“For years Rusten House has lain forlorn and largely forgotten, its empty corridors and darkened rooms echoing with a history filled with equal parts heartache and happiness,” writes NICHOLE OVERALL
THE heroism of a World War II US medic during a battle on Hacksaw Ridge at Okinawa was transposed to the big screen with much acclaim by Mel Gibson in 2016, while John Simpson, “the man with the donkey” who rescued the wounded at Gallipoli, is an entrenched part of the Anzac legend.
There’s another to equal them though, an Australian war-time stretcher bearer whose feats of extraordinary bravery are a story that remains largely untold – despite being the only soldier ever awarded the prestigious Military Medal four times.
Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the date the first of these was presented to Pte Ernest Albert Corey, formerly of Cooma, then Canberra and Queanbeyan, on May 17, 1917.
This he achieved for rescuing, under “direct enemy observation”, amidst the mud and human detritus that was “no man’s land” on the Western Front, a countless number of men over a 17-hour stretch – without a moment’s respite.
Ernie had volunteered for the task, along with a small group of other soldiers with first-aid experience, another two of whom also received a Military Medal, similarly for their “great courage and devotion to duty”.
Peter Hohnen, lawyer and author of “The Wolf” (the tale of the disguised German warship that “terrorised the allies” in World War I) has spent years researching Ernie’s story for a book on his life and believes the private’s skills in saving lives, rather than taking them, was almost a matter of serendipity.
“In Cooma, Ernie had been a blacksmith’s striker and given the relatively dangerous nature of the work, he’d undertaken a first-aid course with St John’s Ambulance,” says Hohnen.
“His former employment may also have accounted for his sheer strength and stamina as he wasn’t a large man, once describing himself as the shortest in his battalion.”
Certainly, the fellow members of the 55th Battalion recognised both Ernie’s physical and mental aptitude for the role for which he put himself forward.
“As a stretcher bearer, he was almost superhuman,” was how he was described by his comrade, Pte Bert Bishop.
And Ernie’s valour didn’t end after the first battle. He would earn another three Military Medals (or Bars as they’re known following the initial medal) in less than 18 months – the last two in the same month, September, 1918 – and during which time it’s estimated “scores of men of the battalion had their lives saved by Ernie Corey.”
“To put it into perspective, 115,000 Military Medals were awarded for bravery during World War I,” says Hohnen.
“Of those, 5700-odd received a Bar and there were a mere 180 second Bars. And then, there’s just the one instance throughout the British Empire and Commonwealth, of a third Bar – that awarded to our own Ernie Corey.”
Who knows how much longer Ernie would have gone on or how many more he may have saved except for the fact he would eventually need saving himself: going to the aid of a wounded officer, he was seriously impacted by a high-explosive shell and after two operations, was sent home. Thereafter, the details of Ernie’s remarkable war record became as low-key as the man himself.
Peter Hohnen believes Ernie’s incredible actions haven’t received the attention they deserve because of the still relatively recent focus on Gallipoli.
“The Western Front is largely overlooked and Ernie was a humble man. He didn’t make a fuss about his own heroism or deeds. He didn’t write a book and there weren’t movies made about him – but I’m pleased to be looking to rectify this,” says Hohnen.
When Ernie returned home he took up work as a cleaner at the Department of Interior and became the operator of the Canberra incinerator. He married Sarah Jane Fisher at St Gregory’s Church, Queanbeyan, and the couple had a daughter, Patricia. Incredibly, with the outbreak of World War II, at the age of 49, Ernie signed up – and was accepted – again, serving until 1943.
His final years were spent in the Queanbeyan Nursing Home, where his medals were pinned to his chest for the last time just before his death in 1972. Today they’re to be found at the Australian War Memorial, but as to Ernie’s story, that’s one that has been waiting 100 years to be told.
Journalist, social historian and author Nichole Overall is working with Peter Hohnen on his book about Ernie Corey. They are keen to hear from anyone who has further information or connections to the story.