In the late 1950s we were living in Leongatha, a smallish country town in the green hills east of Melbourne, in one of a row of five weatherboard housing commission houses in a gravel street sloping down to a creek and blackberry bushes, and looking across the paddocks to the butter factory on a hill in the distance. At the bottom of the street were the Grimes. Mr Grimes was a returned soldier and at some stage, knowing I was a reader, he gave me his copy of Stand Easy, a collection of stories written and illustrated by soldiers in the Pacific while the War was winding down, and published at the end of 1945.
I read it, memorized it, throughout my childhood and adolescence. It never made me want to become a soldier, rather the reverse really, with the gritty – though not too gritty, this was an official Army publication – realism of its portrayal of Army life. I always try and have a pertinent post for Anzac Day – which, for overseas readers, used to be our day to remember the fallen in all the various wars we have taken part in, mostly at the beck and call of our masters in England and America, but is become increasingly over time a celebration, a day to glorify all things military – and so this year let it be some stories by men who were there.
Gill Wanted It is the story I remember best, because it’s first I suppose. A woman back home unwraps a package, a gold watch with a flexible gold band, in cotton wool in a tobacco tin, and the message “Gill wanted it”, nothing else.
In a tent in Wataivalo (New Britain Is., PNG) some men, Gill, Macey, Freider, Jock, are playing poker. The kitty rises. At eleven quid an officer calls them to come on patrol, just a quick recce job, and the hands are left for their return. “The track through to Eggshell Hill was slippery underfoot and the jungle smelt of rain and closeness.” Just on dusk a Japanese machine gun opens fire on them, the men answer with their Brens and Owens, shutting it down. But Gill is dead. On their return the men declare Gill the winner, top up the kitty, and one of them goes down to the Americans to buy the watch. After all these years, still makes me cry.
Stranger in the Hills is a story about God, or Jesus maybe. A long column of men, on New Britain again, are returning from a three day patrol. “Sometimes when the ceiling of trees broke, the branches parting to frame sky and part of the world that lay beyond this green wall, you could see the blue curtain of rain coming across the valley from the mountain opposite, hanging soft and fine in the air ..”. A machine gun opens up, there’s answering fire, then silence. Only four survivors, one wounded, a bullet in his shoulder. They dress it roughly and make their way into the jungle in the dark. In the morning they have been joined by a man, bearded, long hair, no name, who digs out the bullet and cleans the wound. He leads them to safety then fades away once again into the jungle. The narrator, a war photographer, hastily develops the images he has taken, but of course they show nothing.
I Lie Waiting. This is another that has stuck with me all those years. A man having crashed off the road down an embankment, stuck under his bike, waving, hoping for a truck to pull up. A soldier, home from the War after months in hospital, trying to make a go of things with only one leg. At first, people “look you in the eye, and smile, and you feel pretty good and hero-like. But after a while they forget. I don’t know whether it’s pity, or whether they’re just not game to face the facts.”
Killed in Action. A story from Buna, PNG, in 1942 when it was still held by the Japanese. The narrator, himself shot, is attempting to drag his mate, Mac who was hit in the neck, to safety. They’re out near Japanese lines where no one will find them. During the night Mac dies and the narrator slips in and out of consciousness, to be woken near dawn, by the sounds of a rescue party, a pastor and bearers. Mac has gone as he said he would and guided them back.
And that’s as many God stories as you’ll get out of me in a long time.
There are other stories, funny ones and straight, factual ones. I don’t know what it says about me that these are the ones I have chosen. Cut me some slack, I was only a kid.
The Army (and Navy) produced a number of these books under various names during both the First and Second World Wars. The War in the Pacific ended before this one came out, hence the name Stand Easy. And the last third is taken up with descriptions of the final campaigns as the Australian and US armies pursued the Japanese through the islands to the north.
Thinking about the defeat and subsequent occupation of Japan leads me to thinking that next year I might write an economics post, about how re-financing Germany and Japan after WWII worked so much better than England and France’s imposition of punitive reparations on Germany after WWI.
The Australian Military Forces, Stand Easy, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1945
|Gill Wanted It||NX73132||Cpl SA Robinson|
|Stranger in the Hills||NX15943||Gnr JS Cleary (Jon Cleary?)|
|I Lie Waiting||VX105554||Cpl AC Wann|
|Killed in Action||NX73132||Cpl SA Robinson|
|Coastal Advance||SX13471||Sgt GR Mainwaring|
|Life on Slater’s Knoll||NX37175||Sgt HF Abbott|
Attribution was originally by Army No., but because the War was over, a listing was published at the back of Stand Easy of all the contributors, including in previous years, attaching names to numbers.
The Conversation, Anzac Day Crowds have Plummeted (here)
Whispering Gums, Writing about the War (here)
Previous Anzac Day posts:
2020 The Black Line (here)
2019 A Day to Remember (here)
2018 Randolph Bourne vs the State (here)
2017 Internee 1/5126 (here)
2016 Miles Franklin’s War (here)
2015 To mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings (here)