You can almost taste the salt in the air this morning. Haze hangs in a heavy veil over the sea while the waves upsurge then dive into the sand with constant savagery. Crashing like my thoughts, one into another, blatant and uncontrollable. I feel the hardness of the park seat press my suit trousers against ageing bones, while fingers of cool air slip around my collar and I momentarily shiver. On the surface I appear as calm as the sea around the Long Reef headland up there in the distance.
Every Anzac Day it’s the same. Churns up your stomach. Makes you remember. Releases the monster of memory to reek havoc with your sanity until you can chain it up again in some dark corner of the mind.
A young bloke gave the address at Dee Why this morning. Some local dignitary. Seems they get younger every year. Has never been to war by the look of him. Not that I’d wish trhat on any one, but it had riled mea a bit. His words had flowed articulately with the right amount of solemnity, but they seemed so devoid of …. feeling.
Well, what did I expect? Unless you were there, how could anyone ever relate to what we experienced? But his workds had droned on and on. Droning, droning until I could hear the plane engines growing louder and louder, droppoing bombs into dense jungle along the Kokoda Track while we tensed and waited for the earth to shudder. Then clenching our teeth while the air vibrated with cracking sounds as the Japandes fired at us through the trees.
Mind you, it wasn’t just the Japanese we had to contend with. Other enemies came in disguise like the bloody mosquitos that nearly drove us mad when they descended at dusk and dawn with poisonous injections of malaria. I’ve seen men shiver uncontrollably, some even hallucinate, and we’d bee pretty dedicated aobut taking our anti-malarial medication, but even that didn’t give us full protection.
Then there was the mud. Mud, sucking at our boots trying to wrench them from our feet. Thick slimy slippery muc. We slept in it, fought in it and some died in it. Stinking mud. And it never dried out. Never stopped raining long enough for that. Most of us developed ulcers from cuts that got infected. The place was seething with fungal infections that ate away at our flesh. Some of the blokes could put a finger through the top of their foot and it’d come out the bottom. Sickening sights of the tropics that will never leave me.
After the service, my mates were talking about going back up there in July for the 50th Anniversary, Australia Remembers. Said they were going by ship and were going to be flown into the airstrip at the village of Kokoda for the unveiling of memorial. Of course, there’s no way they’d be walking the Track now. It’s too gruelling and they’re too old.
Sometimes I wonder if Australia does remember. I never heard much about the 50th Anniversary of the New Guinea campaigns in 1992. Most people don’t even realise it was the Australians in New Guinea who were the first to repel the Japanese during World War 11 and that it all happened on their own doorstep – where we were fighting to maintain Australia’s freedom!
I know I sound bitter. I’m not. I’m just disappointed there has been so little in school books for the kids to learn about their own country’s history. Perhaps, one day, that might change.
The haze over the sea has cleared and I’m starting to feel the bite of the sun. Not that I need any more sunspots burned off. The specialist says a lot of the damage was done by the time I was twenty-five. Makes sense, expecially when I think of how exposed we were in the high altitude on the Kokoda Track and how, after the clouds had been burned away by mid-morning, the sun would beat down without mercy, drying us out from the inside and weakening men who were already fatigued and starving. When it beat down into the kunai grass that stood as tall as a man, prickling and scratching at him, enveloping him until he wanted to scream.
Lying there, ever ready for battle, water bottle empty and no chance of further water supplies because it was too far from any creek. Lying in wait like a snake, staring at the sun. Listening for the enemy. Then hearing their boots scraping through the long grass and the sound of their laboured breaths as they crept closer. And then dodging bullets, and dragging our wounded mates as the Japanese over-ran us, six to one. But both sides were weakened because of the difficulty of getting supplies through. No side took prisoners and the hostile environment of the Owen Stanleys took no side.
But one thing none of us could have foreseen was the behaviour of our own wharfies! Here we were earning five bob a day and being shot at while they were safe and sound back home, striking and whingeing for more pay while we were sometimes nearly starving. What a comparison when the Yanks arrived. They were really looked after! We heard later that they had ice cream and steak back at their bases. We couldn’t believe it.
I couldn’t believe being home again either. After Kokoda, some of us were sent down to fight in the Gona/Buna campaign, and then, at last, we were shipped home. I remember sitting for weeks on end, totally exhausted and finding it difficult to relate to those around me. I’d wake up in the night in a dreadful sweat and it would take some time before I realised that I was in my own bed. The curtains had become close impenetrable jungle and the bedclothes appeared as twisted tree roots and slithering snakes.
There were many times when my wife’s worried expressions caused me some anguish, but I was simply unable to discuss me feelings with her. Other men I spoke to around that time had said the same thing. We just felt civvies wouldn’t understand. But after that, on Anzac Day each year, we stopped discussing it amongst ourselves and all we wanted to remember were the lighter moments and outrageous antics of the larrikins in our battalion. We felt safe then, hiding behind the laughter.
The kids have been at me for a while now, to write all this down. They reckon when blokes like me die, there’ll be no one around to tell the story. And what about the grand children, they ask. They mean well, I suppose. They seemed happy when I sold the house and moved down here into a unit about a year after their mum died. They said a smaller place and no maintenance was just the thing. You’ll probably want to join the Senior Citizens Club, and just think of all the outings you’ll be able to go on. Besides, the sea air will do you good, Dad.
You can see my place from here. Over there, at the end of Oaks Avenue. And not a bad view along the beach, you know. I might sit out on my balcony to have lunch today. It’s going on for twelve now, so I’d better be getting back.
I suppose there might be something in what they say about writing down my war experiences. Perhaps after lunch. Yes. After lunch.
I wonder how I should begin?
Beverley Partridge 1995
Article by Beverley Partridge who trekked with Charlie Lynn in 1995