Passage to Pusan – One mother’s 15,000km journey to find the final resting place of her war hero son
By Louise Evans
PB Publishing 2015
RRP – $33 pb
Reviewed by Anne Henderson
Writer and journalist Louise Evans has covered many stories in her professional life but admits she was surprised to discover the most extraordinary story of all was the one she found among her own family. The story of her grandmother Thelma, mother of eleven surviving children, abused wife and plucky adventurer.
One of the most enriching developments in historical writing in the late twentieth century has been the curiosity in students and historians about records of the lives of what we might call ordinary people. For it is, often, only in the tales of these lives that we find the full picture of an age, a people or a nation.
Australia, in the first decade of the twentieth century was a pearl in the British Empire collective, a prosperous workers paradise for a majority and a land where citizens viewed war as always happening somewhere else. However, World War I would bring the harsh realities of war to vast numbers of Australian homes and families and the Depression of the early 1930s would jolt much of the good times complacency in this prosperous young nation.
In her memoir of a family, which is Passage to Pusan, Louise Evans has captured the tenor of those decades that matured Australia, through the 1920s to the 1960s. An Australia where war and hard times went hand in hand with a plucky determination to endure, even prosper. Through the story of the young war hero Vincent Joseph Healy and his mother Thelma, Evans explores the impact of war on Australian families and the heart rending bonds of family ties that built a young nation. It is not surprising that Australia’s war memorials are among the best in the world.
Passage to Pusan is centred on the Korean War where Vince Healy, Thelma Healy’s first born, is killed in battle aged 24. Vince is the tall, handsome eldest in a Healy tribe of eleven kids where their father has spent a large part of his married life staying at the office or living in boarding houses and hotels as a regional bank manager, preferring this to spending time with his family. Vince became the stand-in father figure for the family, and a protective force when Mick Healy joined his family and dealt out unreasonable beatings with his thick leather straps.
Pusan, where Vince is buried in a military grave, becomes a focus for Thelma as she endures loss and continuing hardship, all her married life rearing her lively brood against the odds, for most of it on nothing but a miserable allowance from her absent husband. Thelma’s quest, over the decade which followed Vince’s death, was to travel the more than four thousand miles to Pusan, in South Korea, and be with her Vince for one last time.
Vince had been not only Thelma’s first born but also the reason she married – having become pregnant to the Catholic Mick Healy as a single girl from a respectable and well-to-do Protestant family in fashionable Sandgate, Queensland in 1925. The consequences were a quiet wedding six months pregnant, estrangement from her family and a precarious domestic life with Mick bearing thirteen children.
Louise Evans has pieced the story together after hours of family conversations and interviews and after steadily extracting memorabilia from a large extended family where pieces of the puzzle had been stored, unceremoniously, in drawers and cupboards and forgotten. The one item that sparked Evans’ initial interest was Thelma’s diary record of her trip to Pusan in 1961. Her day-by-day recordings opened up a vista on a determined ordinary woman making an extraordinary journey.
From all this, Louise Evans discovers no ordinary woman in Thelma. A woman who went from comfort to penury and disgrace in the arms of a man who would become a domestic ogre. The old Queenslander they eventually made their home would fill to bursting with children, as grass widow Thelma managed day-to-day to feed and clothe her brood. In the telling, Evans recreates an Australia long forgotten but in a way that does not denigrate or belittle.
There were few material possessions but Thelma kept a well managed home making do at her sewing machine (where she sat the day her young daughter brought the telegram conveying news of Vince’s death), re fashioning hand-me-down clothes, cooking from what she could buy cheaply or pick from the garden and seeing that all her children attended church on Sunday and school on weekdays.
A few loose pennies might be found for a movie, a ride to the beach, whatever could be grabbed by way of fun in between the struggles the Healy family faced. In time, the older siblings added small amounts to the family budget, so that the picture that emerges is one of a vital gang of individuals who never let hardship stand in the way of their future. In November 1955, after Mick Healy had left home finally, Thelma took her abusive husband to court and faced scandalous newspaper reports to win a larger share of his earnings. Even so, she was forced to take a job in a pineapple cannery to make ends meet. But, having stayed legally married as Catholics did then, when Mick died of a massive heart attack in 1957 Thelma inherited his bank pension. The family celebrated.
The pivot of Evans’ book is undoubtedly Vince. From the many letters he wrote home and the pictures he sent, his time in post-war Japan seemed, to his family, to be a great adventure – his letters omitted the ghastly things he saw so as not to upset them. But, from there, the next step for Vince was Korea. No Korea, said his mother. No, Mum, said Vince. But he had already volunteered. And, within six months of arriving in Korea, Vince would be one of the casualties, shrapnel spearing his brain as he carried a wounded mate to safety.
For Vince and other young men of his day, war took them beyond their home shores for the very first time. For many it was an adventure, at least at the outset. Two of Vince’s younger brothers would follow him into the army, one would be seriously wounded in the Vietnam War. Thelma, along with so many other parents, waved them off and held their thoughts to themselves as they waited for their sons’ return.
The war the world seems to have forgotten is undoubtedly the Korean War. Yet it played a significant part in Australia’s developing identity. Coming so soon after the Second World War – which for Australia was very much a war of the Pacific – Australians were ready for the call to arms in the fight against encroaching totalitarian Communism. The US was now as close an ally as ever Britain had been. Fighting under the UN flag, Australian diggers met the elements of a Korean peninsular war in the bitter cold of winter 1950-51, outfitted in summer strength uniforms facing treacherous mountain terrain. It was said at the time that the death-inducing winter was the diggers’ biggest enemy.
For a few months, thanks to some Brisbane newspaper reports showing Vince in his army uniform, and one reporting he had held off the enemy single-handedly at a post, Thelma’s eldest became a local hero. The kids cut out the extracts and celebrated their “famous” brother. Then, suddenly, he was gone forever. War had taken their hero and protector.
Thelma’s “passage” to Pusan, in fact, begins with her unfortunate marriage, the birth of her first born and the life she made for her many children against the odds. Her actual journey to Pusan brings her closure. Passage to Pusan is, in many ways, quintessentially Australian, so much so that it becomes a gritty memorial to an Australia we shall not see again.
Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War – shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for History