A story of messages bringing life's turning points.
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War and Peace
It was March 1944.
The world was at war; but, in the primitive little village of Merauke, built on a few dry strips, amidst the vast swamps of the Merauke/Digoel River delta in Dutch New Guinea, I was at peace.
The Japanese strategy was to send fighting patrols south and east to see what we were doing. In return, we sent patrols north and west to keep them under surveillance.
A few days earlier, a tattered bundle of much used and occasionally abused books, from the Australian Comforts Fund for troops in forward areas, had been delivered to our unit. Now, all being quiet on the Merauke front, I was resting my back against a tall coconut tree and reading a battered copy of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" - the great Russian novelist's masterpiece.
Suddenly, my peace was shattered by the arrival of a Don R - a despatch rider - on his noisy-as-Hell's-Angels motorbike.
He loped into a large, well concealed tent serving as our battalion headquarters.
Shortly after he left, a lieutenant approached me. As I rose, saluted and faced him, I thought he looked much more respectful than officers usually were to young soldiers, even though by then, after two years in Papua and now Dutch New Guinea, I'd risen to the exalted rank of lance-corporal.
"You're to report to Townsville for interview," he told me, trying to keep the disbelief out of his voice. "We're preparing your movement order. Be ready to fly out at dawn tomorrow."
"Will I be coming back, sir?"
He shrugged. "You'd better take all your gear - just in case."
Next morning, I boarded a Royal Dutch Air Force twin-engined Lockheed Hudson. All the other passengers were officers, up to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. I reckoned I'd joined the ranks of the mighty. We faced each other on long benches running the length of the cabin. We had no seat belts; no stewardesses!!
When we landed in Townsville, after short hops to Thursday Island and Cooktown, my overwhelming sentiment was sheer joy to have left the war behind and to be back in Aussie. I'm sure my happiness helped the interview to go wonderfully well. After two tough years, I felt that my fortunes had taken a sudden turn for the very much brighter and better.
After the interview and a couple of days in Oononba Staging Camp, word came through that I would not return to Merauke. For the moment at least, I was going to Brisbane.
There, on Anzac Day, 25 April 1944, at a commandeered "barracks" in Brisbane's West End, another Don R arrived. I can see him now as he delivered another message to another lieutenant. The young officer read the message and came towards me.
"You're to be discharged and report to the Department of External Affairs in Canberra," he said, "no later than the first of May."
That was just six days away.
I had to get myself properly - and bureaucratically - discharged at nearby Redbank and then somehow get myself to Canberra. It was tough. In wartime, transport was acutely short for the ordinary civilian. There were no planes, no cars, no buses and seats on trains were rationed on a system of priorities. However, I was determined to make it.
And I did.
At midday on 1 May 1944, exhausted, rumpled but victorious, I presented myself at the Department of External Affairs.
I was 21.
Sixty years later, our Japanese enemy has long ago become our Japanese friend. I have served for many years as Ambassador and High Commissioner to many countries and many international organisations. I have even written my own "War and Peace." Just as Tolstoy wrote about the Napoleonic wars with which he was familiar, so, in my novel "Haverleigh," I have told the story of young Australians at war in the campaigns with which I am familiar and how they lived at peace in the years that followed.
Two Don R's. Two of my best-remembered people - who may never have known even what their messages contained, let alone how they changed the whole course of a young soldier's life.....
Reader Reviews for
"War and Peace"
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|Reviewed by yan yan (Reader)
|thanks for sharing
|Reviewed by Ch'erie de Perrot
|A wonderfully written account of how things were for you all those many years ago, and of how you recall them today.
Thanks for the sharing James,
|Reviewed by m j hollingshead
|Reviewed by Victoria Murray
|Excellent Write, James! Thanks for sharing this!