Three brothers went to war, one mother waited alone

John Vaughan Kent at ground zero in Hiroshima. (Family photo)

John Vaughan Kent at ground zero in Hiroshima. (Family photo)

Simon Kent, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 5:10 PM ET

This is the story of an ordinary family in extraordinary times that sent three brothers to fight in the Second World War.

The army, the navy and the air force each claimed one — my father was among them.

Together they confronted the King’s enemies in bloody arenas as far apart as Palestine and Hong Kong, New Guinea and the Indian Ocean, Morotai, North Borneo, Syria, Java, Port Moresby, Singapore and the Solomon Islands.

None was a hero in the accepted sense of the word. They did their job and were proud to serve.

Remembrance Day is a good time to salute them — and the generation they represent — as we are fast losing the last survivors of that cataclysmic conflict.

Hopefully this honours the ideal of service that united the Allied nations in the darkest days of WWII as men and women took up arms to fight the enemies of freedom.

This is also a tribute to their mother — my grandmother — known simply as Nanna.

She waited alone as only a widow can in Sydney, Australia, for her three sons to come marching home.

One by one they eventually returned to knock at her door. It took six long years full of worry and doubt, but they did return.

This is their story and it is hers. To quote John Milton, they also serve who only stand and wait.

******

Lets’s start with the oldest, Robert Osborne Kent. Uncle Bob, as we all knew him, was the first to go.

He was 21 and already in the militia in Sydney when his unit was marched out of barracks on Nov. 29, 1940.

They left as reservists. The order came to halt, then about-face. They marched back in as members of the 2/25 Field Park Company in the 7th Division of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

Uncle Bob was a combat engineer with the dangerous job of preparing the way for the infantry in an assault.

With more training, he and his comrades boarded the mighty Queen Mary one bright, clear morning and then sailed out of Sydney Harbour in a convoy bound for India.

More training followed before they were shipped to the Middle East. There Uncle Bob fought the Germans, the Italians and the Vichy French.

When Japan entered the war in 1941, the decision was made for the 7th Division to return in immediate preparation for the Battle for Australia.

Bob, by then a sergeant, consequently went off to New Guinea and fought the Japanese along the Kokoda Trail.

He was wounded and carried back to safety in a litter borne by four ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ as the troops called the Papuan natives.

When that fight was settled his unit returned to Australia again before it was sent off on a third trip, this time to the South-West Pacific area of operations.

There he took part in one of the last massed amphibious assaults of the Second World War at a place called Morotai in the Maluku Islands.

At the end of the war Uncle Bob famously talked of sailing into Sydney Harbour on the flight deck of a U.S. fleet aircraft carrier as part of Operation Magic Carpet.

He was pretty sure he had eaten his entire body weight in ice cream during the 13-day trip home down the Pacific.

******

While Uncle Bob was fighting on land, Peter Clive Kent, my uncle Peter, was at sea aboard a corvette with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

These were famously called “little ships for big men.” In truth, corvettes were nothing other than glorified mine sweepers with a four-pound muzzle-loading gun on the foredeck and a pair of .303 machine-guns on the bridge deck.

His two postings were aboard HMAS Burnie and HMAS Glenelg. They did the hard, mundane fleet escort work required while the bigger ships chased bigger prey.

Peter’s ships cleared mines in the Indian Ocean and shelled Japanese positions in the Pacific Islands.

They were variously based in ports like Colombo, Aden, Bombay, Singapore and Manus in the Admiralty Islands.

Uncle Peter saw his share of horror and lived with enough danger on a daily basis to pass a dozen lifetimes.

His stories were many but the most moving for him came at war’s end. His ship was sent to repatriate Australian prisoners of war from Japanese camps at Ambon in what is now Indonesia.

He would emotionally speak of carrying men who resembled nothing but “skin and bones” up the gangplank aboard ship for the passage home.

The photo here is him with my Nanna in Sydney on the night of his return from India on leave in 1944. My father took the picture at a civic reception.

He shipped out the next morning for active service in North Borneo, leaving Nanna once more with a son going into harm’s way.

******

John Vaughan Kent was the last to go. He joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) with dreams of being mustered into aircrew. Near permanent affliction with airsickness ended that bright hope.

Instead, Dad was trained as a hospital clerk attached to the RAAF 81st Fighter Wing. He went to the steaming jungles of North Borneo and lived and worked beside a muddy runway in exactly the same role as Radar O’Reilly in the television series M*A*S*H.

Dad has revealed few stories of his service. He remembers the relentless monsoon rains that blew horizontally across the airstrip and into the dank, hard-living space of the tent lines.

No air conditioning in tented operating theatres, so they’d get a block of ice and put a fan behind it to blow cold air over casualties as the surgeons worked.

As very young children he’d tell us mysteriously of the wild men of Borneo rumoured to have lived in the jungles and who would come and get us too if we didn’t get right to bed that minute. It worked and we did. Without fail.

When the war ended there was no immediate return for my father.

The 81st Fighter Wing and their Mustangs were dispatched to Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF).

My father spent two years in Bofu and helped bring order into the chaos of a beaten nation.

The picture here finds him at ground zero in Hiroshima.

Today he is the last of his squadron still standing, in all senses of the word.

And that is that. A perfectly unremarkable story except for the fact the combatants returned alive.

For hundreds of thousands of other families, the story had a painfully different ending.

******

Three young men fought for no other reason than they agreed it was the right thing to do.

Each was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom.

My uncles Bob and Peter passed away earlier this year within months of each other.

My father is very much alive and in his late 80s.

He proudly carries his wartime memories, as well as the signal honour of being part of “the greatest generation.”

 

THE NUMBERS

The Second World War was the deadliest military conflict in history.

More than 60 million people were killed, which represented over 2.5% of the world’s population at the time.

Death in war knew no nationality and respected no social standing, decimating some families and leaving others untouched.

In Allied countries, the number of military deaths varies widely.

At 1/1/1939 Canada had a population 11,267,000 and took 45,400 military deaths by war’s end. This represented deaths as a percentage of 1939 population at 0.40%.

Australia had a population of 6,998,000 and with 30,000 military deaths had a 2.81% rate compared to population.

At the other end of the scale .the Soviet Union had a population of 168,524,000 with military deaths of close to 10,000,000. That was 13.88% of its 1939 population.


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