Wauchope memories: gunner Henry Pritchard, aged 94, looks back

Dawn and Henry Pritchard.

Dawn and Henry Pritchard.

Country music tragics will be well aware that the late Johnny Cash used to spend a few moments engaging with his audience.

He was doing just that during one of the last concerts the Highwaymen gave together in Nashville when he told fans how much he enjoyed touring and working with his friends.

“ We have never had an argument. Of course they do everything I tell them to do!”

Down along Hastings Street in Wauchope it works much the same at the Pritchard home.

Although Henry and Dawn Pritchard have had the odd argument it was never anything that couldn’t be sorted quickly. They agree it kept them honest with one another.

I would have to say it has certainly worked well for them.

You see the Pritchards were married 72 years ago.

With Wauchope RSL Sub Branch celebrating the Centenary of Formation this month, I sought out NX171030, Gunner Pritchard, for a yarn. He is one of, if not the most senior, members of the Branch. I say this with the utmost confidence. Why? You may ask.

Well in just a few weeks, December 3 to be exact, Henry has a birthday. He will be 95..

Like most younger blokes, I was just a National Serviceman who never left the country, I was curious about his war service and called in to chat about that subject.

Yarning to him with a beer in one hand and some home-made cake brought over from Glen Innes by his “young sister”,Maisie Latham, 88, in the other, I left the beaten track.

Before long, it was not so much about Gunner Pritchard as it was a picture postcard of his lifetime spent here in the Valley.

Henry was born at Ellenborough at a time when the midwifery business was the norm, the fourth child for Bill Snr. and Mary.  Bill was a roadworks contractor. The family also lived on Comboyne before settling over the river from Wauchope at Ennis. Most of his schooling was in Wauchope ,but at 14 he started working outdoors on a neighbour’s dairy farm.

He was still a dairyman when his call-up to the Defence Forces arrived in the mail.

“ I could have been released from the obligation of service due to my work.” 

But there were mates going so he caught the train ride to Maitland and enlisted at Greta in February, 1942. He was 18.

It was over four years before he saw civilian life again. In that time in the Army, he managed to get home a few times on leave, and it was on one of those excursions into normal life that he met Dawn Lyon at a dance in Ellenborough Hall.

They corresponded while Henry was interstate and overseas, and married at the Ellenborough Anglican Church in 1946. The reception was at the local Memorial Hall, the place where they met.

Beer was scarce at the time and the keg that was promised Henry never eventuated. But there was plenty of alternatives on hand for the wedding celebrations. The happy couple left the reception early, getting a lift to town with their minister Canon Simons.

While they waited for the train north they spent a few happy hours at the Blue Bird Cafe in High Street, then owned by Dawn’s relatives, Mr and Mrs Clayton Lyon. The newlyweds got off the train at Kempsey and spent time with Neil Moses at the Hotel Kempsey in the CBD.

The next day they traveled to the brighter lights of Lismore where they lived it up in one of the Moses pubs for 6 pounds 6 a week for two weeks.

As an ex-serviceman, Henry had been afforded employment with the Forestry Commission, thus continuing his outdoor working life.

He began swinging an axe and falling logs before getting behind the wheel of a truck with the Commission for a decade.

As a young wife, Dawn did not have what young women would demand today. The Pritchards camped together at Doyles River for over three months. Home was a 12 by 12 tent. Dawn did her cooking on an open fire place some 20 yards from the tent. Things got better for them when the Forestry built some two-bedroom cottages at Doyles

It was 1956 when they left their bush life behind them for Wauchope after Henry started work with the Shire. Over the next 32 year,s he became a familiar sight behind the wheel of a Council truck.

It seemed a given to me that with a long life outdoors, Henry would enjoy a few recreational hours indoors. He played a lot of carpet bowls and was a regular in a large group of Diggers who played the game at the RSL over many years.

Dawn, herself now 93 years young, says she is heading towards  becoming a century maker, as indeed her mother, Pearl Lyon did before her.

Dawn is aware, too, that we are kindred spirits inasmuch as that we are each affected by macular degeneration. As we compare notes on how we cope, she laughs about her handwriting. It goes north, she says.

That’s a funny thing, I say. Mine goes south.

The Pritchards have a close-knit family. They have two sons, Gary and Wayne and a daughter, Gail and their families. There is constant flow of company in and out of their home.

Henry and his sister Maisie are the remaining two Pritchard siblings. Maisie visits regularly.

As I prepare to head off, I finish the beer generously offered me in the course of our yarn. I wish them both continuing good health, with the hope that the years ahead always add to their lives that are good.

HENRY IN UNIFORM

As a teenage girlfriend Dawn Lyon was grateful her boyfriend never came under too much serious fire while he was in uniform, especially in PNG where his patrols met the enemy frequently.

The man himself was modest about his War service.

Henry in uniform.

Henry in uniform.

He emphasised he was not special. He says without hesitation that it was all part of the job many young men were trained to do, and they did it all to the best of capabilities. There were some tough times, especially being retrained in Kunungra.

Nevertheless, I was keen to hear about his journey as he completed military obligations.

Henry Pritchard has a remarkable memory and it was easy to build a picture book of him as a young man.

When he left Wauchope to front his call up at Greta early in 1942, there were many familiar faces with him on the train, including a handful of mates from the Upper Hastings.

The group from various areas of the north were posted to the 103 Anti Tank regiment at Largs where the unit completed basic training before being transferred to Gunnedah. There, the training as gunners was stepped up to live ammo drills.

Eventually, the regiment underwent a name and tactical change to 228 Light Ack Ack and begun anti aircraft drills.

More training followed before the unit was posted to Mingenerw, some 400 ks north of Perth. You know, he says - where the crows fly backwards.

While on the troop train to WA, Henry got pretty crook. He was found to have a serious pneumonia and was taken off the train and transported to the public hospital in the border town of Cook in SA.

He was  given plenty of time to recover to full fitness, and made his way alone to Northam.

By this time the personnel of 228 were being dispersed and many found themselves on the opposite side of the country at Kanungra in South Queensland undertaking new training as infantrymen retraining as infantry men.

I really found out I was in the army, he said.

In his final unit posting, he joined the 2/3 Battalion and went to New Guinea to link with 6 Division stationed at Wewak on the northern coast.

He said he had regular contact with the enemy during patrols, He had a rifle in hand every day and night. Most of the latter engagement with the enemy was, in his words, mopping up, taking prisoners and looking after them

“In the end, they were in a very bad state. Many of them were starving.”

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