Incredible acts of courage in war

Tony Matthews with his latest book, Quiet Courage, Forgotten Heroes of World War II.

They wanted neither fame nor glory. They were men and women, many of them civilians, whose compassion for others manifested itself in many unobtrusive ways. Not one of them believed that they would one day be thrust into a situation where they would have to choose between saving the lives of others or simply walking away and saving their own. Yet when the challenges came they could not ignore the almost impossible dangers confronting them – even if it meant giving their own lives.

In his new book, Quiet Courage, Forgotten Heroes of World War Two, popular Wide Bay author Tony Matthews, describes some of the most compelling stories of heroism of the entire war. Military conflict is the essence of violence in its most malignant form but it is also the source and inspiration for countless acts of self-sacrifice which all too often fade into obscurity. We remember the horrors of war and the vast numbers of dead and their sacrifices, but rarely do we cherish the acts of individual bravery and selflessness which inspired us to keep faith and to continue the struggle through to the end. Quiet Courage tells the individual stories of astonishing acts of courage and self-sacrifice which have now largely been lost to history.

‘I became interested in researching and writing a book like this after discovering a small, very tattered book titled: The Daily Telegraph History of the War which had been published in 1943,’ Tony says. ‘This book, which I purchased for forty cents at an op-shop, gave a few brief details, taken directly from news headlines of that period, which described some of the heroic actions of just ordinary people who had, at that time, recently carried out astonishing feats of bravery. These people, I realised, had made significant sacrifices, sometimes giving their own lives to help others, and while they might have been very briefly acknowledged publicly for having done so, their names had now long faded into history. I believed that they deserved better than that and decided to research their stories in full and to give them the recognition which is richly due to them.’

Tony’s new book includes the stories of some of the most spontaneously courageous men and women of the Second World War. They came from all walks of life – farmers, businessmen, teachers, nurses or farmhands. One was a plucky ship’s stewardess who demonstrated such immediate gallantry in the face of imminent death that her actions deserve never to be forgotten. Yet sadly they were. Few people today have ever heard of May Owen. She lived quietly and carried on her life almost as if she were invisible.

Tony also tells the amazing story of the Lady Shirley, commanded by an Australian naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Arthur Callaway. When first launched this little ship was never designed to be a U-boat killer. However, when pushed, the Lady Shirley was not only ready to take on one of Hitler’s deadliest weapons, it was also to provide the Allies with one of the most important lifesaving naval intelligence coups of the war.

Gravestones on the Garbage Tip – the Heroes of Cowra, is another extraordinary chapter in Tony’s new book. It isn’t just sheer guts and determination that kept two old soldiers at their precarious post, even when being overrun by hundreds of knife-wielding, suicidal Japanese prisoners-of-war. There was just one thing on the minds of these two doomed ‘Dad’s Army’ soldiers – to defend their Vickers machine-gun to the end and to prevent it from being turned murderously on their mates.

Then there was Donald Owen Clarke. Donald, barely out of school at the time of his tragic death, demonstrated to his shipmates aboard the ill-fated fuel tanker San Emiliano that there was only one good way to die and that was by giving hope and life to others. Donald’s death in the grey waters of the Atlantic Ocean was characterised by such an astonishing feat of endurance and selflessness that today it seems almost beyond belief.

In another chapter Tony tells the story of James Ward, the New Zealand pilot who diced with death by walking out onto the wing of his burning bomber at 13,000 feet in a desperate attempt to save his aircraft and his crew. James Ward knew that his chances of success were minimal. No sane person was going to climb out onto the wing of an aircraft, in the pitch dark of night, flying at over a hundred miles an hour, in an attempt to put out an engine fire. Yet he did.

Another chapter describes the story of Margaret Anderson and Vera Torney, two young Australian nurses who found themselves on the deck of the ship Empire Star as waves of Japanese aircraft bombed the vessel and strafed the decks with machine-gun fire. It was at this very moment that both nurses, displaying unbelievable gallantry, actually used their own bodies to protect the patients under their care. The decks of the ship were being shredded with bullets, but these two nurses completely ignored the danger to themselves so that they could protect those most in need.

‘When we look at acts of great courage, we should ask ourselves how would we have reacted in exactly the same circumstances,’ Tony says. ‘Would we have acted in the same way or would we have turned our backs and ignored the situation? If we think and hope that we might have acted courageously, then we automatically set a bar for ourselves for which we should reach when we actually find ourselves in that difficult and dangerous situation.’

Quiet Courage – Forgotten Heroes of World War Two, is a book about thoughtfulness, intelligent actions and an enviable capacity for bravery. The book has been published by Big Sky Publishing and distributed by Simon and Schuster.

Quiet Courage: website:


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