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Former Royal Australian Navy seaman shares Anzac Day reflection

ON Anzac Day, Australia and New Zealand pay tribute to all current and former members of the defence force, including those lost during service.

April 25 marks the 106th anniversary of the 1915 Gallipoli landing, which was the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during World War One.

Hamilton RSL sub-branch president, Paul Shewell said Anzac Day was quite “emotional” for him having served in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) for over 10 years.

He said serving from 1978-1988 was a “life-changing experience”, giving him a greater appreciation and “new perspective” on how the country operates.

Mr Shewell said a lot of people died, were wounded and mentally destroyed to give everyone the quality of life they enjoy today.

“I think I find it a bit disturbing that there seems to be a fair few people that don’t appreciate what they (those who served) actually went through for people to have the quality of life they have now,” he said.

He said it was very important to remember all servicemen and women – he sat down with The Spectator to give an insight into what it was like to serve in the navy.

Mr Shewell grew up on the other side of Daylesford in a little town called Glenlyon and attended Daylesford Secondary College.

“My dad was a Second World War naval veteran from the Royal Navy and my mum was at Thursday Island during the Second World War as a nurse,” he said.

Mr Shewell joined the navy as soon as he got out of school in 1978 at the age of just 16, following in his older brother’s footsteps.

“My older brother joined the navy as a junior recruit at the age of 15 and he went to Perth,” he said.

“I decided I wanted to be an engineer as I liked motors and that sort of stuff.”

He went to HMAS Cerberus to undergo training and get ready for life on the ships.

“I was down there for perhaps a year and a half, then I got drafted onto my first ship called HMAS Stalwart,” he said.

“It was a fleet tender. It was like a big floating mobile workshop.”

Being on a ship with about 500 crew was a very new experience for an 18-year-old “country boy that had never even been to a city before”.

“When I was on the ship, we did a circumnavigation of Australia, across to Hawaii, Los Angeles, then we came back down through Indonesia, up to Singapore, Hong Kong, Philippines and then back down to Australia,” he said.

“The services treat people like they are in a family, you might not have your real family but you’ll be on a ship and have 300 brothers.”

From HMAS Stalwart, he was drafted to a HMAS Curlew - a minesweeper ship which was completely the opposite in terms of size, it was a small 130ft timber ship.

“I went from a crew of 500 to a crew of 23,” he said.

“Our job was to find mines and defuse them because there are still old mines in shipping channels left over from the Second World War, we had clearance divers and it was their job to disarm them or blow them up.”

Mr Shewell said on the minesweeper, he travelled to all the small ports around Australia and then up into the Philippines again.

“From there, they sent me off to basically an apprentice school which was called HMAS Nirimba up in Sydney and I underwent a 12-month training course before being posted to a ship called HMAS Vampire II,” he said.

“That (HMAS Vampire II) still sits in Darling Harbour and is part of the Maritime Museum, it’s awesome to be able to go back on it again.”

For a young man, it was an eye-opening experience travelling all around to different countries and experiencing different cultures.

“You lived in a tiny mess with 30 bunks in there on top of a fuel tank, you didn’t think anything of it, at the time that’s how it was,” he said.

“There would be four racks, if you sat up, you’d hit your head on the base of the one above you, if you were unlucky enough to have the top rack, you’d have a pipe running right past your head.”

Mr Shewell said something that really fascinated him was the ships getting painted in a matter of weeks.

HMAS Curlew – the minesweeper ship, Paul worked to disarm mines in shipping channels along with 22 other crew members.

“We’d go into Singapore and a big team would strip all the paint off the side of the ship in the space of a few days and then they would repaint it – you’d be there for two to three weeks and the ship would look like new,” he said.

HMAS Vampire II went to New Zealand multiple times, as well as another circumnavigation around Australia.

This ship saw him travel to as far as Subic Bay, an American naval base maintained in the Philippines and across to Surabaya, a large naval base in Indonesia.

After spending almost two years travelling, he was drafted off and sent back to HMAS Nirimba to undergo further training.

“Some people joined as apprentices and they did all their training first and then went and joined the ships,” he said.

“I joined as a general recruit, it was like a different career path, mine was more practical work along the way.

From here, he was promoted to a leading seaman and drafted to a patrol boat in Cairns, HMAS Townsville.

“I was on that for the last year and a half of my naval career and after 10 years, I’d had enough.”

Mr Shewell said through social media, he was still able to keep in contact with a lot of people he served in the RAN with.

He then met his wife, Dianne, who comes from Hamilton and has been living here ever since, working on his own sign and sticker business.

“Anzac Day is a very emotional sort of day that plays on your heart strings for different reasons - I find there is a sort of bond that runs through military branches,” he said.

Mr Shewell said he planned to go and march with some of his “brothers” for Anzac Day in future years.

“Some of the guys, you might not see them for 25 years and you strike up a conversation and it’s like you never left, it’s quite surreal,” he said.

Mr Shewell said it was important to come together and support each other around Anzac Day.

“Even back in my day when I got out of the service, there were blokes committing suicide,” he said.

“I think you get out and go from a close-knit community where everyone gets on well and all of a sudden you feel lonely and without a purpose.”

Mr Shewell said he had been pleased to see more young people involved in Anzac Day in recent years and hoped it would continue.

“When they show a real interest in what they are doing, it makes you feel really good when you see that,” he said.

“I like doing the work, but I would rather be in the background.

“The day is about remembering those who founded our country, effectively - I’m quite proud to have served in the navy.”

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