Roll call: how Australia broke the promise of remembrance

Australia is not fulfilling its obligations to its veterans. Flickr/Another Seb

Ten years ago this month, John Howard’s Minister for Veteran Affairs, Danna Vale, launched a searchable internet database known as the World War 2 Nominal Roll.

It was intended to be a virtual war memorial, listing all Australians who served in World War II as one of the ways to honour the nation’s annual ANZAC Day pledges “Lest we forget” and “We will remember them”.

While the database now correctly carries details of many of the 1 million Australians who served in the Army, Navy and Air Force, it also includes wrong details of thousands of others and – worse still – completely omits thousands more.

This means that it has practically become pot-luck whether a young person today, searching online for grandma or grandad’s war record, turns up the correct details or finds anything at all.

Lest we omit

These inaccuracies have the potential to spoil family gatherings, ruin Remembrance and ANZAC Day celebrations, and possibly, even crucially, disrupt family payments and entitlements as the war veterans and their spouses near the end of their lives.

How big is the problem? We think it’s about 90,000 – nearly 10% of the total 1 million people who served in Australia’s defence forces and the Merchant Navy during World War II.

That includes people who served in the forces but have been left off the roll completely, and many more whose records of service are wrong when compared with other existing military records such as the Australian War Memorial and wartime paperwork such as individuals’ pay cards which we found in the National Archives.

Notable exceptions

Who are they? Some big wigs are missing completely, including the Boer War and Gallipoli veteran General Sir Harry Chauvel, Inspector General of the Volunteer Defence Corps 1940-1945, and Major General V.P.H. Stantke, who served on the Military Board and was General Officer Commanding the Queensland “lines of communication” area from 1943-1945.

Some enduring heroes have also been caught up in this saga, including Army nurse Vivian Bullwinkel who alone survived the 1942 massacre of soldiers and nurses, many of whom where machine-gunned by Japanese soldiers in the surf off Bangka Island, Indonesia. Nurse Bullwinkel’s record on the nominal roll is incomplete to the point of being inaccurate.

But ordinary Australians who signed up to serve in many inauspicious but necessary parts of the war have also suffered indignities at the hands of the World War 2 Nominal Roll. Because both authors of this article are Queenslanders, our research started there.

Here are some of the Queensland enlistments whose names and service are not on the World War 2 Nominal Roll.

Those who died in service

  • Captain S.J. Keane, Q39028, was a member of the 51st CMF Battalion for some years, and marched into camp on March 24, 1941. A week later he was admitted to Cairns hospital, but died on April 13.

  • Captain G.H. Williams, QP185, was a Permanent Army man, with service going back to the Boer War. He was quartermaster of the 15th Infantry Battalion when he died in Rosemount Hospital Brisbane on August 20, 1941.

  • Sgt V. K. Creed, QP703, in the Permanent Army, Provost Corps, 1 MD, died July 31, 1942.

  • Private Sacre, Q1215, Signaller, Nth Command Sigs, (died 28/6/1941).

Served, survived but not recorded

  • Private F.M. Provera, Q102472, was in camp from November 28, 1941, to February 4, 1942, then released to return to studies.

  • Private P.D.V. Moni, Q100741, was in camp from December 1, 1941, to February 4, 1942, then released to return to studies.

  • There are more than 5000 Queensland troops whose names and service numbers are not shown on the roll.

Name, but not all service numbers shown

  • Private E.R. Tibbits, Q102493, was in camp from December 15, 1941 to February 4, 1942, then released to school teaching. In June 1942 he enlisted in the RAAF (426444) and his RAAF record is on the Roll, but not his militia service. He was killed in a raid over France in July 1944.

  • Private N.H. Traves, Q102493, was in army camp from December 15, 1941, to February 4, 1942, then released to return to studies. After graduation he enlisted in the RAAF (124906) and was discharged in 1946. His RAAF record is on the Roll, but not his militia service.

The names and service numbers of about 9000 Queensland troops are not correctly shown on the roll.

Why does it matter?

The World War II National Roll was planned, compiled and put into operation by the Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA) which has also been responsible for its subsequent management.

A nominal roll is different from an honour roll. The former is a list of those who went to war, while the latter records the names of those who died on active service.

There is no point in having a roll that is not reliable, just as there is no point in having a clock that isn’t accurate, a dictionary that omits and misspells words, or a car that is not reliable. The roll should be the source of accurate information about service in that war. Unfortunately it is not.

This article was co-authored by Bill Park, a veteran of the AIF in World War II, and member of the Australian National University Council (1977-90). He was a senior partner in the stockbroking firm Henderson, Park, Earnshaw & Petfield, and is patron of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

If you, your family or anyone you know, has been omitted from or incorrectly recorded on Australia’s World War 2 Nominal Roll, you can let us know on our blog.