United in tragedy
"I REMEMBER being suddenly dragged under the water, then I remember trying to drag some of the boys back to the surface - I can still see some of their faces like it was yesterday."
This was the harrowing response from 84-year-old Grafton man Rex Oxenford when asked about the Saturday afternoon, 68 years ago, when 13 cub scouts drowned in the Clarence River.
On December 11, 1943, 28 cubs were on their annual Christmas picnic on Susan Island under the watchful eye of a handful of senior scouts.
When a storm began to close-in, the party was loaded on a flat-bottomed punt to row across the river to reach shelter.
Unfortunately the punt became unstable in the stormy conditions, capsized and threw the entire party into the water - few could swim and 13 of the boys, mostly aged between six and nine, drowned.
Mr Oxenford - aged 16 at the time - was one of the senior scouts on the punt. He helped many of the stricken cubs stay afloat during the incident and took part in the desperate rescue effort to pull survivors and the dead from the river until 10pm that night.
He was one of seven people who yesterday congregated at the modest sandstone monument in Grafton's Memorial Park which marks the incident - all are linked to the tragic incident in some way.
They all want to see the memorial upgraded and maintained so the tragic incident is never forgotten.
Among the seven was Elaine Boothby, who lost two of her older brothers in the incident, and also Neil Morris and Ray Tobin, who each lost a brother that day.
Des Keynes was also there. He was a member of the cub pack but his father would not allow him to attend the picnic because he couldn't swim - a decision that probably saved his son's life.
All four said they felt a special connection to the memorial and wanted to see it maintained and have a higher profile in the park.
"This memorial is about recognition. Recognition that this tragedy happened here in Grafton, a tragedy that should never be forgotten," Mr Morris said.
Grafton's Bruce Gleeson, 80, was among the many people standing horrified on the riverbank that afternoon as rescue crews dragged the river with grappling hooks searching for the bodies. He said he would never forget the incident.
Mr Gleeson has been lobbying Clarence Valley Council to have the memorial restored and upgraded.
He said so far there were plans to replace the plaques on the memorial, pave the area around it and there were also negotiations in progress to re-render the deteriorating cement holding the sandstone blocks together.
He has been campaigning for the graves of the cubs in Grafton and South Grafton cemeteries to be better maintained - an idea strongly supported by the community.
Also present yesterday was Mark Andrews who, despite not having a personal connection to the tragedy, was inspired by Mr Gleeson's campaign and volunteered to help maintain the cubs' graves in his own time.
It was a gesture Mr Gleeson said he was humbled by.
An in-depth recount of the tragedy and its aftermath, written by Peter Langston, can be found online.