It was more than 70 years ago, but 95-year-old Jim McCabe still smiles at the memory. He’d returned to Australia after serving in the Middle East and North Africa during the Second World War, and wanted to do something for his mate Fred Walker.
“I was home on leave, and he’d been sent to New Guinea, so I went to the local little pub and bought a bottle of sherry. And from memory, it cost me three shillings,” he said while visiting the Australian War Memorial as part of commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the battle of El Alamein.
“I bought a loaf of bread, took the centre of it out and put [the bottle] in, and then wrapped it up and posted it to him. And he always remembered he was in New Guinea – they had been in action at Finschhafen, and it was still going – and this parcel arrived for him. He said, ‘It was the best drink I’ve ever had in my life.’ And it was three-bob sherry.”
McCabe is sitting quietly in the Second World War galleries as he shares his story. He grew up in Nhill in country Victoria where his family were wheat and sheep farmers. Walker was from a nearby town, and the pair had often played football against each other as teenagers.
McCabe remembers hearing the news of the declaration of war when, “a friend and I were sitting outside a girl’s house in a car at 9pm at night and her mother came out and tapped on the window and told us we were at war”.
Thinking it was the right thing to do, McCabe enlisted in the army. But, like many others, he had to lie about his age to get in.
“Yes, very much so,” he said with a laugh. “I put it up three years. You had to be 20 in 1940 and I was 17 … It was the usual thing to do, to follow on.”
His family didn’t know he’d lied about his age until long after the war when his daughter was looking for his army records. She couldn’t find them because she was looking under his actual birth date – “He said, ‘You’d better look under 1919.’”