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The Australian Newspaper

Spirits of ‘42nd Street’



......In a quiet olive grove on a Greek island, and aboriginal smoking ceremony marks the unsung heroism of Anzac soldiers......

Spirits of ‘42nd Street’ - Smoking ceremony Reg Saunders’ daughter Dorothy in the olive grove. Picture Michael Sweet

Photograph: Smoking ceremony Reg Saunders’ daughter Dorothy in the olive grove.

Smoke from burning eucalyptus wafts through the ancient olive grove in the foothills of Crete’s White Mountains.

On this bright spring morning, as the smoke filters through the gnarled branches, people with a profound connection to this place gather. Glenda Humes, eldest ­surviving daughter of Aboriginal soldier Captain Reg Saunders, is here with her sisters Judith and Dorothy and their families, performing an ­Aboriginal smoking ceremony to cleanse this place, to give strength to those visiting and to call out to the spirits of those who fell here in battle.

The olive grove lies beside Tsikalarion Road on the outskirts of Chania, a city on Crete’s north coast. It’s a nondescript road, two kilometres long and flanked by a few houses and an industrial unit. At one point it goes under the island’s east-west highway. As truck drivers, local speedsters and tourists thunder down the highway, few notice the road below. Why should they? For what purpose would you stop at this featureless underpass? Many World War II battle sites have one thing in common: they are invisible to the unaided eye. Shrouded by 70 years of development, nothing about Tsikalarion Road – or “42nd Street”, as it was named by Allied troops serving in Crete, after a popular Hollywood musical – hints at its history. But now, this seemingly unremarkable place has visitors.

Humes, an elder of the Gunditjmara people of western Victoria, first came to 42nd Street in 2010, on her way to thank the Cretan family who had protected her father while he was on the run following the fall of the island to the ­Germans in June 1941. On that visit, a chance find in a field beside the road began her odyssey. Something gleaming in the red earth caught the eye of her brother-in-law Rod Standen: a spent rifle cartridge, later identified by Australian War Memorial experts as coming from a .303 Lee-Enfield rifle – standard issue for the Anzacs. Given the location of the find, the AWM said there was ­little reason to doubt it had been fired on May 27, 1941 by an Anzac soldier – the only time they engaged German forces at 42nd Street ­during the Battle of Crete.

“It was a sign,” says Humes. “I knew we needed to find a way to mark this site, because the battle and what it represents shouldn’t be forgotten or left as a footnote in a history book. Because Dad was here as a very young soldier, and had such a profound experience here, I suppose I felt a connection to this place.”

The German conquest of Greece in April 1941 sparked a desperate evacuation of Allied troops from the mainland; outgunned and exhausted, a portion of them were given the job of defending Crete. The battle for the island began on May 20, 1941, with a mass landing by German paratroopers – the largest airborne invasion the world had known. British, Anzac and Greek forces fought tooth and nail but the doomed campaign exposed the failure of Britain and its Commonwealth partners to match the resourcefulness of Axis military power.

Despite heroic resistance, within days of the enemy paratroops landing the majority of Allied forces were either in retreat or surrounded, with no hope of reinforcement. On the morning of May 27, hundreds of Australian and New ­Zealand troops were dug in along 42nd Street. They comprised the exhausted remnants of two Australian battalions (the 2/7th and 2/8th, raised in Victoria) and four New Zealand battalions, one of which was the 28th Maori Battalion. Many of these troops had been fighting continuously for seven days.

Just before daylight, the Allied commanders conferred; knowing German forces were close, they agreed that if the enemy approached the Anzacs would engage them, despite their ­condition. The Germans did approach – in the form of the 1st Battalion, 141st Gebirgsjäger Regiment, a division of mountain troops freshly arrived from the Greek mainland. As Australian infantry scouts marked their progress, the order was given along 42nd Street to fix bayonets, and just before 11am one of the first Germans appeared in the gunsight of a young digger from western Victoria, Reg Saunders of the 2/7th Battalion. Saunders took aim at his quarry standing some 30m away and fired. It was the first time he had ever knowingly killed another human being. “When I got there I was terribly sorry about it,” he later recalled in an interview. “I looked at him and he was a blond, blue-eyed bloke… his eyes were still open, blood was still running out of him, out of his mouth. It was an awful experience… I rolled him over to have a look at him and I thought, ‘Jesus, you’re about the same age as me.’ I wished I could say, ‘Come on old fellow, get up and let’s get on with the bloody game,’ you know… thinking football.”

Shortly after, the action built to a brutal ­climax. As the enemy, largely hidden among the olive trees, poured machinegun and mortar fire into the Anzac lines, down the road the Maoris’ blood was up. Private Hemi Hemara Aupouri, on his own initiative, rose from his defensive position; clutching a Bren gun ­magazine in one hand, he began to perform the Tutu Ngarahu – the Maori war dance that signals physical preparation for confrontation with weapons. Immediately, scores of soldiers around him began screaming the Ka Mate haka and together, eyes rolling and glazed, tongues extended in grotesque gesticulation, the Maori warriors advanced, proclaiming both the triumph of life over death and their preparation for death itself.

The haka rang out across 42nd Street, ­stiffening the spirits of the hundreds of Anzacs along the road. They charged the enemy as one. Years later Saunders described the action as “the most thrilling few minutes of my life… obsessed with this mad race to slaughter…” To Saunders, this hand-to-hand fighting confirmed not difference but universal similarity with his Aryan adversary. “When we got there they were real men, excited like us, and some of them terribly frightened.”

In the face of this violence, many petrified Germans threw away their packs and ran. Some were shot from the hip, and those who were overrun were bayoneted to death. It was a shocking action carried out by troops at their physical and psychological limits. The charge at 42nd Street is thought to have resulted in the deaths of between 200 and 300 German ­soldiers. Anzac casualties were far lower, with estimates suggesting 14 Australians and 19 New Zealanders were killed.

While the strategic significance of the battle has been argued over by historians (resistance by the Greek Army and Cretan irregulars at Alikianos, 10km east of 42nd Street, was ­crucial in holding the German advance during the ­Battle of Crete), what is undeniable is that the action gave the retreating Allied forces some breathing space from the German onslaught, albeit for a few precious hours. Subsequently it provided protection for the withdrawal to the south coast village of Chora Sfakion where more than 12,000 men would be evacuated by the Royal Navy before the surrender of the remaining Allied forces on June 1.

The experiences of Saunders and his Maori brothers-in-arms converged again when the 2/7th Battalion and the 28th Maori Battalion became the fighting rearguard for the thousands of troops heading to the evacuation point. Arriving last, inevitably many were left behind to face capture or, like Saunders, to become part of the extraordinary story of those who, with the help of the Cretan people, remained on the island for up to two years after the surrender. Hemi Hemara Aupouri was evacuated and would go on to fight in Syria, Libya and Egypt before dying of wounds in August 1942, aged 30, ­following the first Battle of El Alamein.

Saunders took to the mountains and, ­protected largely by villagers, spent almost a year on the run before being evacuated from Crete in May 1942. After rejoining his unit in ­Palestine, he returned with the rest of the 6th Division to assist with the defence of Australia. By mid-1943 he was fighting in New Guinea, the theatre of war that had claimed his brother, Harry. Reg Saunders graduated as an officer in November 1944 – the first Aboriginal man to be made a commissioned officer in the Australian Army. He was 24 years old.

Loved by the diggers he served with, Saunders found in the military an environment where his qualities were recognised unconditionally. But back in civilian life, he suffered the indifference of postwar Australian society. After challenging the evil of the Nazis, the brutality of the Japanese and later the communists in Korea, Saunders had one last opponent to fight – Australia’s own racial prejudice.

It would be hard to find a more abject example of a society’s failure than the way Saunders was treated after his World War II service. Menial jobs with meagre responsibilities and opportunities followed his demobilisation: a conductor on a Melbourne tram, foundry work and work as a tally clerk on the Port Melbourne wharves. It was a similar story for hundreds of indigenous returned servicemen. Not that ­institutional prejudice was anything new to the Saunders clan. After World War I Reg’s father, Chris, a veteran of the ­Western Front, was ­disqualified from receiving a soldier settlement plot on the basis of his Aboriginality. With appalling irony, tracts of Gunditjmara land at Lake Condah mission, where Reg grew up, were available only to white veterans.

As the nation’s political system began finally to take account of the welfare of all Australians, irrespective of race, after the 1967 referendum, Saunders took up a position in the newly created Office of Aboriginal Affairs in 1969 as one of its first Liaison Officers. His work was recognised in 1971 when he was awarded an MBE, and he continued to serve with Aboriginal Affairs (which became a fully-fledged Department in 1972) until retirement. Saunders died on March 2, 1990, and his ashes were scattered in a forest clearing at the Lake Condah mission on the ­traditional land of the Gunditjmara people.

His daughter Glenda Humes’ campaign to create a memorial for 42nd Street has borne fruit. After forming a trust in 2011 to manage funding, Australia’s Greek and Cretan communities gave generously to create a fine bronze plaque. With its airfreight to Greece sponsored by Etihad Airways and Aegean Airlines, the one-metre-square tablet, weighing 80kg and sculpted by Melbourne military plaque maker Dr Ross Bastiaan, depicts the geography of the site and interprets the story in English and Greek. There is one line of Maori that stands out proudly on the burnished bronze: Ka mate, Ka mate, Ka ora, Ka ora – “I may live, I may live, I may die, I may die”. Presented to the mayor of Chania, the plaque will be the centrepiece of a memorial to be built on the road; it is due to be inaugurated in May 2016, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Crete.

May 2014: Reg Saunders’ great grandchildren William, seven, Summer, nine, Taine, 12, and Breanna, 13, and granddaughter Merinda, 32, have helped clear a patch of ground for the ­ceremony in the 42nd Street olive grove. Proudly wearing medals bestowed on their great-grandfather by the Greek government for his role in the 1941 Greek campaign (Australia has never recognised the campaign as deserving of a medal), they watch silently, fascinated, as the descendants of the 28th Maori Battalion ­soldiers arrive in the smoke-filled grove.

Group leader, historian Monty Soutar, says that while the haka performed at 42nd Street has become legend, Hemi Hemara Aupouri, the man who initiated it, has had little recognition beyond New Zealand. “Maori have an oral tradition where they have maintained accounts such as 42nd Street. It’s widely known on our side of the ditch that the stimulus for the charge was Aupouri, who, by starting the haka, inspired the men to get up off the road and, despite the bullets, take on the Germans.”

Leading the Maoris as they file into the grove are three young men, each with a Taiaha, the traditional wooden weapon of their culture. Once assembled they form a circle, heads bowed. The choreography of the private event is precise: a Cretan “welcome to country” by local resident and archaeologist Anaya Sarpaki, who helped research the 42nd Street story, is followed by a short Christian service, before Soutar reminds those gathered of the events that unfolded on the site 73 years before.

One elderly lady stands in the shade of an ancient olive, surrounded by her daughter, granddaughter, nephews and nieces. She is Ruby Mill, 81, daughter of Hemi Hemara Aupouri. Ruby was a young girl when her father went off to war; she has no recollection of him. She’s never been out of New Zealand before, but she had to be here to see this place.

Ruby’s daughter Libby, who first heard of her grandfather’s wartime exploits at school, says the visit has opened a book that had been closed. “He was a very humble man. He didn’t have a lot to say, so when I heard about 42nd Street I was blown away… It’s made things fall into place, put a cover on one part of my journey towards my grandfather. When I get back home, I want to find out more,” she says.

Led by Libby’s 16-year-old daughter Rhia, a haka is performed in memory of Aupouri and the men who were beside him that morning in 1941. What follows is a transcendent performance that binds the present with the past. As the haka comes to its powerful climax, Glenda Humes and Ruby Mill take each other’s hands in a simple act of connection and love. The eucalyptus smoke mingles with the dust thrown up by the haka and in the soft light, two families, two clans, two peoples, whose histories are entwined at this sacred site, embrace.

“Once I heard the Maoris and Ruby and her family were going to be here, I knew something special would happen,” says Humes, as she makes her way from the olive grove. “It’s hard to verbalise what just happened,” she adds, her eyes moist with emotion. “To mark this place, this story, with them, is such an honour. Though our fathers didn’t know each other and weren’t aware of each other, they had a shared experience. ­Seventy-three years later we’ve come together, with our children and their children, and it’s something very precious that our families will never forget. That’s how we teach our children – we take them there and show them and say, ‘This is your history’.”

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