Royal Australian Air Force veteran Keith Sander then and now.
Royal Australian Air Force veteran Keith Sander then and now.

How one of our last WWII vets is being honoured

KEITH Sander still remembers the day he stepped off a plane onto a jungle airstrip and heard the words "the war is over".

Even now, as he sits in his Dundowran Beach dining room, cursing the jigsaw of thoughts which becomes more difficult to piece together with every passing year, these words are as clear as they were more than seven decades ago.

It's one of many moving moments in this extraordinary tale about a boy from the Barossa with a limited education who graduated from the Royal Australian Air Force and went on to not only play an integral role in radar communications in World War II but was also at the forefront of major defence operations for many years after.

 

A 19-year-old Keith when he was a fresh face in the Royal Australian Air Force.
A 19-year-old Keith when he was a fresh face in the Royal Australian Air Force.

He doesn't know it yet but the news crews who have the honour of hearing this story on this day are also here to honour him.

A special medal presentation has been organised by loved ones.

Daughter Rae had applied for a Commemorative Medallion produced by the Department of Veteran Affairs to mark the significance of the 75th anniversary of the end of the war.

The medallion is awarded to World War II veterans.

 

The medallion presented to Keith Sander
The medallion presented to Keith Sander

This one has been guarded closely by a neighbour, who, an hour earlier had quietly handed it, along with an envelope containing a certificate from Canberra and bouquet of flowers, to Councillor Jade Wellings.

Traditionally, these red poppy medallions are handed out by a local MP but the people who organised this particular ceremony chose her because she'd been their pick for Division 5 at the March election and were pleased to hear she was the wife of a modern-day veteran who had completed tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor.

In the formal lounge room Cr Wellings reflects on that connection as she presents the medallion and certificate.

Cr Jade Wellings speaks with Keith Sander ahead of the medallion presentation.
Cr Jade Wellings speaks with Keith Sander ahead of the medallion presentation.

"I was asked to come and present you with this today and it's important to me because of the connection I have through my husband that we do recognise your service and everything you have done for the freedom of our people."

Cr Jade Wellings presents the Commemorative Medallion and certificate, signed by the Prime Minister, to World War II veteran Keith Sander at his Dundowran Beach home.
Cr Jade Wellings presents the Commemorative Medallion and certificate, signed by the Prime Minister, to World War II veteran Keith Sander at his Dundowran Beach home.

Mr Sander expresses thanks for the recognition of his service and laments "if only it could bring back the people that we lost".

He also recalls how that recognition from the government "didn't always come so easy".

 

Keith and Pat Sander with their daughter Rae.
Keith and Pat Sander with their daughter Rae.

He'd played a key role in campaigning for the veteran's Gold Card.

Back at the table, he's flipping through war time photos which cover his childhood in South Australia, graduation day in the Royal Australian Airforce and his journey as a radar operator with the RAAF's No 33 Squadron in Papua New Guinea.

 

Graduation day at the Royal Australian Air Force in the early 1940s.
Graduation day at the Royal Australian Air Force in the early 1940s.

At one point he even had a short stint on the Fraser Coast, stopping in to Maryborough for radar training, unaware this would be the region where he'd spend his sunset years.

He stops at one photo and explains the enemy didn't always wear a Japanese uniform.

Forbidding terrain and mountains claimed planes and best mates.

A trip deep into a valley very nearly became one-way for Mr Sander and a crew when the Douglas C-47 they were flying in started making ominous noises.

It was out of oil and oil made the propellers go.

Fridges and various other items were tossed out the door and into the treetop canopy below before finally, at less than 200ft, the plane began to climb.

Malaria went with the posting and its impacts on his body are still felt to this day.

 

Keith Sander looking at old photographs.
Keith Sander looking at old photographs.

As he turns the pages an exasperated Mr Sander declares "I can't remember anyone's names".

His quick-witted wife doesn't miss a beat and calls out from the end of the table "I'm Pat".

It's revealed that this year the couple will celebrate 73 years of marriage.

 

Keith and Pat Sander on their wedding day.
Keith and Pat Sander on their wedding day.

Standard jokes about how one "gets less for murder" follow but cannot mask deep connection and affection still evident when hands automatically find each other as soon as they are within reach on a lounge.

The moment he accepted the flowers presented to him during the ceremony he had called Pat over and given them to her. 

Keith Sander hands flowers to his wife Pat.
Keith Sander hands flowers to his wife Pat.

Her cheeks blushed in the same shade as those of the 1940s beauty beaming from beneath a veil in the portrait on the wall.

 

Pat Sander on her wedding day.
Pat Sander on her wedding day.

 

Together, they'd raised two daughters while Mr Sander continued to work on "secret squirrel" stuff for the Department of Defence.

He earned an electronics degree at the Adelaide university and developed systems to protect forces in the Vietnam War including a type of clandestine aircraft which in modern times would resemble a drone.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy, it was Mr Sander who was called on to help restore telecommunications for the army base in Darwin.

He even represented the International Telecommunications Union at the United Nations in Geneva.

 

Keith Sander representing the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva.
Keith Sander representing the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva.

Yes, he's grateful for the life he's lived post war but as the pages turn he once again expresses his deep wish to bring back those lost.

It provides the opening for the next question: Is this war veteran in his 90s concerned about whether Australians are going to forget the sacrifice and take for granted the freedom that was fought for after he and those like him are gone?

He stood at the end of the drive way this Anzac Day and was heartened to see the number of people lining his street, candle in hand, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as he continues to ponder the question, concern is clear on his face and he begins to shake his head.

His finger points to a photo of those young men in Papua New Guinea.

 

Hair cut time in war time: Members of the No.33 Squadron in Papua New Guinea
Hair cut time in war time: Members of the No.33 Squadron in Papua New Guinea

"In those days, when things weren't right, we did something about it … now I don't know, I just don't know"

His voice trails off.

The burden is too great and must be carried by the next generation.

He walks slowly to the veranda, looking out at the garden he's proud of and taking in the last of the afternoon sun.

It shimmers on the lagoon and dances through the kitchen window, passing print outs with lists of medications and reminders and resting on a new addition.

Brilliant silver surrounding a single red poppy, now pride of place beside a letter signed by the Prime Minister honouring his service and expressing the thanks of a grateful nation.


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