Charlie’s Swim written by proud Bardi woman Edith Wright and illustrated by Charmaine Ledden-Lewis, descendant of the Bundjalung people from the Clarence River and published by Magabala Books is a true story that honours the author’s selfless and courageous uncle, Charles D’Antoine, who showed enormous bravery during World War II. Charlie displayed such courage and altruism as he swam under attack during World War II in waters engulfed in flames to save a mother and her child.

This story takes the reader back to Charlie’s idyllic childhood where he spent his days blissfully enjoying the pure salty air of Broome. Charlie had a strong affinity for the water and spent much of his childhood with his family on the water fishing and crabbing.   

The serenity he enjoyed abruptly came to an end when war came to Australian shores. The fresh salty air Charlie had always savoured was now replaced with the pungent smell of aircraft and fuel. Broome became a key refuelling point. During the war Charlie was employed to clean and fuel seaplanes that were moored in the bay and had carried women and children who had left their homeland for safety in Australia.

Without any warning, on March 3, 1942 Broome was suddenly under attack from Japanese fighter planes. Charlie, hearing the enemy planes while working on a seaplane, swiftly realised that they were about to be attacked and a scene of horror unfolded as women and children jumped from the seaplanes into the ocean. Charlie also narrowly avoided a direct attack as he also jumped from the plane into the ocean and within seconds the plane he was working on received a direct attack and burst into flames.

Surrounded by carnage, terror, pockets of fire raging, bullets pelting down from the skies and the ever present threat of sharks, Charlie spotted a mother and her child in in grave danger struggling to keep their heads above the water. Charlie swum through burning fuel to help them. He had them cling to his back while he showed extraordinary human strength, of the mind and body, in such a terrifying, life threatening situation where sheer desperation saw him defy the odds to make it to shore. Despite Charlie’s extreme exhaustion, he continued to help. Tragically lives were still lost. More than eighty people were killed.

In 1944 Charlie was recognised for his bravery with a certificate from the Royal Humane Society of Australasia as well as medals from the Dutch government. It took a further eighty years for the Australian government and military to acknowledge his courage and bravery.

The illustrations add another layer to the text as they capture the glorious, idyllic coastal seascape of Broome, a tropical paradise with the tranquil and pure turquoise bay and lush green mangroves as well as the drama during the war from the air, ocean and shore. The darker colour palette used during the war time scenes is a stark contrast to the beginning of the book and captures the grave danger, threats and destruction of war.

This story has been gently told for children 9-12 years of age and is vital to any collection about war as it tells the heroic story of a First Nations Australian during WWII. The service and actions of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has been largely excluded from the history books. Charles D’Antoine’s is a World War II hero and his story is one that should be shared and known.

Buy Charlie’s Swim from Riley Callie Resources here.

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