Mrs ARMITAGE (Launceston) - Mr Deputy President, today I wish to speak about a remarkable man, Launceston's Ron Cassidy, who at 94 is Launceston's last surviving member of the 2/40th battalion. There are eight surviving members of the battalion. Born in Scottsdale in 1921, Ron was the fifth youngest out 10 boys and two girls. Ron remembers his mum, Margaret and dad, William, who was a Boer War veteran, were devoted parents and it was always a busy house with plenty going on.
He used to play football as a youngster and went to West Scottsdale Primary School and completed sixth grade. At the age of 14 he earned 10 shillings a week milking cows at Lietinna twice a day, seven days a week and also did other farm jobs as required. Later he would help dig holes in the ground to insert phone cables for the Postmaster General.
When he was 19, Ron decided he wanted to join the army. He says, 'I thought it would be fun. I never thought it would be like it was.' To join the 2/40th battalion he put his age up two years to 21. His parents were okay with the decision. Ron joined with a few of his friends and he says their goal was to fight for the honour of their country. The 2/40th battalion was formed in 1941 at Brighton in southern Tasmania and Ron was a truck driver. They caught a large boat from Tasmania across to Melbourne and travelled to Bonegilla, near Wodonga in Victoria, then onto Darwin where they built roads for the camps.
Things changed in 1941. The Japanese had entered the war and the 2/40th went to Timor to help the Dutch protect the Penfui Air base and their Hudson bombers. The division had just under 1 000 Tasmanians who were up against the might of a reported 23 000 Japanese soldiers. It was formidable and they had never fought in the jungle before.
Ron recalls one battle which lasted for four days. In 1942 they were captured by the Japanese and he drove trucks for them for seven months, sometimes with a pistol to his head. From Timor they went to Java where a plane tried to bomb their ship. Thankfully the bomb did not hit the boat as the truck drivers were locked underneath. The ship reached Java and they unloaded petrol and guns from the ship. From there they went to Singapore and within two weeks they were on the notorious Burma Railway.
The men worked 16 hours a day there and all they would get to eat for the day would be one cup of rice. The Japanese view was resolute: if the soldiers did not work they got no food. Ron said, 'If you straightened your back the Japanese would beat you and they had their guns trained on you at all times.' He says the Koreans were particularly cruel in their beatings. The enemy's cruelty is well documented. While Ron understandably finds it difficult to talk about he openly admits that it was his strong friendships that kept him going through these times. He would regularly share the little food that he had with sick mates.
Ron was on the railway for 18 months. The fittest from the 2/40th, known as the Dunlop Force, were picked to travel to Japan via boat. In Japan, Ron worked at a copper refinery and helped to make iron ore at the zinc works at Omuta, south-west of Nagasaki where he also worked at a smelting works in the Mitsubishi factory. Another job of Ron's at that factory was to feed the furnace at night so that sweet potatoes could be cooked for the Japanese.
Ron says, 'They would give me six sweet potatoes to cook and I would take two'. His eyes would light up when he remembers that those sweet potatoes tasted beautiful. He also still remembers that first cup of tea after three and a half years of going without one during the war.
In August 1945, America dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing an estimated 200 000 people. Omuta, where Ron was at the time was 20 kilometres or so from the fallout zone from the Nagasaki bomb. Ron recalls seeing a large puff of smoke on the horizon, but the 2/40th Battalion members who shared that moment had no idea what had happened, let alone that the end of the war was in sight.
By 1945 the landing of Americans in Ron's camp confirmed rumours the war had ended. He said, 'Freedom was a marvellous feeling.' This year Ron attended the Anzac Day morning service at the Launceston Cenotaph where the memory of his mates remains close. He has been instrumental in helping to establish a memorial garden for the 2/40th AIF Battalion at Kings Park in Launceston and a tree carving at Green's Beach.
Ron also has a deep love of family. He and his beloved late wife Doreen had four children, Cheryl, Michael, Christopher and Karen. The children join Ron at events such as Anzac Day. He says, 'You don't know how great it is to have my children with me.'
Ron's message to all of us is simple but powerful: appreciate what you have and how lucky you are.
Mr President, I know my fellow members will join me in paying tribute and expressing our gratitude for the extraordinary way Ron Cassidy has served our country. We are forever in his debt. Ron Cassidy, we salute you.
Members - Hear, hear.