Spanner has nearly finished book about Cobram’s WWII soldiers

By Madi Chwasta

Barooga-based amateur historian Stephen ‘Spanner’ Brooks has been putting the finishing touches on a new book about Cobram’s World War II soldiers.

Written with the help of Cobram Barooga RSL librarian Denise Stanbridge, the book focuses on the 22 men whose names are on the Hay Ave memorial.

It will be a follow-on from Mr Brooks's first book, Men from the River Bends, published in 2015. Mr Brooks co-wrote that book with Maree Hogan about Cobram and District's soldiers who fought in WWI, and it was produced by Cobram Barooga RSL sub-branch and Cobram Historical Society.

Mr Brooks was inspired to unearth more about the stories of Cobram's fallen soldiers after hearing his grandmother Rannie talk about his grandfather Paul Bell.

“My grandfather (Mum's dad) enlisted with the Commandos and was killed in action in Borneo in July 1945,” he said.

“My grandmother never remarried, and raised her two daughters on a war widow's pension.

“My interest started in his medals and reading the letters his mates sent to my grandma after he was killed.”

It’s more than just an interest; Mr Brooks spends hours each night researching the stories of these soldiers.

However, he said researching for this new book was trickier than for his previous one.

While there were photos galore of the WWI soldiers, information about WWII soldiers was more difficult to access.

“There are more privacy rules, because the families are still around,” he said.

“I have to go off family anecdotes.”

That hasn’t stopped most families from willingly offering photos and stories about their loved ones.

“Most are pleased they’re actually remembered, rather than just a name on a wall,” Mr Brooks said.

And to fill in the gaps, he trawls through the Australian War Memorial for photographs, as well as the archives of the Cobram Courier and Shepparton News.

In addition to this project, Mr Brooks has been working away on another book about all the brothers who were killed, mainly in World War I, which he thinks will be finished in about a year's time.

He has researched 7500 soldiers for this project so far, and estimates 10 per cent of the soldiers lost in war also lost a sibling.

“About 3500 families lost two sons, and some lost three and others lost four,” he said.

“It’s pretty devastating.”

Mr Brooks has been working on this book about the brothers for about 10 years; but this meticulous, time-consuming research is by no means a chore.

What keeps Mr Brooks going are the stories of resilience from the men who served and were lost, and the wives and sisters who grieved for them in the following years.

“They were great men — most of them were between 18 and 25, and they were sent across to the other side of the world, and came back changed by the whole thing,” he said.

“They brought back a lot of problems — a lot of them were maimed and blind, and PTSD wasn’t even diagnosed in those days.

“Australia lost 60 000 men in a population of four million — we've lost blokes that could've been Prime Minister.”

However, he is particularly in awe of the wives and daughters, who were proud despite the immense challenges they faced.

“I couldn’t believe how stoic they were when they wrote to the Department of Defence,” he said.

“They weren’t really upset — they were really proud the boys had done their bit.”

Mr Brooks hopes his books will give community members greater insight into that period of Cobram's history, and change how they see the Hay Ave memorial.

“All the soldiers had their own story, their own lives, and their own families,” he said.

“I'm just trying to bring them to life.”