Barrie Cassidy: my mother's confession


Barrie Cassidy's family secret

It wasn't until 1991 that a wartime secret was revealed in Barrie Cassidy's family which inspired him to write a book about his father's life, Private Bill.


Bill Cassidy survived four years as a POW in World War II before returning to his wife and life in Victoria. But as his son Barrie Cassidy writes, the war's impact on the couple was still being felt decades afterwards.

My father, Bill, first saw conflict on May 20, 1941 on the Greek Island of Crete, when he stood under the only large-scale paratrooper invasion in history. Four days later, he was wounded and eventually captured. He was to survive more than 1500 days as a prisoner of war. In that time, he endured an appalling eight-day journey across the former Yugoslavia in a cattle train, a journey so cruel that men died of starvation. In the months to come, he almost starved to death, too, in the winter chill of the Austrian Alps. He escaped and helped others escape, and paid a terrible price when he was recaptured. Then one day in May, 1945, he woke up at a prison camp in Klagenfurt, Austria, to find the gates open and the guards gone.

When Bill's ship pulled into Sydney's Circular Quay, thousands of banner-waving people were there to greet it. They had just two hours to walk the city's streets and take pats on the back and handshakes before boarding a train at Central bound for Melbourne. And it was there, at Spencer Street Station, that Bill was finally reunited with his wife, Myra, and his now six-year-old daughter, Pam. Bill had thought long and hard about the reunion. He had been married eight years, but he'd been away for five of those - and Myra had not known if he was dead or alive for a year after May 1941. Could he and Myra just pick up where they'd left off? And would Pam accept him when he'd been absent for nearly all of her short life?

Before the upheaval: Myra and Bill Cassidy with their first child, daughter Pam, in 1940.

The long-separated couple didn't rush anything after Bill disembarked. They approached each other slowly, and their first embrace was tentative, uncertain, almost awkward. Bill picked up Pam and hugged her to his chest. Then Myra and Bill exchanged a glance, and they could see it in each other's eyes - their feelings for one another were there on the surface, undiminished.

In 1947, Bill and Myra settled into a rented house at Chiltern, in north-eastern Victoria not far from the NSW border. Bill picked up work as a labourer at a brickworks, hot and dusty physical work that barely paid the minimum wage. But he stuck with that job until the business closed down 30 years later.

The early post-war years in Chiltern were tough financially, especially as the family grew rapidly. Four boys arrived in quick succession - Ron, Bill, myself and Brian (Megsie) were all born between 1946 and 1951. A fifth, Graham, was born in 1955. Myra devoted all her time to her children. It kept her at home, and she seemed to be happy with that.



Private battles: Bill and Myra Cassidy were married for more than 60 years. Photo: courtesy of Melbourne University Press

The war was not discussed in the Cassidy household. Bill felt it was inappropriate to answer the children's early questions about that period of his life, partly because they were just too young to understand.

Bill was also aware that some people, veterans among them, considered prisoners of war slackers who, by being captured, had avoided the worst of the conflict. It was likely an awareness of that perception that caused Bill to stay away from Anzac Day celebrations until 40 years after the war had ended. It was certainly true that when he weighed his experiences against those of people who had endured Japanese atrocities so much closer to home, he felt he'd been blessed, and that made him determined to just suck up his hurt and move on.

It didn't become apparent until the 1980s but, ever so gradually, Bill's mindset changed. He would go woodcutting with his sons Brian and Graham in the ironbark forest that surrounded Chiltern, and the stories would start to flow, the good with the bad. Then he started to share them with others. Graham and his wife, Ann, fascinated with Bill's war experiences, went to Crete and brought back scores of photos, triggering more memories. It was a release for Bill, albeit a very late one.


Far and away: The young Private Bill Cassidy spent five of the eight years of his marriage away at war. Photo: courtesy of Melbourne University Pres

It was a gorgeous Autumn day in April 1991, and the country was about to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Crete. Bill and Myra, one watering and the other weeding, were in the front garden of their home, a housing commission place about 100 metres from their old residence. They had shifted there in the mid-1980s. The previous day, a reporter from the Albury-Wodonga Border Mail had called by to do a story on them because they'd won a regional gardening award.

The article, with a picture of the two, was prominent in that day's paper. It had clearly been noticed by the postman, because when he came by to deliver their mail, he said cheekily: "You can put down the hose, Bill. You've won."

Bill went over to the letterbox. Inside there was the usual bill - the electricity account this time, by the look of it. There was some junk mail as well. There was also a letter. Unusually, it was addressed solely to Myra. That hardly ever happened in their household.


Barrie Cassidy. Photo: ABC TV

Bill handed the letter to Myra and walked into the house to fix a cup of tea. When he went into the lounge room, he saw Myra sitting there, staring at the letter.

"Who's the letter from?" Bill asked.

She didn't reply. She kept her eyes fixed on the letter.

"What is it? What's in the letter?"

Myra looked up, her eyes filled with tears. "Dad," she said, calling Bill by the name she'd used since the first of their kids had arrived. "It was so long ago. I'm so sorry."

Myra almost handed him the letter, but changing her mind, she read from it instead: "My name is Richard, and I think you're my mother." Looking up at Bill, she said, "I know I am."

Slowly, deeply distressed, she told Bill that while he was missing in action, she had had a brief fling, taken comfort in another man's arms. She fell pregnant and had a baby boy, whom she'd given up for adoption at birth. She had heard nothing from the man since then - he'd been a local but had left town soon after the affair, and she had no idea if he was alive or dead. Nor had she had any contact with their offspring - until now.

Bill just stood there, stunned. He had no idea what to say. He went outside and sat down in the garden, deep in thought. Then he went for a long walk.

As he went around the town, he thought about Myra's circumstances when he was wounded, about her struggle to deal with his possible death, and the sadness and loneliness that flowed from that. He realised that, given time, he could probably come to terms with that. But the many years of secrecy - he couldn't get his head around that. He thought about how, for decades, she'd rarely left the house, which he now realised was because she'd been desperately, irrationally afraid of running into the other man again. He felt a profound betrayal, as if his relationship with his wife had been false, not what it seemed to be.

The next few days were excruciating for both of them. Neither of them was able to talk about it. When they tried, Bill spoke of divorce, so shattered was he. Then Graham and Ann paid a visit, as they did four or five times a week, and suddenly, the family was there to help share the crippling weight of Myra's confession. As soon as her son and daughter-in-law walked in, Myra said, "I've got something to tell you." She was remarkably composed as she told them she had had a child with another man during the war, when Bill had disappeared; that her first biological son had just written to her for the first time; and that Dad now knew all about it. Furthermore, she said, her determination almost palpable, it was her intention to tell the whole family.

For the first time since the letter had arrived, Bill saw a way forward, a way to stem the brooding and to keep what meant so much to him. He chose his course. "It's okay," he said, putting one hand on her shoulder, then the other. "These things will work themselves out."

The following day, Myra began the awkward, painful process of phoning her children to tell them they had a half-brother they'd known nothing about. During each of the five calls she made, one after the other, she talked incessantly, not wanting to stop until it was all out there. What she wanted most of all from her adult children was forgiveness, but if not that, then at least understanding. The responses were consistent: the boys and Pam said they understood the extraordinary circumstances that had caused it to happen, and they hoped their dad would eventually see it that way, too.

Bill was trying as best he could to come to terms with the news, but first he needed some questions answered. How, he asked, had she managed to keep all this from her parents and the rest of the family, especially the pregnancy? Myra explained that she confided in her brother Les and his wife, Vi. They took her in at their home in Brighton under the pretext that she was going to help the war effort in Melbourne. They took care of her and told no one. They died within a day of each other when they were in their 90s, taking Myra's secret with them.

Perhaps hearing about how Les and Vi had met the incident head-on, doing what needed to be done, struck a chord with Bill. Suck it up and get on with it - that was exactly the mantra that had got him through the war. Now it might save his love. "Mum," he said, "we have to deal with this. Let's go and see Richard. He made it clear in the letter he wants to meet you. I'll drive you down to where he lives, and if you want, I'll stay while you chat."

And so they did. They drove to the fibro house Richard rented in a small town on the Victorian coast, west of Geelong, and stayed for hours, chatting about their respective lives. Richard explained to Myra and Bill - as he eventually would to his half-brothers and half-sister - that he hadn't wanted to create any trouble. He insisted he was not looking for a new family. He had simply needed to meet his mother.

After that, Myra continued to write to Richard, and she occasionally visited him, always with her husband. But eventually the old rhythm of Myra and Bill's life together in that small country town resumed. Or so it seemed.

After the letter and Myra's revelation, for Bill, life started to lose its colour. It prompted an emotional change in him, or perhaps it just hastened the inevitable.

Bill had always been fond of going into the garden and poking around. But now he would sit in his swing chair and get lost in his thoughts, sometimes for hours at a time. He abandoned his long-standing habit of leisurely reading the Herald Sun and the Border Mail until mid-morning and then, around 11am, making a cup of tea. He could be shaken out of his introspection, but it could not be dislodged from him. At its very heart was a sadness that had either never been there before, or that had just not been obvious to anyone.

Encouraged by his daughter-in-law Ann, he sought medical advice and was diagnosed with depression. He took medication for it, but still he struggled to fall asleep, and even when he did, he couldn't stay that way for long. Eventually, a specialist said that Bill had post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition which often emerged late in the sufferer's life. The clues had always been there in the way that Bill, as a quiet and unassuming man, had kept his most troubling thoughts to himself. Those who knew him would say he'd give you lots of small talk, and that profound words were few and far between; when those words came, just a few sentences had the weight of six months of conversation.

The ways in which Bill bottled up his feelings and repressed his memories of the war were undoubtedly the greatest contributors to his sadness. He had seen men blown up in front of him, and others virtually die of starvation at his feet. He, too, had been wounded and had nearly starved to death. And he had lost five years of his life when he was in his prime. To not be able to speak about such things was a form of torture in itself.

Graham, of all Bill's children, spent the most time with him during his last years. He noticed how his father would volunteer the humorous side of being a prisoner of war, talking about the funny characters he'd met and even laughing at the circumstances of his capture and release. But only when pressed - and pressed hard - would he discuss the shocking experiences, and the suffering.

In his own stoic way, he came to terms with Myra's story, but its telling had brought all that tragedy rushing back with unexpected suddenness. Bill's depression wasn't helped by the frustration of an enlarged prostate that caused incontinence, nor by his doctor's identification of the very early signs of dementia.

Bill finally decided, much to the surprise of the family, who had always known him as doctor-shy, to book himself into a psychiatric unit for veterans at a clinic in Melbourne. To expose himself to the conversations that such treatment demanded was a massive commitment for him to make at such a late stage of his life. Equally stressful was the fact that, since returning from the war, apart from enforced absences in hospitals, he had only spent one night away from Myra (to attend a Prime Minister's XI cricket match in Canberra). He was wholeheartedly devoted to, and willingly dependent on, his wife of more than 60 years.

Bill's desire to get help, despite the upset it entailed, was likely a sign that he felt things were starting to slip away from him. Clearly, he wanted his old life back, or at least what was left of it.

During those days at the clinic, Dad was remarkably sanguine. He had a little encouragement - my daughter Caitlin, who had just started school, delighted her grandfather by singing around the piano with other patients and their families.

It was while Dad was at the clinic, in late 2001, that my wife Heather Ewart and Caitlin took Dad to see Singing in the Rain at Melbourne's Regent Theatre. He loved the show and the beautiful rococo-style venue. The night was spoilt only by his need to go regularly to the toilet. He felt embarrassed.

The next day, I visited the clinic to see Dad before he was taken to Albury for a prostate operation. While I was there, I met his roommate. Sometimes you meet somebody and you know right away they're a cut above the rest, and this man certainly was. After all these years, I don't recall his name, but I do remember he was in his late 80s, alert and engaging - he was interested in our family and in the outcome of that November's federal election. I spoke with him at length that day.

As we were leaving the clinic, Dad got agitated about a brown jumper that he couldn't seem to find. Perhaps it was the creeping dementia that caused him to get so upset. Perhaps he was just frustrated that he wasn't properly organised. The roommate calmed him down and reassured him that he would find the jumper and see that he got it back.

Bill had the prostate operation two days later. It was potentially risky at his age, but he'd had enough of the inconvenience. As it happened, the operation was routine. But in the early hours of the following morning, around 2am, he got up from his hospital bed to go to the toilet. He would have been physically restricted and hurting. He should have asked for help, but he didn't; he never did. He managed to make it back to the edge of his bed only to collapse, in the early stages of a cardiac arrest. He died within the hour.

Several weeks later, I was taking a walk and realised I was near the veterans' clinic where Dad had stayed. I suddenly thought of the old man who had been such great company for Bill in his last days. Part of me wanted to tell him what had happened, but part of me didn't want to unnecessarily upset him. I was torn. In the end, I felt I owed it to him to let him know. When I walked into his room, the old man recognised me right away and I got the sense he knew precisely why I was there, though he was still saddened when I said Dad had died. We then talked about the election, and how he was filling in his days.

After about 15 minutes, I got up to leave. I was almost at the door when he said in a soft voice: "He told me everything, you know."

I turned back. "What do you mean, everything?"

"All about your mum during the war and how the letter arrived 50 years afterwards. How hard it was at the time for him, and for your mum. He opened up about all of that." I sat down again. "It seems to me," he continued, "that your father had his character tested right throughout his life. And I think he might have passed the test every time. Your mum must have found it tough. But he loved her. He really did. He told me that, but it was obvious anyway."

I'd made it to the door a second time when again he called me back. "I almost forgot. I found the brown jumper. I think you should keep it."



Bill: In Love and War by Barrie Cassidy is published by MUP next week.