Our series on Unsung Heroes continues with Queenslander Alex McCabe who has lived through some of history’s greatest moments. From the German bombing of Liverpool in the UK during WW2 to nuclear explosions in the South Australian desert to finding the love of his life at an army dance, Alex’s extraordinary life has ebbed and flowed with the tide of history.
Despite the outback heat, Alex McCabe could feel cold sweat trickling down the back of his neck. He stood at attention, just like a hundred or so other Australian soldiers detailed to be part of the British nuclear weapons tests at Maralinga in the depths of the South Australian desert during late 1957.
Alex, a Liverpool born soldier and wanderer, heard the bellowed order to about-face and snapped around in perfect unison with his comrades to face the opposite direction, a movement conducted with the precision that can only be instilled by long enervating sessions on the drill square.
It was the nervous tension that Alex remembered most in his later years, that and the sudden brilliant flash that made everything disappear before the wind and the noise hit him from behind.
“Dad didn’t talk about his military service very much,” says Alex’s son Jim McCabe. “But I remember him telling me about the atom bombs and what it was like when they went off.
“All the men in his unit were paraded to take part during the explosions. They lined up and the officers told to turn their backs. I remember dad saying that it was the light that surprised him most, this ultrabright light that enveloped everything and then a great gust of wind. He turned around he could see the atomic mushroom-shaped cloud ascending into the sky.
“There aren’t many people who can say they were present when an atom bomb went off, but that’s what dad’s life was like, an extraordinary rollercoaster”.
A rollercoaster. It might sound like a cliché, but there’s no better way to describe Alex McCabe’s life. It has all the sweep of a grand novel, with a central character that survives the merciless German bombing of England during World War Two before he takes to the high seas as a merchant sailor ending up in Australia where he jumps ship to start a new life at the other end of the world.
As if that’s not enough, he joins the army, fights in Korea, watches atom bombs explode at Maralinga, fights again in Vietnam before finally coming home to his beloved wife Eleanor – who Alex has always called his Elly – and settling down to a quiet, satisfying family life in Queensland.
“To me, Alex was always my lad from Liverpool, Scouse McCabe,” says Alex’s wife Elly. “A scouse is what people from Liverpool in the UK are called. He was a Liverpool larrikin and I think that’s why he fitted in so well here in Australia.”
Alex Gerald McCabe was born on 31 October 1933, one of five brothers and four sisters, to Margaret and James McCabe. They all lived in a humble working-class house at 31 Latham St in Kirkdale, Liverpool.
“They were poor, hardworking people but everyone was well-loved,” recalls Elly. “His ma and da were Irish and Alex went to a Catholic school and church at St Alphonse’s. He sang in the church choir. He could say the Mass in Latin and sing some of the hymns in Latin, too.”
Alex was just six at the beginning of World War Two and by then they had moved to lemon Street, which was just a few streets away from the famous Liverpool docks area. The docks were a vital part of England’s war effort which also made Liverpool a natural target for German bombing.
What became known as the Liverpool Blitz began in 1940 and lasted for more than two years with seven-night-a-week bombardments that killed more than 4000 people.
“Alex’s family lived down near the docks, but he said that the blackout was so effective that the German air force couldn’t find their targets and missed to docks completely,” recalls Elly.
“Sadly, the bombs fell on the houses and a lot of the family’s friends were killed. Alex and his family lived in a large house with a big cellar and their neighbours would come to the house to shelter in the cellar. The house was damaged, but they were all safe.”
Eventually, the bombing became so bad – the most intense bombing outside London, except for Coventry – that the government ordered the evacuation of children from the besieged city. Alex went to Carnarvon in Wales where he was placed with a couple who took loving care of him.
“Alex said they had a son who was killed in the war and they came to care for him as their own,” says Elly.
Later, Alex returned to his family, but the city was devastated. All the schools were little more than bombed-out shells. When Alex left school, he worked in a jute factory but the dust and fibres from the jute affected his eyes, so his father had him leave and find work in a butcher’s shop.
By the time he was 15, the world was beckoning. Money was tight in Liverpool after the war ended. Wages were low and rationing still in place. To help make ends meet, Alex decided to join the merchant navy, hoping that his wages would help keep the family while he was away.
As it turned out, a merchant sailor’s pay was even less than wages at home. Eventually, Alex found himself bound for Australia with a cargo of wood aboard a trading vessel named the Massel Bay. After a massive storm that nearly sank the ship, they finally arrived in Perth, Western Australia.
After so long at sea, Alex was relieved and pleased to be on firm ground again and took leave to see what Perth had to offer a young sailor. “But when he went back to the docks, the ship had gone,” says Elly.
After consulting immigration, he went to Melbourne and what followed was a series of jobs – the railways, sheep and cattle farms and other menial jobs before he decided to join the army but not before he found himself in trouble with the police.
“He went to sign up and an army officer took his papers to send away for verification,” says Elly. “The officer said, ‘We’ll let you know when they come back.’ And Alex said, ‘Well, you better let me know now because I was picked up for a smash and grab. I was on the railway station and two cops said I was their man. I said I was not. They took me down to a jewellery shop and presented me to the owner. He said, ‘I told you, cops, the man who took everything was a skinny small man. Does this man look skinny and small to you?’ So they took me back to the station.”
Alex was down on his luck but not enough to stoop to crime. He had no money and hadn’t eaten for two days. The army officer said he could stay in camp till his papers came back. Alex was just 17 but the army took him anyway. Within a year, he was on his way to the Korean War where he served as an infantryman until the war ended in 1953.
After a 12-month stint on garrison duty in Tokyo, Alex came back to Australia and posted to Enoggera Army base in Brisbane. Australia has played a significant role in the Korean conflict and Time magazine sent a journalist and photographer to cover the story of America’s staunch ally.
“An officer called all the men together and said that Time magazine needed a good looking Australian soldier to go on the cover,” says Elly. “The officer looked around and picked out Alex. He said ‘McCabe, you’ll do.’ And he was exceptionally good looking. He looked a bit like Burt Lancaster. All his mates said, ‘He’s not an Aussie, he’s a bloody Liverpool Scouse Irish pom’. But they took his photo anyway.”
After his experiences at Maralinga, Alex was posted back to Enoggera as a rifle instructor. Then one night, at an army dance, he met a young woman who was to change his life – Eleanor, who, like him, was also in uniform as a member of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. It was love at first sight.
They were married on October 11, 1958, and, as rules at the time stipulated, Elly had to leave the army. “You couldn’t stay in,” she says. “We had four sons together and after Alex’s six years enlistment was up, he left the service, too.
“He worked as a bricklayer sponsored by the army, but he also had a bad back because of his service and he had to give away the bricklaying. He tried a few jobs in security but then there was a credit squeeze and with no work around he reenlisted for another six years.”
Alex ended up serving a tour of duty in Vietnam before his six years of enlistment ended, but then he said goodbye to the army for the last time.
Alex bought two and a half acres of property at Strathpine. He still suffered from his bad back, so the army put him on a full pension. The family lived in Strathpine for the next 50 years. In later life, Alex developed several cases of skin cancer which some suspect may have come from the atom bombs and his service at Maralinga.
Sadly, Alex developed dementia at the age of 83. He joined a new aged care facility called NewDirection Care at Bellmere in Queensland where he now lives. His family visit him often and appreciate the care he receives from the staff.
“They really are wonderful here,” says Elly. “Alex has nine grandchildren. He also has a great, great-grandchild but such is Alex’s condition that he will never know that. That’s incredibly sad particularly if you know how much his family means to him.
“He gets the finest care here at NewDirection. The staff and carers are wonderful, just the best. And the lady who started it, Natasha, well it’s a credit to her. It really is.”
Elly and Alex have been married for 64 years. “Alex has done a lot of travelling,” says Elly. “He’s seen Australia, England and all around the world. He could tell you quite a few fine tales if he was able. And he’d enjoy telling them, too.
“He became an Australian citizen. He loves Australia but he never forgot he was a scouse for Liverpool. My lad from Liverpool.”