Navy's 723 Squadron had a special delivery recently, flying four Victoria Cross recipients to a ‘Digger Day’ event in Nowra, New South Wales.
Now in its fourth year, Digger Day pays tribute to all serving and ex-serving Defence personnel while raising funds for charity, Soldier On, which supports service people who have been injured while serving overseas, and the RSL sponsored charity, Defence Care.
Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett attended the traditional rugby match between Shoals and Kiama, which was supported by static and flying displays by Navy helicopters, and featured the largest gathering of Victoria Cross recipients in the southern hemisphere in more than 40 years.
Australian recipients Keith Payne and Daniel Keighran were joined by New Zealand’s Willie Apiata and Johnson Beharry from the UK. Doug Baird, father of Cameron Baird, VC (posthumous) the last Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan also attended.
Pilot Lieutenant Michael Skea said it was a tasking he’ll never forget.
“It was a true privilege to be able to spend the morning with such a distinguished group of veterans and hear their amazing stories first hand,” he said.
“I think they enjoyed it too, as they said it was a nice change to be in the back of a helicopter not covered in gear and without rounds whizzing past.”
Grey skies didn’t deter the crowd of 3000 who were at Rugby Park to cheer the arrival.
Able Seaman Jody Levy of HMAS Albatross said it would have taken a lot more than the threat of rain to keep her away.
“As soon as I heard that there was going to be Victoria Cross recipients visiting the Shoalhaven, I knew I needed to be there with my family,” she said.
“Even though it was a cold and rainy day, the atmosphere was big.
“There were a lot of current and ex-servicemen along with their families and there was a real sense that we were sharing something very special.
“It really meant a lot to me to meet these men who are my true heroes and to shake their hands. It’s an experience I'll be reminding my daughter, Summer, about for many years to come.”
Leading Seaman Jo Bullock, one of the volunteers assisting the Navy Community Engagement Team, described it as a once in a lifetime experience
“It was all a bit overwhelming really and the landing and departure of the MRH-90 and Iroquois helicopters were a huge hit with the kids and adults alike - it was a spectacular sight,” she said.
“I also had the opportunity to meet and talk to several of the recipients and these guys were so down to earth and friendly.
“They went out of their way to get out into the crowd and chat with the public.
“When the Last Post was played the whole area went absolutely silent, and it was one of those moments that made me incredibly proud to be wearing the Navy uniform.
“It was such an honour to be there.”
Digger Day coordinator and Nowra RSL Sub Branch Secretary Rick Meehan said the turnout surpassed his most optimistic expectations.
“It was the largest event of my life and the fact that it all came together was the result of a lot of good will and hard work from a lot of people in this community,” he said.
"I certainly couldn’t have achieved this without the support of HMAS Albatross and the Parachute Training School.
“Soldier On and Defence Care are two charities which are very close to my heart and we raised in excess of $35,000 which will help them continue their excellent work.
“It also meant a lot to me to have Chief of Navy attend and to hear his praise for the event.
“For me personally it was amazing and overwhelming to bring these men to the Shoalhaven.
“Their acts of valour are something that cannot even be written in a script.
“I wanted the public to witness and hear them speak and see them for who they really are - they are true ambassadors in their own right.
“An opportunity like this does not come around often, so I’m elated that I was able to share this experience with the Shoalhaven,” Mr Meehan said.