A legend on all fronts
WHEN it came to telling the story of Stan Bisset, a rugby international who became a hero on the Kokoda Track, Andrew James was the right man for the job.
Andrew had worked as an expedition leader on the Kokoda Track while reading history and English at university in Sydney, and had served in the Australian Army as a Special Forces soldier.
He also had the pedigree: his father, Bill James, wrote A Field Guide to the Kokoda Track: An Historical Guide to Lost Battlefields, and his work brought Andrew into contact with Stan, a good 70 years his senior.
The young man realised that the old warrior had a story that should be told to the wider population, and set about writing the biography, Stan Bisset: Kokoda Wallaby, which was released on Monday.
The book was written from interviews conducted with Stan on the Sunshine Coast, where he had lived with his second wife, Gloria, for more than 20 years. Stan, a private person who did not seek attention, had become a “go to” man over the years for historians and authors researching the Kokoda Track and was ready to tell his story when Andrew asked if he might write a book.
“The real purpose of his life was about having the story of his unit and the Kokoda Track told,” Andrew said.
In 2007, Stan recounted his life story to Andrew in stunningly sharp detail.
“He had such a vivid memory,” Andrew said.
“Even into his mid-90s, he was able to recount these things. It wasn’t the first time he’d recounted these things, although for some things, it was the first time.”
Although nearly 60 years had passed, Stan still became emotional when he told Andrew about his brother, Hal, who had died in his arms on the Kokoda Track, and the fierce Battles of Mission Bridge and Brigade Hill on September 7 and 8, 1942.
“It took about four or five hours for Hal to die. Stan basically had to turn around and walk back, and put on his hat and return to fighting,” Andrew said.
Stan remembered with fondness his years growing up in country Victoria, and as a member of Powerhouse, an organisation which gave children a sense of purpose and built character through sport and church. Powerhouse introduced Stan to rugby union, and he went on to become a member of the Wallabies, although his team never played a Test with the outbreak of the Second World War.
Andrew said his own military background and familiarity with the Kokoda Track had helped in compiling the book.
“I wouldn’t claim that my experience helped make someone like Stan feel comfortable but I think it did put me in a position to empathise a lot more,” he said.
“If you’ve been in situations like that, you can understand how it must have been.” The book is centred very much around the war years, although Andrew felt it was still important to write about Stan’s life post-war.
Before the war, Stan was 28 years old, playing top-level football, and had most of his spare time to devote to training.
After the war, Stan was married with two children.
After a failed marriage, he moved to Queensland, remarried, and ran a seven-day-a-week newsagency in Pomona with his wife, Gloria, as well as renovating their old house.
Andrew said Stan was of the Great Depression generation, born and raised to cope with whatever life threw at them. Andrew fed the book to Stan as he wrote it, and the veteran made meticulous corrections.
As he moved into his late 90s, Stan became increasingly frail and was admitted to a Coolum nursing home. Gloria read him the final draft the week before he died on October 5, 2010, aged 98.
If Andrew has one regret, it is that Stan did not get to hold a published copy of the book in his hands.
Stan Bisset: Kokoda Wallaby, The rugby international who became a Kokoda Hero, by Andrew James, $32.99.
‘It took about four or five hours for Hal to die. Stan basically had to turn around and walk back, and put on his hat and return to fighting.’