OP-ED: A Veteran's Legacy Well Worth Remembering
Thursday 30 April 2020, The Examiner
With Anzac Day still in mind I write about a remarkable returned serviceman, Launceston’s Ron Cassidy, whom I have the honour to meet in 2015. That year I presented a speech about him to Parliament with Ron sadly passing away at age 94 shortly after.
Born in Scottsdale in 1921, Ron was the fifth youngest of 10 boys and two girls. Ron remembered his mum Margaret and dad William who was a Boer War Veteran, as 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 completing sixth grade.
At the age of 14, he earned 10 shillings a week milking cows a Lietinna twice a day, seven days a week and also did other farm jobs as needed. Later he helped dig holes to insert phone cables for the Postmaster General.
When he was 19, Ron decided he wanted to join the army. He said ‘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 to years to 21.
Ron joined with a few of his friends and he said their goal was to fight for the honour of their country. The 2/40th Battalion recruited almost entirely from Tasmania, was formed in 1941 at Brighton in southern Tasmania and Ron was a truck driver. They caught a boat from Tasmania to Melbourned and travelled to Bonegilla, near Wodonga in Victoria, then on to 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 as part of Sparrow Force 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 recalled 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 shop. 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-hour days and all they would get to eat for the day would be one cup of rice. The Japanese view was 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.’ Ron said it was his strong friendships that kept him going through these times and he would regularly share the little food 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. In Japan, Ron worked at a copper refinery and helped to make iron ore at the zinc works in Omuta, south-west of Nagasaki where he also worked at a smelting works in the Mitsubishi factory. Another of Ron’s jobs was to feed the factory furnace at night so that sweet potatoes could be cooked for the Japanese. Ron said they would give him six sweet potatoes to cook and he would take two. He said those sweet potatoes tasted beautiful.
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 20km or so from the fallout zone from the Nagasaki bomb.
Ron recalled seeing a large puff of smoke on the horizon by 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 marvelous feeling’.
Ron Cassidy was 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. The garden honours those who served in this Battalion and the planting replicates the Battalion’s ensign using a white rose and a red rose.
Ron Cassidy was reminiscent of the many servicemen and women who served our country with bravery, fortitude and honour.
In 2015 when I asked if he had a message for us, his reply was simple but powerful: appreciate what you have and how lucky you are.
Independent Launceston Legislative Councillor
Rosemary Armitage MLC