Over the past century, Max Hammond has seen more than most. From the battlefields of WWII to the simple pleasures of getting behind the wheel of a car, KATRINA LOVELL reports on his secrets to a long life.
Whether it’s WWII-era army tanks, machine gun carriers, petrol tankers or his beloved V8 Commodore, Warrnambool’s Max Hammond loves to drive.
And at 100, he still has the drive to get behind the wheel of the car, not that he goes far. His 2017 green Commodore is due for its 30,000 kilometre service, but Max has only managed to put 4000km on the clock.
“That’s all I’ve done. I drove a petrol tanker all my life. In the army I had a licence to drive a tank, machine gun carrier, motorbike, a ute, a truck. Every licence you could think of,” he said.
As a kid, one of his favourite things to do was watch the trucks from the Nestle factory in Dennington go past his house on Raglan Parade, which at the time was just two lanes. “I remember they had solid tyres,” he said.
That three-bedroom house opposite Warrnambool Primary School has long since been demolished, but it was home to his parents and six younger siblings.
Times were tough, so to help his mum pay the bills Max took on paper at the age of 12 delivering The Standard to houses in Merrivale in the morning and The Age in the afternoon.
At 14 he left high school and got a job as a depot assistant at the Atlantic Union Oil on the corner of Wellington Street and Merrivale Drive.
For a young kid known to dance around his lounge with a broom when he couldn’t coax his sisters to dance, memories of his younger days are filled with dances at the old Palais in Koroit Street and Earl’s dance hall where Coles now stands. “It was wonderful,” he said.
Max spent his summers at the beach as a volunteer lifesaver and, like all other young men in town, he also signed up to the Light Horse regiment. “I was in what was called the light car club that was attached to it because I couldn’t ride a horse,” he said.
After spending three months at a training camp with the Light Horse in Torquay, Max decided to follow the lead of many others and join the mechanised cavalry when WWII broke out.
He was the first of his brothers to enlist, and when he told his parents they said: “OK, go for it”. This was despite his mum having lost three brothers in WWI and his dad losing his brother, Wallace Hammond, on the battlefields of Fromelles in France.
The journey to the Middle East aboard the once luxury liner of the trans-Atlantic route, Ill de France, was a long. Days were filled with a daily exercise and bingo (then called Housey Housey).
Not yet fully converted to a troop ship, the Ill de France docked in Colombo for two weeks to be fitted with paravanes which would protect the ship from sea mines. “We had a great time,” he said.
From there he sent gifts home to his family including a carved elephant, a purse with embroidered elephants and a camel-skin wallet. From the front he also sent home a hand-drawn Christmas card from the Middle East.which featured a photo of Max wearing the uniform of his regiment which was known as the Black Berets.
It still sits on his mantelpiece at home alongside 100th birthday cards from the Queen, Governor-General and Prime Minister.
The moment Max stepped off the boat in Syria to be confronted with a place ravaged by war are not images easily forgotten. Bombing had left the area strewn with dead horses and cattle, and the airfields littered with planes that had been shot out of the sky.
“It was an eye-opening sight for somebody who had never been to war. A frightening sight,” he said. “We had landed in Palestine. We were there for 10 days, straight into action. We lost a few men early in the piece. It was pretty hairy.”
There were plenty of close calls for Max. He recalled being with a handful of mates on the beach ready to go for a dip in the Mediterranean when a German plane appeared over the sand dunes.
“He had a go at us but he missed. When he went over we could see all the oil leaks under the fuselage he was that close,” he said. “That’s going back a long time. It’s amazing how the years have flown from then. Where have I been, what have I done?”
Max then found himself in Egypt where, even today he still marvels at the wonders of the pyramids which escaped the ravages of war. A month in hospital with Sandfly Fever meant he missed one of the major battles at El Alamein, but he was there for the battle on October 23, 1942 which turned the tide in the North African campaign.
“A thousand guns on a mile front and the noise, they could hear it at Alexandria 100 kilometres away,” Max said. The roar of the guns meant no one slept that night. “If they did they were liars,” he said.
After arriving back in Australia on the Queen Mary, Max was sent to Borneo along with two of his brothers. Another brother was sent to New Guinea.
Max recalled trekking through the jungles of Borneo and losing sight of his brother Wal. “I was front-end Charlie and he was arse-end Charlie,” he said.
Max said the enemy would often target the back of the pack, and when he realised his brother was missing he feared the worst. He eventually found him asleep under a coconut tree.
“Borneo was the worst, because were were on patrol looking for the Japanese,” he said. He said memories of the war still affect him. “The early days I had a lot of flashbacks. Those flashbacks were pretty lousy. You couldn’t sleep. I haven’t been a good sleeper ever since the war because you always go to sleep with one eye open,” Max said. “There’s too many fellas lost their lives. It was awful. Good blokes.”
When the US dropped the bomb on Japan, Max was flown to Singapore where he was returned to Australia alongside the prisoners of war. “Things are different now to those days of course. I think it’s a better world, in some ways,” he said.
The advances in technology is one of those things Max loves, admitting to spending at least three hours a day on his computer. And while he’s never returned to the countries where he saw the horrors of war, he has visited them using Google. “I’ve googled Labuan island. It’s just high rises, and all it was was bomb holes and Japanese when I was there,” he said.
Max returned to his old job after the war, but worked in Melbourne. He married and had three kids. He has 35 grandchildren and great-grandchildren and three more on the way.
“It’s wonderful. The love of a family, there’s nothing better. There really isn’t,” Max said. “I’m blessed with that, and my faith in God, to bring me this far in my life. There’s not many people who get to 100, especially men.”
Every Sunday for 30 years, Max and his second wife Berta, who he married after his first wife passed away, could be found in the front row of Warrnambool’s Anglican Church, and while he can now no longer attend services, the church still brings communion to his home every week.
“I wouldn’t like to abandon that faith," he said, crediting it with helping him during war. His other secret to a long life was giving up drinking and smoking at 50. “I used to drink a bit and get sick and I thought, there’s no future in this. If I keep at this I won’t live.”