World War II 75th anniversary: Building a home, rebuilding lives in suburban Newcastle after the war

FAMILY: Alan Hunter, centre, with his parents and younger sisters, as they farewell Horace Hunter during World War II. Picture: Courtesy, Alan Hunter
FAMILY: Alan Hunter, centre, with his parents and younger sisters, as they farewell Horace Hunter during World War II. Picture: Courtesy, Alan Hunter

The house on a corner block along Sandgate Road is a modest place.

But for Alan Hunter, this is a treasure house, holding some of his earliest memories. For this was his family's home.

"We grew up together here," said Mr Hunter, as he stood on the footpath outside his former home. "I got married from here."

This house in the Newcastle suburb of Birmingham Gardens took shape through the generosity of a community, and it was grouted with the grief of a young family.

This was the home Alan Hunter's soldier father, Private Horace Hunter, was meant to return to at the end of World War II, to finish what he had begun.

Horace Hunter had started building the house before the war. Not that there was much of it, just a couple of rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen area.

"Mum and Dad used to have the bedroom. I slept on the kitchen floor," recalled Alan Hunter.

HOME: Alan Hunter outside the Birmingham Gardens house, which was completed by RSL members at the end of World War II. Picture: Marina Neil

HOME: Alan Hunter outside the Birmingham Gardens house, which was completed by RSL members at the end of World War II. Picture: Marina Neil

More children came along - Alan's two younger sisters. The plan was to expand the house as the family grew. But the war intervened.

Aged in his late 30s, Horace Hunter enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, joining the 2/10 Field Ambulance.

"At that stage things weren't very good here as far as working was concerned," Alan Hunter explained. "He said he was going to join the army, 'At least there'll be money coming in, there'll be something there all the time'. That's why he joined up."

Alan Hunter has a photo from almost 80 years ago that depicts the family at Newcastle railway station. Horace Hunter is in uniform, and his wife, Ada, and their three children are in their best clothes.

"That was the last time I saw my father," he said. "It was just to farewell Dad. 'I'm off to camp,' that's all he said. But he really wasn't. They were sending him overseas."

Horace Hunter was in Malaya when Japanese forces captured the peninsula in early 1942.

Private Hunter became a prisoner of war, held at the Changi camp in Singapore, before being transferred to the infamous Sandakan POW facility in Borneo.

He would be held in Sandakan for more than two years.

Back home, Ada Hunter was determined that her husband would some day return to a completed house.

"She was trying to get it organised, so that when he came home, he wouldn't have all that worry, after being away for so long," her son explained. "And he'd have a nice home to come home to."

So when the welfare officer of the RSL's Wallsend sub-branch heard what Mrs Hunter wanted to achieve, the members sourced materials and organised a working bee.

The men built a couple of more rooms on the house. Young Alan no longer slept in the kitchen; he now had a bed in the hallway.

All the Hunters needed now was to have their husband and father home to finish the place off.

"We were all looking forward to him coming back," said Mr Hunter.

Then one day in the summer of 1944/1945, Ada Hunter opened the front door to see the postman standing there.

"He handed her a telegram to say Dad had been killed, that he had died of malaria," Alan Hunter said. Horace Hunter was aged 42 when he died as a POW.

"It shook me as a young fellow, that I wouldn't see my Dad again," said Mr Hunter, who was 14 when his father died on December 4, 1944.

"I said to my mother, 'I'm going to be the man of the house now. So I'm going to have to take the responsibilities that Dad would have had to take'."

He left school and took a job in a factory to bring in money for his mother.

But there was still a house to be completed. So the blokes from the Wallsend RSL sub-branch returned.

As a report in the Newcastle Morning Herald noted at the time (and which was reproduced recently in historian David Dial's "The Hunter Remembers WWII" column), the Waratah-Mayfield sub-branch also helped out, supplying volunteer workers. The house was finished. The teenage boy had his own bedroom. Alan Hunter was, and still is, "extremely grateful" to those men from the local RSL.

By helping put a roof over the head of that boy and his family, the RSL members also laid the foundations for Alan Hunter's life.

He joined the Royal Australian Navy at 18, seeing action on HMAS Murchison during the Korean War.

He was in the navy for almost 12 years. Alan Hunter then returned to the Wallsend area with wife Lorna, who he had married in February 1955, setting off from the Sandgate Road house for his wedding and a new life. And he joined the Wallsend RSL sub-branch.

"We grew up there. It's an emblem of what we are today."

Alan Hunter

Alan and Lorna Hunter still live in the Wallsend area, and he is still in the RSL, having been made a life member of the sub-branch.

"I've been in the RSL 60 years now," said Mr Hunter.

The president of the Wallsend RSL sub-branch, Mervyn Callister, praised Alan Hunter for his support of veterans and their loved ones.

"He's been fighting for them for years and years," said Mr Callister. "He's been a really good supporter for all the years I've known him, and he's always been there for the members."

In 2015, Alan Hunter was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his service to veterans and their families.

Korean War veteran Alan Hunter. Picture: Marina Neil

Korean War veteran Alan Hunter. Picture: Marina Neil

But to Mr Hunter, he does not need official recognition for his efforts. To him, what he does is simply "repayment" for what those RSL members did for him and his family, after he lost his father.

Just as they looked after him, Alan Hunter wanted to do the same, "to look after veterans, to help wherever I could; the veterans, the wives, their families".

Mervyn Callister had observed his fellow Wallsend RSL sub-branch member's desire to "repay his debt" by doing his bit.

"I think in his mind, he's going to do things for his Dad, because his Dad couldn't do them," said Mr Callister.

Horace Hunter's name is etched in stone at the cenotaph in Wallsend, and each Anzac Day, his son lays a wreath in his honour.

In 2010, Alan Hunter visited his father's grave in Labuan, Malaysia, a pilgrimage that was "very heart wrenching".

And on August 15, Victory in the Pacific Day, this year, Alan Hunter will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War 2. Not that he views it as history; it's about humanity.

"It's not so much remembering the war, it's remembering the people who served in it, and those who didn't come back," he said. "And what sort of a world they would have come back to, if they'd come back to this."

The teenage boy who lost his father in the Second World War is now a man approaching 90.

"He's always in my thoughts, always on my mind," said Alan Hunter, of his father.

But there's not just the memories. There's that house on Sandgate Road. It is a reminder of the cost of war, and of the value of community.

It is a testament to what a man dreamed of for his family, to a wife's determination to build a home, and to a son who would honour his father through his actions.

Above all, that house is a symbol of love and family.

"We lived there," Alan Hunter said over the grumbling of passing traffic, as he gazed one last time at his old home. "We grew up there.

"It's an emblem of what we are today."

Alan Hunter outside the Birmingham Gardens home, which was built with the help of RSL members after his soldier father, Horace Hunter, died during World War II. Picture: Marina Neil

Alan Hunter outside the Birmingham Gardens home, which was built with the help of RSL members after his soldier father, Horace Hunter, died during World War II. Picture: Marina Neil

This story 'That was the last time I saw my father': the digger, his dad and a treasured family home first appeared on Newcastle Herald.