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Better late than never

Saturday, 3rd October, 2020

Ray Mitchell at home in Eyre Street with his World War II certificate and medallion from the Governor General. PICTURE: Craig Brealey Ray Mitchell at home in Eyre Street with his World War II certificate and medallion from the Governor General. PICTURE: Craig Brealey

By Craig Brealey

Ray Mitchell, one the eve of his 95th birthday, has been honoured by the Commonwealth for his service in World War II, but there is another ‘honour’ that Ray was hoping to receive.

For 51 years he was the secretary of the renowned Broken Hill St John Ambulance and promoted first aid training tirelessly in the pages of this newspaper.

“My brother-in-law said to me once ‘Do you own shares in the Truth? Every time I pick it up, you’re in it,’ Ray said yesterday.

“I was in the paper a lot but I never made the front page,” he said.

“It might have been because I never smiled. The photographer would say to me ‘Not you again. Smile, you bastard,’ but I never could.”

Mr Mitchell is the only Knight of the Realm in the city and was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his services to St John in 1989.

His latest honour is a certificate and medallion that is being presented to the World War II servicemen and women on the “75th Anniversary of the End of the Second World War”. 

Mr Mitchell served in the Air Force in Darwin and is among the few surviving veterans of the war.

“A grateful nation expresses its sincere thanks to Ray Mitchell OAM for your service and contribution to the war effort and to the freedom of nations,” the citation states.

It was signed by the Governor General, David Hurley, and the Prime Minister Scott Morrison. 

Mr Mitchell was raised in the Great Depression and in 1943 was called up for active duty.

“I got a letter telling me to report to the Sulphide Street Railway Station for a rail pass and a meal voucher. The train left for Adelaide the next night.

“My father, mother and my four sisters came to see me off. 

“I was 18 years old, never had a girlfriend. There were a lot of other young blokes and their families on the platform and everyone was crying. It was a bloody horror.”

Army training was conducted at Rodman’s Dam in Victoria and Mr Mitchell remembered the World War One veteran who drilled them in rifle shooting and bayonet practice.

“I’d never held a gun in my life and then he told us to fix these 18-inch bayonets to them and charge at hessian bags stuffed with straw,” he said.

The youngsters’ charging technique did not impress the trainer who ordered them to do it again with feeling.

“He swore and shouted at us ‘Right, you hobos! This time sing out like you’re mad: Kill, kill, kill!’”

After the training he was posted to Darwin where while serving as a guard and in other positions for the Air Force, he witnessed the last part of the Japanese bombing of the city.

He also helped ashore wounded Diggers from the islands, Japanese prisoners of war and the starved Australian POWs who had survived the infamous Changi prison camp in Singapore.

“I went out to the ship and they said to have a look around. They just were young blokes like me, limbs missing, the look on their faces... When I got back, I cried.”

In 1946 Mr Mitchell returned to Broken Hill where he married and raised a family, worked in the underground firefighting and rescue team on the North Mine, drove ambulances, was City Council’s traffic officer for 20 years, and Secretary of the St John Ambulance which was so good that it trained nurses at the hospital in first aid. 

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