Ted Kenna understood life in a way that we can’t
It’s hard for anyone under the age of at least 50 to say they truly understood Ted Kenna, except for his family and perhaps anyone who’s almost died in combat.
And Ted was probably easier to understand than others famed or prominent among his World War II generation, a laconic, uncomplicated country guy who happened to have been given a medal called the Victoria Cross.
For valour. It’s the highest honour you can get.
But judging by the muted reaction to Ted’s death, at 90, a lot of people didn’t really get what he was about.
The story broke in the local Geelong news media on Thursday, which covers where he lived his final few years in a nursing home, in an understated manner befitting Ted, (”Nedda” to his mates).
By 4 pm, ABC radio in Melbourne hadn’t picked it up or, if maybe they did they didn’t think the news worthy to include in their bulletin.
In one way you can’t blame them, for not ‘getting it’ because 20 or 30 years ago many people of my baby boomer generation may not have only been indifferent, but possibly hostile to men of Ted Kenna’s background.
How could you expect much younger people, in their 20s, to rate the significance of a VC holder?
Their parents, possibly slightly older than myself, were marching in anti- Vietnam war protests in the 60s, but we younger boomers who grew up in the 70s inherited the deep suspicion and antipathy from older siblings towards the military and their decorations for making war.
A lot of people may even still – very quietly - agree with Mark Latham’s description of the army (particularly the ‘grunts’) as “meatheads.”
To this day, Ted Kenna’s generation grew up in a distant past called the Great Depression, were religious, mostly poor – or of a wealthy class – and danced to horn music called swing and admired soft-voiced crooners.
For us, it might well have been King Arthur’s kingdom or ancient Rome, as these people were even older than our seemingly tin-eared parents we blasted with Led Zeppelin.
Now it is sobering to reflect that these vigorous, energetic men in their 50s who firmly held the reigns of power in business and politics, men like Dick Hamer, Roden Cutler,
Maurice Nathan or those who led communities as footy club presidents or mayors, or CFA chiefs, are nearly all gone.
After the war there were nearly a million, a decade ago it was 300,000 and now it’s just over 100,000 – barely enough to fill the MCG. In a decade?
They’re dying at the rate they watched their own fathers of World War I die.
Incredibly, we boomers are now the ages, or nearly so, of those men who decided our lives.
We – physically – will become them in what may seem faster time than has elapsed since our youth.
Sure, we listen to a lot of the same music as our kids, possibly because we’ve imposed our tastes on them.
But perhaps age does bring some instinctive insight on what drove men like Kenna, even if true understanding is impossible without having lived through their times.
Ted was not one of those powerbrokers I mentioned, far, far from it.
The kid who survived the Depression as a dead-eye dick shooting rabbits, was of a generation which had responsibility thrust upon them at an age when most of us (and our kids) were living at home, studying, partying, raving and chasing a root.
They had no choice, many robbed of youth.
Perhaps that’s why some couldn’t understand our generation, who had it all, and to them wanted to piss it up against a wall through the freedom of ill-disciple, mind-bending explorations, a “soft” life.
Before war intervened, Kenna was an apprentice plumber destined to lead a solid but probably anonymous life in the wider world.
Private Kenna had greatness thrust upon him for an act of courage, maybe an adrenalin surge, which saw him haul up an 11-kilo pound Bren machine gun like a pistol at his side, rattle off rounds and expose himself to enemy fire so he was destined to die.
I met Ted Kenna on five or six and seriously interviewed him a couple of times.
His watery eyes focussed on yours when he spoke and he had the inbuilt Aussie bullshit detector of so many of his generation.
He wasn’t an openly judgemental man, but one way to get a courteous, quick interview lacking any insight was to start off asking about Wewak.
Ted’s own choice as action highlight of his life was kicking the winning point for Hamilton in the 1947 football Grand Final. Get him on to footy and you were right.
He didn’t say he roved and dived into packs with a jaw still fragile, after 18 months in hospital and numerous operations to rebuild his face after it was hit by an exploding bullet.
Even in old age, it still slightly impeded his speech.
When he did come around to war talk, he’d tell you that many other blokes did similar things up there in Wewak, - or in Libya, Malaya or Rabaul - and you knew those eyes had seen such heroism.
It’s just that the vast majority of acts of inexplicable courage – or brave madness – or whatever in war are not seen or not noticed by the right officer or don’t fit the medal quota.
Medals are a political minefield.
Ted didn’t know why his act of valour had been singled out where others hadn’t.
But he did know it meant his “national service” would only end with his death.
He felt he was wearing that medal for everyone of those others who had missed out, his 2/4th infantry mates, and particularly those killed in those unforgiving, unimaginable, steamy Pacific hellholes of violence.
Ted only had a basic education, common for his time.
His generation were Spartan because they had to be and used to authoritarian discipline, perhaps often inflexible and stupid. Many rebelled.
Kenna once told an officer to “stick” a promotion to Lance Corporal because it would mean leaving his unit mates.
But as part of that militarised generation he knew his duty.
His education was his life.
He married his nurse. Savvy and articulate, Marjorie Rushbury, was the perfect wife, confidante, and manager to support, guide and prepare him.
They became a team for over 60 years.
When you arrived at the Kenna household for an interview, Marjorie always had Ted in a jacket and tie, starched, spotless white shirt.
It was a photographic challenge to get a relaxed, natural shot – unless he was visiting a school or a community group.
Ted Kenna was given the Town Hall caretaker’s job by Hamilton council, seemingly with tacit understanding it allowed the Kenna team to dedicate themselves to the duties of Ted Kenna, VC.
It wasn’t any act, it wasn’t ego-driven, it was duty and a community obligation.
Sure, Ted from the bush was close to urbane, ex-NSW Governor Sir Rhoden Cutler, because they both shared the burden of wearing the VC. It’s an intimate “club.”
Those who write about “VC winners” don’t understand. They are VC holders – they didn’t “win’’ the medal like a shot on the roulette wheel at Crown.
Sure, the country boy from Hamilton liked flying as a VIP to meet Queens, princes, celebrities and statesmen, but he had a natural, mischievous cheerfulness that most likely sprung out when he was at a school, scout hall or a sports club afternoon tea.
He knew, perhaps learned from meeting the Queen 13 times, how to behave.
He knew his public role but was at ease quietly merging into the background to let everyone enjoy themselves.
Kenna was looked after by veterans affairs – his fragile health certainly needed it - but he never got paid for his thousands of visits and appearances.
Professional sportsmen, take note.
He didn’t mind an ale and his pleasure was sitting at the local with mates, the radio on the races or footy, an indulgence.
When he told you war was no good, you knew he lost mates.
The Kenna home was partly funded by a grateful community.
The couple remained for decades in that same basic, post-war weatherboard where they had raised four kids.
Spotless, warm, cosy inside with walls of pictures evoking memories and tales of good times, it was like Ted Kenna himself.
So, while we can never fully understand why young Kenna did what he did that day in May, 1945, maybe we can get some grip on the older man’s sense of duty and obligation, with no strings attached.
It is selflessness. Another word for giving love, perhaps.
“It’s very hard to win a VC, and it’s a lot harder to wear one for 60 years,” Marjorie once said, recalling what Ted’s old commander Captain Phil Smith wrote.
That’s a depth of selflessness and responsibility that maybe only comes to some with the maturity of raising children, the responsibility of holding down a pressure job, the responsibility giving up time to coach a sports team or lead a community group.
Most people are middle aged by the time they start to wake up to their family tree, their heritage and why we have it is so good here in Australia.
Have those of us who marched for peace, against nukes, listened to Lennon and the like, done any better with our kids than Kenna’s generation of Australians?
Maybe it’s not so bad that we baby boomers are now where men like Ted Kenna were for most of our lives, on the mature side of the old “generation gap.”
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