Gail Swanton motivated to keep history alive at RSL

As Anzac Day commemorations near, the stories of those who served for Australia in war are at the forefront of the public’s imagination.

PRIDE: Gail Swanton stands beside a World War I display at the Port Pirie Returned and Services League sub-branch museum.

PRIDE: Gail Swanton stands beside a World War I display at the Port Pirie Returned and Services League sub-branch museum.

Few know the local stories of bravery and tragedy better than Port Pirie Returned and Services League sub-branch volunteer Gail Swanton.

After following her husband and joining as a volunteer six years ago, Gail has been involved in numerous aspects of the branch but has had particular involvement in the growing war museum and Huey helicopter displays.

Gail’s selfless dedication to research has turned many inexplicable items of war memorabilia into items of historical significance for both families and the general public.

Lost war medals, photographs, war records and memorial headstones are just some of the items which have had their historical significance restored thanks to Gail’s research.

The museum is curated by a team of about 20 people including Gail, who said she was motivated to volunteer by the thought of keeping history alive.

“There’s lots of people who don’t know about their family history, a lot of young people are interested to learn more about their family’s past,” Gail said.

“It is important that we remember our past because the freedoms we have now are because of our past.

“The RSL does not promote war, we don’t like war, but people need to remember what war does to families.”

Gail recalled a story of a commemorative World War I plaque – or ‘Dead Man’s Penny’ as termed by Australian diggers – which made its way to the Port Pirie sub-branch.

“Someone brought one in that they found when they were cleaning out a shed, believing that they had no connection to it,” she said.

Following extensive research across war, grave and newspaper records in Port Pirie and Whyalla, Gail realised that the ‘penny’ was connected to the family. The relation was discovered and linked to the wife’s maiden name, which she found online in an old newspaper clipping.

“They had quite a giggle when they came back in,” she said. “It feels good, you have been able to connect the pieces.”

She said it was an emotional experience to research the lives of those who had served in war.

“You laugh with them (the soldiers) when you see what they got up to but then you cry with the mums and the letters that they get – ‘your son has been injured’, ‘your son is in hospital’, ‘your son has been returned to the front’ … next telegram, ‘your son has been injured again’ and then the next one says ‘your son did not survive’”. 

She thanked the branch’s volunteer team and encouraged anyone considering volunteering to contact the Port Pirie sub-branch on (08) 8633 1448.