By Louise Evans, journalist and author of the new non-fiction book Passage to Pusan.
Pioneering mother of 10 Thelma Healy almost lost the will to live when her first-born soldier son was killed in action in the Korean War.
Without a body to bury or a funeral to ease her grief, Thelma vowed that before she died she would find her son’s grave and say good-bye.
And so began a 10-year odyssey that eventually took Thelma halfway around the world on a 15,000km journey to war-torn Pusan in Korea in 1961.
Being a woman of no means and with nine other children to feed and clothe Thelma had to scrimp and save, sew and slave to raise the money needed for her epic voyage.
Thelma’s life-changing journey is detailed in a new book Passage to Pusan.
Being a journalist who has been lucky enough to work across Australia and around the world as reporter, foreign correspondent, editor and media executive, I’ve written about many great events and people.
But I never imagined one of the best stories I’d ever uncover would be hidden within my own family.
Thelma Healy was my grandmother, who died when I was eight.
The trigger to writing the book was reading her travel diary that recounts in graphic detail her brave self-funded journey into the unknown.
It took me another two years to research Thelma’s life from her origins in the quaint Brisbane bayside village of Sandgate to the civil unrest of Pusan (now Busan) in Korea where Thelma’s war hero son Vincent was buried somewhere in cold, foreign soil.
Passage to Pusan takes you back to a time when life for most Australians was hard, when war in Japan, Korea and Vietnam dominated the news, when food was rationed, air raid sirens sounded over night skies and the threat of Japanese invasion and communist aggression was on Australia’s doorstep.
Compared to today’s “have everything” generation, this was an era when you had less and had nothing, when people grew vegetables and raised chickens in the backyard to survive, when recycling was a necessity of life and a trip to the pictures was a great treat.
Thelma’s big family lived in a rented old wooden Queenslander, the verandah was converted into bedrooms to accommodate her large brood, washing was done in the copper, wet clothes were dried on wire slung between wooden poles in the backyard, perishable food was stored in the ice chest and the wireless was the post-dinner entertainment.
The story also takes you into the inspiring world of Thelma, a strong, brave, loving and resilient woman to whom family was everything and who I wish had lived longer so I’d have known her better.
While Thelma is the hero in this book, her husband Mick is the villain.
Mick was a respectable banker who was nine years older and a world wiser than Thelma when he got her pregnant aged 20.
Thelma’s affluent Anglican family, the Bests, were scandalised that their daughter was pregnant out of wedlock to a Catholic and cast her out, ordering her to marry quietly and have her baby away from prying eyes.
So Thelma married Mick Healy and spent the next 20 years of her life pregnant, conceiving 13 babies, 10 of who survived birth and the cradle.
By marrying Mick Thelma also traded her idyllic life in Sandgate for a life of domestic drudgery and poverty in Brisbane.