Over the normally 'festive season' of 2019 and well into 2020, large swathes of Australia were devastated by the worst bushfires to sweep through Australian communities in years.
Among them was Batemans Bay, New South Wales, and one home in particular where a treasured family heirloom was thought lost forever.
A ceremonial sword, belonging to one Lieutenant Commander GH Starling, who joined the Royal Australian Navy in or about 1968 when he was not much more than 17.
Originally hailing from Goolwa, South Australia, the young man served at sea, posted to HMA ships Tobruk, Vendetta and Supply. He also did a posting to Papua New Guinea, mapping the Sepik River, and an ANZUK deployment in 1974.
When Lieutenant Commander Starling was diagnosed with cancer in 1981, he continued to work on shore as a training officer at Creswell, Penguin and Watson.
Despite treatments and yearly surgeries, he continued working until his last year, succumbing to the insipid disease in 1992 after an 11-year battle.
His many photos, mementos – and his ceremonial sword – were treasured heirlooms in his family home – until the home and all of its contents were destroyed by bushfire on New Year's Eve 2019.
Or so it was thought.
While the house was certainly razed to the ground, and with the family slowly recovering from the loss, thoughts turned to what, if anything, might be salvaged from the site before bulldozers came to clear it.
Family and friends hoped beyond hope that, with most photos and memorabilia certainly gone, the patriarch's ceremonial sword might yet be found.
A current-serving chief petty officer and friend of the family drove through the night to spend the last day before excavators arrived looking for the sword.
Initially, the tip of the scabbard was found buried under collapsed and twisted roofing – but, the absence of the more substantial blade in or near the same spot was baffling.
As the search dragged on into the night, the sword was eventually found – wrapped around a tree at the bottom of the property. The theory is that it had been blasted there by exploding gas tanks in the house.
First attempt to straighten the sword, which had been wrapped around a tree by the force of a gas explosion
Later in the year, Canberra-based ceremonial sword retailer, the Military Shop, was approached for a replacement sword and, as staff fondled the sad-looking remnants of the original, they also listened intently to the moving story of its demise.
Sales Manager Arthur Mitchell said the family explained how the sword was basically an almost unrecognisable black U shape when they located it and, that while they were able to straighten it to a degree, they wondered what if anything could be done with it now.
Military Shop made contact with their expert sword refurbisher who, in true Aussie spirit, agreed to "give it a crack!"
While the family purchased a new ceremonial sword, inscribed to identically reflect the one that was considered lost, Arthur Mitchell suggested that if the fire damaged sword could be cleaned up, the two swords together would tell a powerful story – a bit like a Phoenix rising from the ashes!
Weeks later, Arthur said the overly modest refurbisher had done a wonderful job.
“All he said was that he had cleaned it up and re-tempered the steel, but it was amazing to see the drastically improved condition it now presented in."
“We could even read the original inscription, and the sword was straightened to near perfection. It was an amazing feat, considering how it first presented and the hellfire and explosion it had suffered."
The sword is now presented in tandem with its modern replacement and the family is very grateful for the work undertaken to preserve its significance.
Old and new swords now add to a powerful narrative to a proud family's military heritage
Arthur Mitchell said the joy of returning the sword to the family after all they had been through brought tears to his eyes.
And, as for what the family thinks – "The sword has remained a big part of our special memories of him and now that most of the photos, books and so on have gone, this is the one thing that we will honour for generations to come."
Originally published in June 2021 issue of Contact Magazine.
We are an official Defence Recognised Supplier to the Australian Defence Forces. Whether you are a serving military member or an astute military collector, we understand your requirements and are able to guarantee unrivalled quality and the finest workmanship in collectables and memorabilia. Our superb collection of blades come from one of the world's leading sword makers - Windlass Steelcrafts, which is an ISO accredited sword maker. Service-specific swords can be ordered centrally via the Military Shop or through specific shopfronts: Army Shop, Navy Shop and Air Force Shop.