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A touching tale of joy, suffering and secrets

6 December 2014 No Comment

Private Bill: In Love and War
By Barrie Cassidy
MUP, 192pp, $29.99

WRITERS often hit their straps when they tackle subjects that have deep emotional resonance. So it is for Barrie Cassidy with his third book, Private Bill, a testament to his father.

Best known as press secretary to Bob Hawke when he was prime minister and now as host of the ABC’s Insiders program, Cassidy is also an accomplished author and this book is his best yet.

The hero of this beautifully conceived and multi-layered tale is his beloved father, Bill, who arrived on the Greek island of Crete on April 25, 1941. That was, as it happens, Anzac Day, which commemorated the World War I battle that had been fought a few hundred kilometres away at Gallipoli in Turkey.

Bill Cassidy became the first Australian soldier to reach Heraklion, the site of one of the three strategically important airfields on Crete. He saw action in May 1941, during a large-scale parachute invasion, the first in wartime history. This involved the landing on various parts of Crete of 15,000 extremely fit German paratroopers, all aged between 18 and 20. Four days into the Battle of Crete, on May 23, 1941, Bill was badly wounded.

Remarkably, after Australian officers had confused a German dressing station with one of their own, for a few days both Australian and German doctors treated Bill. This was because of an unusual agreement that the facility was a neutral zone where everything, including personnel and equipment, was shared. The wounded, who arrived from the battlefields under Red Cross flags, simply joined the queue of patients to be treated by an Australian or a German doctor. There was only one unbreakable rule: no one was to be armed.

However, on May 29 a squad of German soldiers walked into this field hospital and announced to the Allied patients and staff: “Your colleagues have left the island. You are now prisoners of war. As Barrie Cassidy confides, his father not only had a sense of foreboding about what it would be like as a PoW but, given the rapid takeover of Crete, he worried that Germany might win the war.

Back home in Australia, Bill’s wife of just two years, Myra, and their infant daughter, Pam, had moved briefly from the Victorian country town of Chiltern to live with Bill Cassidy Sr’s large extended family in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran.

Apart from knowing that Bill had arrived in Crete, Myra and the Cassidys, including Bill’s eight sisters, had no idea of his whereabouts.

As revealed in Private Bill, the master of ceremonies at Bill and Myra’s pre-war wedding was none other than the Chiltern-born Country Party stalwart John (“Black Jack) McEwen, who later became, for 24 days, prime minister after Harold Holt drowned in December 1967. In a touching chapter, ‘Trying to be Brave’, Cassidy explains how, in mid-1941, a new, chauffeur-driven vehicle stopped outside the house in Prahran and out stepped McEwen, the federal minister for air. He told Bill Sr that his son was missing in action and that neither the government nor the army had any idea what had become of him. Two days later, a stark telegram arrived, addressed to Myra and confirming what the family already knew:

Mrs M.L. Cassidy, 88 Bendigo St., Prahran

W.E. Cassidy missing. I regret to inform you that VX32438 W.E. Cassidy has been reported missing. The Minister for the Army and the Military Board extend sincere sympathy. Minister for the Army.

Six months later Myra received a telegram confirming Bill was alive, a PoW in Europe. However, it was only in August 1945 — a few days after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki — that Bill was finally united with his wife and then six-year-old Pam.

As well as tracking Bill’s exploits in German internment camps — from which he twice tried to escape, with horrific consequences — the other thrust of Cassidy’s captivating book deals with Myra, who returned to the close-knit town of Chiltern. There, living with her young daughter, she became a deeply depressed prisoner of sorts in their old house, with her own emotional wounds and unhappy secrets.

As Cassidy powerfully reveals, a potentially damaging big secret eventually came to the surface 50 years after World War II and was dealt with by Bill and Myra and the Cassidy family only with considerable difficulty. All of this is canvassed in the book’s penultimate chapter, ‘Myra’s Secret’, the contents of which I will not reveal. Suffice it to say, it demonstrates why, for decades, Myra rarely left the house and how, over time and with great courage, her relationship with Bill was mended.

Private Bill boasts several often affectionate black-and-white photographs. My favourite is that of Bill and Myra celebrating 66 years of marriage in 2002, the year Bill died.

Aptly subtitled In Love and War, this compelling but often understated book is a fitting tribute to the couple’s scores of direct descendants. Cassidy’s limpid and nuanced narrative voice effectively carries this highly moving story in two interwoven parts to an extremely satisfying conclusion. It’s a masterful memoir.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 36 books.

The Weekend Australian, December 6-7, 2014, Review, Books, pp 20-21, pp 20-21

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