FOR BROTHER HEC: FIFTY YEARS AFTER

- And For Those Who Remember Muar: January 15th 1942

VX55057, Pte. Hector Charles Stephens of the 2/29th Battalion, 8th Division, 2nd A.I.F., died of illness somewhere in Malaya: for almost fifty years that was all his family knew of our brother's probable fate. Then, early last year, his sister-in-law picked up a book in a Perth library - a book which brought to an end half a century's silent conjecture. Robert Hamond's A Fearful Freedom gives a detailed and moving account of our brother's last few weeks of life on earth and of his stoical courage throughout.

At the Battle of Muar River in January 1942, badly outnumbered Allied Forces, British, Indian and Australian, held up the elite Japanese Imperial Guards for six days. Muar, little publicised then and almost forgotten now, was indeed the first noticeable check to Yamashita's triumphant advance Southward to Singapore and beyond. Hence this grudging tribute in the Tiger of Malaya's Diary: "In a week-long bloody battle, without heavy tank or air support, they had held up the whole of my army..." However, in one bitter week more than five hundred young men of the 2/19th and 2/29th Battalions were killed in action, roughly equal to Australian casualties in the entire Vietnam war.

Cut off and disorientated after the battle, a small group of English and Australian soldiers, avoiding enemy patrols, began groping their way by devious back-tracks across Southern Malaya, searching for some kind of rallying point. Like other similar groups, they hoped to be of some use behind enemy lines until the British recaptured Malaya, which everyone thought would be a matter of weeks.

However, it was not until 1943, their numbers diminished by death to five, that they made complete contact with Chinese guerillas sent from the 4th Guerilla HQ at Tengkil, an abandoned tin-mining camp in south central Johore.

Their story was told by Robert Hamond thirty years later by the book's central figure, Pte Jim Wright of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, an amazingly dogged survivor with a phenomenal memory for dates and details.

*Jan. 1943: Jim Wright of the 6th Norfolks remembers Hector Stephens of the 2/29th Australian Infantry Battalion:

Hector Stephens was now the most seriously ill - a schoolmaster in Australia, bald and older than his companions, he displayed great fortitude through a succession of illnesses. Never once did Jim hear him quarrel or complain, and he greatly admired his cheerful acceptance of so much suffering.

Schoolmaster Hec - schoolie out of school!
Did his memories go back then
To a far bush school in the Gippsland hills?
Or to Welshman's Plains near Underbool - enrolment ten?
The lonely Mallee and the far sad cry of the crow.

His life was gentle, our brother Hec:
Schoolmaster, churchgoer, singer of songs -
Donned his comical hat and sang
Curious, corny, comical songs:

I've gotter motter - always merry and bright.
Rise at four, every morn,
Milk the cow with the crumpled horn....
One fish ball, one fish ball -
You get no bread with one fish ball!
Eggshells-he-saw-Excelsior!

And of course, The Cautious Curate:

My sermon was started and going ahead,
When the verger came in with some keys and he said:
You're the only one here, old son of a gun!

So blow out the lights and lock up when you're done!
-I'll never go there and more!"

His life, as I said, was gentle -
But he'll never go there any more....
Never go there any more.

Final leave and a troop ship north.
Did Mavis his friend see him go?
"We're getting married, Dad, but not just yet.
No, not til I return -
The year when I return...."

His death, when it came, was not so gentle.....

*Feb 1943: Now Hector was unable to walk, as he was stricken by wet beri-beri as a result of vitamin deficiency. His body and limbs grotesquely swollen and full of fluid......

Dulce et decorum est..........
His not to reason why:
So sweet and fitting thus to die!
(What Owen called the old, old lie.)

They were worried about Hector Stephens, whose beri-beri was getting worse. He was wonderfully brave and never complained, although life must have been a misery for him.......

He urged them to take the opportunity of going if it arose, but the others repeatedly assured him that they would not leave him......

In April 1943 the guerillas came to the camp and said they were going to move them to their headquarters and that they would send men to carry Hector Stephens on a stretcher........

Early in May, five Chinese came to escort them to 4th Guerilla HQ. "What about Hector?", Douglas asked.
"One man go with four Ingping (English) and four men carry Hector and the pots and pans.

Like kings in a pageant - So
Went Masefield's Anzacs out of Mudros long ago.....

Like a king? - In a pageant? - Our brother Hec!
Going down to Tengkil with all the pots and pans!
Going down to Tengkil in his half-forgotten war....
- Aye, borne like a king
To the imminent death.

On May 31st, 1943, the four stretcher-bearers laid down their burden for the last time:
By a tragic irony Hector, who was most in need of medical treatment, and was so nearly in reach of it, never made it, but died while he was being carried to Tengkil on a stretcher and was buried by the wayside.

He shall grow not old, not old -
By age unwearied, by the long years uncondemned,
Nothing can touch him further.
- Lucky, lucky Hec! And yet, and yet....
There dead lies he.

Here dead lie we, wrote Housman,
Because we did not chose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung -
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is -

And he was young.

Written by Hec's brother, John Stephens.

return to top

AFTERWARD

So much for VX55057, Pte Stephens H.C., A Coy. 1/29 Aust. Inf. Bn., A.I.F. Abroad - quietest of quiet Australians. And it should be stressed here that 2nd A.I.F. volunteers were not all hard-drinking, hard-swearing, hard-gambling wild colonial boys of popular R.S.L. reunion legend, playing two-up forever: there were large numbers of quieter, perhaps slightly older, men - brother Hec was every bit of thirty years old.

Hector Charles, third son of Thomas George and Elizabeth Lavinia Stephens (nee Opie) was born at Beeac on July 25th, 1912 - just two or three months after the sinking of the "Titanic". Caught up in the Great Depression of the 1930's, Hec left Colac High School to work for a time at his father's grocery store. Having made repeated applications for a teaching job, he returned to school at the age of 21 to study for extra qualifications. In July 1934 he was eventually employed by the Victorian Education Department as a probationary Student Teacher on a salary of about thirty shillings a week - plus the privilege of signing off his official letters with "I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant, H.C. Stephens."

In early February 1937, transformed by one year's training at Melbourne Teachers' College into a Head Teacher Class V, Hec boarded the 'Chalk Express' (the Mildura Express jammed with young schoolies bound for remote one-teacher schools in the Mallee and Riverina) and journeyed north through the long night to State School 3911, Welshman's Plains, via Underbool.

Here, for the next four years, he settled down purposefully to life as a rural school teacher, responding willingly to varied demands on his spare time. Blessed with a genial, quite unmalicious, sense of humour, he would put on an absurd little hat and enliven church social evenings with whimsical comic songs. On other occasions he would don a red cap and white whiskers and impersonate Santa Claus under a school Christmas tree. A steadfast Christian, like his mother and father before him, he served as a Methodist local preacher for several years before enlistment.

In January 1941 Hec drove the family Essex to his new school in Gippsland, No. 4454 Mount Eccles South. On April 26th 1941 he drove to Leongatha and enlisted in the 2nd A.I.F His schools vanished long ago; the Mildura Express has blown its last whistle; the Essex car is a museum piece.....

Hec's brief life ended in 1943. In 1993 his good friend Jim Wright wrote these words: "He was a good man, a brave man, and showed great courage and fortitude in awful conditions. All his family can be proud of him."

return to top

AN APPENDIX: Two letters and a poem

1942: His last letter home - written in pencil on the eve of the Muar Battle

VX55057
Pte Stephens H.C.
A.I.F. Malaya
15.1.42

Dear Father

I'm just scribbling a note to let you know that I am OK, and keeping in good health. I've left my ink in my pack, so you'll have to excuse the pencil. You will understand that I cannot say anything about where and what we are doing, but I just want you all at home to keep on praying and hoping that peace will soon come. I have no fears for the future, whatever may befall, and, God willing, I hope to be back with you soon.

At present, the position seems to be against us, but we are all hoping that air reinforcements will come very quickly. We can deal with the land forces, but send us thousands of planes quickly. I am confident that this is being done, and one of these days the Japs will get a shock.

Just to put your mind at rest, I think I can say we haven't been in action yet, but we are standing prepared.

I haven't received any mail for about a fortnight. That has been mainly due to my shifting around so much. I hope a budget will come along soon.

The last day or so we've been having real Beeac weather. Usually it rains here and stops, but we've been having light continuous rain both day and night. One gets a bit wet standing on guard these nights. It's remarkable how many different sounds you hear in the wee sma' hours. You hear crickets and birds chirping, frogs croaking, and insects buzzing. One insect flies around with a white tail light. One is often deceived into thinking it is a light among the bushes.

Please don't send me any more canteen orders for the present. I have about 18/- worth in hand, and we haven't a canteen handy at present.

As a matter of fact, we get very little opportunity to spend anything at present, as we are confined to the camp area.

I understand that they were around making a broadcast record today. I wasn't lucky enough to be near at hand. Maybe sometime I will get a chance.

Have you heard from John lately? The last I heard of him was that he had visited Jerusalem. Would you mind sending me his address. Ede did send it to me but I had to destroy all my letters before coming here and I forgot to copy it out. I hope he is safe and well.

I hope I wasn't too blunt when I mentioned the sending of soap etc. Now the position is reversed. We only have the barest necessities with us now, and I had to leave quite a lot of things in my kitbag back at the base. So an occasional cake of soap or tube of toothpaste wouldn't be amiss.

We are still getting a few air raids. They came over this morning and dropped some bombs some distance away.

We've just finished dinner. Salmon and tinned beetroot and pineapple juice. We are on war rations now, so I ought to lose a little of my circumference.

How are things at home? I'm sorry for the poor schoolies having to remain at their posts. By the way, would you do me a favour by writing to the Secretary, Education Dept. Melbourne C2, and informing them of my present address. I think the 16 days pay should be due soon.

Re my car licence, I understand that there is a means by which they can be held in force until my return. Would you mind making some enquiries for me.

It's drizzling rain again now. It's the first time I can remember having weather like this. The temperature too is quite mild.

I'm afraid I haven't much news to tell.

I shaved the mo off this morning. It was growing too long and straggly, and I haven't a scissors to trim it, so off it came. I feel very much cleaner now.

This rain's a nuisance. I can't do any washing, and I need some clean clothes.

I hope all the family is well, and all the nephews and nieces too. I often have them in my thoughts, and long to be home. However, I musn't dwell on that too long.

Remember me to all my friends. I will write to Grace Barnard as soon as I get a chance. At present, I have only one envelope.

Keep on hoping and praying and all will be well.

Cheerio for now,

Hec.

1945: VERSES WRITTEN BY HIS ELDEST BROTHER G.W. (BILL) STEPHENS, R.A.A.F.

MISSING MEN IN SINGAPORE

From every hand the hell hounds came
With screaming bomb and searing flame,
Till human heart could stand no more -
The Tragedy of Singapore.

The shroud of Nippon's curtain fell
Upon Malaya's tragic hell -
No news of hope has reached our shore
Of those still lost in Singapore.

Long years of silence - hope deferred;
Long nights of sorrow - not a word;
Posted "Missing" - nothing more -
Lost Legionnaires of Singapore!

"Lest we forget", the silent tears
Of mothers, wives - their hopes, their fears.
"Most Gracious God", their prayers implore,
"Stretch forth Thy hand to Singapore."

"Be with our men, on land, in air, on sea
As they move on to set their brothers free -
Determined now to square the score,
And tear the veil from Singapore."

God raised His hand - there came the Peace:
New hope, new life - relief, release:
But some found Peace for evermore -
My brother sleeps on Singapore.

A man of Peace, who in this life
Sought not for fame or fuss or strife
Showed 'Greater Love' which shall endure
While memory lasts - of Singapore

July 25th - November 1945
George William Stephens in memory of his brother Hec

1993: WRITTEN BY HIS GOOD FRIEND JIM WRIGHT, OF THE 6TH ROYAL NORFOLKS

4 Howard's Way,
Cawston,
Norwich,
Norfolk, NR104AZ,
ENGLAND

21st April 1993

Dear John,

Thank you very much for your letter and photographs. How lovely it was to hear from you & that your sister-in-law found 'A Fearful Freedom' in a Perth library last year. I could see it was Hector as if it was yesterday, although he had a dark beard in the jungle when I knew him.

The four of us and the Chinese were terribly upset Hector did not make it to Tengkil. We thought with better food he would have recovered. He was a good man, a brave man, & showed great courage & fortitude in awful conditions. All his family can be proud of him.

I shall put Hector's photo in my book 'A.F.F.' with the others - I am very honoured. Am sending you a photo of Douglas Guest. We also found out about his family through his sister seeing 'A.F.F.' in a library too late for the book.

You will see by the map in the book my route. Hector died about No. 11 near Kuala Sisek. He nearly made Tengkil.

Like yours we are a big family, ten in all, five boys and five girls. I was the youngest. Only two left, my youngest sister and me. My eldest brother was killed on the Somme in the first world war.

Kathie and I send our Love & Best Wishes to you and Mrs Stephens & the rest of the family. It's been great to hear & speak to you.

Kind regards,

Jim

return to top

hector

Hector Charles STEPHENS

schoolhec and father

(right) Hec's father, Thomas George STEPHENS & Hec.
(left) Hec as a teacher at S.S. Mount Eccles South - 1941.