Tag Archives: World War 2

Pat Barker’s Noonday

Pat Barker, Noonday (Hamish Hamilton 2015)

noonday.jpgJust a short post on this:

Pat Barker’s Regeneration  trilogy is a magnificent work about World War One. Noonday is the final book in a different trilogy – one which began, in Life Class, before that war, and which takes its characters, those who survive, into the London of the Blitz.

I read Life Class too long ago – all I remember is the life drawing class that it opens with, in which the woman protagonist is dumped on by the instructor, and my blog entry about it explains why I didn’t go chasing after the second volume, Toby’s Room.

Noonday is worth reading for its evocation of London during the blitz. These days when the slogan’Keep Calm and Carry on’ and its parodies adorn a million mugs and tea towels, and the movie of Dad’s Army approaches with its no doubt charming and hilarious ragtag segment of the land army (not that there’s anything wrong with either phenomenon), it’s good to have this vivid reminder that it was a time of great suffering and great heroism.

But the main characters, three artists with varying degrees of success, aren’t all that interesting. Two of them are married at the start and not at the end, and it’s never very clear what happened. There’s adultery, which seems to be a big deal, at least for one of them, but I kept thinking of Bogart’s line in Casablanca: ‘It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.’

Then there’s a weird subplot involving a grossly overweight woman who is both a charlatan claiming to give the bereaved messages from their dead loved ones, and a genuine psychic. I didn’t know what to make of that, and in the end didn’t care.

So, at the risk of sounding as if I’m ten years old, I’d say read it for the account of London during the Blitz, but skim the talky-talky lovey-dovey bits.

The Bone Man of Kokoda

Charles Happell, The Bone Man of Kokoda (Pan Macmillan Australia 2008)

I’m not one of those people who are fascinated by World War Two. When war comics were all the rage in my primary school, I was off in a corner reading Donald Duck, Superman, Captain Marvel and a sophisticated detective whose name I don’t remember. But lately I’ve been getting myself an education on the subject. My sister-in-law gave me this book on the strength of recent blog entries, and I approached it with a double sense of obligation: it was a Christmas present, and it promised yet another perspective on a subject that had lain unconsidered in my mind most of my life. Obligation rarely leads to enthusiasm, and I started the book with a heavy heart.

It turns out to be a fabulous book, another of those micro-histories described by Judith Keene as making up history – where hers swam against the main current by being traitors, the hero of this one does so by extraordinary loyalty. It’s a man who, having made a solemn promise in his early 20s, dropped everything in his  60th year, not to go into comfortable retirement but to devote the next 26 years to keeping the promise. When his wife and sons objected, he gave them everything – the house, his thriving business, even his antique samurai sword – set out on his mission, never to speak to them again. His daughter, who understood something of what drove him, remained in touch and now looks after him in his old age.

What drove Kokichi Nishimura was the horrendous experience of being part of the Japanese invasion of New Guinea, seeing all his comrades killed in the jungle, mainly on the Kokoda Trail, and returning as part of a defeated force, despised in some quarters for not having suicided according to the code of bushido, and suspect in others because of the well-publicised atrocities committed by the Japanese forces. What do you do with the rest of your life after that? How do you live when you have fought in the battle of Brigade Hill at the age of 22, in kill-or-be-killed hand-to-hand combat:

Nishimura’s wounded arm was useless, but he drew his sword with his left hand and thrust it at the Australian’s chest; it hit a rib and stopped. The Australian grabbed the sword’s blade with his bare hands and kicked Nishimura in the stomach. The Japanese fell on his back and the sword went flying.
Noticing his enemy’s face up close, Nishimura was struck by how young the Australian was … For a moment, he thought: Why am I fighting this boy whom I don’t even know? But in the next instant he realised he would be killed himself if he didn’t get to his feet and tackle the Australian.
Nichimura launched himself again at the bigger man. Somehow, in the ensuing struggle, he regained his sword from the ground and this time drove it into the Australian’s stomach. The soldier pierced the air with a wail that sounded like an air-raid siren as he fell down, and slipped into unconsciousness. It was a chilling scream that Nishimura never forgot.

Some survivors committed ritual suicide. Many, possibly the mainstream, embraced the new pacifist Japan and tried to forget the war. Some foment rightwing nationalist politics. Nishimura’s path is strikingly individual. He promised his dead companions that he would return to honour their remains, and since 1966 his life has revolved around an uncompromising quest to keep his word, to bring families of the slain, if not the remains of their bodies for burial, then emotionally significant mementoes – a lunchbox, a flag, in one case a rusty pump. As a corollary, he invested his time and resources into projects to help the locals in the places where he conducted his search – building a school, bulldozing roads, helping people get training and set up enterprises.

He’s a fascinating man, a lesson in integrity. And the book is all the more fascinating because written by an Australian. Maybe the ghosts of the Pacific War are on the way to being laid to rest.


Fortuitous’ watch:

My current favourite mystery word makes two appearances in this book.

On page 86, Nishimura sustains nasty damage to his right leg when his ship is sunk by a US torpedo:

In a way his injury proved fortuitous. It meant he could again rest up in hospital and eat regular meals.

And on page 151:

He had relied heavily, too, on the fortuitous windfall he received from the sale of his parcel of land in Kochi.

In the first quote, ‘fortuitous’ clearly means ‘lucky’. It could be replaced by ‘fortunate’ with no change to the meaning. Or perhaps it has a slightly greater emphasis on the arbitrariness of the good fortune. Whichever, it’s used in a way the dictionaries recognise, though some still frown on it.

In the second, the word could almost have its pure, pedant-approved meaning, ‘happening by chance’, though paired with ‘windfall’ it is completely redundant if that’s what it means. It only adds meaning to its sentence if we understand it to mean ‘especially fortunate’.

Treason on the Airwaves

Judith Keene, Treason on the Airwaves: Three Allied broadcasters on Axis radio during World War II (Praeger 2009)

An Englishman, an Australian and an American walk into a courtroom … It could be the start of a joke, but in this case it’s a fascinating study of three very different people who were charged with treason for their activities as radio broadcasters for the Axis powers, and the three very different ways their nations dealt with them. The subjects are John Amery, whose broadcasts for the Nazis included nasty anti-Jewish rants, Charles Cousens, who broadcast for the Japanese and expected (in vain) his Australian listeners to discern deeply embedded messages that would help in the war effort, and Iva Toguri, one of the 50 000 (yes, so many!) nisei trapped in Japan in 1941, who broadcast as Orphan Ann but was tried as Tokyo Rose.

Judith Keene says in her introduction that ‘the big patterns of history are made up of a great many micro-histories, individual stories, writ small and smaller’. The stories of individuals accused of treason must be one set of micro-histories that tests the big patterns: much as we might want the famous footage of the man dancing in Martin Place to represent the whole meaning of the Victory in the Pacific for Australians, there was a lot more going on than that. Along with the sheer joy that the War was over, in Australia as in Britain and the USA there was also quite a bit of racism-inflected vindictiveness around, for which these treason trials provided a conduit.

All three stories are fascinating, but Iva Toguri’s fills me with almost evangelical zeal. She was born in the USA, and was a cheerful, outgoing child and adolescence. Like many nisei, she identified as American, and her parents organised to send her to stay with relatives in Japan so she could learn Japanese language and culture properly. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she refused to renounce her US citizenship and, cut off from her parents as a source of funds, found what work she could in a Tokyo where her US status was certainly not an advantage. As a typist in Radio Tokyo, where her fluency in English was valued, she took pity on the wretched US and Australian POWs, slipping them food and blankets at some risk to herself, and because she had a rich deep voice was soon invited across to be an announcer on Zero Hour, a program beamed out to Allied troops in the Pacific, consisting mainly of popular US music. Cutting a long story short, at the end of the war, while thousands of nisei who had renounced their US citizenship were readmitted to the US without question, at the prompting of the 1946 equivalents of today’s shock jocks, she was arrested, tried for treason in a process that was later shown to be unambiguously corrupt, imprisoned for decades, further harassed and humiliated on her release and then pardoned. Someone ought to make a movie about her. (And having written that last sentence I went googling and found that there is a movie in the works, to be directed by Frank ‘Shawshank Redemption‘ Darabont from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton.)

Judith is a friend of mine, so I might not have mentioned this next thing if Richard Walsh hadn’t done so at the launch in April: the book is dreadfully edited, to the point that the regular bloopers become a significant distraction. In the very first paragraph of the introduction, a punctuation error renders the second sentence close to nonsensical. ‘Grey’s Elergy‘ (two spelling errors) and ‘the dye was conclusively caste’ (two spelling errors and a redundancy) are not atypical. I’m very glad that Praeger Press of Connecticut published the book, but anyone who commits their manuscript to them should be warned that the detail of your text is not in safe hands. Anyone who wants to know what a line editor does will find this book instructive: the things that make it hard to read are the things an editor would have fixed. However, I recommend that you treat the frequent blemishes as you would mosquitoes on a bushwalk: irritating, but not enough to make you turn back.

Travels in Atomic Sunshine

Robin Gerster, Travels in atomic sunshine: Australia and the occupation of Japan (Scribe 2008)

Thousands of Australian soldiers and their families were part of the Occupation of Japan from February 1946 until early 1952. They formed the bulk of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force, generally overlooked in the shadow of the much larger and better equipped US occupation forces. While the US occupiers, with headquarters and amenities in Tokyo, set about imposing democracy by decree and using military might to change a militaristic culture to a peaceful one, insisting on freedom of the press except for stories that might make trouble for the occupiers, the Australians – whose generals led the BCOF – were stationed near the devastation of Hiroshima and seem to have managed without any sense of themselves as Liberators. They are scarcely mentioned by any of our otherwise zealous military historians, and barely appear in the Canberra War Memorial. Sneered at by the British, discounted by the US,  at home they are ‘the forgotten Force’.

At the time, thanks to reports of atrocities in the Burma–Siam Railway  and Changi Prison as well as the bizarre White Australia Policy, anti-Japanese sentiment was fierce in Australia, and the occupationnaires were in a bind. If they enacted the home sentiment, as many did, they were likely to be brutal, even criminal, in their dealings with the already shattered population, and there are plenty of stories of rape, sexual exploitation, black marketeering (‘wogging’) and careless disregard for human life. If they were open to Japanese culture and the humanity of the people, as again many were, they were likely to be shunned as ‘Jap-lovers’: there were plenty of headlines at home to that effect, and when people returned it was to even less acknowledgement than the troops who served in Vietnam. Governments still deny that their high incidence of cancer might be connected to the time they spent at nuclear ‘Ground Zero’.

If someone wanted to make a serious war movie, they could do a lot worse than mining this book. The movie would run very little chance of feeding adrenaline addiction the way so many well-intentioned anti-war movies do. It would have trouble being read as a tale of Good vs Evil. It would leave a number of received True Stories looking decidedly tatty. After so many movies about the horrors of the Japanese prisoner of war camps, how refreshing to show those liberated Aussies as occupiers of post-War Japan – some acting out their racism-boosted vengefulness on the civilian survivors of Hiroshima, others coming to appreciate the culture  and even falling in love. The book seethes with potential story lines. Here’s the tale of  the young Australian signalman, John Henderson:

IN early 1948, immigration minister Arthur Calwell had reasserted the government’s position that no Japanese woman would be permitted to enter Australia, irrespective of whether she was he wife or fiancée of an Australian serviceman … Henderson had married a young university graduate, Mary Kasahi Abe, by Shinto rites. With his wife pregnant, and worried about the legality of the Shinto ceremony, he sought to be married by the battalion chaplain, the well-known BCOF identity Padre Laing. Laing’s duty was to inform military command, and Henderson was peremptorily repatriated. The officer given the task of putting the order into effect related, 40 years later, that someone at BCOF HQ had decided to make an example of him. This was easily achieved, as he was a low-ranking, demoralised youngster of no consequence. A ‘thin, frail-looking lad’, Henderson was reduced to tears upon hearing the news. Accompanied by the padre and two MPs, he was put on the Kanimbla and locked in the brig to be returned to Australia, the father of a baby daughter whom he never got to see.

… During the debacle, and while his family was receiving abusive anonymous mail for supporting their son, the papers were full of photographs of radiantly smiling British migrant families arriving in Sydney … [Immigration minister] Arthur Calwell played to the crowd, stating that, while there were living relatives of the men who suffered at the hands of the Japanese, ‘it would be the grossest act of public indecency to permit a Japanese of either sex to pollute Australia or Australian-controlled shores’. What an irony: John Henderson had himself suffered, directly and not vicariously, from Japanese wartime brutality. He had laboured on the Burma–Thailand Railway, no less, and later in the coal mines in Japan. There, he had been befriended by a guard who handed him food, including small gifts from his sister, treats such as sweets, and rice cakes. The very reason Henderson decided to volunteer to BCOF after the war was that he wanted to meet his benefactress. He did, they became strongly attached, and they married – and now his own government had decided that her presence would ‘pollute’ Australia.

… Despite his promises, Henderson never returned to his Japanese family. He had asked a couple of his army mates remaining in Japan to keep a friendly eye on his wife in his absence; in the meantime, his parcels and letters stopped after some months. Years later, in late 1953 or early 1954, one of them returned to Kure after completing his service in Korea, and met the woman, by chance, downtown near the railway. She was with her pimp, having been reduced to prostitution, with a mixed-race child, in order to survive.

Travels in Atomic Sunshine won the 2009 NSW Premier’s History Award. It should also have a chance in the Literary Awards.

Dangerous Days

Ernest Brough, Dangerous Days: A digger’s great escape (Harper Collins 2009)

dangerousWhen I was ten or eleven years old, although I wasn’t at all attracted to the war comics that many of my school companions devoured, I did read, and enjoy, Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse, a POW escape story. It came with parental recommendation (my mother was amused by the POWs’ christening a cow Venus di Milko, or was that a different book?), and seemed to me to be a tale from the distant past. In fact, it was published in 1949, and the events it narrated had happened barely fifteen years before I read it. Ernest Brough’s story, written when he was in his 80s and when the events he recalls were more than sixty years in the past, nonetheless has some of the same qualities that caught this little boy’s imagination way back then.

The book is Ernest Brough’s story of his war experience. He was one of the Rats of Tobruk, and his account of how the war was conducted there almost makes one long for the good old days when the Geneva Conventions were respected. Taken prisoner, he was kept in camps run first by the Italians and then by the Germans, then escaped with two companions. The story of the trio’s privations and difficulties as they made their way from the prison camp in southern Austria, through Slovenia, Croatia and into Bosnia, a good part of the way in the care of Tito’s Partisans, is the book’s compelling read – the larrikin camaraderie of the Australians and New Zealanders in training, in combat and in the POW camp is transmuted into an almost mystical solidarity.

Perhaps more than The Wooden Horse, in fact, the book reminds me of Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life. It’s a tale of survival, told without bitterness but pervaded by a sense of good fortune. And as I like my morals to be explicit, I was grateful for the final chapter, ‘Take it from an Old Bloke’, where he spells out his views on war, peace and life, including this:

War’s a damnable thing. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. The damage runs deep. All those nights for decades afterwards I would lie in bed thinking, I’ve got to get under the wire tonight. or gotta make it to the riverbank. … Most soldiers will bring the war home with them in some form. Some will never forget it; some will die from it, from suicide or alcoholism, years after the guns have packed up and gone home. You see, it’s just not natural for human beings to go out and kill other humans. And that’s what war’s all about.