December 8, 1941
‘Men and women of Australia, we are at war with Japan.
That has happened because, in the first instance, Japanese naval and air forces launched an unprovoked attack on British and United States territory; because our vital interests are imperiled and because the rights of free people in the whole Pacific are assailed. As a result, the Australian Government this afternoon took the necessary steps which will mean that a state of war exists between Australia and Japan. Tomorrow, in common with the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the Netherlands East Indies governments, the Australian Government will formal y and solemnly declare the state of war it has striven so sincerely and strenuously to avoid.
Throughout the whole affair, and despite discouragement, the Australian Government and its representatives abroad struggled hard to prevent a breakdown of discussions. Australia encouraged the United States to retain the diplomatic initiative on behalf the democratic powers. We did not want war in the Pacific. The Australian Government has repeatedly made it clear – as have the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and the Netherlands East Indies – that if war came to the Pacific it would be of Japan’s making . . .’
Donald Macintosh stood with his head bent towards the polished wooden cabinet that housed the radio set. The Australian Prime Minister finished his historic announce-ment and the commentators began their analysis. Donald switched off the radio and stared for a moment out of the library window.
‘Did you hear Curtin’s speech?’ Sarah asked anxiously from the open doorway. His sister looked ashen-faced and he could see she was trembling. ‘Will the Japanese bomb Sydney tonight?’
Donald slumped into a big leather chair. He was in need of a stiff drink. ‘I doubt it. From what I’ve heard they’re still way up north, and their attack on the Yanks at Pearl Harbor will mean that the Americans will send forces to help us repel the Japs before they reach Australia. No doubt Mr Churchill will be celebrating now that the Americans are sure to enter the war. You can rest assured that we are safe, for now.’
‘Do you think David will be returned to Australia now that we are at war with Japan?’ Sarah asked. Donald felt a twinge of envy. His cousin David was serving with an Australian infantry battalion in Syria. Donald had tried to enlist, but his role in industry was deemed too important for him to serve in the armed forces.
He suspected his enlistment had been blocked by his father, Sir George Macintosh. His illness had placed him on the sidelines of his own financial empire but he still held enough power and influence to control his son’s future. As a result, Donald had spent the last two years of the war against Germany and her allies negotiating contracts with the government rather than doing what he saw as his duty, which was fighting for his country, and his work had proved him to be an astute businessman that had pleased his controlling father ‘I doubt that David will be sent home any time soon,’ Donald answered. He knew his sister had a crush on David. For some bizarre reason she seemed to think he was the reincarnation of an obscure ancestor of theirs called Michael Duffy. Perhaps she was as crazy as their father. ‘Churchill will need our divisions in North Africa to fight Rommel’s mob, and I doubt that Curtin will have the guts to insist they come home instead.’ Sarah nodded – he could see she was disappointed – and turned away. Donald rummaged through the cocktail cabinet for a bottle of good Scotch. He poured himself a large drink in a crystal tumbler and resumed his leather chair. His thoughts were not on the consequences of these recent developments in the war on those fighting, but on how this new and perilous situation with Japan might affect the fortunes of the family companies. He had to concede that he was more like his father than he cared to admit.
In Syria, Lieutenant David Macintosh was thinking about how warm it would be back home under the sun of an Australian summer. The weather was freezing here and already the mountains were capped with snow. There was information that a German blitzkrieg was on its way and his platoon were building defences. Explosives were being used to blast trenches and bunkers out of the hillside, while his men worked with picks and shovels to clear away the blasted rock. They looked none too happy about it and David wondered how he could make their job easier. Nothing he could do about the cold, though.
He stamped his feet on the hard earth to keep them from freezing and blew hot air into his gloved hands. ‘Heard the news, old boy?’ came a voice from behind him. David turned to see a fellow platoon commander struggling up the hill to his side. ‘What?’ David countered. ‘Santa Claus can’t make it through the German flak to deliver us beer and women? ‘Lieutenant John Dulley smiled tightly. ‘The Japs have attacked in the Pacific. They bombed the Yanks at Pearl Harbor and are attacking Hong Kong, Malaya and the Philippines. We have a new enemy on the other side of the world. Maybe we might get out of this bloody cold and go home.’
‘Strange to think that the Japanese were our allies in the last war,’ David mused. ‘But it would be good to get away from this Godforsaken bit of land and fight where it’s warmer.’
‘Got to go and find my sergeant,’ Dulley said, thrusting his gloved hands in the pockets of his greatcoat. He stamped away, leaving David to reflect on this terrible development in a war they seemed to be losing against the might of Germany’s forces. Here he was fighting Frenchmen of the Vichy army when he still had fond memories of his days in Paris back in 1936 before he’d left to fight against Franco’s Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. Truth was, he had been fighting for almost six years, with only a short break before he enlisted in the Australian Army two years ago. David knew that he was fortunate to be commissioned as his record of service with the Communist International Brigades was known to the Australian government. Only the influence of his patron, Sean Duffy, a well-known Sydney solicitor and former decorated army officer of the Great War, had made the commission possible. At the start of the year David had led his platoon against the Italians at Bardia in North Africa, and since then had fought in the disastrous Greek campaign against the German Army. Now he found himself fighting Frenchmen allied to Hitler. International politics was a funny thing, David mused as one of the sappers warned of another charge to be detonated. He lay down on the hard cold earth as the explosion rocked the ground. Maybe he would find himself fighting against the Japanese in Asia next. Would there be anyone left he had not fired upon in his young life?
First Lieutenant James Duffy drove his series 90 Cadillac V16 sports car like he flew his fighter plane – fast. The road was slippery with ice as he manoeuvred between the rows of tall bare trees up the driveway of his grandfather’s grand mansion in New Hampshire. James was in his early-twenties and a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corp air force unit stationed at Quantico, Virginia. He loved flying, as had his father, Matthew Duffy. Both James’s parents were dead, and he and his twin sister had been raised by their maternal grandfather, James Barrington Snr. James, much to his grandfather’s consternation, had adopted his father’s family name and was now known as a Duffy rather than a Barrington. Christmas was not far away and James had been granted leave to return home to enjoy eggnog, logs burning in the huge fireplace in the living room, and the bevy of beautiful debutantes who would be paraded before him by their wealthy families this Yuletide season. He slid the sports car to a halt in front of the imposing steps that led to the grand front entrance and jumped out. His twin sister, Olivia, ran down the steps and hugged him tight. The sun was going down through a grey sky that promised a heavy snowfall.
‘James, have you heard the news?’ she gasped.
‘What news?’ James countered. ‘I’ve been on the road for the last eight hours.’
‘The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. Mr Roosevelt is sure to announce that we are at war at any moment,’ Olivia exclaimed.
James was shocked. He had many friends at the Ewa base on the island of Oahu just seventeen miles west of Pearl Harbor, and he had been there on flight exercises last year.
He tried to imagine the tranquil tropical island ravaged by bombs, but somehow he could not quite believe in it. It seemed impossible. ‘Oh, dear,’ Olivia said. ‘Does that mean the army will cancel your leave for Christmas?’ she asked.
‘I keep telling you, sis, that I am not in the army. I am a marine,’ James said, correcting his twin. ‘The army is full of knuckle-dragging losers. Anyway, how is Grandfather?’
‘He’s well, and even if he doesn’t express his pleasure at your visit, I know he’s looking forward to seeing you,’ Olivia said, leading her brother up the steps where they were met by the valet, an old black man dressed in a dark suit.
‘Good evening, Lieutenant Barrington,’ he said. James did not correct the old man – he had resigned himself to being a Barrington under his grandfather’s roof. ‘Do you have any luggage?’
‘I have a sea bag in the car, Ronald,’ James answered.
‘How are you?’
‘Very well, Mr Barrington,’ the manservant answered dutifully, bracing himself against the weather to retrieve James’s luggage. ‘I will take your bag up to your room.’
James nodded and stepped inside the great house.
Immediately the winter cold dissipated. Olivia took his hand and led him into the vast living room where James Barrington Snr stood by a fireplace warming his hands. He turned when Olivia called to him and for a brief moment a smile seemed to flash across his face at the sight of his only grandson wearing the uniform of a marine pilot.
‘How are you, sir?’ James asked, walking briskly to shake his grandfather’s extended hand. James Barrington Snr was entering his seventies but he still stood ramrod straight, a tall, patrician-looking man with thick silver hair.
‘I am well and I suppose you have already heard the news about the goddamned Japanese,’ he said, releasing his strong grip on James’s hand. ‘I suppose they will cancel your leave.’
‘I guess they will,’ James answered, gazing into the flick-ering flames of the fire. ‘I only heard the news when Olivia told me, but it was not unexpected. We’ve been on alert for some months now over Japanese intentions in the Pacific.
But I thought they would make a declaration before they started bombing Pearl Harbor.’
‘Both your sister and I feel that you should take a job in Washington,’ Barrington said, bypassing any chitchat. He was a man who had made his fortune in banking with a no-nonsense New England approach to business. During the Great Depression Barrington enterprises had purchased properties and businesses being sold for next to nothing by overstretched entrepreneurs. The Depression had eased and the investments were beginning to pay. ‘You have the experience to work on one of the vital war committees advising Mr Roosevelt. In fact, I discussed the matter with him last month when I was in Washington.’
‘I’m a flyer, Grandfather, just as my father was,’ James said quietly.
‘I wouldn’t be happy working a desk in Washington when my buddies were risking their lives in the skies over the Pacific.’
‘The country will recruit thousands of pilots,’ Barrington snapped, ‘but I have only one grandson to inherit everything that I have built up. If you go off to war, there’s a good chance you will be killed.’
‘Grandfather,’ Olivia broke in gently, ‘I think we should let James thaw out and have dinner before we discuss his future.’
‘Very well,’ Barrington replied gruffly. ‘It’s good to have you home for the holidays, James. I have a case of good Kentucky bourbon for us to try after dinner. We can talk then.’James shrugged. As far as he was concerned, the matter was not up for discussion. He was determined to return to his unit for deployment overseas to fight as his father, Captain Matthew Duffy, had two decades earlier. He thought for a moment about his stepmother. She was a wonderful lady who had married his father only days before his death. The last James had heard from her was a letter from Singapore weeks ago. He needed to find a radio and glean as much as he could about the Japanese attack in the Pacific. God forbid that his stepmother and her four-year-old son, his half-brother, were caught up in the war. The thought horrified him. Diane Duffy did not have to listen to the radio to know that the Japanese imperial forces were attacking Allied-held territories in the Pacific. She was hugging the concrete of the British Royal Air Force airfield on the island of Singapore as Japanese aircraft rained bombs down all around her. Air raid sirens were screaming their banshee wail and Diane could feel the gut-wrenching blasts shake the earth beneath her. She could hardly believe this was happening to her. She had only come to the airstrip to pick up a part for one of her aeroplanes and now she found herself out in the open, without any shelter from the terrifying bombard-ment. Each explosion sent debris flying, and Diane was sure that if a direct hit didn’t kill her, the debris would.
Eventually the bombing stopped and Diane struggled to her feet. Above the loud ringing in her ears she could hear the moans and screams of the wounded, and she could smell the acrid odour of burning aircraft.
Diane stumbled towards her small truck, which she had parked not far from a hangar that housed a mechanics work-shop. The whole building was alight now, but thankfully her truck was still intact. She stumbled past smoking chunks of shrapnel and wondered how she had survived in the open. She knew that other people hadn’t been so lucky, and some of the injured would need help, but right now only one thing mattered to her – the safety of her son. Patrick was staying with her old Canadian engineer, Cyril, and his family in the countryside north of Singapore. ‘Please God, let my boy be safe,’ she begged over and over.
Driving through the streets of the city she could see that bombs had exploded amongst the innocent. Human body parts were scattered everywhere, and badly wounded Chinese and Malay residents staggered around in a daze.
Diane started praying harder. ‘Please God, let Patrick be safe.’
February – July 1942
Early February 1942 and Singapore had become the last bastion against the relentless Japanese drive southwards along the Malay Peninsula. British, Indian and Australian troops had fought their foe along the narrow jungle roads and in the rubber plantations, but had found them-selves rapidly outflanked and cut off in the fighting retreat. The British-controlled forces had inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese, but the enemy was fanatically brave and, undaunted, continued the assault on Singapore. Diane Duffy was many miles north of the island, wading across a jungle stream with her son and a small group of mixed Chinese and Europeans. They were attempting to evade the Japanese. It was the wet season and the rain was belting down. Diane was up to her waist in the rapidly swelling waters; four-year-old Patrick clung tightly around her neck with childish desperation. The fast-flowing muddy waters dragged at Diane and for a moment she stood frozen, overwhelmed with panic. But she knew she must stay in control for Patrick’s sake, so she took a deep breath, steadied herself and carried on through the raging water.
Minutes later Cyril Blacksmith appeared by her side and reached out to take Patrick in his arms. Cyril had been her loyal engineer in her aviation company but had retired to live with his Chinese wife, Po. He was in his early fifties, tough and wiry, but the trek was taking a toll on him, as it was on everyone. Cyril had been able to get his wife and two-year-old daughter, Lan, across the stream and had returned to assist Diane. She was grateful for his help, and the three made it safely to the other side of the jungle creek. The small party struggled on through the dense jungle to the town of Jerantut.
The town was mostly composed of Malays with populations of Chinese and Indians conducting business through their street stalls. There Cyril soon located other European civilians fleeing the Japanese and Diane remained with Po and Lan. Po was a plain woman in her thirties who had met Cyril, almost twice her age, when she had worked as a clerk and interpreter for Diane’s aviation company in Kuala Lumpur. With retirement looming Cyril awkwardly proposed to Po who shyly accepted his offer of marriage.
A baby girl followed and Cyril purchased a small property at the edge of the tiger infested jungle where he intended to grow rubber trees. But the war had come in December to disrupt their happy lives together and they were forced to evacuate their property.
‘I found a few more who are going in the same direction as us,’ he told Diane. ‘They intend to make their way across the mountains to Kuala Lipis. Our only hope of getting to safety is if we can make it to Singapore and hitch a ride out on one of Tyrone’s flying boats.’
‘As far as I know, only two Europeans have ever taken that route before – and that was in the dry season,’ Diane said. ‘Do you think we can make it in the wet season?’
Cyril frowned. ‘I don’t think we have much choice.’
Diane knew Cyril was right. Tyrone McKee had been her best pilot but had resigned from her company to fly the majestic amphibious aircraft that now linked the world. Ty had offered to fly them out to Australia, and given that the ships evacuating civilians were being sunk by the Japanese air force, that seemed the safer option. Truth was, it was their only hope.
‘We walk across the mountains,’ Diane sighed. ‘When do we leave?’
‘This afternoon,’ Cyril said. ‘We will be travelling with a young couple from England, and a Malay policeman to guide us. I’ve arranged to purchase supplies from a local Indian trader.’
Diane glanced up at the sky with the professional eye of an experienced aviatrix. Thunderheads boiled over-head, promising torrential downpours. The journey would be difficult and dangerous. Before them lay mountainous jungle populated with deadly snakes and, lurking in the shadows, tigers. Close behind them, the advancing Japanese army destroyed everything in its path.
Lieutenant David Macintosh was relieved that his company was leaving the snowdrifts behind and travelling to the warmer climes of Palestine. The steam train puffed its signal to the embarking Australian troops in Damas that it was ready to depart and David climbed aboard a carriage designated for officers. He was welcomed by his fellow platoon commander, Lieutenant Peter Herbert, gesturing to him from a bench seat with a silver flask. Beside Herbert was John Dulley and the three men made up the complement of the platoon commanders from one of their battalion’s rifle companies.
‘Kept a seat for you, old chap,’ Herbert said, offering David the flask. ‘Got your boys squared away?’
‘Yeah,’ David answered, taking a swig. ‘They were in good spirits, and the company sergeant major has them under control.’
‘Do you reckon the powers that be are sending us home to face the Japs?’ Dulley asked.
‘Who bloody knows,’ David shrugged. ‘At least we’re getting out of the snow and don’t have to shoot Froggies any more.’
‘I heard we might be going to Burma,’ Herbert said. ‘It seems the Poms are concerned the Japs might use Burma to get to India.’
‘We need to look after our own first,’ Dulley growled as the train lurched into motion with a clanking of metal and hissing of steam.
Silence fell between the three men as the Swiss-built engine pulled its cargo of Australian soldiers south. They passed through spectacularly rugged landscapes, travelling down a narrow cutting into the Yarmak Valley. The engine driver seemed to love pulling on the whistle cord, his train hurtling along the narrow steel track and providing the passengers with a thrilling ride.
As night fell, the three platoon commanders were deep in their own thoughts. David settled into sleep snuggled in his greatcoat and a woollen blanket. His dreams were filled with images of the terrible bloodletting he had witnessed from the craggy hills of Spain to the snow-covered fields of Syria. He twitched and whimpered all night, but he did not disturb his fellow officers. Their dreams, too, were filled with horror.
Sir George Macintosh rarely attended his Sydney office. He and his estranged son Donald had tacitly agreed on a truce for the sake of the family’s vast financial empire. Sir George had even invited his son back into the Macintosh house-hold on the harbour; Donald didn’t need to know it was so Sir George could keep an eye on him. However, their meeting this morning was in the hospital where Sir George was receiving medical treatment for a heart condition brought on by syphilis.
Sir George was propped up in his bed in a private room and he looked at his son with a hint of hostility. Sir George was in his late fifties but the insidious disease made him look much older. His skin had a grey tinge and his hair was thin and faded. In the last two years Sir George had been prone to delusions and hallucinations as the illness ate away at his brain. When he was lucid, however, he retained a sharp mind for business matters, and Donald had enough sense to consult with his father during these periods. All Donald knew about his father’s medical condition was that he had a heart condition. The cause of the heart condition was kept a closely guarded secret.
‘Is your mother still living with that crippled papist Irishman?’ Sir George growled by way of a greeting. Donald felt awkward. The man his father referred to had become a close friend and confidant. Sean Duffy was a well-known Sydney solicitor who had lost his legs fighting in the Great War. He had been decorated for bravery and was highly regarded by all who came in contact with him.
Louise Macintosh, Sir George’s estranged wife, certainly loved Sean, and the two of them lived together in her flat overlooking the city’s beautiful harbour.
‘I believe so,’ Donald answered, pulling up a chair beside his father’s bed. He did not intend to say any more; his mother’s life was none of Sir George’s business. He did not care that his father was obsessed with his mother’s romantic interests. The truce only extended to matters of business as Donald often dined with his mother and Sean at her flat.
‘Your sister was here earlier,’ Sir George said as Donald took a cigarette and lit it. He did not bother to offer his father one. ‘She is complaining that the board members do not take her seriously due to her sex and age.’
‘Sarah is very competent but she lacks experience,’
Donald replied, blowing smoke into the warm air of the hospital room. ‘I am looking after her if you have any worries about her position in the companies.’
‘She seems to have a preoccupation with that Jew, David Macintosh,’ Sir George said, staring past his son. ‘She has some lunatic idea that he is a reincarnation of Michael Duffy.’
‘Did you ever meet Michael Duffy?’ Donald asked, deflecting the conversation away from his cousin.
Sir George did not reply immediately as his thoughts drifted back forty years to the turn of the century. ‘I met the man,’ he finally answered. ‘He was another papist whose only intention was to ruin the Macintosh name.
Your Uncle Alexander spent some time with Duffy up around Glen View when he was young. Alexander was present when Michael Duffy was killed by some wild animal . . . a buffalo, I believe, gored him to death. It was good riddance too.’
Donald did not want to spook his father but had an interest in Michael Duffy. His sister was obsessed by him, to the point of believing David was his reincarnation, despite the fact she had been reared in a strictly Protestant creed which did not accept the philosophy of rebirth.
‘Did this Michael Duffy look anything like David?’
Sir George frowned. ‘From my memory of the man, I suppose you could say that he and your cousin do look alike. I would even venture that they act in similar ways. It was rumoured that Michael Duffy was a soldier of fortune who travelled the world fighting other people’s wars. That made him nothing more than a brutal killer.’
Donald found the subject fascinating as it appeared
Michael Duffy might be his ancestor, despite Sir George’s denials. Sarah had possession of the diary of their great-grandmother, Lady Enid Macintosh, and it made for extremely interesting reading. From her reading, Sarah speculated that Michael Duffy may have been the real father of their own grandfather, Patrick, who had held the Duffy name until his death. Sadly, time had seen the loss of witnesses, so nothing could be proven.
Donald changed the subject and spent the next half-hour discussing various matters concerning the war’s impact on the family enterprises, and his father was able to give sound advice, which Donald heeded.
Eventually Donald rose and gruffly bid his father a good day. The salutation was not returned and Donald closed the door behind him, relieved that the meeting was over.
Many miles north of Sydney on the island of New Britain, Sister Camillus strolled amongst the frangipani bushes skirting the perimeter of the missionary station. Before she had taken her vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and adopted the name of an obscure sixteenth century saint, Sister Camillus had been known as Jessica Duffy. She was the only daughter of the reclusive Queensland millionaire, Tom Duffy, and she had her father’s slim shape and her French mother’s cherubic face. Not that her beauty mattered in the closeted world of the convent.
The mid-morning sun was high over the rainforest-covered mountains that framed the quiet missionary station in its broad green valley, and the local people were long at work in their vegetable gardens. They waved to Jessica when she passed and she called out greetings in the local dialect.
Sister Camillus was popular amongst the people who lived around the mission station. She taught the children in a little hut with open sides, wooden benches and an old chalk board.
She was on her way there when a dark-skinned young man clad only in a pair of trousers ran up her. ‘Sister Camillus, Mother Superior, she want see you at her office.’
Jessica thanked the young man and walked the half-kilometre through the well-tended grounds to the cluster of buildings with corrugated iron roofs that made up the core of the missionary station. As she approached the mother superior’s office, stepping up onto the wide verandah that surrounded the building, she felt sure that she was being called from her teaching duties to answer questions about the views she had expressed yesterday supporting the animistic beliefs of the local people. Perhaps it was because she was part Aboriginal that she empathised with beliefs about ancestor worship, but she knew her opinions shocked the other nuns.
Jessica stood before the mother superior’s office and knocked on the frame of the gauze-covered door.
‘Come in,’ Sister Michael called, and Jessica stepped into the room. It was a warm muggy day and the mother superior had indulged in the luxury of a small hand-held fan to cool herself.
‘Please take a chair, Sister Camillus,’ Sister Michael said wearily as she placed the fan on the small desk before her.
‘I know you have doubts about my faith, Mother Superior,’ Jessica began as she sat down in a chair opposite the desk, but her words were waved aside by the older nun.
‘That is not why I have asked you to come to my office,’ she said. ‘I have just learned that the Japanese are advancing and have massacred Australian soldiers at a plantation not far from here. It appears the Japanese are not recognising the Geneva Convention, and I fear they may commit atroci ties against us when they get here.’ Sister Michael could see the confusion on Jessica’s face. ‘Although you are not the most senior nun here, I wanted you to know – despite our differences on spiritual matters – I have had time to observe that of all my sisters you are the most intelligent and capable. If anything should happen to me, I would like you to assume my duties protecting our congregation and the other sisters.’
‘Mother –’ Jessica began to protest, but was once again cut short by Sister Michael.
‘I know my appointment will not meet with the approval of one or two of the older sisters, but they have taken the vow of obedience – as you have – and will accept the will of God. I have also consulted with the bishop and he agrees with my decision.’
Jessica sat in stunned surprise. She had always felt that Sister Michael disapproved of her, as Jessica had been outspoken on more than one occasion and had been forced to repent through long hours of solitary prayers, kneeling in the chapel before the big wooden cross mounted behind the altar.
The responsibility of being in charge, should anything happen to Sister Michael, fell heavily on Jessica’s shoulders, and the news that the Japanese soldiers were slaughtering captured Australian soldiers was terrifying. How could God allow such a thing?
She could see through the open windows of the office to the blue skies outside. They were filled with a swarm of colourful butterflies, and she could hear the laughter of children making their way towards her classroom. The mission was peaceful now, but evil was on its way.
‘You should go to your children, Sister Camillus,’ the mother superior said gently. ‘It will be up to you to protect them against what may be coming. All we can do now is pray that God will watch over us.’
Outgunned and outnumbered, Sergeant Bruce King of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles had fought on the beaches around Rabaul alongside the Australian infantry battalion against an overwhelming force of Japanese naval and army invaders. It had been hopeless from the beginning as Japanese fighter planes made strafing raids against the pitiful number of defenders. They had resisted valiantly, knowing that they were alone without hope of help. Now the few survivors fell back into the jungle-clad mountains, determined to fight on against the pursuing Japanese soldiers.
Bruce King was a tough, solidly built man in his late forties with a pleasant suntanned face and curly greying hair.
He had served on the Western Front in the last war and had earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery. To all criteria set down for enlistment in the army he was too old for this war, but the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles was a self-formed militia unit, composed of local men who were really civilians with weapons. Most had military experience in the Great War and had only weeks earlier been plantation owners and managers, gold miners and civil servants. Bruce King had managed a plantation in New Guinea belonging to a wonderful German woman, Karolina Schumann, and her grandson, David Macintosh. The last war had lived in his nightmares for years and he had just come to a kind of peace when he once again found himself carrying a .303
Lee Enfield rifle. Now he was fighting in a world of dark, humid forests where the sun hardly broke through the tall canopy.
Bruce found it hard to focus on the muddy trail ahead of him as the malaria racked his body. He hardly thought about the fact that he was hungry and could not remember the last time he had eaten.
‘We make a defence here,’ the only surviving officer said, and most of his men, around twenty of them, collapsed gratefully onto the bracken-covered ground.
Bruce King gripped his rifle and gazed around. The officer had not seen combat until the day the Japanese landed on the beaches, and Bruce was concerned this location was ideal for an ambush. He knew that they were north of the Kalai mission station and near the Tol plantation from his scrutiny of maps before the savage fighting on the beach of the Gazelle Peninsula. A place of high mountains and steep slopes with a sandy beach the region was already overrun by the Japanese. He could hear the voices of Japanese soldiers not far from the forlorn position they now occu-pied. Most of the men were suffering dysentery or malaria, and some were suffering both. Exhausted, Bruce listened to the officer argue for surrender and for once he thought the young officer had made the right decision. They were all at the limits of their endurance.
The weary and sick Australian soldiers made their way down to the nearby beach. There they were met with bayonet-tipped rifles and looks of distain. The young officer stepped forward to meet his counterpart and received a withering tirade in Japanese. Bruce had spent time in Japan after the Great War, and from what he could gather, the Japanese officer was speaking of their disgrace in surrendering without fighting to the last man. When Bruce glanced around at the Japanese soldiers guarding them, he noticed their expressions of contempt and he began to feel uneasy.
‘What you think the Nips will do to us, sarge?’ a young soldier asked Bruce nervously.
‘Put us in a prisoner of war camp and give us a good meal of rice and fish,’ Bruce replied reassuringly.
Some of the guards stepped forward with heavy fishing line and began to secure the wrists of the unresisting Australian soldiers. They were directed to march off the beach to labour quarters on what Bruce knew was the Tol plantation, and there they spent the night surrounded by armed guards. No one was fed and the sick suffered. Bruce spent the night alternating between cold and hot fever bouts, but in the morning felt a little better.
The Japanese roused them early and directed them to the plantation house that had become their HQ. The Australians’ army numbers and names were taken and recorded in a book. Next they were ordered to pile their personal possessions and pay books on a table. Afterwards they once again had their hands tied behind their backs and were lined up in groups of ten. Overnight other prisoners had been brought in and Bruce guessed that there were around a hundred men in all. After a period of waiting they were given the order to march into the scrub surrounding the plantation house.
Bruce noticed that the three Japanese guards assigned to his group carried spades and had bayonets fixed on their rifles. He suddenly felt sick with fear. The undergrowth they were moving through was tall and dense and the other groups were breaking away and being taken off out of sight.
Bruce knew he had to act now; he would rather be shot trying to escape than go passively to his execution. When they came to a bend in the track and the overconfident guards lost sight of their line of prisoners, Bruce ducked down and rolled into the bush.
When he came to a halt he lay still and barely breathing until he could hear the party move on, and then slithered, his hands behind his back, through the undergrowth. When the shouting and screaming began, he thanked God that he was not witnessing his comrades’ final moments. The massacre at the Tol plantation had begun.