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As a chaplain, you get to do some interesting and unexpected things. Over the last few years I have had the privilege of sharing in the Foundation Day Service of the 2/6 Cavalry Commando Regiment Association.

This regiment was a WWII unit, which was founded on November 3, 1939. It saw action in the Middle East, Northern Australia and the South West Pacific. Its name captures its history. Initially it operated with Bren carriers and tanks in the Middle East. In mid-1942 it returned to Australia to help defend Australia. As there was less need for motorised cavalry in the Pacific war, the unit retrained as a commando unit. During WWII the regiment was awarded 17 battle honours and at the end of the war it was disbanded. The Association currently has a close relationship with 2 Cavalry Regiment in Darwin and in many ways sees them as carrying on the spirit and traditions of the regiment.

PLC has maintained a close connection with the Association for several years, after receiving a request from the Association for support on its formal occasions - Foundation Day and Anzac Day. Unfortunately, we have not been able to provide a lot of support (numbers wise) for their Foundation Day Service as it generally falls in the middle of the Melbourne Cup weekend; however, we have always had some representatives attend and we have also provided a piper. Our Pipes and Drums have also been able to support the Association during the Anzac Day march.

The number of surviving veterans from this unit is sharply declining but it has been a real privilege to get to know some of them and hear their stories. Many of their stories are recorded on the Association’s website. A number of us were very privileged to get to know John ‘Shorty’ Corbett, the energetic and inspiring Association President who sadly passed away earlier this year. Shorty will be fondly remembered by many of us for the brief but passionate speech he gave to the students at PLC during one of our school Anzac Services, where he very simply but beautifully expressed appreciation for PLC’s involvement with the Association.

The service last Sunday was a simple but meaningful ceremony. Thirty to forty people (including two veterans from the regiment) gathered for the service, which is usually held at the base of a large gum tree originally planted by the Association on the slopes leading up to the Shrine. This year, it began to rain just as we were forming up to walk to the tree, so the service was moved into the Shrine.

For several years I have been one of the guest speakers at the service. This year, I was given the topic, ‘The Battle of Sidon’, one of the regiment’s battle honours; this battle occurred on and around Friday 13 June 1941. In some ways it can be a little unnerving being given a topic like this, as there is a distinct possibility that someone in the audience was actually there. As things turned out, the two veterans present were not directly involved in this battle. One of the veterans did, however share with me what it was like travelling through the Holy Land during the war. He talked about how profoundly moved he was by the experience.

I did enjoy doing some research for the talk and was fascinated by some of the stories recorded in the unit history, ‘To The Green Fields Beyond’ (kindly provided by our PLC Archives). One story, in particular, grabbed my attention. Some of the tanks used by the regiment had been captured from the enemy; in order to avoid being shot at by their own side (called friendly fire), the men painted large kangaroos on the sides of the tanks.

Although I didn’t initially know much about the Battle of Sidon, Sidon was known to me as one of the ancient coastal Phoenician cities mentioned in the Bible. In the Old Testament, Sidon is often mentioned in a negative way, as the Canaanite people from Sidon were sometimes in conflict with the Israelites. In the New Testament, it gets a mention when Jesus visited the region and commends one of the local women for her faith (see Matthew 15:21-28). Later in the Book of Acts we are told that this region was one of the first places evangelised by the early church.

The Battle of Sidon is an interesting battle to read about, because both sides were very mindful of Sidon’s great historical significance and were reluctant to see it damaged. Much of the fighting occurred on the outskirts of the town and in the end the Vichy French simply withdrew from the town in the middle of the night.

My conversation with the old veteran reminded me of why I happily come back each year and play a part in this service. I don’t believe anyone comes to this service to glorify war. They do come, however, to faithfully honour those who lost their lives while serving their country. They also come to tell stories and to hear stories that remind them about the things that are most important and enduring in life – friendship, loyalty, integrity, good humour, courage, family, faith and service. Although it is not an occasion where people strongly parade their faith, there is a very deeply rooted sense of respect for the role that faith has played in the history of the regiment (including some very fond memories of the various Padres). I suspect it is yet another expression of that old saying, “In the end there are no atheists in foxholes!”

I am looking forward to attending the service again next year. Hopefully it won’t rain!

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