By Rachel Curry
Osborne Park parishioner, Tom Fisher, passed away on 4 June at the age of 95, leaving behind his beloved wife, Shirley, five of their children, 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Tom is best known as the last surviving Western Australian to have served on the ill-fated HMAS Sydney and as one of the St Vincent de Paul Society’s longest serving volunteers.
However, there is much more to this loving and generous man, whose wits were only matched by his sense of humour.
Below, Shirley Fisher shares her favourite memories of Tom with The eRecord journalist, Rachel Curry.
Thomas Patrick Fisher was born 30 April 1921 in Geraldton, as one of seven children of Catherine and Arthur Fisher.
He spent his first few years of schooling at Isseka Primary School, which had just 15 students, before his family moved to Perth when he was seven.
After continuing his education at St Kieran Catholic Primary School in Tuart Hill and St Patrick’s Boys’ School in Perth, Tom started an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic.
However, his life was turned upside down at age 18 when Australia entered World War II;
Tom was a member of the Royal Australian Navy Reserve and was therefore automatically called upon to serve his country.
Following his initial training, he served on the HMAS Sydney for 18 months from 1940 to 1941, during which time the ship became a household name due to her exploits in the Mediterranean.
For Tom, it was a blunt introduction to the realities of war, as he watched enemy seamen die before his eyes.
“We didn’t have counsellors or ‘do-gooders’ rushing up to hold our hands in those days and I just had to absorb it,” he wrote in his autobiography, Tom’s Story.
“I was more fortunate than some as I was a practising Catholic. I could confide in my confessor for help and guidance.”
Tom was transferred from the HMAS Sydney in late October 1941, missing by a matter of weeks her battle with the German raider, HSK Kormoran, which left both ships at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
All 645 crew on board the HMAS Sydney were lost in what still remains Australia’s worst naval disaster.
In an interview with the ABC earlier this year, Tom recalled the moment he received the devastating news.
“I was shocked. I just couldn’t believe it and off the coast of Western Australia and to be lost, there was no action there, no enemy action. We were going to the action,” he said.
Tom went on to serve on the HMAS Hobart for almost two years, surviving a Japanese torpedo attack west of the Solomon Islands in 1943 which killed 13 of his mates.
After the end of the war, he had difficulty readjusting to civilian life, but his fortunes improved remarkably when he met his future wife, Shirley, in 1947.
Shirley said she was drawn to Tom’s sense of humour, which was on full display during their first meeting at a parish dance.
“I was out in the kitchen. Tom and a couple of mates came out and started skylarking and teasing us, so I threw the wet teatowel at them,” she said.
“He was always joking and happy. He had a good sense of humour, in fact, too good. And he was always very generous.”
The pair married in 1951, by which time Tom had finished his apprenticeship and started working as a patrolman for the RAC.
He stayed with the company for 43 years and was eventually promoted to Manager of the Claims Department.
Father of a growing brood, he also went to night school to gain his high school leaving certificate and study business management.
Shirley said Tom was a strong advocate for education and wanted his children to have more opportunities than he did.
“He wanted the kids to follow him and realise how people need an education. He was very intelligent; he could have gone a long way,” she said.
Tom was also a life member of the Osborne Park RSL and one of the St Vincent de Paul Society’s longest serving volunteers, for which he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia.
A homeless shelter to be opened by St Vincent de Paul Society in a couple of months’ time will be named in his honour.
Shirley said her husband was inspired to help the needy after an experience during World War II, when he saw the difference even a small gesture he could make.
“I think they were in Malta and it was Christmas and there were so many poor people up there because of the war,” she said.
“He and some of the boys went back and made up a Christmas parcel and took it to them. That was the first thing he did.”
Tom didn’t slow down in his later years, writing his autobiography and becoming an archivist for the Osborne Park RSL, St Vincent de Paul Society, Osborne Park Parish and Archdiocese of Perth.
He was a man of strong faith and attended Mass every morning, even as his health declined.
“It was extremely important to him. He used to say, ‘The family that prays together, stays together’,” Shirley said.
Despite this humble motto, it is clear that Tom’s unique spirit touched many beyond his own family, and his legacy will live on for years to come.