“Final book? Absolutely. I'm reconnecting with normal people after leading an extremely anti-social and mentally and physically demanding life for the past nine years.”
And so Corlette naval historian Ian Pfennigwerth closes another chapter on a fascinating career spanning 35 years in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) added to his 13 years as a naval author.
“My latest and final books are my 10th and 11th published works, which had their official launch in Canberra last month with Vice Admiral Michael Noonan presiding,” he added.
The two volumes – titled Bravo Zulu, which translates to Well Done – are devoted to the stories of those naval men and women who were presented with imperial, Australian or foreign honours and awards in the period 1900-2014.
One of the more notable DSM (Distinguished Service Medal) recipients was a former Able Seaman from Raymond Terrace, who I was fortunate enough to interview before his passing.- Ian Pfennigwerth
It has been ground-breaking work, especially as the official records Mr Pfennigwerth and his team of researchers expected to find when they set out on their journey in 2009 were not where they were supposed to be (in the national archives).
“Unfortunately the national archives are accessible only up to about 1960 and then we ran into a brick wall when trying to get modern day records from the Department of Defence, who cited ‘privacy’ issues as reasons for refusing our requests,” the 76-year-old retiree said.
“Most definitely the key to the project’s success was finding the recipients – some 4000 of them from across Australia and overseas – and persuading them to cooperate with our research.”
The vast majority, but not all, are Australian Navy personnel who collected service medals, including OAMs. Australian government medals for service to the RSL and other such organisations are included.
Mr Pfennigwerth said that from the day he set out on this mammoth task the challenges came thick and fast. Even after many of the recipients had been discovered, they faced further hurdles making contact with the veterans, or in the cases where the recipient had died, their families.
“Some would not talk, some were suspicious and some were outright hostile. I guess we were able to document about 70 per cent of the total number of all those who received awards in Volume 1 [1900-1974] and closer to 85 per cent in Volume 2 [1975-2004].
“One of the more notable DSM (Distinguished Service Medal) recipients was a former Able Seaman from Raymond Terrace, who I was fortunate enough to interview before he died. Reg Collins, who liked to be known as Mick, landed in New Britain in mid-1944 and led his patrol on a raid against Japanese positions about a month later.
“The Coast Watchers were relieved by the Australian 5th Division in September 1944. Mick's decoration was one of 10 awarded to his Coast Watcher unit on New Britain – a significant figure given that there were only 12 parties operating.”
The book documents many other heroic deeds from people now residing in the Port Stephens, Newcastle and Hunter region.
“They all have stirring stories to tell and I am grateful to those individuals and families who allowed us into their homes and open up about issues which they normally would not do.”
Mr Pfennigwerth said that the historic account was constructed “like you would structure a piece of lattice”.
“It traces Australia’s naval contribution right back to the Boer War and Boxer Rebellion eight up to 2014. The stories are pieced together right up to and including 2014,” he said.
Mr Pfennigwerth and wife Elizabeth, who have two daughters and two granddaughters, retired and purchased a home in Port Stephens in 1999, where the newlyweds had spent their honeymoon 54 years earlier.
“I had no idea I would become a writer but after I had managed the garden and found out I was no good at golf I decided to go back to university. I studied history and completed my degree in 2005,” he said.
“During my research I discovered a former Australian naval officer from the 1920s by the name of Eric Nave who had an amazing career in cracking Japanese codes.
“His story became my first published works titled A Man of Intelligence which sold 3000 copies. Since my published work Eric has become the subject of further research.”
The Pfennigwerths travelled the globe, residing is Great Britain and the USA where they witnessed the resignation of President Nixon (1974) and the election of Jim Carter in 1976. Whilst in the Navy Mr Pfennigwerth also had a stint in China where he studied Chinese politics and language.
In 1992 Mr Pfennigwerth left the military to become a business consultant working in Canberra before retirement beckoned and the opportunity to make the sea change.
Following the success of A Man of Intelligence, Mr Pfennigwerth produced a series of naval-themed books including Missing Pieces, Tiger Territory and In Good Hands.
Research work on the first volume of Bravo Zulu began in 2009 and was published in 2017. Volume 2, according to its author, has been well received and is selling quite well. Combined, the two volumes comprise a staggering 800,000 words.
The books are published by Echo Books. Copies can be ordered through Mr Pfennigwerth on 4981 5551, at firstname.lastname@example.org or PO Box 139 Salamander Bay 2317.