Keith Gillies on a recent visit to Grafton.
Keith Gillies on a recent visit to Grafton.

Sweeping all before them


KEITH GILLIES, now a Queenslander, was one of those remarkable Yamba lifesavers of the 1930s who reinvigorated the surf club and performed so well on the competition stage in those pre-World War Two years. When the war did come in 1939, so many of them were among the volunteers for army, navy or airforce duty, some making the supreme sacrifice.

Keith Gillies was one of those who did army service, reaching the rank of lieutenant.

He was a top line swimmer with the Yamba club and at just 16 years of age was called into Yamba's strong rescue and resuscitation (R&R) team. That team had won the Far North Coast branch championship yet again to qualify for the 1936/37 Australian Surf Life Saving championships at Bondi, where it would also be defending the Australian Country R&R title Yamba had won the previous two seasons. Not only had the team won the country championship both years but had each time finished third overall in the national title final, behind Bondi and North Steyne.

Rescue and resuscitation, a combined swimming and drill event, was in those times and for many years after the war, regarded as the premier event at any surf carnival.

The 1936/37 Yamba R&R lineup was Bill Gillieland, Jim Noonan, Colin Hockey, Ossie (Blue) Carmont , Keith Gillies and George Mills.

George Mills, a big surf specialist, had also qualified to contest the surf race title.

Keith Gillies and the other members of the R& R team were there that day, March 20, 1937 at Bondi, not only competing but able to see George beat the cream of Australian swimmers to win the 1936/37 Australian surf race championship.

Keith was the youngest member of the small Yamba team that made the long trip to Sydney to contest the National championship, again won by Manly, but the disappointment of that was replaced with the sheer joy of seeing team-mate George Mills win the surf race from a star-studded field.

The R&R team received a good ballot draw with Keith Gillies drawing the number one marble for patient swim, Blue Carmont the beltman/rescuer role and Jim Noonan that of resuscitator.

In those days the form of resuscitation was the Schafer method which has since been replaced in turn by the Sylvester Broche, Holger Neilsen and finally mouth to mouth resuscitation.

"We were coached at Yamba by Carl Schaeffer and when we went to Bondi a week before the championships we stayed at the Toormina Hotel at North Bondi and were coached during the next few days by the Far North Coast branch chief superintendent of instruction, Alan Kennedy," Keith said.

"Alan worked us hard and we would each do a 1000-metre swim early morning, have breakfast and do R&R drill during the day.

"Alan was a master coach and I reckon the drill was so inculcated I could do it again right now. We knew the tough work George Mills had been putting in for weeks preparing for the major surf race and when we saw the heavy sea coming up at Bondi we reckoned had a great chance.

"However he had some great swimmers against him such as Olympian and already three times winner of the title Noel Ryan, Ryan's clubmate Robin Biddulph, young Bob Newbiggin from Newcastle and Bondi champion Asher Hart ? just to name a few.

"I remember that race, too, as if it only happened last week. Ryan led narrowly around the six swimming buoys with George Mills close up. After heads were turned for home five swimmers, including Ryan and Mills, climbed onto one of the giant waves on offer.

"The wave carried them halfway in and then broke down and when it rolled up again in a boiling sea George was the only one able to catch the dregs to take a lead and hit the beach first to be a clear winner in the run up to the finish line."

Thor Long, of North Burleigh, ran into second place with local Bondi swimmer, Asher Hart, third.

"There we were, the rest of the Yamba crew, cheering George all the way and yelling ourselves hoarse realising that a Yamba man had really done it, won the Australian surf race championship.

"We chaired him from the beach and celebrated well that night."

Keith, the lone surviving member of that Yamba team, remembers the pride and the mateship of members during his years with the surf club until he left in 1939 for Brisbane to enlist.

Keith Gillies was born at Ulmarra in January 1920, the son of William (Bill) and Clara (nee Lee) Gillies and the family lived opposite the public school at Ulmarra.

William Gillies was chief engineer at the Ulmarra Butter Factory, later chief engineer on Pullen's fleet of river boats and later still chief engineer at Tancred's Abattoir at South Grafton.

Keith's early education was at Ulmarra Public School and then as his family moved first to Grafton and then South Grafton to live, education continued at Grafton Public, followed by South Grafton Public and finally three years at Grafton High School to gain the Intermediate Certificate.

At weekends or school holidays Keith, when his father worked on the river boats, would often travel with him to Yamba and return. He would earn his passage by polishing the boats' brassware and preparing The Daily Examiner newspapers on board for delivery. The well-folded newspapers would be thrown from the side of the moving boat and generally caught on the full by a family member on the bank of riverside properties.

While at high school Keith represented in swimming each year, mainly against Lismore High and he was also keen on track and road cycling, a sport he enjoyed for some time during his teenage years along with his involvement with swimming and the Yamba Surf Life Saving Club.

"I loved the swimming in the river and the river baths, the cycling at McKittrick Park's new ant-bed track and the surfing at Yamba. It was a great life," he said.

"At one time the Olympic swimmer Andrew Boy Charlton competed against us in the river baths. I recall some of the top cyclists I competed with and against were Kethell and Lovell Rooke , Johnny (Cyclone) Walker, his brother Charlie Walker, Tiger Kelly, Algie Reid, Wilbur (Pussy) Gazzard, Randall Reimer and Henry (Corky) Caldwell.

"One time when the recordbreaking Australian and international cyclist Hubert Opperman came to Grafton Corky Caldwell and I rode a tandem bike to pace the great man in a five miles record attempt.

"I remember, too, that I held the two mile junior track record which stood for years.

"Bronze medallion training was done in Grafton during week nights and then at Yamba at weekends. Getting to Yamba was not easy but we managed, usually someone or someone's father or elder brother had a car and we would obtain a lift down or occasionally catch the bus or a delivery truck.

"We managed to do training, compete in club events and carnivals at Ballina, Byron Bay, Coffs Harbour or Yamba, fulfill patrol requirements etc and it was always great at the beach."

After he had left school Keith, despite the difficulties of the rampant Great Depression, gained employment at Gerards Store in Prince Street as a general hand, working mainly in the store's mercery department.

In 1939 he moved to Queensland and joined the army, drafted to the Australian Seventh Division.

As the war in Europe switched more to the war in the Pacific Keith was placed in instructional duty at Canungra, the army's jungle training camp in Queensland.

It was there that he became good mates with World War One veteran Major Bill Watson who had rejoined the army but during the years between the wars had travelled much of New Guinea, where he found rich gold deposits at Eadie Creek and knew most of the jungles and rivers well.

Keith learned well. He instructed in training troops and carried the commission of Lieutenant Gillies. He had been on the Kokoda Track before it became famous as being the scene of many battles, where the Japanese were first halted on their 1942 drive south.

His New Guinea posting now was with the Australian Air Force which needed army instructors in defence against attacking Japanese planes strafing the area. Workmen were building an air base at what was called Seven Mile Strip.

"Unfortunately we had no aircraft at The Strip at the time and the spiel was 'the American Kittyhawk planes will be here soon' so we waited and waited as the Japanese mounted more attacks," Keith said.

"One day we saw what we thought was just another Japanese aerial attack with planes coming over the mountains to strafe us and our defence gunners opened up and caused considerable damage to the planes only to find these were the Kittyhawks. We hadn't been informed they were coming that day."

After more than six and a half years in the army Keith Gillies, like most other servicemen, was demobbed, went back home to more mundane civilian working life.

He joined William Adams Company in Sydney then to Queensland and on to Thursday Island, next he was part of Clyde Engineering based in Melbourne and then in Bundaberg dealing with and helping cane farmers.

Keith married Almina Florence Andrews at Sassafras, Victoria on Boxing Day 1953 and they had sons, Christopher and Peter and daughter Deborah.

Sadly Almina died when she was 39 and amid the heartbreak Keith was left to raise his three young children, finding jobs that would fit in with family commitments. He retired from work 12 years ago.

"Of my two boys during his youth, Chris, was a good swimmer and hockey player and Peter played rugby league in Brisbane," he said.

"Deborah did not play much sport but was a good daughter and dedicated mother and housewife. I am now living east of Brisbane at Wynnum, right next door to the Wynnum Golf Club, where I used to play regularly. I have had some heart problems but hopefully that is in the past."

Keith, now in his mid-80s but looking 20 years younger, often returns to the Clarence Valley, where he has relatives.

He says he recalls with great pleasure his days living in the area, the swimming, the cycling, the people and the great days as a member of the Yamba Surf Life Saving Club.

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