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Combined Schools ANZAC Service showcases unique collaboration in Hunter

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The 68th annual Newcastle and Hunter Combined Schools ANZAC Service heralded a new era for the event this week.

Tuesday’s extravaganza, with two ceremonies at the Civic Theatre on 9 April, not only attracted more than 2,500 students to recognise this important occasion on the national calendar, it featured a unique collaboration with pupils from New Zealand.

Since December, the Kiwi contingent has engaged in weekly Zoom meetings with the local participants.

Together, they researched, developed and presented the theme: ANZAC: An enduring bond of courage and mateship.

Artistic director Shane Bransdon said the production benefited greatly from the New Zealanders bringing their country’s perspective.

“Thanks to the dedication of all the students, the attendees at today’s services had the honour of witnessing the moving moment when the widow of an Australian veteran of the Vietnam War got to meet the hero who saved her husband’s life,” he said.

“The narrative for the commemorative event highlighted Operation Hermit Park, which took place in 1971 during the Vietnam War.

“The ceremony told the story of how an Australian tank crew, under attack from an enemy bunker system, was rescued by a platoon of New Zealand soldiers.”

Tamworth-born Private Philip Barwick’s life was saved by Private Mike Williams from New Zealand.

Private Williams, along with his company, provided lifesaving first aid to Private Barwick who, during the attack, was blinded by a rocket propelled grenade which struck his tank.

After returning to Australia, he went on to live an inspirational life as a spokesperson for the Guide Dog Association.

Eighteen years later, back in New Zealand, Private Williams one day began to ponder what had happened to the man he had saved in Vietnam.

He recalled the wounded soldier had the name Barwick on his uniform and that he was from Tamworth.

So, he turned to the telephone directory to call everyone with the same surname in that area.

Private Williams’ tenacity paid off, with him eventually locating Private Barwick’s family.

Sadly, his inspiration to locate the Aussie came too late.

Private Barwick had passed away 18 months earlier, never getting the chance to reunite with the man who saved his life.

However, thanks to the pupils’ diligent research, Private Williams was introduced to Philip Barwick’s widow, Kath Newman, who now resides in Maitland.

She was immensely grateful for the opportunity.

“Phillip never got to meet you, to say thanks for saving his life,” Ms Newman said.

“I know he spent years wondering who those blokes from New Zealand were, who pulled him from that tank.

“But, [today], I get to say thank you.

“If it hadn’t been for your bravery, I would never have met my husband, a man who was such an inspiration to many other people.”

Air Commodore Peter Robinson, representing Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, Lt Col Nathan Muru, a military advisor to the New Zealand High Commission in Canberra, and Norman Fry, who was the New Zealand Platoon Commander during Operation Hermit Park, also attended the service.

The latter told the audience of his pride in baring witness to the extreme gallantry of his men that fateful day.

“They did, indeed, act bravely and risked their lives to save others,” Mr Fry said.

“One of them, John Adams, received a Military Medal for his part in the action.

“Unfortunately, due to quota restrictions, Mike Williams, John Galley and Bill Papuni never received bravery medals.

“I have spent the 53 years since, fighting for the recognition they deserve.

“So, I want to thank the students who have organised this service for telling their story.

“We might not be able to give them bravery medals, but we can show our appreciation right now with a standing ovation.”

The program for developing and presenting the annual Newcastle and Hunter Combined Schools ANZAC Service is recognised nationally for its unique focus on education and collaboration.

Created by a range of talented pupils, it is designed to capture the attention of the young audience and inspire them in many ways.

The tradition endures thanks to a range of generous supporters, including major sponsors, City of Newcastle and Newcastle Permanent, which is celebrating 22 years of continuous sponsorship.

Councillor Peta Winney-Baartz represented Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes at the 10.30am service.

In her introduction to this year’s commemorative event, she explained how it would explore the close relationship between Australia and its Anzac partner, New Zealand.

“The narrative you are about to witness will look closely at how Anzac came into being and then explore that special and ongoing relationship between our two nations in times of war and peace,” Cr Winney-Baartz stated.

“In World War I, two young nations went to war to fight for the British Empire but, in doing so, forged their nationhood and the special bond that we commemorate today.

“We will witness some of the very special moments of this enduring bond, how the servicemen and women from our two nations have come together to make our place in the world a safe and secure one.

“Together, year in and year out, the bond that was formed 109 years ago has continued to endure by a shared commitment to work together in the cause of peace and security.”

Newcastle Permanent’s chief distribution officer Paul Juergens said the event was marked on his organisation’s calendar with honour annually.

“Each year the students create such a moving performance for their peers,” he added.

“And, in 2024, it’s an exciting first, as we welcome pupils from New Zealand to collaborate and perform with our local students.”

The services also featured the Hunter Wind Ensemble, Hunter Singers, ASPIRE Drama Students and Bugler Fin Kearney from Hunter School of the Performing Arts.

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