Scary stories from a lovely place
Today I celebrate Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day. It was this day in World War 1 when these nations landed their soldiers on the beach in Galipolli. Anzac Day is Australia’s Rememberance Day. Poppies, trumpets, men in uniform and army trucks get a good outing in parades in cities across Australia, and other places in the world. It’s hard to know how to recognise it now that I don’t live in Australia. Before I came to South Africa I stoically took my place on George St and watched as the masses walked past, waiting to catch a glimpse of my grandfather and dad as they marched in the 2/19th Batallion. I’ve never been one for such public displays of patriotism and I’m sure in the bad old days I denounced the Anzac spirit as sexist, patriarchal and imperialistic. But the last few years I have found the day troublingly emotional and often welled up as I watched the march in the flesh or on youtube.
This is probably due in part to the fact that I’ve calmed down a lot as a person (though other blog posts wouldn’t concur with that). It’s also definitely because I now live in a foreign country and am forever searching for ways to find meaning in my Australian roots. I don’t find it easy to feel proud of Australia’s history, nor it’s present, the only thing I do feel pride for is the country’s natural beauty – the beaches, always the beaches.
The other reason for my new found connection with the Anzac spirit is my Grandfather. Besides being a very likeable sort of man, I have come to understand more of his role in World War 2 since he wrote down his memoirs. My brother was really the mastermind behind it, he took Grandfather’s handwritten notes, typed them into the computer (with some help from me) and ‘published’ it for the family. Reading Grandfather’s “The Great World” refreshed my knowledge of his part in the war, a history that I had only previously known existed, but never really known about.
Whatever my opinion politically or socially about war I have to hand it to the young people who go to foreign countries to fight foreign enemies who they may understand little about. It’s undeniably sad and grubby and tragic. That’s why I always feel an upwelling of emotion when I watched the Anzac Day parade – seeing the old men and women, knowing that they still bear bad memories of friends who didn’t come home, mental and physical injuries and remnants of anger and confusion.
Grandfather’s writing is characteristically straightforward when it comes to describing his experiences. And, believe me, he could have been graphic. After fighting for only a few weeks at the beginning of the war, he was captured with many other Australian soldiers fighting for England and made prisoners of the Japanese. For the next three and a half years, to me an eternity, he worked hard labour, building a railway line in Singapore. He’s not indulgent in detailing his sufferings, he doesn’t complain about the wasted years, he’s not even that bitter towards his masters. I don’t know if this is due more to the stoic character of the time or his way of dealing with the scars, but I think it does reflect his trust and reliance on God, something that kept him going when he was living hell in South Asia.
The other thing I love about Grandfather’s memoirs is his pure skill at writing. A tailor and soldier by trade, Grandfather really knows how to string together mellifluous sentences (better than me). Here are some excerpts…….
On surrender…..”An uncanny silence fell over the area. It seemed such a tragic silence, making it difficult to grasp what had happened, but the fact was plain enough. Singapore had surrendered unconditionally. Even though we were surprised and flabbergasted, there was no gesture that could adequately mark this moment in history. Some just swore, threw their rifles down, some just stood like statues in the empty streets.”
During captivity and missing my Grandma……..”One of the most moving moments happened in this camp. A concert party came in from Changi and put on a show one evening. Perhaps I was feeling a little low in spirits, however one of the artists, a young lad, dressed up as a female, sung ‘Goodnight sweetheart’. It was beautifully rendered. ‘She’ surely had a lovely voice, and the words of this song had me sobbing long after I lay down to sleep. Of course I was homesick, and lovesick for Betty.”
On friendship……”Many men were falling out along the way, so we took turns to help them shuffle forward, by having a man on each side of the sick one and he with his arms around the shoulders of the two supporting men. One could have enjoyed the march in other circumstances for the woods were alive with beautiful butterflies.”
Losing friends…..”Then on the 21/7/1943 we lost our dear friend Tom Carter. He was a tall slim man, about 6 foot in height and very wiry and strong. Fiercely loyal, not only to the crown, but also to his comrades. Tom died of the wretched cholera. It was a very fast and quick death, he returned from work one night and by midday the next day he was gone. As I was in camp I became part of his funeral, helping to carry his body on a bamboo stretcher to a funeral pyre made of bamboo. Jack Clarke, the acting padre, read the funeral service, then kerosene was splashed over his body and burnt. Later the ashes were gathered in a bottle and buried in a marked grave.”
Arriving home…..”On the 1st November 1945 we entered Sydney Harbour. The day was sunny and bright. As we closed in toward our mooring, we realised we were being met by a huge welcoming crowd. Emotions were running high, not only from the men aboard but also from the waiting welcomers. It seemed like an eternity before my turn came to walk down the gangplank and plant my feet on home soil. I uttered a silent prayer of thankfulness to the Lord and asked for confidence to face the future.”
Being reunited…..”I was seated just inside from the back platform of the double-decker bus when I became aware of a scuffle from the back exit platform. One could never have imagined what was happening for there was Betty pushing her way onto the bus, a policeman endeavouring to prevent her. I believe the copper was only half-hearted in trying to stop her for I noticed a slight smile on his face, as Betty gave him a push in the stomach and shoved past him. The bus was in uproar! The men witnessing were singing out, ‘Good on you Mansfield’ as we embraced and kissed. All around us in the bus and outside on the skittering street everything was movement and sound. And here before me, in my arms, was Betty.”
Lest I forget.