An unbearable tragedy may have been the catalyst for a daring, heroic act by John Christian Erichs, where he would eventually pay the ultimate price.
In September 1942 Australia was at war. Soldiers were leaving for the front and many were also returning. It was a busy time for the Oxford Hotel in Casino, as the transient population of men in uniform would often stay, enjoy meals and drinks, before heading home or back to their units.
The licensees of the Oxford were young couple, John and Clara Erichs. They had two young sons John, 8 and Ronald, 6 and with John Sr on active service with the Australian Imperial Force in Sydney, Clara had her hands full looking after her little men and running the hotel on her own.
John Jr and Ronald were two active little boys who, as is typical of children that age, got up to their own form of mischief. Along with their friends Peter Matthews, 7 and Barry Rice, 5 they would often explore their nearby surroundings. School holidays were an excuse to constantly be together and play.
On this particular day in September Peter, whose parents ran the Exchange Hotel, had rushed to finish lunch and was keen to go and play, telling his mum he was off to find Barry. All four boys met up, and as was their habit, went off to explore Pidcock Brothers building, a fibro-plaster business where the workers had knocked off for lunch and the building was closed.
Just on 2.10pm Casino Fire Brigade received an alarm of a fire that had started in Pidcock's building. They were fighting the flames within three minutes of being notified. When the fire was under control the station officer was advised children had been in the habit of playing around the factory, so he ordered a thorough search of the premises.
It was then the discovery was made. After the firemen had removed 16 bales of sisal hemp from a 10 by 14 foot room, where they had been stored, in the corner were the charred and huddled remains of three little boys. The fourth, who it seemed tried to escape, was found lying on a stack of plaster sheets. Wedged in the armpit of one of the boys was a half burned packet of cigarettes. It was thought a match had come into contact with some of the fibre. If that was the case, the boys never stood a chance.
Crowds gathered as the little bodies were removed from the ruins. When Clara heard the news she suffered a collapse and was taken to hospital. John, who had only left the day before to go to Sydney, was notified to return.
The Erichs boys shared a coffin. Photo: Austcemindex
Hit the fast forward button and it is now 1951. The war has long been over and the Erichs have retired from the hotel business and moved to the beachside village of Evans Head.
It is March 27, and despite the Autumn weather starting to settle in, people are still making their way to the beach to enjoy a chilly swim. Cousins 10-year-olds Stanley McKinnon of Evans Head and Jack McNamara of Sydney are enjoying jumping through and over the waves when they get caught in the undertow, which drags them from shore.
The kiosk owner Jack Miller saw the tragedy unfolding and rushed into the water to save the boys, but he got into difficulties. John Erichs was there that day and saw the problems Jack was having. He swam out to bring the man to shore. Instead of taking a breath, John raced straight back into the water to save the young boys.
Who knows what was on his mind. Did the thought of his own boys spur him on to save the two who were in trouble in front of him? Exhaustion overtook him. Two young lads named Frank Ford and Barry Allen, both 14, got to him in a flat-bottomed rowing boat and managed to get John and young Jack McNamara to shore. Jack only suffered exhaustion but John could not be revived. The body of Stanley was found later that night.
John's grave at Casino cemetery. Photo: Austcemindex
Some months later John was posthumously awarded a silver medal by the Royal Shipwreck and Relief and Humane Society for his bravery. He is buried in Casino cemetery, next to where his boys, who shared a coffin, are also buried.
'How this Casino hotel licensee became a hero', The Northern Star, 5 October 2016 online story, https://www.northernstar.com.au/news/how-this-casino-hotel-licensee-became-a-hero/3095599/, accessed 25th July, 2020
'Four boys perish in Casino blaze', Northern Star, Thursday, 3 September 1942, Page 4
'Four boys incinerated at Casino', The Kyogle Examiner, Friday 4 September, 1942, Page 1
'Man, boy drown in surf', The Daily Telegraph, Wednesday, 28 March 1951, Page 1