A father who perished in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp is remembered by his youngest child

When Sheila McConnell stood on her driveway at dawn on Anzac Day 2020, she was proudly taking a stand for a man she had never met.

That man was her father.

Sheila was a war baby. All she knows about her father comes from what she has gleaned from her mother and four older siblings.

LONE MOURNER: Sheila McConnell pays tribute to her father at dawn in her driveway on Anzac Day, 2020. Photo supplied

LONE MOURNER: Sheila McConnell pays tribute to her father at dawn in her driveway on Anzac Day, 2020. Photo supplied

The closest she ever came to being in his presence was when she stood at his graveside in a Japanese cemetery on two occasions as an adult.

But each day she says good morning to a photo of him that takes pride of place in her home in Bowral, in the Southern Highlands of NSW.

Thomas James Courtney died in a Japanese Prison of War camp in Oeyama on February 14, 1944. It was 30 years to the day since he had joined the British Army aged just 14.

Sheila said the inscription on her father's headstone says Lieutenant Thomas James Courtney, but people who have seen her treasured portrait of her father have suggested he was in fact a captain.

She said inquiries about the ranking had indicated he may have been promoted, however, it had not been gazetted and so was never formalised at the time he died.

"He joined the army when he was 14, on February 14, 1914," she said.

"It wasn't so unusual to join at such a young age back then. I think he was following in his father's footsteps.

"My grandfather was also a soldier who served in World War II, but my father didn't. The army was very good to my dad, ensuring he completed his school years while enlisted."

CANDELIGHT VIGIL: A memorial to a father never met, Thomas James Courtney, by his daughter, Sheila McConnell , on Anzac Day 2020. Photo supplied

CANDELIGHT VIGIL: A memorial to a father never met, Thomas James Courtney, by his daughter, Sheila McConnell , on Anzac Day 2020. Photo supplied

It was a different story for Sheila's father in the Second World War, when he was involved in active service.

His final posting with the Royal Artillery was in Hong Kong with his wife, Blanche Eva, four children, and one on the way. That was Sheila.

It was a fateful posting that would end up with a heavily pregnant Blanche escaping with her four children, while her husband Thomas was captured by the Japanese.

Sheila learned from her siblings that the family had heard the Japanese were coming and so they were evacuated from Hong Kong on a mail boat, the HRMS Awatea.

"That was six weeks before I was due. We were taken to Melbourne where I was born," she said.

"My father was captured by the Japanese when Hong Kong surrendered and he became a prisoner of war.

"He was first held in Hong Kong, but later relocated to a PoW camp in Oeyama [in Japan] where he worked as slave labour in a tin mine."

Lieut Thomas James Courtney died in that camp when Sheila was just two years old.

"My father never met me, but he knew of my birth," she said.

One of the items that Sheila holds dear is a book about the PoWs from Hong Kong, We shall suffer there, Hong Kong Defenders Imprisoned 1942-45, by Tony Banham.

Her father is listed as one of those who died as a PoW, serving number in the Royal Artillery 221172.

Sheila said she had never found it unusual growing up as a war baby.

"It wasn't until I grew up that a began to make more inquiries about my dad."

Sheila said that growing up she valued the photo of her father in uniform that her mother kept on a sideboard.

"When my mother passed my siblings asked if I wanted anything and I told them I wanted that picture," she said.

"My dad has been with me ever since in that photograph.

"I say hello to him every day and he smiles back through the picture."

Sheila said while she didn't "really believe in spirits" she felt she had a strong connection to her father.

Through inquiries to the Commonwealth War Office in the United Kingdom, Sheila managed to find out where her father was buried in Japan.

"I learnt he was in the British section of a cemetery in Yokohama, his grave reference is KB16. They even sent me a photo," she said.

Sheila has since visited her father's gravesite on two occasions. The first time on Setpember 16, 2002.

"I put some flowers down - five roses and some baby's breath to represent each of his children.

"I then stopped and talked to him for quite a while."

This will be the same for the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Pacific Day on August 15, which commemorates Japan's unconditional surrender as Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's acceptance of the Allies' terms.

However, Sheila said Remembrance Day, on November 11 had always had an extra importance to her.

"It falls the day before my father's birthday," she said. "He was born on November 12. My mum was born on November 19. She was a week younger than my dad."

At the time of VP Day, Australian forces were engaged in campaigns across the Pacific - in New Guinea, Bougainville, New Britain, Borneo, and in the Philippines - and Australian prisoners of the Japanese were spread throughout Asia.

Most had expected the war against Japan to continue into 1946, but instead Australians enjoyed what Prime Minister Ben Chifley called "this glorious moment".

This story War baby still says 'hello' to dad first appeared on Southern Highland News.