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Soldier who paid the ultimate price finds a permanent place

The story of a plaque commemorating a soldier's sacrifice in the 1974 Seymour flood has finally been resolved 40 years to the day of his death.

CHALPAT SONTI May 22, 2014 3:58am

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Mitchell Shire Mayor Rodney Parker probably summed things up best at Rotary Park on Thursday when he described the saga of the plaque commemorating Sapper David Hurley as carrying a ‘‘degree of disbelief’’.

‘‘I would like to express my apologies for the grief and frustration (it caused Sapper Hurley’s family),’’ he said.

‘‘The reinstallation of the plaque is something I’m proud to be part of and I’m pleased to say it now has a fitting home.’’

The saga began on that tragic day, May 15, 1974.

Sapper Hurley, 19, of the Puckapunyal-based 21st Construction Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers, had just taken part in the rescue of three civilians from an Emily St house.

Along with three other soldiers he was thrown into floodwater in the vicinity of Emily and Tierney Sts and the light boat he was in was washed off the road into a nearby creek when the motor failed. This is the area behind where Reece Plumbing now stands.

The other three soldiers were saved by the Police Rescue Squad but desperate efforts to resuscitate Sapper Hurley failed.

Wally Bohlmann, who now owns Seymour Caravans and Trailers near the site, pulled Sapper Hurley from the waters and took him to hospital.

At Thursday’s gathering, current commanding officer of the squadron, Lieutenant Colonel Amanda Johnston paid a poignant tribute to Sapper Hurley’s actions.

‘‘It’s a sacrifice that members of the defence force are prepared to undertake,’’ she said.

‘‘But it is especially tragic when it is undertaken in support of our own community.’’

Mr Bohlmann met Sapper Hurley’s family for the first time on Thursday in a moving moment.

Then-Shire president Barry O’Sullivan immediately pledged a memorial would be installed in the office for the South Australian-born soldier ‘‘in acknowledgement of the sacrifice he made helping the people of Seymour’’ and this was unveiled in 1977 by Shire president Bob Wallis and others in the presence of the family.

The plaque was in the old Seymour Shire office, now home to the Seymour Club.

It was during work on the club building about 1997 that the plaque was taken off the wall and vanished.

Fast forward about nine years, when then Seymour RSL president John Blackwell was approached at the club by Sapper Hurley’s brother Paul.

‘‘He introduced himself, he knew about the plaque and wanted to know where it was,’’ Mr Blackwell told those gathered at Rotary Park on Thursday.

‘‘I said ‘I’ll do everything I can to find where this plaque went to’. We asked a lot of people if they knew anything.’’

But no-one did. The plaque was supposed to be handed to Seymour and District Historical Society, but it knew nothing of that. Society member John Jennings got involved in the search, and pushed it to Telegraph readers in his New Crossing Place column.

Mr Blackwell then had another idea.

‘‘I put it to the RSL that we manufacture two plaques, place one on the rock and give the other to the family. I had plaques ready to go around 2007.’’

But the project was put on the backburner for personal reasons, something that eventually turned out to be for the best as far as the plaque went.

Enter Hank Kreemers and Terry Smalley, the other two key figures in this story.

‘‘About 18 months ago Hank knocked on the door and said ‘I’ve got something to show you’,’’ Mr Blackwell said.

It was of course the original plaque. It had been found at 21 Construction Squadron’s carpentry workshop in Queensland, which sent it down to the Tank Museum at Puckapunyal.

 

It was of course the original plaque. It had been found at 21 Construction Squadron’s carpentry workshop in Queensland, which sent it down to the Tank Museum at Puckapunyal. The curator there was a member of the Seymour RSL and passed it on to Mr Kreemers, who showed it to Mr Smalley, and he identified it.

But that wasn’t the end of the matter. With the shire office no more, where would the plaque be placed? Kings Park was mooted, before Mitchell Shire Council got involved.

At a meeting last year, councillors endorsed Lions Park, as being in the vicinity of where the tragedy happened.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Mr Smalley and others believed the site was too far off the beaten track to pay Sapper Hurley the tribute he deserved, and the family was contacted.

Paul Hurley made the trip over from South Australia and was shown around Seymour. Rotary Park stood out.

Mr Hurley wanted to pay special tribute to Messrs Blackwell, Kreemers, Smalley and Jennings.

‘‘The past eight years they’ve stood behind me,’’ he told the gathering.

‘‘To me they are the people of Seymour, (and) you can’t get any better.’’

Mr Hurley was present at the reinstallation along with Townsville-based brother Andrew, sister Heather and Paul’s wife Tracey. Another brother Ian was unable to be present, as was the siblings’ 79-year-old mother Isabella, for who the family videotaped the proceedings. Their father is deceased.

David was the oldest of the siblings, followed by Heather, Ian, Paul and Andrew, and voluntarily joined the Army in 1973, being trained at Kapuka and posted to Puckapunyal in June that year. Paul Hurley reflected on what is still a painful memory for the family.

‘‘We don’t really remember a lot about the actual incident,’’ he told the Telegraph.

‘‘We didn’t get told a lot but David got a full military funeral at Enfield cemetery in Adelaide. It had a major effect on our parents though.’’

Which is something the family had to live through again when they discovered the plaque was missing.

‘‘The whole thing about it coming off the wall, this wouldn’t have even happened if the right thing had been done. It’s just unfortunate.’’

But the plaque is back, and in a prominent place as it should be.

‘‘I think this (Rotary Park) is the ideal spot,’’ Mr Hurley said.

‘‘All we were ever concerned about was having David reinstated back in Seymour and that’s happened now. It’s not bringing him home again but it’s just bringing his memory back so people in the future know what’s happened.’’

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