Voice of Real Australia: WWII veteran's surprise of the century

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Sid Handsaker during World War II. Picture: Courtesy, Sid Handsaker

Sid Handsaker during World War II. Picture: Courtesy, Sid Handsaker

WHAT do you give someone for their 100th birthday?

I was wrestling with that question as I prepared to visit Sid Handsaker at his Lake Macquarie home in NSW's Hunter region a couple of weeks ago to interview him for an episode of the Newcastle Herald's Voices of the Hunter podcast series.

I knew Sid would have much to give me for the podcast by way of memories and anecdotes collected during a century of living. But what to give Sid in return?

Yet as far as Sid was concerned, he had already received the most precious gift - life itself.

"I never ever, ever thought that I'd ever reach this stage, [that] me, of all people, would reach 100," Sid told me. "It comes as a complete surprise."

Sid's surprise is based on the knowledge gained during the Second World War of how precious, and fragile, life is.

Warrant Officer Handsaker flew Spitfires over Europe, escorting bombers on missions during the final days of the war. He could have died on April 18, 1945, when a burst of anti-aircraft fire flipped his plane, the propeller blades were stilled, and he was headed towards the sea - and quite possibly towards his grave - just off the German coast.

But he managed to fire the Spitfire up, flew back to the airfield and continued to soar through life, all the way to triple figures and beyond. Sid is one of the few Australian Spitfire pilots from the Second World War who is still with us.

Anyway, as I spoke with Sid, I noticed he had on his table a book by another Australian who had stared mortality in the face on the battlefield: General Sir Peter Cosgrove.

Sid said he enjoyed reading Sir Peter's memoir, titled You Shouldn't Have Joined ..., and declared how much he admired and liked the Vietnam veteran, who would go on to be the Chief of the Defence Force and Australia's 26th Governor-General.

I asked Sid if he had met Sir Peter, and he replied, no, but he wished he could.

DREAM MEETING: Spitfire pilot Sid Handsaker shakes the hand of General Sir Peter Cosgrove. Picture: Scott Bevan

DREAM MEETING: Spitfire pilot Sid Handsaker shakes the hand of General Sir Peter Cosgrove. Picture: Scott Bevan

Well, if a 100th birthday isn't about making wishes come true, then what is it about?

And so I had been given a mission. Actually, it was a covert operation, since I wanted this to be a surprise for Sid. But I was confident this would not be a mission impossible, for I knew something of the quality of the man Sid so admired.

I first met Sir Peter in East Timor in 1999, when he was the commander of INTERFET, the international force restoring order to that conflict-riven territory. In the years since, I've had the privilege of interviewing and talking with him on quite a few occasions, in times of celebration and commemoration, and in times of trauma and tragedy. I've always found Sir Peter to be a joy to be around, an immensely affable and compassionate human. And I knew he was deeply respectful of servicemen and women.

As coincidence, or karma, would have it, Sir Peter was coming to Lake Macquarie to talk about his memoir just a week before Sid's birthday, which is November 29.

So I figured there was a chance of making Sid's wish come true. I phoned Sir Peter's office and spoke with his representative. Within about 10 minutes, she phoned me back. Sir Peter would be delighted to meet with Sid Handsaker.

Dressed in his Spitfire-adorned tie and blazer, Sid thought he was to be photographed for the story accompanying the podcast. Understandably, he seemed a little confused when I drove him to the other side of the lake, escorted him into an apartment and asked him to wait a minute.

There was a knock on the door.

"Sid Handsaker," I said. "May I introduce General Sir Peter Cosgrove."

For almost an hour, the two men talked, with Sid punctuating the conversation with a shaking of his head and expressions of disbelief that he was sitting next to Peter Cosgrove.

Sir Peter signed Sid's flying log book, meticulously kept since the war. And he inscribed the memoir Sid had just finished reading, the book that had led to this moment, with Sir Peter writing, "The nation is proud and grateful and salutes your birthday, 100 not out!".

After Sir Peter had left, Sid was still shaking his head, all the while smiling.

"It only confirms what I thought of him. A wonderful person."

I second that emotion, Sid.

And Sid Handsaker shows that life, as the saying goes, is about not just counting the years, but making the years count. And that each and every day presents an opportunity to make a wish come true.

Happy 100th Birthday, Sid.

Listen to the conversation with Sid Handsaker on the Voices of the Hunter with Scott Bevan podcast on Apple, Spotify and Google podcasts.

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