Written by Roy Patrick (Pat) Gardner
My father, Eric James Gardner, was born at Yarloop Western Australia on January 14 th 1904. He trained as a Carpenter and Joiner, becoming a skilled Wood Machinist and an excellent Cabinet Maker. At aged 22 years he married Francie Elizabeth Staveley and they raised two sons, Ronald Eric and myself, Roy Patrick (Pat).
Dad was very Australian, a loving family man, loved horse racing and we as a family wanted for nothing. We lived in North Perth, near Dad’s parents. Dad visited his parents very regularly and he was also very close to all his siblings. Dad was no gambler but he enjoyed going to the horse races, often with either Mum or my elder brother, Ron.
When World War Two broke out Dad was determined to join the army to serve his country. When he attended at Claremont for voluntary enlistment on July 30 th 1940 he understated his age by two years. He gave his year of birth as 1906. At this stage during the early war years enlistment of a 36 year old would have been rejected. He also nominated his occupation as “labourer” rather than a skilled tradesman that he was, to further enhance his prospects of acceptance.
After initial training at Melville and Northam he was transferred to the 2/6 Field Park Company RAE and they were based at Ascot Racecourse. Dad enjoyed being at the racecourse. He was given the nickname of “Sitting Bull” as he would often get up early in the morning, sit in the grandstand, and watch the dawn training of the horses. It was the pose that he assumed whilst intently watching the horse training that resulted in the nickname. Then on January 31 st 1941, presumably because of his wood machining background, Dad was allocated to Trade Group III, being classified as a “Sawyer”
I recall being woken one morning at about 6.00am when I was ten years old and bundled in a car with my mother, brother, paternal grandparents and uncle to travel to Fremantle. I remember it as being “hush hush” and sort of a secretive and mysterious journey. An uncle had contact with someone at the West Australian Newspapers and we now suspect that word was received overnight via that source that dad was about to embark overseas. Other members of our family may have also attended Fremantle Harbour as I can recall a few other people being there. The ship, Zealandia, was berthed and the soldiers already onboard when we arrived. Access was restricted by way of barricades along the wharf that prevented us coming close to the ship. We moved down the wharf to the stern section of the ship where the barricade returned to the edge of the wharf. All the Western Australian soldiers were down this end and ropes were being thrown between the soldiers and us. These ropes carried written notes and were exchanged backwards and forwards.
We all were waving as the ship departed. With a good view of dad and his mates we remained on the wharf until the ship moved out of sight. My grandmother said to my mother, “Francie, I just want to stay here until Eric comes home”. We were then bundled back into the car and travelled up the coast road to Cottesloe watching enroute the troopship heading north. We were never to see Eric James Gardner again. Dad died on the 9 th July 1945 at the Ranau Number 2 Jungle Camp after completing the second death march which departed from Sandakan. Dad must have tried so hard to stay alive for so long a time as a POW. He knew all his loving family was waiting patiently back in Australia for him to return.
Mum kept Ron and I protected from the information that must have come back regarding what happened to dad. A telegram came to our home late in 1945. I recall soldiers coming to our home after the war but mum never talked to us about what was discussed. She had fulltime employment at Boans in the city and she worked until not long before her death in 1977. She had dedicated her life to ensure her sons had a good upbringing and education into adulthood. She did it alone as she never married again nor had a partner. Our mother, grandparents and all the family were very supportive towards us boys, and except for the loss of our father and his love, we were never to feel deprived in any way.
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