Memorial to an Airman from Chermside - Jack Harris

Dedication to All Those Who Died Serving in War

Although the heading of this section is to one man it is dedicated to all those from the local area who died in war service to defend Australia.

Jack Harris stands for all the others and his family for all those other families who went through the agony of loss that the Harris family experienced.

Their stories are not exactly the same but the sorrow, loss and grief are the same. They saw their young men, and not so young men, killed in distant lands rather than living peacefully at home in Australia, working and loving and raising families that never materialised.

The Harris Family

The Harris family home was opposite Western Avenue. There was an older house beside the one above and there was still room for a cow in the back yard. On the left side is one of the two palms planted by Jack Harris in 1938. One was knocked down when the house was moved to Zenit Street on the east side of Hamilton Road.

Samuel Leslie and Daisy Emily Harris raised a family of five children in Chermside; Leslie George, Vera Maud, John Allan (Jack), Evelyn Jean and Ray Samuel.

Sam was a builder and they lived on Hamilton Road in what is now the grounds of The Prince Charles Hospital.

The children all went to Chermside State School and attended the local Methodist Church in which both parents were very active. A well respected, hard working family which had weathered the disaster of the Great Depression, very civic minded and able to look forward to a good future.

Jack (B. 10-2-1919 D. 20-2-1942?) had been working for the Queensland Railways as a Lad Porter at Zillmere. He left State High after completing his Junior Certificate and started working as a Lad Porter at Zillmere station and later he trained as a stenographer with Queensland Rail and qualified as a Clerk became a Clerk in about 1936.

Jack was doing well and could confidently look forward to a bright future.

Then, in September 1939, World War II began and their world, along with that of millions of other families, changed and became much more uncertain, especially for young, able bodied men.

What Happened on Ambon (Ambonia) in February 1942?

This was one of the last photos of of young Jack Harris. It was taken while he was training in Melbourne, October 1941. The family still wonders if he even reached his 23rd birthday which would have been on 10th February 1942.

Ambon is in the north Banda Sea to the south east of Binaija Island. It must have been a forward base during the early part of the war in 1942. (The name Ambonia was used in the 1940s today it is Ambon.)

The smaller island of Ceram is just to the east.

Jack joined the Militia and later the Army but finally transferred to the RAAF, trained as a wireless operator and was sent to Amboina in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) just a couple of months before the Japanese arrived and captured the island.

What little information the family had about Jack came in some letters they received one of which was from "Jim" who trained with Jack and had met "a couple of wireless operators who knew Jack and had been on Ambonia". The two men told Jim that Jack and his mates were destroying everything of value on Amboina but had hidden some emergency supplies in the bush.

The letter continues: there were two planes which were patrolling out of Ambonia but one came back with something wrong with the petrol tank. The men divided into two parties, using a pack of cards to make the division, and one lot left in the good plane for Darwin and arrived there, according to another letter, on 30th January 1942. The remaining group, which included Jack, tried to fix the damaged petrol tank but were unable to do so.

The Japanese took the island and, 4 days later, the remaining group communicated with Darwin by a portable transmitter saying they were safe.

Jim continues to relate that there was an uninhabited island called Ceram about 20 miles distant and that the group were hoping to reach it using native boats. Information such as this helped the family to keep their hopes alive, but it was tenuous rather than definite information.

The family didn't have any real information about Jack's whereabouts or even if he was dead or alive; they lived in hope. The fact was that he died on Ambonia in unknown circumstances, possibly soon after the island fell and they didn't find out until after the war ended in 1945.

His parents tried all avenues to find out something, anything, about Jack. They tried the Army, the Red Cross, friends and family. At one time Sam and Daisy travelled to Melbourne to the Air Force headquarters to try and find some news, but they achieved nothing. There was nothing to find in Australia.

Where is Ambon? (Courtesy of Google Maps)

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The island of Ambon (Ambonia) is just south of the much larger island of Maluku and both form the southern part of the Moluccas archipelago which is at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago.

Ambon is about 550km from the eastern end of Irian Jaya Barat (New Guinea) and about 1050km north of Darwin. The distance in a straight line from Brisbane to Innisfail.

The First Telegram 7-2-1942

This Telegram which arrived soon after Ambon fell simply told the family that Jack was missing in action. Was he alive? Wounded? Captured?

This was the 'dreaded' telegram which every family feared. Sometimes it was good news but mostly it was for death, wounding or capture of a loved one by the enemy.

This was to be the first of a continuous chain of communications between the family and the Defence authorities. At no time were they to get definite news as there was little communication with the enemy on Ambon.

The Second Telegram 20-4-1942

This Telegram did not tell them much but it did offer the hope that he was still alive.

Jack was "believed to have been captured". Uncertainty gnawed away at the family spirit, but they had to 'carry on' there was nothing else to do. This was total war and the civilians had to do all they could to support the fighting men.

The Red Cross Letters

Posted on the 25-5-1942 this letter offered little comfort but did not remove the uncertainty.

The Red Cross operates in all wars and while European governments recognise it, the oriental governments were not so inclined. The Red Cross tried to send neutral nationals into places like Ambon but with little success. Hence not much credence could be placed on the optimistic view that conditions in the Prisoner of War camps were "quite satisfactory". But the Harris family did not know that so it was some comfort, if Jack was a prisoner.

Sam Harris wrote regularly to the Red Cross seeking information, each time enclosing a donation; Sam and Daisy believed in paying their way.

This letter also gives a slightly different account of the events on Ambon just before the enemy occupation began.

Sam and Daisy not only wrote to the Red Cross but also to the Department of Air and the Prime Minister, but to no avail; there was nothing anybody could confirm or deny. The agony continued till the war ended in 1945.

Finally or Almost the End - Officially Jack is Dead 12-12-1945

This letter almost closed the waiting and wondering but there was a little bit of uncertainty left. His remains had not been identified.

Although the war had ended in August the work of reclaiming the bodies of the dead continued. There were mass graves to be opened and remains to be identified. Hopefully there would be positive identification from the identity tags each man wore around his neck.

This would be followed by reinterring each set of remains in an individual grave with a memorial cross or headstone and a name. Not in Jack's case, he has no name on his grave, but it is on the monument and it is on the plaque in Chermside on the site of his home.

Another letter came dated 25-7-1946 to notify the family that although a search had been made they could not find any of Jack's personal effects.

Officially, Jack is dead, as a Certificate of Death on War Service was issued for No. 24987 Aircraftman Class 1, John Allan Harris, on or before the 20th day of February, 1942.

Family Grief Reawakened - War Crimes Trial 1951

Families of POWs had to relive some of their grief when they saw what their loved ones suffered. Suffering can be endured but unnessecary suffering is worse.

Following the War Crimes trials of the Nazi leadership in Europe, a similar pattern was replicated in the Pacific. Some family members may have been able to ignore the revelations but all were affected in some way. It was a reopening of the old fears and, in some cases, anger.

Dedication of the Second Tree - A Moreton Bay Fig

Jean Tune remembers Jack as he was when she last saw him in 1941 before he was posted to the war zone. The tree, the plaque, the photo and medals are all reminders of one young man who died long ago.

When the original palm was blown down, Jack's sister, Mrs Jean Tune, wrote to the manager of Prince Charles, Mr John Wylie, informing him of the significance of the tree to the family. He quickly responded and arranged for another tree, a Moreton Bay, to be planted and a plaque dedicated to the memory of Aircraftsman Class 1 RAAF 24987.

The dedication took place on Saturday 15-2-2001 which was as close as they could get to the assumed anniversary of Jack's death in 1942. A group of about 50 family and friends attended and were served tea and coffee after the ceremony.

The Memorial in 2010

The memorial in 2010 displays the Moreton Bay tree growing strongly and the plaque standing tall where it can be easily read. It is beside the Ellen Barron Family Centre near Hamilton Road in the grounds of the Chermside Hospitals Complex.

While Jack's body lies in an unknown place on an island a long way from home, his memory is still green here on the site of his old home. He was born and raised in Chermside and now his spirit is at rest and his memory lives on here.

Even after 10 years the plaque is bright, the garden bed is fresh looking and the tree is flourishing. This is a good place to be; a place of healing.