DESERT CAMPAIGN: Damien Parer's photograph of Private Harold Woodman Wilson Vercoe.
DESERT CAMPAIGN: Damien Parer's photograph of Private Harold Woodman Wilson Vercoe.

Recording the history of war

WHEN collecting and writing family history, it is wonderful to find a relevant photograph. This is especially important if the photograph shows a person who died in wartime. One sadness associated with many of the soldiers who never returned from war is the fact that most of them were never photographed. Some soldiers did have their portraits taken, especially in the First World War, but many of the prints have been lost over time unless they were preserved as large family portraits or perhaps published in a newspaper or book. A small number have also been found in archives (some as negatives) in photographic studios. Unfortunately, many of these photographs cannot be identified.

One exception worth noting is a photograph of Corporal Harold Woodman Wilson Vercoe, who fought in the New Guinea campaign during the Second World War. Attached to his Army record is a wonderful photograph taken in Palestine on April 25, 1940, showing him as a handsome young man holding a machine gun. He is smiling, with dimples, twinkling eyes, and a perfect set of teeth. It is a photograph to put in someone's family history - and it was taken by none other than Australia's famous war photographer, Damien Parer.

Parer was a past master at taking wonderful photographs - not only of battle scenes, but also portraits of the men themselves. He is perhaps best remembered for his movie films, which were seen throughout Australia during the Second World War as newsreels in local cinemas. Parer was never content to stand back and take the scene from a distance. He was always with the frontline troops, trying to catch their expressions as they went into battle or as they rested between engagements. He photographed in most places where Australians were fighting, from the Rats of Tobruk to the Kokoda Trail. He was killed in 1944 (probably by a sniper) while filming tanks advancing in Papua, and he is buried on the Island of Ambon in Indonesia.

Corporal Harold Vercoe was also killed in Papua. He died at Buna, on November 25, 1942, aged 30. Born on October 12, 1912 at Lowood, south-east Queensland, he was the son of Woodman and Margaret Vercoe (nee Wilson). His father had been born in Cornwall and his mother (Woodman's second wife) was apparently Scottish. His father's first wife, Emma Louisa Elborough, had died in 1907 at Ballina, leaving five children. Harold was the eldest of three in the second family. His father was a baker by trade and the family seems to have lived in a number of towns on the Far North Coast, including Alstonville, Ballina, Lismore, and Tyalgum.

Harold did not follow his father's trade but apparently preferred farming. Prior to enlisting in 1939 he had worked as a farm labourer for a family named Smith at Tatham and later at Wyan. However, on his enlistment he stated that he was a resident of Tabulam, so he had apparently moved again. He does not appear to have been married.

Harold joined the 2/2nd Infantry Battalion on enlistment and was one of the first soldiers to be sent overseas. He fought in the North African campaign, the Battle of Bardia, the Greek campaign, and then in New Guinea, the Kokoda Trail, and Buna. He was one of the seasoned troops brought home to defend Australia. He deserves to be remembered with a wonderful Damien Parer photograph.

Prepared by Geoff & Margaret Henderson for Richmond River Historical Society, Lismore.

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