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Humble men last links with war s folly
Tommy Fisher served on HMAS Hobart during the Battle for the Coral Sea. Picture: Simon Santi/The West Australian

Every year when autumn begins to pluck the leaves from the trees and Anzac Day looms, I spend a month chasing the ghosts of old soldiers.

Phone lines that worked 12 months ago are disconnected or answered by strangers.

"He passed away a few months ago," a daughter or a son will say.

"I don't think there are any of them left alive from that battle," a friend will offer up.

When I was a kid, I loved watching the World War II veterans march on Anzac Day, fierce old giants with medals on their chests.

Something about them made me feel safe and proud.

Their craggy faces made them look like they were carved from wood, solid, eternal soldiers.

I took it for granted they would always be there, these humble heroes who survived everything the enemy threw at them, but in recent years I've had to face up to a hard truth.

Our World War II veterans are almost all gone and, when they are, we as a nation will lose something incalculably valuable.

They are our final witnesses to the horror and folly of total war.

They can tell us, if we are ready to listen, why we can never let such a thing happen again.

It took me weeks to find Tommy Fisher for a commemorative Anzac Day online report on the last of his generation.

Most people I spoke to believed he had died years before.

Mischievous eyes twinkling in a nest of wrinkles, he met us at the kerb outside his Osborne Park home, all smiles and firm handshakes.

Before we could protest, he picked up our video journalist's unwieldy, 20kg camera case, and with tottering steps, began hauling it up the long path towards his front door.

"Let me get that Mr Fisher," I said.

He shook his head. "No, I'll carry it," he said.

"It's the right thing to do."

The years have not changed him where it counts most.

In 1940, when the flames of war burned unchecked across the world for a second time, a young Mr Fisher reported to Fremantle harbour with his uniform and a toothbrush.

Like so many, the bloody cinders from that terrible conflagration had settled in his heart and begun to smoulder.

Mr Fisher, 91, has unwittingly become an ambassador from a different time.

His dark eyes take on a distant look when he recalls the 800 shipmates who served aboard HMAS Hobart during the Battle of the Coral Sea, where a small force of Allied ships stopped the previously invincible Japanese war fleet on Australia's doorstep 70 years ago.

One of two surviving veterans he knows of from that terrible fight at sea, he says he is the only witness left with memory intact.

Instead of a camera case, in May 1942 on the pitching deck of the Hobart his burden was a 30kg shell for one of the big guns amidships, turrets spitting thunder and lead at the Japanese bomber planes circling above.

Instead of a pair of journalists shooting questions at him, a line of bullets from an enemy fighter plane followed closely in his wake, punching holes in the gunmetal grey steel at his heels.

"Just before the Coral Sea battle we'd been through the Singapore-Java campaign. We (the Allies) had six cruisers. Five were sunk. We were the only ones to get out of it alive," he said.

When the Hobart sailed for the Coral Sea, Mr Fisher said the entire crew believed they were headed for certain death. But still they went, for loved ones, and country.

"We thought we'd be sunk. The boys were saying goodbye to each other and all that."

John Gilmour marched through Fremantle on January 15, 1942, bound for Singapore with his brother and four best friends.

A month later they and 100,000 other Allied soldiers - 15,000 of them Australian - were made prisoners of war by the Japanese force that conquered the Commonwealth's so-called "impregnable fortress".

The 92-year-old spent the next three years incarcerated, first as a prisoner in Changi PoW camp in Singapore, later as a slave labourer in Japan.

Of the group of six he enlisted with, he is the only one alive.

Of the 978 blokes in his 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion, only 14 others remain.

Sitting in the neat and tidy lounge room of his Leeming home, Mr Gilmour sifted through layers of memory, touching on the brutality of his Japanese captors, the starvation and disease, what it felt like to be liberated and return to the country he had suffered for.

Some parts of his story were painful to unearth, like the death of his "best mate from the war days" Keith MacDonald, who died of cholera in captivity. "We used to go out to dances together and work together," Mr Gilmour said. "He's lying in a grave up at Burma."

With his voice and with his eyes, Mr Gilmour made me realise anew the value of liberty and the debt my generation owes to those who paid for our freedom in blood.

In the winding back streets of Claremont I found Peter Salmon, 90, who 70 years ago fought with the 2/28 Battalion at Tobruk and the first and second battles of Al Alamein.

There, at high personal cost, the Allies defeated the Axis troops in Northern Africa and turned the tide of the war.

He was 17 when he enlisted with his older brother Sam. He was shot on the bloody push to take Ruin Ridge. Almost 1000 Australians were killed, wounded or captured and his brother was taken prisoner.

His voice catches. Sentences are punctuated with long moments of silence that somehow convey more than words ever could.

"It's like it was yesterday," Mr Salmon said. "I think the young today don't realise how terrible it was."

He said he was proud of all the Australian soldiers who had come after his generation, from those who served in Korea and Vietnam, to the young ones battling in Afghanistan today.

He was also humble about his own service.

"Thousands of others did what I did. I was no hero. I was just one of the boys . . . just a kid."

In the silence that followed I dared a question. "Did it ever occur to you, that maybe, all of you were heroes?"

He shook his head slowly.

"No, we were just ordinary blokes, Australians," he said.

I didn't tell him, but the boy inside me who used to watch those Anzac Day parades was not convinced.