Queensland Club Remembrance Day Dinner
Speech delivered by Air Commdore Mark Gower OAM, Official Secretary, Office of the Governor:
President, Mr McLay and Mrs McLay; fellow Club Members and guests, good evening to you all. I would like to thank Mr Henricksen for the invitation to join you for tonight, however humbling it may be for me to address you all, continuing the Club’s valuable tradition of Remembrance Day Dinners.
This morning the Governor participated in the Brisbane Remembrance Day service at ANZAC Square, hundreds witnessed the solemn wreath laying service and partook of the traditional one minute’s silence.
At Government House we also held our own unique ceremony, a tradition I was happy to reaffirm shortly after my appointment as Official Secretary.
I’d just retired after a lifetime in the Air Force, and Remembrance Day, along with ANZAC Day, had been part of the annual rhythm of life in Defence.
And that is as it should be.
Because, the Defence Force that doesn’t remember its past is doomed to repeat it.
The Defence Force that doesn’t pay its respects, won’t be respected in the future.
Government House, the official residence of the representative of our Head of State, should pay its respects to those who died or suffered for Australia's cause in all wars and armed conflicts.
The ceremony is simple and straightforward.
We lower the flag on the roof of the House.
Together we stand, and observe a minute’s silence.
And we raise the flag and return to work, to a life made possible by the sacrifice of generations of Australian service men and women.
Remembrance Day for everyone is a uniquely personal experience, and will conjure different thoughts and emotions in everyone, whether you have served or not. For me as an Air Force veteran, who also comes from a long line of family military service, Remembrance Day evokes a particular range of memories and reflections for me, and in my current position as Official Secretary to the Governor of Queensland I have gained an additional perspective. This evening I would like to share some of these memories with you.
With my Air Force background, every Remembrance Day I think back on the men of the Australian Flying Corps squadrons who were part of the Australian Imperial Force.
Many gave their lives in the First World War. They left their homes and went to war in primitive flying machines, where many were killed by their flying machines rather than by enemy activity. They were daring, courageous and spirited.
Many of the survivors laid the groundwork and established the modern Royal Australian Air Force, which today is undoubtedly the most balanced, professional and capable small Air Force in the world. We owe much to our early pioneers from the Australian Flying Corps.
I think back on my own family, my Great Uncle, Sapper Henry Thomas Gower of the Royal Engineers, who was killed in Mesopotamia in the First World War.
I think about his Dead Man’s Penny, the medallion issued to the next of kin of those who died in the War.
The Lady Britannia engraved on its face may be the symbol of an Empire that no longer exists, but the words “He Died for Freedom and Honour” still resonate for three subsequent generations of his family.
I think back on my grandfather and two Uncles, who fought in the Second World War in the Atlantic and Europe.
And I always think of my Father, who served 25 years in the Royal Australian Navy, including on active service in Malaya and in Vietnam.
Standing in silence at Fernberg, in the not-yet uncomfortable warmth of a November Day in Queensland, my thoughts also turn to other Remembrance Days, in other places.
My own contribution to the RAAF over 30 years was more to do with keeping the peace than waging war and I’ve attended – and led – Remembrance Day ceremonies all around the world, from Bougainville to Brisbane.
In 1994, I served as the Air Component Commander in Bougainville as part of a Peacekeeping Force.
We were based at Buka Island, because it had the only intact airstrip left after two others had been bulldozed by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.
Years of civil war had left Bougainville like something out of a Mad Max movie.
Hospitals and schools and virtually all the civilian infrastructure was destroyed beyond repair.
We had 3 Caribous 4 Blackhawks and about 60 Australians operating from Buka airfield, it was hot, humid and unbearably uncomfortable camped under canvas at the edge of the crushed coral airfield.
In the days leading up to Remembrance Day in 1994, we put aside the challenges ahead of us, and we remembered the challenges faced by those who came before us.
We remembered the 30,000 Australians who fought the Japanese on Bougainville in World War II, and we remembered the 500 who died there.
And, in the lead up to Remembrance Day 1994, among the people who had the most at stake in our peacekeeping mission – the people of Bougainville – we had both a strong sense of remembrance and of duty to those who had gone before us, but also a sense of pride that we were giving hope to the people of this beautiful island, hope for justice, a fair go and opportunity for people to live peacefully without terror and intimidation.
I could not experience a more different Remembrance Day from that one on Buka Island to a few years later at Arlington Cemetery, Washington DC, in 1998.
I was serving as an exchange officer in the Pentagon, on the Headquarters Staff of the Chief of the United States Air Force. As one of only two Australians on the Pentagon staff, I was undertaking a range of duties designed to strengthen the alliance between our two countries.
The eleventh of November is known as Veterans Day in the US, and in the early Fall at Arlington National Cemetery the air is cool, the leaves a beautiful rich mix of yellows and orange.
I took the opportunity to temporarily escape from the intense atmosphere of the Pentagon to witness the Presidential Armed Forces Full Honour Wreath-Laying Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, this is a truly moving and solemn occasion performed with great dignity and respect and with national relevance.
For me on this Veterans Day, it also served as a reminder of all the Australians who have served with our American friends and allies over many years in many conflicts, including the Great War.
And as part of this day, I was particularly privileged to attend the wreath laying service at the grave of the one and only Australian buried in Arlington, that of RAAF Pilot Officer Francis Milne who died on a World War II air mission while serving with a U. S. Aircrew on November 26, 1942.
He was a member of a multinational flight crew whose remains were discovered in New Guinea in 1989. Sincehis remains, and those of the United States Army Air Corps Technical Sergeant (Joseph E. Paul), were individually unidentifiable, they were buried together in the same casket in, Arlington National Cemetery.
The year after Arlington I marked Remembrance Day at Comoro Airfield in Dili East Timor, yet another vastly different experience.
I was serving as the Commander Comoro Air Support Group under the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor.
All the nations represented on UNTAET made the journey to Comoro on 11 November 2000 – Jordanians, Japanese, Americans, New Zealanders and Russians, it was hot, steamy and dusty, a far cry from the autumn of the north-eastern United States.
But this ceremony reinforced to me the universality of Remembrance Day.
Australians were not the only nation involved in the Great War, nor the only nation to lose sons in conflict, in the hope of a more peaceful world. And it was particularly relevant to me to be part of this ceremony in the world’s newest nation, East Timor, to be part of its struggle and of its history on its journey to independence.
Remembrance Day is about those that answer the call to serve, it’s about the fallen, and importantly it’s about being thankful for the service and sacrifice of those that have gone before us, and it’s also about remembering the families who are left behind.
Which has always made it more meaningful for me, when Julie has been able to stand with me at Remembrance Day, as she has done in Washington DC, Toowoomba, Townsville and at Amberley, where I served in various command roles.
It was these senior Queensland appointments where I had a high level of contact with Queensland Governors of the day and their offices, which in turn ultimately led, after retirement from the permanent Air Force, to my appointment as Official Secretary to the Governor of Queensland.
I’ve served in this role now since May 2008 – for eight years, and with three Governors.
During this time I have been part of the machinery which has supported peaceful changes of government in this State.
Australians are often surprised when I mention that, probably because it seems obvious.
But in the sort of places that I have served, that needed peacekeeping, that were violent and lawless, the sort of peaceful transition of power we take for granted seems nothing short of miraculous.
And if there is one thing we should always mention on Remembrance Day – or Armistice Day as it was first known – while remembering the service and sacrifice given by so many, it is that peaceful change should not be taken for granted but rather should be protected and cherished.
While my Service experience of Remembrance Day has been uplifting and has shown that it is almost universal across all people of all nations, it is in this current role as Official Secretary to the Governor, that I have gained a special and unique Queensland perspective on the ongoing meaning of Remembrance Day in our community.
The experience in short is that Queenslanders are people, from the regions to the city, who take seriously the obligation we owe to those who have worn our uniform and served in our name.
Queenslanders are people who pay respects to those who have suffered the loss of family resulting from active service.
And Queenslanders have a growing awareness of the real cost of active service on the men and women of our Defence Force.
Earlier this year I was privileged to join the Governor in his representation of Queensland at the Australian centenary ceremonies for the battles of Poziers and Fromelles. We were also fortunate to pay a visit to the Australian section of the Villiers-Bretonneau cemetery. Apart from the obvious observation of the extraordinarily high number of men of a very young age buried there, and the equally extraordinary realisation that such was the brutality and horror of that conflict that many had no graves. We were very moved to see homemade crosses left on Queenslanders graves scattered across all Australian cemeteries, left as it turns out by Queensland high school students as part of their Anzac study tours; we were also pleasantly surprised and pleased to be met as we walked through the cemeteries by significant numbers of Australians and Queenslanders who were visiting, making their own individual remembrance journey. It was clear to us that many Australians generally, and Queenslanders specifically, do remember, and are honouring the service and sacrifice of our forefathers.
Then, just a few weeks ago, I was with the Governor in Western Queensland as part of our Regional Government House initiative.
Based in Longreach, we travelled out as far as Birdsville, through the Channel Country, to places like Ilfracombe, Winton, Bedourie, Boulia, Windorah and Jundah, in seven days we visited six regional council areas, participated in 54 community events, and countless morning teas, lunches and dinners, all served with typical big hearted and generous Queensland hospitality and care.
In the tiniest towns and hamlets, we saw war memorials, well-kept and tidy, the grass to be freshly trimmed this week – I was quickly assured – ahead of Remembrance Day.
The Great War took a great toll on the State of Queensland, from the country to the towns. And overwhelmingly the people in these regional areas demonstrate that they do remember, every community shared with us the carefully planned ceremonies prepared for today, school children were researching and preparing for services, councils and businesses were planning community events, it left the Governor and me with yet another example of the very strong sense of pride and resilience that defines the Queensland community.
The message today on the 11 November, is that we should remember them, as we should remember and acknowledge all who serve our country in times of conflict and in keeping the peace throughout the world.
I can confirm to you that from my unique perspective, our Defence Force does remember and continues to honour and serve with the same courage as our fore fathers, and, that Queenslanders from the country to the city do remember and take pride in the achievement of those who secured the freedoms we have today. We should all do our part to keep the memories alive and to remember.
I commend the Queensland Club for continuing its tradition of recognising Remembrance Day with this important dinner, and I again thank you for permitting me to be involved.
Thank you, and “Lest We Forget”.