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Think Piece – A special precinct

Thursday 28 April, 2016

Keith HarrisonThere are many special places on planet Earth. Among mine are the Giant’s Causeway and the Burren in Ireland; the Flinders Ranges, Uluru and Standley Chasm in Central Australia.

In the human-built category are the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Statue of Liberty, Whispering Wall, and Torrens Parade Ground. I am fortunate to work at Torrens, a place with which I have a long and rewarding association. In the good old days many will recall Torrens Training Depot as an austere building where we drew weapons and practiced infantry tactics on the grass and up the hill to the back wall of Government House. We drilled on the parade ground and ‘bunged’ it on for the formal parades. The 1812 Overture was a marvellous spectacle when, at dusk, the artillery pieces fired sheets of flame from the barrels and blew the daylights out of the palm trees on the southern side.

These days the wooden floor of the Drill Hall is precious, but we didn’t always treat it that way. Trucks and Land Rovers drove through the big doors, up the ramps and onto the floor. Weapons were washed in troughs, and beer spilled all over it on ANZAC Day. Where the toilets are now, was the OR’s Mess; The Roy Inwood VC Club. No misbehaviour in the Inwood Club! The carry on was in the Officers’ Mess upstairs – now the RSL-SA Boardroom. In the 21st century the Torrens building is functional and comfortable with air conditioning and carpet in the offices. Even the Drill Hall has climate control! Who would have imagined?

Men and women left from Torrens to sail off to fight wars in faraway places. Many would never return and those that did were forever changed. The Torrens Parade Ground with the Drill Hall, is the prominent, publicly accessible centre of South Australia’s military history. In recent years the Vietnam War Memorial, the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander War Memorial and the RAAF Memorial have all been dedicated at this place. Dozens more memorials to units and groups line the Pathway of Honour above the parade ground. This is a magnificent, evolving tribute area.

The Vietnam War Memorial features a statue of a South Vietnamese soldier and an Australian soldier standing side by side. I was honoured to be the master of ceremonies at the dedication for the memorial in October, 2006. During the ceremony I had the strangest experience. As the three clergymen blessed the memorial, I was looking at the two statues when I saw the South Vietnamese soldier’s eyes come to life and stare right into my eyes. I felt a tug on the back of my jacket and expected it to be Mr Le, the Vietnamese interpreter, but when I turned to look he was several metres away. Looking back at the statues, the Vietnamese soldier’s eyes had returned to their bronze state and staring into the Australian soldier’s eyes brought no life to them. It was a fleeting sensation that I simply cannot explain.

A few hundred metres from Torrens at the top of the slight rise up the hill, stands the majestic South Australian National War Memorial. Inside this superb monument are bronze panels listing the names of more than 5,000 South Australians who were lost in the Great War.

Linking the war memorial with Torrens Parade Ground is the newly opened commemorative promenade, the Anzac Centenary Memorial Walk. This is a superb addition to the Adelaide streetscape. It connects the South African War Memorial, the National War Memorial, The Pathway of Honour and the Torrens Parade Ground turning it into a commemorative precinct. Just across the river is the Cross of Sacrifice, the Health Services Memorial (Simpson and his Donkey) and the Naval Memorial, giving this whole area a strong sense of commemoration. This sets the right presence for honouring fallen servicemen and women, while reminding us of the high cost of war – on individuals, on families and on communities.

I don’t consider myself religious but there is something spiritual about this whole area. Sometimes I get a feeling when I’m alone in these special places. When I gaze at the figures on the Vietnam War Memorial, or touch the boulders of the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander War Memorial, there is a power that I can’t explain.

Special? My word it’s special.

Keith Harrison served in the Army Reserve with 10RSAR and 10th/27th RSAR from 1983 to 1991. He and his brother, Spider Harrison, were part of B Company, 5 Platoon ‘The Wharfies’ at the Alberton Depot, then the Torrens Training Depot. Keith is the Commemoration & Merchandise Manager for RSL-SA, a guide at the Army Museum of South Australia, a Life Member of the 10th Battalion Association and President of the Plympton Glenelg RSL.

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