February 28 1970: A Eulogy for Jim Barrett

February 28 1970 Never Forgotten
February 28 1970: Never Forgotten (Sydney Australia March 2016)

If you are familiar with my work, you will know that for me Social Documentary and Street photographs don’t always need the presence of people in them. But, even when there is no person in the obvious physical sense, there is often the spirit of a person or the impact a person has left behind to be felt.  This photograph is one such example. Here’s the story:

Out working the other day I walked past the Cenotaph in Sydney’s Martin Place. This memorial to those who have died in Australia’s (far too) many wars, is smack in the middle of a busy business distinct and is a popular meeting point. ‘I’ll meet you at the Cenotaph.’ kind of thing.

On Remembrance Day and Anzac Day this beautiful monument is covered in wreaths and flowers and messages. But on this day, I saw only the one floral tribute. The card on the flower reads:

February 28 1970  8RAR SVN

A day of tragedy. We few band of brothers remaining will never forget.

From an 8rar brother in arms

To translate: this simple floral tribute has been placed in remembrance of a soldier from the 8th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment of the Australian Army who was killed in the former South Vietnam on 28 February 1970. The flower was laid by one of his comrades from the same unit who was with him in Vietnam.

I was intrigued: one lone flower, and on the face of it, just one small gesture.  But it was a gesture that clearly meant so much to the veteran who laid it there for me to discover and ponder on.  Anyway, I decided to do some research and it didn’t take long to learn that eight Australian soldiers were killed on that day. This was a bad day, one of the worst, for Australia in that stupid and wasteful war (well they all are really, but you know what I mean).

When I began my research, the first reference I came across to this date and soldiers killed in action was to a specific individual and the story of his service and death. I have decided that his story will serve very well to acknowledge him and the other seven who died that day. Not to mention all who die or who are damaged for life in war.

His name was James (Jim) Barrett and he came from a not so nice suburb in one of Australia’s larger cities. As a kid he ran with a rough bunch and soon after leaving school enlisted in the army.  His sister reckoned that ‘the army saved him’, giving him ‘discipline and direction’. Hardly saved him; killed him more like. But we can get her point, and at least his was in, oh so conventional terms, a ‘good death’.

Back to the story. Jim served two tours in Vietnam and one in Malaysia with the 8th Battalion. Then, just as his enlistment was about to expire in November 1969, he went to farewell mates who were leaving for Vietnam.

‘I could see he was hurting,’ one of his mates later said. According to this mate, Jim turned to him and said:

‘Stuff it, I’m signing on again.’ For those of a non Australian persuasion, to say ‘stuff it’ in this context is like ‘damn it’ or ‘bugger it’ or ‘screw it’. You get the drift.

Sure enough, Jim signed on again and rejoined the 8th Battalion in Vietnam in January 1970. He was made a section commander of, the soon to be ill-fated, 1 Platoon, A Company.

After taking part in a (successful) operation to destroy an underground bunker complex, Jim and his platoon were sent to ambush ‘enemy’ soldiers seeking to escape that particular nightmare. This particular area was infested with mines called ‘Jumping Jacks’, (which probably gives you an idea of how they work) originally laid by the Australians then dug up and replanted as booby traps by the Viet Cong in areas they knew Australian soldiers would be patrolling. Jim and his mates had metal detectors and, in due course, a booby trap was found. As they tried to disarm it the mine went off killing seven and wounding fifteen.

As the most senior soldier surviving, Jim took control. Medical evacuation helicopters soon arrived and as Jim was guiding one to a landing, he stepped on another mine which exploded, killing him instantly and wounding another ten men.

According to what I read, Jim was remembered by his friends as having a ‘larrikin spirit’, meaning he had a happy go lucky personality. He was also known for his ‘outstanding leadership’ abilities. Jim’s body is buried in a cemetery near his home, but his larrikin spirit and leadership skills are gone forever.

And that’s the trouble isn’t it? While Jim’s comrades and family will never forget him, the rest of us have or will. In just the same way we seem to always forget to question why it is we send young people like Jim (he was 24 when he died) to fight, kill and die. Oftentimes (for me it really is more like every time), it is at the behest of greedy and lying politicians doing the bidding of the rich elites who simply seek profit and power from wars they wage.

Well, like Jim’s nameless mate, I choose to remember him and all those like him who die in wars.

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