With the parting words, 'My mother's prayers will bring me home,' Vin Mathieson hoisted his kitbag over his shoulder, walked out of the Nullawarre farmhouse he called home, and into the hell of war.
Vin never made it back home.
Lost alongside 845 of his 2/22nd Battalion comrades and 209 civilians when their Japanese prisoner-of-war ship Montevideo Maru was torpedoed by an American submarine off the Philippines on July 1,1942, his tormented family waited more than three years to learn his fate.
Now, almost 80 years after his death, Private Vin Mathieson will have the homecoming he never had.
In Nullawarre's little Union Church, the Mathieson family will reunite on Saturday morning for a memorial service to the young soldier. Built in 1899 on land donated by Vin's paternal grandmother Mary McMaster, it is the same church where Vin and his extended family came together every week to worship before war tore them apart.
The service will be followed by an afternoon presentation to the Warrnambool RSL of Vin's four service medals, colour patches, ribbons, photos and a brooch sent by the government to Vin's mother Ethel, like thousands of other grieving mothers and war widows acknowledging their sacrifice.
Vin Le Couteur carries his uncle's name with pride. His late mother Mary, who was Vin's oldest sister and the first of the seven Mathieson siblings, would approve of Saturday's tribute, he believes.
"We think it's a way of putting everything to rest because he never had that at the time and the family didn't have any closure," Mr Le Couteur said.
He said after the death in 2016 of Vin's last surviving sibling, Anne, aged 95, the family agreed to find a permanent and deserving home for the medals and memorabilia.
"We felt Warrnambool would be the most appropriate recipient, because this was the area where the family was from," he said.
They were a close-knit bunch, the Nullawarre Mathiesons, a large, loving Christian family whose faith, they believed, would see them through just about anything.
So, when war came calling, it wasn't surprising that five of the Mathieson siblings, including two of the girls, would answer the call.
Ainger Vincent Mathieson, named after his father but known as Vin, was Ethel's oldest lad. A butcher by trade, he was by family accounts a popular young man, a bit of a daredevil and a snappy dresser who loved to sing and dance. He was also handy with a rifle and a skilled horseman with eight years' experience in the 4th Light Horse.
Vin was an albino, with distinctive snowy hair, sugar white skin, pink eyes that would turn violet by night, and poor vision. He was 29 when he and his two brothers in arms, Donald and Douglas, enlisted together for World War 2 on July 13, 1940 and, despite his obvious physical disadvantages, was accepted into the 2/22nd Infantry Battalion 2nd AIF.
A medical issue was to keep Don on Australian shores, although his skills as a saddler were later employed to make prosthetics for returning amputee soldiers before he succumbed to polio in 1946. Douglas was the last family member to see Vin alive, serving at his side as part of a garrison at the New Britain capital of Rabaul until he was evacuated with a tropical ulcer. He recovered sufficiently to re-enlist in the RAAF and witnessed the Japanese bombing of Darwin.
Vin's sisters Ett and Anne were keen to serve their country. Ett nursed in Australia and overseas with the AIF in Morotai and Labuan, ministering to the sick and wounded Changi prison survivors. Aircraftwoman Anne served in the WAAF and nursed at the Robertson Military Hospital in New South Wales.
Oldest sister Mary, whose husband Stuart was serving with the RAAF overseas, moved to Melbourne with their children, while brother Jack, also married with young children, stayed at home to run the Mathieson family's Nullawarre dairy farm, Hampstead.
Despite her prayers, Ethel never saw her firstborn son again. Her husband Aenger Vincent, known as Vick, went to his grave before war's end, never knowing his son's fate.
Ethel moved in with Mary at Box Hill, helping out with her grandchildren. She clung to the hope that Vin would somehow make it home, imagining that the native Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels might have perhaps come to his rescue.
Every arrival in Melbourne of a ship bearing repatriated soldiers was cause for hope. Time after time, Ett and Anne would make their way to the wharf, scanning the faces of every last soldier for their beloved brother before returning home with heavy hearts and disappointing news for their mother.
Their search was in vain. The grim reality was that by the time Ethel received official confirmation in December 1945 of his fate, Vin had been dead for three-and-a-half years, lying in a watery grave with more than 1000 other lost souls.
Just how Vin passed the medical for the Army and how he fared during his service under the blazing sun and oppressive jungle heat still baffles his family. However, records show that he was most likely to have been taken on as batman to his commanding officer, a role that would have spared him from the worst exposure.
The 2/22nd Battalion, in which the Mathieson boys served, was raised at Victoria Barracks in Melbourne in July 1940 before moving for training to Trawool in central Victoria, then Bonegilla and Sydney ahead of its arrival in Rabaul in April 1941. Their number included 23 Brunswick Citadel Band members who formed the battalion's regimental band, said to be the only military unit ever recruited from the ranks of the Salvation Army.
The 2/22nd combined with the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, coastal defence and anti-aircraft batteries and elements of the 2/10th Field Ambulance and 17th Anti-tank battery to form Lark Force.
Later supported by the RAAF's 24 Squadron, the force's role was to protect the airfields at Lakunai and Vunakanau, the seaplane base at Rabaul, and provide warning of Japanese movements in the area.
History shows Lark Force was poorly equipped and no match for the massive Japanese invasion force when it landed at Rabaul on January 23, 1942. When Lark Force commander Colonel John Scanlan ordered a withdrawal on the basis of "every man for himself", chaos followed as soldiers retreated into the jungle.
About 400 managed to escape along the coast and eventually made it back to Australia, but many more, hungry, sick and suffering in the tropical conditions were rounded up by the Japanese to face either brutal massacre or internment as POWs.
On June 22, Vin Mathieson was among the 1054 soldiers and civilians loaded onto the Montevideo Maru bound for Japan to be used as slave labour. Not marked as a POW ship, it was a ready target.
On July 1, 1942 the American sub, USS Sturgeon, fired four torpedoes into the ship, sending it to the bottom of the South China Sea, 60 miles off Luzon Island. All 1054, including Vin and 23 Salvation Army band members, went down with the ship. It was considered to be Australia's worst maritime disaster.
Like all those families left at home to mourn, Vin's loved ones never recovered from the tragedy.
In 2012, his youngest sister Anne Yeowart, then in her 90s, wrote:
"War is a terrible thing. I wanted my brother here with me. I wanted him to dance, get married and have children. I wanted him to grow old with me. And those young men we called enemy had their funerals before they left home. They were never given a chance to live life. It's why we say Lest we Forget today, so we never forget to remember what war is. And we never allow it to happen again."
Alongside family members, Saturday's memorial will be attended by representatives from the Salvation Army, the Warrnambool RSL and Lieutenant Colonel Dave Cadogan-Cowper, commanding officer of the 8/7 Royal Victorian Regiment of young soldiers from Warrnambool and districts who serve today.
Lieutenant Colonel Cadogan-Cowper said the tribute would honour Private Mathieson, the sacrifice of men of the 2/22nd and the family legacy of service in defence of Australia.
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