Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A Very Modest Hero

     Anzac Day is on the way, so now might be the time to tell the story of a man who combined extreme bravery with modesty. War may be hell, but at least it can be said about large-scale conflicts such as the World Wars, they allowed average Joes to channel their inner hero. As one commentator put it: when you hear about lone volunteers sneaking onto the Normandy beaches at night to make reconnaissance, or the members of Z Force sabotaging Japanese warships in Singapore Harbour, the question arises: what would these people have been doing if the war had never broken out? Probably catching the bus every day to a boring workplace, the same as everybody else.
     I  encountered one such person early in my days at the Department of Veterans' Affairs - probably in 1979 or 1980. A farmer had just had  heart surgery and, having operated on his own initiative all his life, never consulted the Department until after the event, when we enquired as to whether he could get the costs refunded. Well, my supervisor replied, there are a number of circumstances under which he might get free treatment, and then he enumerated them. When he came to "prisoner of war", the farmer said, "Oh, I was a prisoner."
     The upshot was that he sent us a copy of his citation, upon reading of which, our collective minds boggled. Apparently, during the North African campaign, he was caught up in a fight against overwhelming odds, and only surrendered when ordered to by his Commanding Officer. So he was a prisoner - but only for two days. Two days later he broke out of the camp, overpowered the guard(s), liberated his commander and fellow soldiers,and escaped. Here was a man whom you probably wouldn't notice if you passed him in the street, but who had once been involved in actions normally only encountered in Biggles books or Commando Comics. I was detailed to deliver his entitlement card when he arrived in person, and I made sure I got to shake his hand.
     A similar experience was had by a teenaged girl in England, as she described it in a letter to a British magazine in the 1960s. She said she knew her father had served in the war, but he never talked about it, so she assumed his service had been quite routine. Then one day the local newspaper ran a series of articles on "Heroes in Our Neighbourhood", and suddenly she discovered that her quite ordinary father had once worn the red beret, had parachuted behind enemy lines, and performed all sorts of deeds of derry-do. Imagine! You could be living in the same house as a hero and never know it.
     Which brings me to the case of Private T. J. Bede Kenny of the 2nd Battalion, A.I.F. (Australian Imperial Forces). On 9 April 1917 his platoon was advancing towards the French village of Hermies when it was pinned down by fire from a German machine gun post. The situation looked grim and, worse still, more Australian troops were approaching, all unaware of the danger. Suddenly, Pte Kenny dashed forward, straight into the line of fire, and singlehandedly captured the enemy stronghold by hurling three bombs into it, killing or wounding everyone inside..
     It is the sequel which is truly indicative of his character. Not long afterwards, he was hospitalised in London for trench foot, from which he was to suffer for the rest of his life, and, having been treated, was enjoying furlough in London. He was riding a bus down Victoria Street, reading a paper, when he turned to his companion. "This is a coincidence," he remarked. "Here's a name of an old school friend of mine killed in action - and in the next column is someone with the same name as mine who has been awarded the Victoria Cross."
     Not long afterwards, he was stopped by a military policeman for a routine examination of his leave pass. When the MP saw his name, he told him that everybody was on the watch for him; he was on orders to report to A.I.F. headquarters at Horseferry Road right away. One wonders what went on in his mind at the time, or how long it took for the penny to drop. Of course, it was not some unknown namesake who had won the VC; it was he!
Postscript. When I told this story to an immigrant from the U.S., who had been in Australia or its dependencies for more than 50 years, he said had never heard of the Victoria Cross. In case any of my few readers are in the same boat, it is the highest decoration for wartime courage in the British Commonwealth. The normal requirement is an 85% chance of death, with the result that it is frequently awarded posthumously. It is much harder to get than any American decoration. As an illustration, on 3 April 1944, Time magazine reported that the U.S. had already handed out 175,000 medals in World War II while Britain, who had been fighting 2½ years longer, and still had a comparable number of men in the field, had awarded only a total of 27,151 to members of its three services combined.

Reference: James Holledge (1965), For Valour, Horowitz, pp 59 - 61


  1. I understand national pride, and applaud it. But a small correction about the relative difficulty of winning the US Medal of Honor as opposed to the British Victoria Cross in World War II appears to be necessary. In WWII the US awarded the MOH 464 times out of a total military of 12 million men, or 1 for every 25,862 soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen.

    The VC was awarded 182 times out of a military consisting of 3.5 million men who had been in uniform, or 1 for every 19, 230 in the British military.

    The Medal of Honor is plainly the more rarely awarded. But both medals are given in recognition of the highest valor of which humanity is capable, and recipients of either deserve the greatest honor.

    1. It's good to see that someone at last takes my quirky blog seriously enough to provide an update.
      It is clear that the MOH and the VC are comparable decorations, but figures like these are a bit deceptive. The Wikipedia, for what it is worth, gives the total number of US servicemen who enlisted as 16 million. The figure of 3.5 million refers only to the British Army ie not inclusive of the Royal Navy and RAF or, most importantly, the rest of British Empire. This is important, because the 182 VC winners belonged to the whole of the empire. Of these, the Indian Army alone numbered 2.5 million at war's end. The total number who enlisted in the Australian army (ie not including the RAAF and navy) were 730,000. I wouldn't like to add up all the Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and sundries.
      Of course, one is bound to ask what proportion was in a position to win a medal. Of the 730,000 Australian soldiers, only 400,000 served overseas, and I know for a fact that, for many of these, it was a short expedition when the enemy was on the run. I suspect that a high proportion of the Indian Army were non-combatants or on garrison duty. I wouldn't like to guess what was the proportion in the US forces.
      It is estimated that only 10% of the armed forces are actual front line combatants. Of course, that doesn't mean that the other 90% don't run extreme risks at times. You wouldn't want to be a cook or adjutant at Tobruk or Wake Atoll, for example.