When a story about Grace Joel resident Jim ‘Curly’ Easton’s recent 106th birthday came to the attention of Brigadier Gregory Novak, Commander of the Australian Army’s 6th Brigade and Head of Corps (Signals) via social media, it set off an unprecedented flurry of excitement across the Tasman Sea.
That’s because Brigadier Novak and his colleague Regimental Sergeant Major 1st Signal Regiment Warrant Office Class 1 Benn Goulter, realised they had found one of their own - a fellow Signals man.
In the space of just two weeks they organised a visit with Jim to coincide with a trip to mark the Royal New Zealand Corps of Signals’ centenary, and at a special morning tea last week they explained why the meeting was so significant.
“We think it’s a pretty safe bet that you would be the veteran of Royal Australian Corps of Signals with the longest history with the Corps,” Brig Novak told Jim.
“I don’t think there’s anybody more senior to you still with us so you have an absolutely unique standing in the Corps and we wanted to come and say gidday and wish you a happy birthday for last December. And to congratulate you on your standing within the Corps,” he said.
Jim was a member of the Australian Army’s 8th Division Signals when he was captured by the Japanese in WW2 and sent to work on the infamous Burma Railway.
Incredibly, he survived the three and a half years of horror, and went on to live a long and fulfilling life working the showgrounds around New Zealand, only retiring in his 90s. Now, as Ryman Healthcare’s oldest Kiwi resident, he amazes everyone with his continued appetite for life.
Brig Novak and WO1 Goulter said it was ‘wonderful’ to have made contact with Jim, and their excitement also extended to the rest of Signals Corps in Australia.
In a letter to Jim which he read out, Brig Novak said: “Our reputation as a Corps in Army is built on those that went before us and your service and your sacrifice and those of your friends, so in this regard you set a fine example for all the soldiers in our Corps today to aspire to.”
To mark the occasion, he presented Jim with a special commemorative coin given for distinguished and honourable service within the Corps, of which only two have previously been issued, and one of them was to the Corps’ Colonel-in-Chief, HRH Princess Anne.
“That’s the sort of standing you sit within,” he told Jim.
There were more presents forthcoming too, including a recently published book written by the wife of a fellow POW, Pamela Wells, titled The Tiger Has Many Lives – The Story of Rod Wells, a copy of one of Jim’s old wartime photos and his loincloth which are on display in the War Museum in Canberra, and finally the letter from Brig Novak.
Jim, who can still recite his Army number, told the men the story of how he came in possession of the loincloth, the only item of clothing the men were left wearing as their clothing wore out.
“Our little group all signed the thing. That red one was when we were working on the railway and everything fell off after two years of rain and stuff so I sneaked out one night and grabbed one off the line.
“But when I looked the next day it was red, and everyone else’s were white, so I knew I couldn’t wear the thing, so I went out the next night and got a white one.”
From left: Brigadier Gregory Novak, WO1 Benn Goulter and Jim 'Curly' Easton.
The topic of Jim’s incredible survival and longevity also came up for discussion, with Jim explaining what he felt was part of the reason: “I never smoked a cigarette, I’ve never drank a glass of beer. But everyone did. I’ve seen a guy swap his soup with three beans in it for a cigarette!”
He told them about leaving school at 14 and ‘hoboing’ with a friend shooting rabbits and nicking fruit from orchards during the depression years, and how it all stood him in good stead for the difficult years as a prisoner of war.
Jim’s friend Lyn Hastie, his late daughter Vikki’s best friend, said Jim had been ‘just absolutely thrilled’ when he found out members of the Australian Army were coming to visit him.
“He said he was so looking forward to it, he was just so happy,” she said. “He will cherish this, he really will.”
While Cyclone Gabrielle had played havoc with their original plans and had caused their bags containing their uniforms to go awol, the men said they had made it a priority ‘to see Curly’ because it was a ‘once in a lifetime chance’. It also just strengthened the case to come back and visit Jim again.
“You can come to my next birthday,” said Jim. “All presents received!”