Leslie (Thomas, Tom, 'Starcey') Starcevich
There was great excitement in the settlement of Grass Patch in Western Australia when news broke that local Victoria Cross (VC) recipient, Leslie Thomas 'Tom' Starcevich, was coming home.
Grass Patch was a farming community north of Esperance. When Starcevich grew up there, it had only 11 families and a population of 44.
Tom was one of 4 boys from his family who enlisted. When Starcevich visited his old hometown, his brothers Ivan and George were still overseas. Frederick Joe, Tom's older brother, had been released from a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camp only a few weeks before. Joe endured great hardships at Changi in Singapore and as a POW working on the Burma-Thailand Railway.
The Australian Women's Weekly featured Starcevich in December 1945. It described his mother's understandable happiness and pride. The war was over. Her oldest son, Joe, was home after his ordeal as a prisoner. Now Starcevich was also coming home, safe and well. What's more, he had been granted the highest military honour for his bravery under enemy fire. Starcevich's actions ensured other Australian sons would be coming home to their relieved families.
Starcevich was one of 10 children. He was born on 5 September 1918. Both his parents were migrants. His father, Joseph, came from Croatia to work as a miner in the Kalgoorlie goldfields. His mother, Gertrude May, was English and grew up in Dunkirk, Kent.
Before joining the army, Starcevich worked briefly as a gold miner at Norseman.
Starcevich enlisted in the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 9 February 1941. He was 22. His attestation form records him as being single and employed as a labourer.
Starcevich embarked from Fremantle for the Middle East in September with the 2/43th Australian Infantry Battalion.
The Australian Women's Weekly later reported him to have 'carried a wounded mate three miles to safety' during fighting in the North African campaign. Wounded in fighting at El Alamein, Starcevich returned to Australia in February 1943.
Starcevich rejoined his unit 6 months later, closer to home in New Guinea, where he saw action at Lae and Finschhafen.
In 1945, Starcevich was posted to North Borneo where he experienced heavy fighting during the Battle of Beaufort.
Late in the afternoon of 28 June 1945, Starcevich's battalion was making its way down a narrow track in terrain described by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Dennis Ryan, as 'impossible'. Their orders were to break through the enemy line, take back Beaufort and meet up with D Company. They'd made it less than half a kilometre before coming under heavy fire. Risking his own life, Starcevich continued towards the Japanese, firing his Bren gun at the machine-gunners as he approached.
Pte Starcevich, seeing this, without any hesitation or regard for his own safety, again walked down the track in the face of the enemy's fire and continued even though his No. 2 was wounded alongside him. He showed great boldness and courage and his firing was extremely accurate.
[Lt Dennis Arthur Ryan, 2/43 AIF, who recommended Tom Starcevich be awarded with a Victoria Cross. Quoted in 'Leslie Thomas Starcevich', NAA: B2458, 5/16739]
Starcevich was recognised for 'most conspicuous gallantry and extreme devotion to duty' and awarded the Victoria Cross.
Starcevich was discharged on 7 February 1946. The following year, he married Kathleen Betty Warr, in Perth, after a 15-month courtship. Their relationship, which began with 'love at first sight', ended in divorce in 1969.
In 1951, Starcevich and his brother, Joe, were granted 1,700 ha of land to farm sheep and grow wheat. The land was near Carnamah, north of Perth, granted under the Western Australian soldier settlement scheme. He remained there until after his divorce, then returned to his home town of Grass Patch.
Starcevich died in Esperance on 17 November 1989, survived by his 2 sons and a daughter. He was buried with full military honours in the local cemetery.
Commemorating Leslie Thomas Starcevich
Starcevich's war service is commemorated in many ways:
- his portrait hangs in the Australian War Memorial
- a bronze and stone memorial was commissioned in his hometown of Grass Patch, Western Australia
- Tom Starcevich V.C. Road in Grass Patch was named for him
- Tom Starcevich VC Memorial Park at Campbell, ACT, was named in his honour in 2005
Starcevich's courage is also commemorated by the people of Beaufort, Malaysia. They built the Beaufort Australian Monument in his honour. The memorial also commemorates the successful reconquest of the town by allied forces.
- 1945 'Entire population, 44, thrilled with their own V.C.', The Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982), 1 December, p. 20. , viewed 18 Nov 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article55465980
- 1947 'Starcevich VC Weds Quietly', The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 - 1955), 19 December, p. 1. (HOME EDITION), viewed 24 Jul 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article79815791
- Keith D. Howard, Starcevich, Leslie Thomislav (Thomas) (1918–1989), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/starcevich-leslie-thomislav-thomas-15544/text26755.
- National Archives of Australia: STARCEVICH, Leslie Thomas; 1941 - 1999; B2458, 5/16739; 4342391.