These are the numbers which classified my father firstly, as a member of the Citizen Military Force (CMF), and later as a member of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) from 1941 to 1946.
ANZAC Day is of great importance to me because my Dad fought in World War 2, in New Guinea, Papua and New Britain. Not because he wanted to, or felt some drive of patriotic fervour, duty to King and Country or the need to protect some perception of a certain way of life, but because the societal expectation was on young men, fit and capable of fighting, to enlist and put their lives on the line. If you were a fit young man and didn’t enlist in either the CMF or AIF, you were disdained in 1940’s society as a coward. One of the few memories of those times Dad passed on to me was of white feathers being anonymously delivered by mail to those who didn’t want to fight and possibly die. It’s a memory that has stayed in my own consciousness for almost 40 years. The realisation that a society could denigrate personal choice in such a perversely poltroon manner strikes me as the epitome of irony. A society so enamoured of it’s own importance, it totally disregarded the right and freedom of the individual to choose. My personal feelings, and I know, very similar to those of my Dad.
He didn’t pass on to me very many of his memories of those years. Apparently very few of those who were there do. He did give me a few glimpses though. The memory of a flight of three Beauforts taking off from Milne Bay, one losing an engine on take off and falling from the air into the jungle surrounding the airfield to explode. He recalled being desperate to, along with his mates, to get to the crash site as quickly as possible to rescue any of the crew who might have survived. Their officers forbade them, it being too dangerous to do so as the plane had been fully loaded with fuel and ammunition, which continued to burn and explode all that day.
He recalled the privations of the jungle. The constant, thunderously heavy downpours, which would start and stop without warning throughout the day. The feeling of being constantly wet through to the skin. Of the need and desire for dry socks. Of the tinea and other fungal foot diseases which would also appear in armpits & crotch. He also recalled some funny elements of life in action. Toilets, for those who wondered, as I did as a young boy, were too often a 44 gallon drum with the ends cut out, sunk into a hole in the ground with a board over one end to perch one’s bum on. No privacy, just out in the open, in full view of the passing parade. Of the amusingly ignorant ‘Yanks’ he met in various places like Madang & Finschhafen. “They were just uneducated farm boys”, he told me, “who’d believe whatever you told them. They were how we varied our diet. They had fruit & ice cream. We had Bully Beef & Tack. They’d trade their luxuries for our basics”. ‘Just uneducated farm boys’… have a look at Dad’s enlistment paperwork and you’ll see that his education was hardly all-encompassing and he too came from the country. A small village called Memerambi, north of Kingaroy, where his parents owned a general store.
I distinctly recall his hatred of the Japanese, yet a grudging admiration of the fighting soldier. He recalled for me the dedication of the Japanese sniper, often left behind during a retreat to harass the avancing allied forces, would sit perched in the crown of huge palms being bitten constantly by fierce meat ants, never making a sound until the first shot was fired to bring down an enemy. He recalled a number of POW’s he came across, in the latter days of his service, who’d suffered at the hands of the Japanese. Many so damaged in mind and body as to be almost unrecognisable as human beings. I recall he once told me, “beware the little brown man. he’ll come again” I sincerely hope he’s wrong.
My father, as anyone’s father might appear to them, is a hero to me. An honourable man from simple, honourable roots who went to war because he felt he should, in order to be seen to be doing the ‘right thing’. He lost his youth in New Guinea, in Papua, in New Britain. He turned 21 and didn’t realise the date had been and gone until he received a letter from home. His physical health was irreparably damaged by repeated bouts of dysentry, dengue fever and malaria. His mental health destroyed by the fear and anxiety of those days, the sights, sounds and smells of those places. Port Moresby, Milne Bay, Wae, Madang, Finschhafen and Jacquinot Bay. Dad was no-one special, except to me. He was a Leading Craftsman. One of those who came immediately after the front to build and maintain the infrastructure necessary for war. His speciality was radio and electrical. Skills the army taught him. Probably the only thing military service ever gave him. Dad never returned to New Guinea, never wanted to see the places again. He marched for ANZAC until around 1951, when he realised that his ‘mates’ only wanted to glorify those times, when all he wanted was to forget them. He’s gone now, dead these last 6 years, and I miss him terribly. So much he had to tell yet so much he refused to recall.
This is what we, who have never known war, have lost. The memories and judgement of those who were there and survived. We can never know what they knew, and rightly we trust we will never have to experience what they experienced. But human memories are short and politics an intensely stupid undertaking. Study history and you’ll find the 20th Century was replete with one armed conflict after another, each close on the heels of the last. In the first decade of the twenty-first nothing has changed. Wars continue to rage across the globe as petty human beings with their pathetically insignificant undertakings struggling to make their goals paramount. Those who fought in the 1914-18 conflict – the war to end all wars – have indeed died in vain. It’s patently evident that war is as much a part of the human condition as eating and breathing. We, as a species, have not learned a thing about war because we lose the collective memory as the generations pass. We – you and I and our children and our children’s children – must make all possible efforts to sustain the memory and memories of those who have gone before us. Particularly those who have fought in politician’s wars and done what their respective societies have decreed they do. As a human collective we need to be more aware of what war is, it’s futility, it’s waste and above all else, the fatally flawed nature of those who command that wars be fought. What of the memories of those who went to fight, and lost their lives to a cause they could never truly understand? Their age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the Sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.
Lest We Forget