From the tormented heart of a Kokoda Veteran’s daughter
Beverley Partridge is the daughter of a Kokoda veteran and the wife of a Vietnam Veteran. I never knew of her connection with Kokoda until she joined my trek in 1995 – and I never knew of her emotional interpretation of the pilgrimage until she sent me this poem and short story after her return from PNG.
Beverley Partridge is the daughter of a Kokoda veteran and the wife of a Vietnam Veteran. She is a poet, author and thespian. We met during our year at the Army Command and Staff college in Fort Queenscliff where her husband Tom and I were students in 1981. Bev was instrumental in forming a ‘Theatre Group’ amongst the wives at the Fort and was the ‘life of the party‘ – always happy.
‘He knew I would come, had always known So he lay there, resting, while maggots feasted on his flesh, and I, inexorably drawn to him, took an age to comprehend while he waited.
‘Preparation, in rain and sun, muscles honed and lonely hours on the road–to build an inner strength. The toll I paid in full to prove good faith.
‘As time grew near, with patience put to test, he wandered in his sleep. I saw him, in the sunlight opaque as glass–etched upon my study wall.
‘His head was turned. I couldn’t see his face– walking up a mountain, showing me the place where I could go.
‘Muddied and torn, his uniform, tin hat and pack are clearly in my mind. His body tired and thin, a dignity and steady pace that claimed my beating heart.
‘And as his image faded, he slowly turned and smiled, because he knew that I would come.
‘Through steamy jungle, choking vines, across rivers edged with moss, Through the wriggling mass of leeches, I climbed higher–through fatigue along the Kokoda track.
‘At night I’d feel the power of this inner driving force, each morning stride with purpose and never did I feel I’d lost my way. While camped beside a river with urgency frightening I jolted wide awake!
‘He called my name–with dying breath. In that moment, we were one. Then, at last, he was at peace.
‘He knew that I had come.‘
Back on Track
‘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 that on any one, but it had riled me 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 words had droned on and on. Droning, droning until I could hear the plane engines growing louder and louder, dropping 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 Japanese 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 been pretty dedicated about 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 mud. 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 a 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, especially 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 grandchildren, 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?