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A long-lost family - missing for 60 years


Left: Lesley and her dad, who died as a prisoner of war in WWII. Right: Lesley and her Mum in Singapore, in the early 1940s.

Escaping to the safety of Australia from war-torn South East Asia in WWII was just the beginning of the story. What followed next was a six-decade search for the long-lost family of a missing father.

Lesley Bishop can't remember her dad. The sound of his voice, his manner: the memories are all gone. Her father, Clarrie Farmer, was killed in WWII when she was just a toddler.

'He was in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp,' says Lesley. 'He was taken prisoner on Christmas Day 1941 and died in October '43. They more or less starved them and he died of a cardiac arrest in hospital. He was 43, 42, Mum didn't get to hear about that until after the war. She kept corresponding with him and sending photos. She didn't find out that he had died until 1946.'

The search begins

For most of her life, Lesley had no idea what happened to her dad's family. There were no paternal grandparents, no uncles, aunts or cousins to share Christmas, holidays and family celebrations with.

'I kept saying in the late 1990s, 'Dad had three or four brothers and sisters, there have got to be cousins somewhere?' Mum said, 'Yes, you would have, but I have no idea where you'd look'.'

Little did Lesley or her mother, Dorothy Farmer, know but some of those relatives had been searching for them for years.

And with the help of Red Cross' International Tracing Service they would eventually find her-ending a search, started by Clarrie's family after the war, spanning the globe and lasting six decades.

A six-decade search

The fateful chain of events that separated Lesley and Dorothy from Clarrie's family began in Hong Kong, where Lesley's parents lived after marrying in 1929. '(Mum) has a wonderful life in Hong Kong.'

But with the threat of Japanese invasion in the early 1940s, Dorothy and Lesley were sent from Hong Kong to safety in Singapore as were so many wives and children. Clarrie was left behind to help defend the island. Two years later, when Singapore fell to the Japanese, mother and daughter had to flee once again.

As bombs and shells rained over Singapore, Dorothy, a nurse, escaped by sneaking herself and Lesley on board a Red Cross hospital ship for wounded soldiers. In a letter she later wrote, Dorothy described looking back towards one of the quays as bombs fell and how 'the sun looked like the moon, so thick was the smoke'.

But the hospital ship was no guarantee of safety, and after two days out at sea they were spotted by Japanese bombers. 'We all collected around the side in our uniforms to show them who we were,' wrote Dorothy. 'They flew almost level with us while we held our breath; one bomb would have sent us to Jericho. They circled twice, waggled their wings and flew off.'

After docking in Indonesia, Dorothy and Lesley caught another ship to Australia. Dorothy's parents lived there and yet again, the pair started a new life in a new country. Eventually the war ended. News of Clarrie's death reached them and the years crept by. 'I knew that the cousins were there but didn't know what to do about it. Mum said "I don't know how you would find out where they are." We sort of it just left it at that.'

An unexpected call

Decades passed. Then one day, out of the blue, Lesley's mum got a phone call from Red Cross' International Tracing Service. Robin, the son of her late husband's brother and who now lived in the United Kingdom, was searching for her. Red Cross had been looking all over the country for Dorothy and Lesley, scouring public directories, white pages and records of all kinds. Within months they found the pair.

And just like that, a family was reunited again.

Lesley says finding her missing relatives is a wonderful thing. 'As you get older you think about family. It was really great to get in touch with some of them because I'm an only child. Mum was an only child so we're not a big family so it's nice to know they're there.'

Robin and, later, another cousin from Canada have been to Australia twice to visit. More than a decade on from the reunion, Robin now in his 80s, and Lesley, now in her 70s, still keep in touch.

Robin is not the only relative of Clarrie's who searched for Lesley and Dorothy. Lesley discovered that several years earlier a cousin in the United States had also tried to track her down with the help of Red Cross-but the cousin passed away before she could be found.

Lesley is grateful to Red Cross for restoring a long-lost family bond. 'I think (Tracing) do a wonderful job. I don't know how they found us.' It's a bond to a time and to Clarrie, a father she never really got the chance to know.

Helping families across the world

The tracing service helps reduce the suffering of families all over the world who have been separated by war, conflict, disaster or migration. Tracing is a free service, set up to help people find lost loved ones, re-establish contact, exchange family news and clarify the fate of the missing. Sometimes it can mean reconnecting relatives who are still alive, other times it can be about providing documentation to confirm a loved one's death.

The global network of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in 189 countries means it's in a unique position to help. Its principles of neutrality and impartiality help ensure it has access to people in the most difficult of circumstances: conflict zones, refugee camps, disaster zones and places of detention.

In Australia, Red Cross began its tracing service in 1915, opening bureaux across the country to assist Australian families with tracing wounded and missing servicemen during WWI.

Red Cross depends on the support of the public to continue its work. You can support Red Cross as it reconnects families, like Lesley and Dorothy's, by making a donation online or by phoning 1800 811 700.