off, it’s getting bigger and the kids are getting up at four o’clock in the morning to go.”

Kawana Waters RSL Sub-Branch deputy president Gary Penney agrees that Anzac Day is remaining relevant in today’s society: “When I first came to Kawana, I think we had 4000 people at the dawn service and now we are getting 6000 or more.”

The retired Royal Australian Air Force Wing Commander, who served from 1979 to 2004, says Anzac Day is not about glorifying war.

“Anzac Day, I think, is about choice,” Mr Penney says.

“That choice was given to us by (veterans). Choice is a gift and gifts always come with a purchase tag and that was more than 103,000 lives lost by Australians over the wars.”

Mr Penney says the lives lost do not account for the number of mental and physical wounds of servicemen and women, including the ramifications on today’s veterans from multiple tours of Afghanistan.

He says the RSL continues to look at how it can best support modern-day veterans and their needs.

“We’ve come a long way, but there is still so much more to be done,” he says.

“You look at World War I and II, Vietnam and Korea – they went for 12 months or a few years and then the veterans came home.

“Not Afghanistan.

“We’ve got a veteran in the sub-branch that did seven rotations there and that was difficult on him.”

Local RSL sub-branches and the Department of Veteran affairs support veterans on the Sunshine Coast. Just this year, a new Veteran and Family Wellbeing Centre opened in Maroochydore.

“Here on the Coast, we have 12,500 veterans – that’s from the last Census,” Mr Penney says.

“If you multiply that by at least three, you’ve got the veterans and their families, because families are always impacted.”

RSL Sunshine Coast District president Grendell Antony is encouraging the local community to instil the Anzac spirit in everyday life.

“Today, we acknowledge the 1.5 million service personnel who have served our country in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations, and their contribution towards our way of life,” he says.

“We encourage the community to embrace the Anzac spirit – values which were created by the Anzacs on the morning of the Gallipoli landing.

“The Anzac spirit is about being there for your mates, giving back to your community and remembering those that bravely went before you.

“We believe it’s so important for our local communities to take the time to recognise and pay tribute to the individuals who have and continue to serve for our country.”

How you can honour veterans at home today

RSL Queensland is encouraging people of all ages to honour the spirt of Anzac Day and has put together some easy and child-friendly ideas to mark this day of remembrance.

Bake some Anzac biscuits

There are few things tastier than Anzac Day biscuits fresh out of the oven. Be sure to check out our recipe in this week’s Homegrown feature (page 27). This is also a good way to share the history of the humble Anzac biscuit with your helpers over a cuppa.

Plant a rosemary bush
The rosemary stem is a traditional symbol of remembrance on Anzac Day. And for all the green thumbs out there, this is the ideal opportunity to add a low-maintenance and evergreen plant to your garden as a symbol of commemoration all-year round.

Reflect on your family history
Many families have ties to wartime and this Anzac Day is a chance to share these stories down the generations, keeping the memory of loved ones alive. Resources such as the State Library of Queensland’s First 5 Forever Program offer plenty of tips for having a conversation with young ones about the history of Anzac Day.

Passing on the traditions of our Anzac spirit

While the gap widens from World War I and II to today, honouring Anzac Day allows young people to understand the sacrifices that veterans have made in years gone by and to say thank you in person to our modern-day heroes.

This year, RSL Queensland once again has run its Postcards of Honour initiative.

The initiative encourages Queensland’s youngest generation to express its personal connection to Anzac Day. In 2024, more than 20,640 students are taking part across 270 Queensland schools, including those at Bli Bli State School.

A veteran from the Mudjimba RSL Sub-Branch visited the school recently, speaking to the students about April 25 and helping them create their own postcard, which includes a message to a veteran on one side and an illustration on the other.

RSL Queensland state president Major General Stephen Day says he is pleased to see the age-appropriate initiative continue and grow, year on year.

“This initiative was developed with the purpose of engaging the next generation and connecting young people to the power and meaning behind the ANZAC spirit,” he says.

“It may seem like a small gesture, but the postcards act as such a meaningful keepsake and are truly valued by the veterans who receive them.”

The activity has been created to pay homage to the vital support that letters and postcards have played throughout Australia’s military history.

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