When Outback Links volunteer Geoff Cochrane arrived at Mary Birchley’s place, it was an emotional first time meeting between children whose fathers had shared life and death experiences in a long ago war.
In their wide brimmed hats and khaki uniforms the two “Diggers” from the 2/9th Battalion picked their way down the precipitous path that clung like a tendril to the sides of Shaggy Ridge. Above their heads the stutter of machine guns, rifle cracks and earth-shaking explosions described a ferocious battle being waged in the misty airs of New Guinea’s Highlands.
That sweltering monsoonal December of 1943, the Australian 2/9th Battalion had been tasked with taking the high ground. Their objective was to clear an entrenched Japanese command sited along the razorback spine of the Finisterre Ranges. To win here was to open up access to the Ramu Valley and a route to the north coast. The fierce fighting that took place between Australians and Japanese over two months is today known as the
Battle of Shaggy Ridge.
American bombardments before the assault had blown away the rainforest canopy so that the battlefield was an entanglement of shattered timber. Fighting was close and vicious; the progress measured in metres. Evacuating the sick and wounded meant making a slow perilous trip down 1,500
metres of limestone cliffs to the safety of the field hospital. The thin line of ‘walking wounded’ included Private Reg Cochrane, 24, sick with the feverish chills of malaria and feeling like death. In his hour of need Reg was supported by his NCO, Corporal Aubrey (“Aub”) Birchley, ten years his
The two men shared a common heritage as farm boys. The Cochrane family had a dairy farm in Kangaroo Valley, NSW, where in 1939 Reg had enlisted in the Light Horse Brigade, bringing his own horse and saddle to the cause. Aub Birchley was a Queenslander, from the ‘Tandora’ cattle property in Eidesvold, Central Queensland.
When Aub got Reg down off the mountain they said their goodbyes. The long war service was about to end. Reg would be medically discharged and Aub would also be wounded and evacuated from the field, in his case being ferried 100 kilometres down river in a dugout canoe. The bullet extracted from his left arm he kept as a good luck charm.
75 years later, Reg’s Cochrane’s son, Geoff, an Outback Links volunteer, describes how his father hardly talked of his war experiences. “The exception”, he says, “was his mate ‘Aub’ Birchley. He’d tell us how Aub had helped him down from the Battle of Shaggy Ridge.”
It was many years later, says Geoff Cochrane, when his father was sick with cancer that he made the trip to Tandora to visit Aub Birchley and his family.
“Mum and Dad stayed with Aub and his family for a week. I don’t think the two men had seen each other since the war. When they returned home they couldn’t stop talking about Mary, Aub’s daughter, who could handle horses, cattle and dogs better than most men.” Reg Cochrane passed away in 1997, aged 78. “And my mother and Mary continued to write and ring each other right up until my mother’s death,” says Geoff.
It has been some years since Geoff Cochrane and his wife Cathie, a retired languages teacher, signed on as Outback Links volunteers. “I wanted to step back so my three sons could get on with managing the dairy farms. Being away I feel appreciated in a different country, meeting new people, making new friendships.”
Geoff’s first placement was with Cathie,as general farm help including some cattle mustering on a remote station on the Gulf of Carpentaria. A keen horseman, like his father, who always takes his own saddle with him on jobs. “I’m a Bushie. Riding a stock horse and driving a mob of cattle with
a pack of dogs nipping at their heels suits me well very indeed” he says.
Earlier this year while at a bullock drivers convention between Gayndah and Mundubbera Queensland, Geoff met a man who said he came from Eidesvold. “I thought: ‘Mary Birchley!’ The man said he knew the Birchleys and would pass on my phone number to them.”
“The next morning I got a call from Mary. She was very excited to know I was around and insisted I come to Tandora and stay a few days.”
“It just happened to be April 24th,” says Geoff. “On Anzac day Mary took her family and me to the nearby ghost town called Cracow for the Anzac Service. It was a very moving experience for me to stand with my arm around Mary while they played the Last Post, especially so, as I had only ever met her the day before and our fathers had fought together and helped one another all those years ago.”
While at Tandora, Mary’s 11-year old son, Lindsay, brought out a small box for Geoff to look at. Inside was the same bullet that had pierced Aub Birchley’s arm in the jungle battle all those years before. As Geoff Geoff Cochrane rode around the 22,000-acre property with Mary, she asked him if he knew any way she could get voluntary help to muster the cattle.
“I told her all about Outback Links and how to get in touch with Kate Parsons who ran the program. I told Mary to just give me a ring when she was ready and I would come. Well she did and now I’m happy as a lark herding cattle up here at Tandora!”