Life & Arts

WWII veterans in aged care, like Cliffy Elliott, organised own Anzac service

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Cliffy Elliot in 2017 with his medals from WWII (image supplied).

Many weeks ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs cancelled all Anzac Day memorial services, both overseas and domestic here in Australia.

Instead of the traditional dawn service, the ABC decided to broadcast Anzac Day ceremonies online and via television with the Australian War Memorial.

The day is cherished by many Australian servicemen and women, and many veterans have regretted the unfortunate but necessary cancellation of the public gatherings. For some, this is a rare opportunity for them to meet up and check in with their old comrades.

This feeling has been amplified for veterans who are now confined to aged care facilities due to the lockdown. Cliffy Elliott, a 94-year-old World War II veteran from Melbourne, decided to take matters into his own hands to ensure that he could still commemorate Anzac Day from the confines of his small residency.

He is now living in aged care at the Baptcare Westhaven Community, in Footscray, a suburb in Melbourne’s West.

Born in 1925 in Williamstown, what was then a blue-collar suburb, Cliffy lived through the Great Depression of the early 1930s and left school in 1939 at the age of fourteen to find work. As a teenager, he worked as a labourer in a tennis racquet factory and later in a fire protection company in Port Melbourne as a processor.

Cliffy Elliot at 18 years of age (image supplied).

At the outbreak of WWII, Cliffy was underage but contributed to the national war effort with the Volunteer Defence Corps (VDC), where he worked beside WWI veterans as an auxiliary. At age 18, in 1943, he enlisted in the RAAF as an aircraftman and was deployed to Madang, Papua New Guinea.

Today, the DVA calculates that there are less than 5,000 World War II pensioners in Australia, averaging an age of over 95 years old. We can assume that many of these veterans are now living an isolated existence in aged care.

Yet this difficulty has not restricted Cliffy from ensuring that he can commemorate Anzac Day. He argued that it was his responsibility, being "the only veteran in the home". For him, the day is about ‘remembering your mates’.

He has expressed the tragedy of WWII when describing his fallen comrades: 

"Have a look at the average age of them, they’re all young blokes … I get a bit melancholy thinking about it, they’ve had no life, and their mothers have missed them."

Cliffy led his aged care community by laying a wreath and observing a minute silence on Saturday.

Like many others living in aged care, Cliffy has a number of medical issues. Despite these, it is an invisible illness, COVID-19, that is having the biggest impact on his health, both in spirit and physically. The virus has cut him off from a lifeline of contact with his friends, family and community. He says that his lack of freedom to move is his greatest concern.

It is paradoxical that a virus with such little presence in Australia can cause such difficulty for us, especially those confined to aged care. Of course, it is not only the presence of coronavirus that we should be concerned with, but rather, the potential of its explosive growth.

Cliffy understands that we must work together to avoid an unnecessary spread of the virus that would ravage many aged care communities. He even states that "this virus will probably see me out". Even so, his daughter Trisha Connors delivered his service medals on Friday so that he could lead the remembrance ceremony for his fellow residents.

His Anzac Day story shows his adaptability and resilience to these unique and challenging circumstances.

Tomo McKinnon is a history and Italian student at the University of Melbourne. He is interested in teaching, law, and global politics.

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