Remembering ANZAC in a virtual world
Digitization of documents and archives play a vital role in our democracy and our history. Too often, ‘digital transformation’ is equated with MyGov, apps and the like: our digital transformation mindset is far too narrow.
In reality, the “digital transformation” of the past has a much greater impact on our future and on who we are as a people.
My husband Allan (a former RAAF officer) and I have serving parents, many of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice of their lives.
As ANZAC Day approaches, I thought I would draw attention to how digital technologies help us discover their stories and how these technologies will preserve those stories for future generations.
Australian and state governments have played a major role in this important work.
The National Archives of Australia (NAA) has digitized and digitally recorded all war service records of Australians who fought in the Great War, World War I.
The NAA is now digitizing the one million records it holds documenting the service of Australian men and women during World War II.
The Australian government funded this work with $ 10 million in April 2019 to enable completion in four years. Once digitized, they are available online for free.
Allan’s paternal grandfather, Ernest Henry Johnson, served in WWI and WWII. His horrific story and sacrifice has never really been told.
Ernest’s scanned record of World War I certainly wasn’t bland. He documented his arrival at the age of 17 to try and help feed his family as a man of the house. He was a boy soldier.
Ernest was charged with minor theft during training, but was immediately fired when it was discovered he was a minor. But under pressure to provide for his family, he joined again soon after.
There weren’t any computers back then, and teens were shopping at recruiting offices to find one that would accept them. The Lost Boys documents the tragedies that followed many of these underage recruits.
Ernest fought in Ypres and was gassed. On his repatriation to England, he appears to have “married” a young Scottish woman, but there is little information. After returning to Australia, he married an Australian girl, but later divorced.
The shock of the seashells (now PTSD) and the effects of the gas led to the demonic drink. He then married Allan’s grandmother and had 6 children.
Ernest re-enrolled and served with the Citizen Military Force (CMF) in Australia and received training as a cook. He was released in early 1944 as a line sergeant.
When Allan was a young boy he had heard vague stories of Ernest (his Pop) serving on ships, but none of this appeared in his war records.
But the NAA had also scanned a piece of one of Ernest’s last wills and wills. Dated mid-1944 he said “I, Ernest Henry Johnson of the US Small Ships Section …”
Did Ernest have American war service?
We discovered an amazing group called the United States Army Small Ships Association and they told us that the “American Small Ships” was a volunteer group of boys too young and men too old to serve.
They were recruited by the US Army Transportation Corps to navigate trawlers and fishing barges in the hostile waters of Japanese-occupied PNG to deliver men and supplies. Many have lost their lives; it was extremely dangerous work. Rag Tag’s fleet tells their story.
The service of these courageous sailors was only recognized in 2009! US Defense keeps excellent records and we were able to get Ernest removed from the US military and apply for Ernest’s US service medals.
Imagine, almost 75 years after the end of Ernest’s service, the digital archives have enabled Ernest’s service to be recognized and for him to be honorably released from service.
We have also asked the Australian Defense for the posthumous issuance of Ernest’s Australian Service Medals for his service on small ships. All from a scanned piece of paper.
U.S. Army information listed the ships on which Ernest had served. We were able to use this information to search the Royal Australian Navy website for scanned records of WWII merchant ships and determine exactly where Ernest had sailed.
Several other government-funded or managed websites and repositories played critical roles in this research. Trove filled in many details of Ernest’s life with digitized newspaper articles.
NSW BDM has digitally provided the information confirming that Ernest was born out of wedlock, that his father married Ernest’s mother the same year his first wife died, and that Ernest had several half-brothers.
Between Trove and NSW BDM Allan was able to flesh out the life of his beloved grandfather in great detail.
Digital technologies and online resources have revealed other fortuitous findings.
Allan’s own birth was recorded by the then NSW BDM Registrar, a gentleman called Theodore le More Wells. The More Wells was wounded several times during World War I and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery.
Interestingly, while the Registrar centralized the keeping of all NSW birth certificates in Sydney and introduced photocopying of registers – two big moves without a consulting firm in sight! His innovation allowed Allan to discover his grandfather’s family history online.
We used the Covid era to research the military histories of all of our relatives and ancestors online. We found others who died because of their service. No more teenagers trying to join their big brothers in the war. The tragic consequences for their mothers, widows and children.
Their stories would have been lost to us if innovators like Theodore le More Wells and countless others who followed him had not embraced digital technologies to capture and preserve these important documents.
This time, government digital deserves a pat on the back.
Ernest’s story is no longer lost in the past but can be honored in perpetuity. A young boy soldier, who fought in two world wars, served Australia and the United States, which was gassed and suffered for life.
The final step for us was the gradual uploading of the stories and images we discovered on the Virtual War Memorial Australia.
This preserves them for our grandchildren, for future generations and for researchers around the world.
Most importantly, it allows us all to remember and honor their sacrifice.
Let us not forget that.
You know more? Contact James Riley by email or signal.