Even further north
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 9: Up North
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Murray Sayle (dec.)
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Murray Sayle's biography and other articles by this writer
When I was at primary school in Earlwood, a solid western suburb of Sydney built largely for, and by, Diggers returned from the First World War, "the north" meant the North Shore, a snooty region inhabited by rich people speaking an odd, different language. As, I later learnt, did the Aborigines who had lived on the opposite sides of Sydney Harbour before We arrived. This land of mystery, faintly menacing, could be visited by crossing our newly completed Bridge, the wonder of the world, a trip that also gave us a thrilling glimpse of Pinchgut, or more formally Fort Denison with its fairytale tower far below where, we were told, our convict ancestors had their guts cruelly pinched by a diet of bread and water in full view of le tout Sydney or, in the then more fashionable white-armband view of our history, our British forbears had exposed to public censure the odd boozy lad and lass who had temporarily forgotten our treasured ideals of strong tea, fair play, social deference and hard work.
Then, a few years later, my northern horizons expanded enormously. Like my grandfather and my five uncles, my father, Sydney Duncan Sayle worked for the New South Wales Government Railways (NSWGR), got mail from his office marked OHMS, and had a gold pass that entitled us to low fares and, in my case, a thrilling ride on the footplate of a steam locomotive hauling the night express north, the beefy stoker in a black singlet shovelling coal into a glowing firebox, the driver working a wailing whistle to wake crows in the sleeping bush beside the track, which we railway families learned to call the "permanent way". Then, as the train panted up a long incline, my sister and I had the privilege of tossing the Sydney papers to the fettlers – maybe they are now called maintenance officers – who raised shovels in greeting as we steamed past. Our destination was Taree, from where we took a "battered service coach" over a rough bush road, and a steam ferry to Forster, now a trendy holiday resort, then a fishing village with a few cottages to rent. Silent pictures were shown on Saturdays in the village hall, with a rope down the aisle to separate Us from the local Aborigines, an arrangement both sides had grown up with. This north was an earthly paradise and, as I soon learnt, north was a direction that could offer us opportunity, even help in need.
The thirties were dark years in Australia, as in all New World countries, when exports collapsed and loans were called in. Part of my father's job was to keep in touch with the railways' few remaining big customers, and none were more important to the NSWGR than Sydney's flourishing community of Japanese, big buyers of Australian wool, scrap iron and minerals and importers of low-tech Japanese manufactures like bicycles and shirts. In the Japanese manner, they saw business dealings as a basis for socialising. Dad often spoke warmly about them, using words like polite, friendly, well-dressed, good neighbours, a pleasure to deal with. The unspoken comparison was with our resident Chinese, unkempt keepers of market gardens and rumoured smokers of opium and players of an illegal game, fan-tan. The White Australia Policy was first aimed at excluding them:
Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves. No more Chinamen in New South Wales.
True, the Japanese were not altogether white either, but in a world with little use for our wool, wheat and minerals, at least the Japanese were here, and buying. When I was eight, my father brought home a handsome book his Japanese contacts had given him, Golden Jubilee History of Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) 1885-1935. It was bound in gold-embossed red leather with many exquisite hand-tinted photographs. This Orient, to my young eyes, was as it should be. At school, I was starting to draw maps showing Australia's place in the big, wide world. I learnt that NYK (meaning "Japan Shipping Line") linked the two busiest ports in our respective countries, as it does today. But, while my new book listed such facts, with statistics to back them up, what captured my youthful imagination were the doll-like beauties in kimono with paper umbrellas riding in rickshaws through the wide streets of NYK's home port, Yokohama, and the handsome red-brick buildings, shrines, temples and, in the distance, the snowy cone of Fuji. Yokohama looked both efficiently Western and delicately Eastern at the same time, an intriguing contrast with official Sydney's British stuffiness, a promising attraction of opposites. Even then, we had much to offer that Japan needed and Japan had much that we found useful: I learnt that Japan, through our British ties, had once been our loyal ally, and Japanese warships had convoyed Australians to the European and Middle Eastern battlefields of the First World War, although they had declined to join the fight. I treasured my NYK book, daydreaming that one day I might see picturesque, spick-and-span Yokohama for myself.
ON SEPTEMBER 3, 1939, THE SAYLES GROUPED ROUND OUR FAMILY RADIO TO HEAR Neville Chamberlain announcing on quavering short wave from London that Britain was at war with Germany. We all knew Australia would soon be, too. "It's come," said my mother, looking at me anxiously, as many a mother looked at her sons that night. Soon, a new generation of Australian soldiers and airmen were leaving Sydney by troopship for Britain and the Middle East, and my father was back in uniform. No Japanese escorts this time, but this was not yet a world at war, as the first war had been. As our anthem says, Australia is "girt by sea". To the west there is empty ocean, to the east a wide sea, New Zealand and then more ocean, to the south, only empty ocean, ice and penguins. Our north was shielded by the Dutch East Indies, firmly held by immoveable Hollanders, and closer, New Guinea and Papua were somehow Australian.
The new war was like all Europe's wars, fought east-to-west. To join in, our men had, as before, to go far away from home. True, Japan was then mired in fighting in China, but their buyers were still with us, shipping even more wool now, and iron and steel scrap as well. Still thinking of guns on big ships, we had the Royal Navy to defend us from its impregnable base at Singapore, with our own new Garden Island naval dock in Sydney Harbour in support, conveniently overlooked by the imposing Japanese consulate on the heights of Point Piper, which, as it happened, had a good view of the Heads in the other direction. Australians were by no means united in support of the war in the Balkans and North Africa. On a bridge spanning the North Shore Line was daubed: "Not a man, not a gun, not a ship for the bosses' war".
That blissful ignorance evaporated on December 8, 1941, when the Japanese Imperial Navy destroyed part of the American Pacific Fleet lying at anchor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii – an attack so unexpected, and seemingly so successful, that it had something of malevolent magic about it. Pearl Harbor made instant allies of the United States, Britain, Australia and the rest of the "British family of nations", as the Empire was informally called, but the new allies in the next six months suffered a string of defeats no one then alive could forget; nor would they ever see our world quite so innocently again.
On Pearl Harbor Day, Japanese forces invaded the Philippines, Hong Kong and Malaya. The new British battleship Prince of Wales and the veteran battle cruiser Repulse were sunk by Japanese bombers flying from Japanese-occupied Saigon. On February 15, 1942, the British general Sir Arthur Percival surrendered Singapore with its 100,000 defenders – among them some 15,000 Australians – to General Tomoyuki Yamashita. It was the greatest disaster ever suffered by British (or Australian) arms. Four days later, Darwin was heavily bombed, the first-ever air raid on an Australian city.
Soon after, as an impressionable schoolboy, I saw two Australian divisions, urgently called home from the Middle East, disembarking from the British liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, moored side by side in Sydney Harbour. On May 6, the Americans surrendered the fortress of Corregidor near Manila. Their former commander, General Douglas MacArthur, had flown to Australia days earlier promising: "I shall return." Three weeks later, Japanese submarines fired shells into Sydney's seaside suburbs, causing trivial damage but enormous panic, and released two midget submarines – "steel coffins" naval historians have called them – to sneak into Sydney Harbour. One grounded, the other's torpedo, fired at the heavy cruiser USS Chicago, exploded under an old ferry, HMAS Kuttabul, killing 19 sailors. The British admiral commanding the Sydney port ordered a guard of Australian naval ratings to fire a salute over the dead Japanese submariners and, in a short speech, honoured brave enemies, a generous action in a savage war that is remembered in Japan to this day. It was now, truly, the Second World War.
No one then alive will forget our year of fear, 1942, when every threat from the north coalesced into one, the hordes of Asia pouring down on our heads, even to the deceptively secure south. I joined our school cadet corps and practised with a rifle and a World War I machine gun. I can still feel the kick of a .303 Lee-Enfield on a 14-year-old shoulder. After Darwin was bombed, we dug slit trenches in our school playground, Sydney was blacked out, petrol rationed to a trickle. The dapper Japanese wool buyers
disappeared – interned or shipped home. American soldiers arrived, first a few, then in more reassuring numbers.
In September 1942, at our local cinema, I saw a strange, disturbing film – one of Cinesound's Voice of Australia newsreels that were keeping us posted on the gloomy progress of the war. It opened with Cinesound's familiar logo, an ear-twitching kangaroo, a southern cousin for MGM's roaring lion, leaping out of frame, then the title Kokoda Front Line! But instead of crashing bombs and shrieking shells we saw a quiet young man in a war correspondent's uniform – he could have been a soldier – seated on a stool in what looked like a Sydney lounge room, complete with vase of flowers. Damien Parer, who had shot the film in the Owen Stanley Range in New Guinea, then delivered the most eloquent speech ever made to-camera by an Australian, in an accent clearly marking him as one of Us:
Eight days ago I was with our advance troops in the jungle facing the Japs at Kokoda. It's an uncanny sort of warfare. You never see a Jap even though he's only 20 yards away. They're complete masters of camouflage and deception. I should say about 40 per cent of our boys wounded in those engagements haven't seen a Japanese soldier, a live one anyway. Don't underestimate the Jap, he's a highly trained soldier, well disciplined and brave, and although he's had some success up to the present, he's now got against him some of the finest and toughest troops in the world – troops with a spirit amongst them that makes you intensely proud to be an Australian. I saw militiamen fighting over there, fighting under extremely difficult conditions alongside the AIF and they acquitted themselves magnificently. When I returned to Moresby I was full of beans. It was the spirit of the troops and the knowledge that General [Sydney] Rowell was on the job and now that we had a really fine command. But when I came back to the mainland, what a difference. I heard girls talking about dances, men complaining about the tobacco they didn't get. Up at the front they were smoking tea some of the time. There seems to be an air of unreality, as though the war were a million miles away. It's not. It's just outside our door now. I've seen the war and I know what your husbands, your sweethearts and brothers are going through. If only everybody in Australia could realise that this country is in peril, that the Japanese are a well-equipped and dangerous enemy, we might forget about the trivial things and go ahead with the job of licking them.
Only nine minutes long, shot with heavy, clockwork-driven cameras, Parer's film is a miniature masterpiece that won an Academy Award, the first Australian film ever so honoured. Looking at it six decades on, it is easy to see where it gets at least some of its power. Intentionally or not – Parer was a devout Catholic who had considered the priesthood as a vocation – it resonates with Christian imagery. One sequence, of a wounded Australian being tenderly carried by Papuan bearers ("fuzzy-wuzzy angels" in the innocent parlance of the time) echoes innumerable devotional pictures of Christ carried to his tomb. To every cinema seat in Australia, Parer's film brought another alarming aspect of the threat from the north. Our enemies there had resourcefulness, courage and cunning – all aspects of Satan in Australia's majority religious traditions.