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My Father's War (published Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend 1999)

Max Carment  oil on canvasboard  16 X 22 cms 1996

There was a book high up on our father’s shelf that we weren’t meant to look at, called The Knights of Bushido - but of course, we did. It was about Japanese atrocities during the war and contained drawings of tortures and photos of people being buried alive. When I was still quite small, my big brother had stood on a chair and pulled it down to show me. He told me that our dad had seen stuff like this.

My father spent most of his war as a prisoner of the Japanese, in Changi, Sandakan and Kuching. In late 1943, as a punishment, he and a number of other officers were separated from the ranks and shipped out from Sandakan (in Borneo) to Kuching (in Malaya), which probably saved their lives. All but six of the two thousand men who remained in Sandakan died on the so-called ‘Death Marches’, and he himself came very close to dying at Kuching anyway.

Dad never marched regularly on Anzac Day until a few years ago. My mother told me that he sometimes used to play golf instead.  For a long time he managed to put his war memories at the back of his mind, but now he says they come back to him a lot, and recently they’ve been plaguing  him in the form of dreams. Over the last few years he has gone back to his war sites in Asia, and helped erect memorials - and marching every year has become more important to him. He turned eighty last year and angina and bad circulation to his legs have recently prevented him from walking long distances. So I was surprised when he told he was going to march again.                        

I passed this news on to my partner, Jan, and she immediately suggested that we take our two small boys to watch him march. I’d never been before and wondered why. (Actually, I think it was because I’m suspicious of public manifestations of patriotism and in fact most forms of collective activity: meetings, large parties, Clean Up Australia Day - I’d rather pick up rubbish alone and without wearing rubber gloves.) When I rang up Dad to tell him we were coming he seemed really pleased, and on the eve of Anzac day he rang back just to check we could still make it, and to tell us the route.

Dad has never, in my memory, been completely silent about the war, and from time to time he told us things, and more recently he has spoken to me about it quite often. Neither was he ever a ‘war bore’ - he wanted to get on with life and leave most of that behind him. Unlike Rick in Randolph Stowe’s ‘Merry Go Round in the Sea’ who, on returning from POW camp, lies on his bed in a depressed chain-smoking catatonia, my father and his few POW mates seemed to throw themselves into hard work, marriage and reproduction. But that isn’t to say that they weren’t all, to varying degrees, emotionally scarred.

Some of Dad’s anecdotes about POW camp will always stay with me.
Shortly after surrender, at Changi prison, he had volunteered to leave the camp on a work party to do a job at a nearby beach. Under armed guard they’d set off jauntily, glad to be outside the perimeter. But their task was to bury a group of dead Chinese tied together with signal wire, machine-gunned and sloshing around in the shallows. 

A few months later, on entering the fetid hold of a cargo vessel, the Oti Maru, in which they were kept for 10 days, shut up in the equatorial heat, he had annoyed his superior officer by asking directions to the 'cocktail bar'. He took a copy of Thackeray’s The Virginians down there and read it several times.

At Sandakan Camp they began felling the rainforest and levelling the ground for an aerodrome.            Each morning they had to bow down to the Emperor and set off to work at dawn Japanese-time when it was still dark in Borneo. They picked up grubs and reptiles as they worked - for the pot. Sometimes in the evening the sky went black with flying bats. 

He had his appendix out with only a local anaesthetic, four men holding him down and a cigarette in his mouth. 
On Anzac morning we found a spot out of the sun in the shadow of one of the city’s remaining art-deco style buildings. Three ladies were seated at the edge of the gutter in front of us on small collapsible chairs, watching the parade and waving plastic flags and calling out, "Good on you, boys!"  At my shoulder was a telegraph pole with a flyer for a night club taped around it, which read: 'LICK - Deep Sexy Late Nite Body Music'.

A jeep rolled past, slowly. In the back a regular army soldier was circling his solid and supportive arm under the baggy grey suit coat of a very thin old man who was standing up and holding out a stiff arm at the crowd.  He must have been one of the last of the World War I veterans, over 100 years old. He had a thick crop of grey hair which stood straight up and he reminded Jan of her dead Grandfather, who‘d been gassed in the trenches.  The pupils of his eyes were dark and bright, but he seemed to be staring right through the crowd and out into a private space beyond. Involuntarily, I found myself on the verge of weeping.

Every year my elder brother watches the Anzac Day March telecast and has done so since he was a small boy. I remember him sitting close to our TV (a bulky non-Japanese one - probably a Pye or an HMV) watching the slow parade. David was a somewhat isolated boy who spent a lot of time in his room reading voraciously from history books, especially military history. The march past of survivors carrying the names of places, battles and lost ships must have brought to life everything he’d read. He  filled his bedroom drawers with beautiful detailed drawings of generals and admirals, chests and shoulders emblazoned with medals and epaulets, and maps of made-up battles and empires   

When I was a child our shelves contained a fair number of books about the war: Reach for the Sky (Douglas Bader once visited our school and didn’t look much like Kenneth Moore), The DambustersYou’ll Die in SingaporeAll This and a Medal TooThe Wooden HorseBridge on the River KwaiThe Guns of Navarone, A Town like Alice. I read them all, mainly because they were there, and I especially liked the ones where they escaped through tunnels.      
It took a long time for the 8th Division to arrive, and the children were soon slumping and restless at our feet. The cooling shadow of the building across the road had by now left us as the sun rose higher in the sky, and still we were only up to the 7th Division. There was a recessed patch in the bitumen just in front of us and many of the old men stumbled as they walked across it. One man fell, and I hoped my father would see it in time when he came to it.

A tiny old digger with a wizened puckish face under a slouch hat with a plume on it marched past holding onto a big plastic bag full of Minties. Every now and then he vigorously scattered a handful of them at the kerbside. There weren’t that many kids around and so a lot of them just lay where they had fallen. Some people smiled and others rubbed their faces and chins where the rock-hard Minties had hit them. ‘He does this every year’ I heard someone say.

Looking at the veterans filing past, I realised to what extent the first half of this century was the age of false teeth - they glowed almost supernaturally from most of these weathered, lined and jowly faces.           

Early last year I accompanied my father to a meet-the-filmmakers screening at the NSW State Library of a documentary called ‘Return to Sandakan’. Two wives of survivors (friends of his) were there. We didn’t know anyone else. Dad was the only Old Sandakanian in attendance.   

The film began - a sad cruel tale.  Dad was seated next to me in the semi-darkness and every now and then I looked aside to check that he was alright (it was distressing enough for those who hadn’t been there). 
The filmmakers had found and interviewed the daughter of one of the six men who survived the Sandakan Death Marches. After the war the man had married and moved west to take up a soldiers settlers’ block. The daughter told of her father’s nightmares, in which he shouted out Japanese names, and of his violence to her mother and his children - he’d chased them round the house with a gun. 
Eventually they left him, and some years later he shot himself. The daughter thought it was his war experience that had made him so violent and depressed. Dad remarked, after the screening, that he doubted whether terrible experiences changed your basic nature.

I looked up the man's story in a one of my father’s books: he weighed about as much as a nine-year-old when a tall Australian commando called Lofty rescued him and the plane that took him out of the jungle had crashed and left him with head injuries.           

And I thought of the cartoon that appeared on Anzac Day a few years ago and which so upset so many people (and struck a chord with others), in which a sharp-faced digger is saying how he fought the Nips and he fought the Jerries and when he came home he fought his wife and kids. 
Aggression and bravery are not mutually exclusive, and survival seems so cruel and arbitrary - it’s probably a cliche to say so, or a homily. 

Three of the six Death March survivors were still alive at the time of filming and two of them in particular still hated the Japanese with an undiminished vehemence. One of them even said that he didn’t think any Japanese should be allowed into Australia, ever, not even if they said they were sorry. 
In comparison, my father’s hatred and apportionment of blame is not so widespread. He didn’t take part in the Death Marches, but he was there for the lead-up to them, and suffered a surfeit of other horrors and hardships at Kuching. These days I think he feels that he was at the bottom of a pyramid of cruelty, with the Militarists and the Emperor (who  my father thinks was not as powerless as he made out) at the top. 
On a broad level only just above the POW’s on this pyramid, were their often vicious guards - conscripted against their will and beaten about in their turn by the ranks just above them. But despite this rationalisation, there were certain Japanese officers and soldiers who, within the strictures of their system and their orders, need not have acted with such unrelenting cruelty. These he will never forgive. There were a few amongst his captors who showed some compassion, but they were powerless against the others. 

During my teens, certain Japanese products began appearing in our house;  by the end of the '70s Dad even bought a Toyota Crown and recently he met and chatted amicably with our friend, Mihoko Yamaguchi. And yet deep within him there must remain a dark pool of bile that all his conscious efforts will never drain away.  Indeed the grey ghost of  Dad’s suffering, his lost years, the miracle of his survival, hovered around my mother, my brother, my sister and I as we were growing up - the hurts and slights we suffered were tiny compared with what he’d been through. It was rarely spoken of, but heavily present. The Moral Tale of his Survival. 

When my sister and I demonstrated against uranium mining in the '70s, Dad told us, by way of a reminder, that we wouldn’t have been  there if the bombs hadn’t dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki when they did - as he lay near death at Kuching, suffering from malaria, dysentry, beri-beri, and tropical ulcers all at once. His liberation hadn’t come a day too late. How could we argue with such emotive yet flawed logic - in one sense it was true. 

But 30 years had passed and it was a different world. In my twenties (I realise in hindsight) subconsciously I put myself into situations of insecurity and, at times, danger to try to match Dad’s experience, to perversely gain his approval. And all he really wanted was for his children to have a safe and happy life, and at the same time, for them to be loyal, honest and industrious. My father emerged from his passage through fire with all the Calvinist values of his ancestry intact.
The World War II veterans kept streaming slowly past, some of them looking quite lost or sick, being helped by their mates, some struggling along alone, forcing their gammy knees and stroke-blighted bodies to make the distance. 

Ambulance crews hovered at every intersection.  Some of the men looked like they’d been brought out of nursing homes to join the march. Young soldiers were pushing some in wheelchairs. On the clear plastic tray over one man’s chair I noticed what appeared to be a floret of cooked broccoli.

A short red-faced woman, like an ancient child, was running excitedly up and down the rows of onlookers, occasionally stopping to hand people a framed letter that she was clutching like a votive relic. People smiled as they gave the frame back to her. The trio in front of us were desperately trying to attract her attention so that they, too, could read the letter (to see what this woman had done in a war), but she ran back and forth past us without heeding their calls.

Finally, towards 11 o’clock, the 8th Division arrived, and then I saw the simple banner of the 2/15th regiment and marching on their front left flank, in the distance, my father. There weren’t many in his group, perhaps 20. We held up our boys and told them Grandpa was coming at last. I felt a lump in my throat as I watched him approaching, looking straight ahead and marching steadily despite the roughness of the road and the unfortunate position, halfway between the different rhythms of a bagpipe and a brass band. 
‘He looks a lot better than some of them’ said Jan, and it was true (although comparisons seemed hardly fair). He had grown a moustache not long ago - not through his own choice but because the fragile skin on his upper lip made it impossible to shave - and in this setting it looked quite dashing. The sun was blasting down between the buildings, casting only meagre shadows, and, momentarily, I worried about it scorching Dad’s bald pate, out of which so many cancers had been cut and burnt. 

As he came close to us, the boys called out ‘Grandpa!’ but he didn’t notice, and it wasn’t till he was almost past us, a few feet away, when I screamed ‘Dad!’ that he finally turned and noticed us. When he saw the boys, his face broke into a  grin. He waved at us, and then, without breaking his stride, faced forward again and kept marching up George Street.

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