Voices from the air, p.27

Voices from the Air, page 27


Voices from the Air

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  The English tones of his voice, probably accentuated by his time in England, landed him a job as an ABC announcer in Perth. Thoughtful, idealistic and left-wing, John and Pat had been appalled by the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe, and back in Australia they became what Pat later described as a couple of ‘inefficient Communists’. John enlisted in the army at the end of 1942, refused the opportunity to become an officer and spent time as an inept radio mechanic with an Army radar unit before he was transferred to Army education, where he was much more usefully and happily employed making radio programs for the troops.3

  In mid-1945, the ABC director of Talks, BH Molesworth, asked Thompson to return to the ABC as a war correspondent. Thompson described his time in the army as ‘most unwarlike’, and he did not obviously fit the mould of war correspondent. He was not a newsman or a commentator, nor a knockabout bloke or adventurer, but he was a fine broadcaster and producer, and a talented writer with an intelligent and curious mind. He had been happy working with Army education, but he accepted the offer, with characteristic honesty, replying to Molesworth, ‘I . . . hope you will be pleased with my work . . .’4

  Thompson’s poetry did not dwell on his experiences as a war correspondent but from his own time in the Army he drew affectionate portraits of the soldiers on the home front. ‘Ours is a troop-train, packed with lean wry lads who play cards, yarn, smoke.’5 There were no grand heroics in Thompson’s few poems of wartime but they had a reflective tone. The soldiers were ‘the mild men of the army’ who seldom talked of war: ‘the task which clamps its dumb monotony on the weeks and years and will not let them go.’ In his poem Troops, Thompson’s soldiers, holding fast to precious photographs and waiting for each letter from home, were imbued with a sense of loss – ‘for much of which they dream changes or disappears’.6 It seems an appropriate perspective for a correspondent who would cover the aftermath of the great cataclysm of the war.

  When the Japanese signed the surrender document in Tokyo Bay at the beginning of September, Thompson was in the field, preparing to go to Rabaul. In this part of the Pacific theatre, where so many Australians had fought and died, he found many of the battlefields already much changed.

  All over the world and at all times, in peace and in war, places of arrival and departure have one thing to be said for them. They can be places of intense boredom, especially in war, but all things human come together within them.

  Lae is one of those places that strikes one that way now.

  It is Lieutenant General Sturdee’s headquarters and the centre of widespread organisational work, but an ocean of water has hurried down Butibum Creek since the hard times when Australian patrols fought their way from the ranges and Allied bombers bashed enemy shipping in the bay. The streams of transport planes moved into other skies a long time ago, as we count time these days. Sleepy Moresby now can hardly believe that a checking point once recorded the passage of eighty thousand trucks in a single day. Nadzab was cleared, widened, and crisscrossed with roads and airstrips to become perhaps the biggest airbase in the South West Pacific, but the jungle is creeping in from the sides and springing up from the abandoned ground; the natives are returning; there’s nothing at Nadzab now.

  At Finschhafen they tell you ‘There’s nothing at Finsch now.’ It’s the same at Lae.

  But Lae is a point of arrival and departure. There’s everything there, even when they say there’s nothing . . .

  For many months to come men will be passing through Lae, idling and yarning and speculating for a week or two before their ship or plane carries them away to the south. Track by track, site by site, the marks of the South West Pacific armies will disappear.7

  On 6 September, Thompson recorded the Rabaul surrender ceremony on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Glory, which formally put 140,000 Japanese troops under Australian control in preparation for their eventual repatriation. Thompson later recalled that the Allied commanders mistrusted the Japanese so much that they would not take the carrier nearer than 60 miles to Rabaul. Four days later, he came ashore at Rabaul, not long after the first Australian troops.

  I began my first notes . . . seated on the wing of a wrecked Japanese serial thirty nine fighter bomber adjacent to the beach sands where landing craft were driving in with men of the 11th Division.8

  It was a smooth and uneventful landing. A mile and a half from the beachhead towards Rabaul, a young boy was throwing down green coconuts from the tops of the trees and Thompson shared one with some of the heavily laden soldiers in the scorching heat. As he walked along the road, he was assailed by the cloying smell of rotten food, mouldy clothing and what he suspected was the odour of death. The harbour was ‘piled with rust-red wrecks, some with funnels sticking out of the bay, others with their bows on the beaches and their hinder parts submerged in deep water. The young jungle is crowded with crashed aeroplanes, overturned trucks and wrecked cottages.’9

  Thompson’s poet’s eye saw incongruence and contrast in the scenes around him: ‘. . . the intoxicating hibiscus flourishes in all kinds of unlikely places and over everything rise the headless stems and stumps of battle-beaten coconut trees’. The Japanese too had left their mark on the landscape – they had dug miles of tunnels into the hillsides, laid out extensive gardens to grow food and set up camps inland from the wrecked town, which had been the target of countless Allied air raids. ‘I saw for myself,’ wrote Thompson, ‘that everything above ground was extremely formidable or skilfully camouflaged. The concrete water tanks . . . have been turned into blockhouses with slits at every approach and the ground is studded with heavily timbered pillboxes and holes that appear to lead into defensive hideouts. One gets the impression that Rabaul might easily have proved another Okinawa.’10

  A small group of Allied prisoners of war who had been freed from Rabaul before the landing had told war correspondents that ‘there was much weeping among the Japs when they knew that Japan was defeated and one fanatic cut his throat in the centre of the parade ground when the Emperor’s acceptance was made public to the troops’.11 Driving out of town, Thompson found that ‘Japanese in work parties in trucks and in small encampments became fairly numerous when we left the last Australian patrol behind. They stared at us woodenly and some saluted’.12 There was little trouble for the occupying Australians and within two days of the landing, Thompson reported that ‘there have been no incidents and the remaining Japs in our area are being shepherded gradually southwards’.13

  Fewer than 2,000 Australians from the 2/22 Battalion and other units had garrisoned the harbour town when it was captured by the Japanese, and there were now none left at Rabaul. Hundreds had escaped after by way of gruelling journeys across the island of New Britain, 160 had been massacred by the Japanese at Tol Plantation, and hundreds more had died in the sinking of the prison transport ship the Montevideo Maru, or been shipped to Japan. As a result the prisoners of war and internees that Thompson saw at Rabaul were Indian soldiers or Chinese.

  One of the first things we saw when we got near the Indian camp was a small party of men in turbans standing around a newly filled in grave. Another poor chap gone, wasted by malnutrition or broken by disease or both. The camp a few hundred yards further on was strung out along the road in the bottom of a valley. Tall trees admitted sunshine only in patches. We were taken to meet Colonel SM Ishaq of the Hyderabad State Forces . . . He had seen some of his men killed with spades and others tied to trees for twenty-four hours without food. They were not treated as prisoners but slaves.14

  At the camp for Chinese civilian internees, twelve miles into the Japanese lines, Thompson noted that ‘the difference was unmistakable between the open cheerful faces’ of the liberated prisoners and the impenetrable looks of the Japanese soldiers.

  Hundreds of Chinese men and women, boys and girls, the very old and the very young, rushed from every direction. The clearing was packed with laughing exultant people. It was extremely moving. The constraint from which our coming has release
d these people has lasted a long time.15

  Even before he arrived in Rabaul, Thompson believed that it would quickly stale as a source of news, and he was keen to follow up with another assignment. Rabaul was effectively the sum of his role as a war correspondent – it did not last long and his next assignment was to cover the political forces unleashed by the war in one of Australia’s closest neighbours. In November, after a roundabout route via Ceylon, he arrived in Java, where the backwash from the war was being felt in the nationalist conflict and political struggle for Indonesian independence. Thompson returned to Australia several months later.

  Chapter 19


  The reckoning for Japanese atrocities during the war began in the months following the Japanese surrender. ABC correspondent, Talbot Duckmanton, covered the first war crimes trial by an Australian court, on the island of Morotai, which was now a transit point for the repatriation of POWs and soldiers. Australian trials of Japanese war crimes were also held at other locations throughout the Pacific theatre.

  For five days now I have attended the sittings of the war trials court and on each of the five days I have listened to Japanese soldiers relate, without any sign of distress at all, the ghastly details of the bayonetting to death of Australian and American airmen.1

  The war crimes trials lifted the veil from the dark truth about Japan’s treatment of prisoners of war. Reporting of Japanese atrocities had often been constrained during the war for reasons of public morale and to protect next of kin, but they became increasingly widely reported as the war progressed.

  Tales of atrocities and war crimes had begun to emerge as Australian and Allied forces won back territory from the Japanese in New Guinea and elsewhere,2 but instances, including execution and mutilation were known to war correspondents as early as the Kokoda campaign. Bill Marien also came across evidence during his assignment to Timor at the end of 1942 – in one case, Japanese soldiers had bound the hands of four Australians, shot them from behind and then bayonetted the bodies. The information provided by Marien and another correspondent was apparently turned into a script by Army public relations, or the Department of Information, for broadcast in America under the title – Japanese Savagery in Island War.3

  Like John Thompson, Talbot Duckmanton was a ‘post-war correspondent’, but he had been recommended for a war correspondent role four years earlier, to replace Lawrence Cecil with the mobile unit in the Middle East. Duckmanton was a promising young broadcaster but he was only 19 at the time. Dudley Leggett was nominated for the position instead, though the field unit returned to Australia and the plan was abandoned.

  Talbot Duckmanton studied at Sydney’s Newington College as a scholarship student; he was the school’s champion athlete and dux of the college. He joined the ABC as a cadet announcer and spent the first three months in the despatch department, running messages and operating the copying machine. He developed a pleasant and engaging voice, a relaxed and articulate skill for descriptive commentary and an authoritative but easy broadcast style, all of which gave him opportunities as an early field broadcaster. There was a break in his ABC career when he enlisted. He always wanted to join the Air Force but he was under 21, the minimum age for air crew, so he needed his parents’ permission, which his mother refused to give. Instead he joined the Army and was sent to Port Moresby where he was stationed with an anti-aircraft battery. When he reached 21, he joined the RAAF and trained as a pilot, ending up at the Advanced Flying Training School in Canada. He spent eighteen months in North America, mostly in flying boats attached to the Canadian Navy, flying from the east coast on coastal reconnaissance, before returning to Australia following the end of the war in Europe. By mid-1945 he was one of many pilots in Australia with little chance of an active operational role: ‘. . . knowing that I was doing virtually nothing in the Air Force, I was sitting around, pretty unhappy about the state of affairs – although not knowing at that time that the end of the Pacific war was imminent – the ABC got in touch with me and asked if I would like to become a war correspondent.’4 The war finished very soon afterwards.

  On VP Day, 15 August, when news came through of the Japanese surrender, Duckmanton was waiting to be posted overseas and he was sent into the streets of Sydney with a recording van, to describe the noisy, jubilant celebrations.

  Hello everyone, this is Talbot Duckmanton speaking to you from Martin Place, Sydney, but I’m afraid that it’s not the old Martin Place that you know so well. There’s no bus outside the airways office here, there’s no constable on duty at Pitt Street directing traffic, there are no office boys posting mail at the letter boxes. Instead, there are thousands and thousands of people, honestly I’ve never seen as many people in Martin Place before. They’re packed tight from above Castlereagh Street, all the way down across Pitt Street, past the Cenotaph and way down here to the George Street end of Martin Place, where we have the mobile studio parked. There are men, women and girls, lovely girls too, hundreds and hundreds of them. They’ve got paper hats on their heads, waving streamers, flags, Union Jacks, the Stars and Stripes, they’ve got whistles, those gas alarm rattlers, and they’re just having one whale of a time . . . Over on my right and on one of the buildings at the back, someone has hung out a big dummy of Adolph Hitler with a great Swastika on the front of it, and to the cheers of the crowd he was lowered down from the top of the building and duly hung . . . This is a very happy crowd, they’re mad with excitement. Yes, Sydney is gay today, but I must mention that with all this gaiety here in Martin Place there is a little bit of sadness too. You only have to look at the Cenotaph to realise that. The freshly laid flowers upon it and number of people who have taken off their hats and reverently gone and paid homage at the Cenotaph indicates to us that Sydney, despite all this gaiety and rejoicing at the news, the official news of the Japanese surrender, has not forgotten that our men and our Allies too have paid a high price so that we may rejoice in this way.5

  The historic recording required several attempts as the excited crowd mobbed the recording van and even tried to push it over, but the final hurried recording was raced back to the ABC William Street studio and broadcast at 1 pm.

  Grim Stories – Morotai

  By September, Duckmanton was filing news stories and voice reports from Morotai. POWs were still transiting through Morotai on their way home to Australia and Duckmanton recorded their stories on a wire recorder. He was one of the first ABC correspondents to regularly use the new type of recorder, which was much smaller than the older disc equipment, and recorded sound on to spools of thin wire filament. He was very taken with it, describing it as his ‘little box of tricks’.6 Duckmanton spent many hours sitting beside hospital beds or in one of the open huts at Morotai, crouched forward with microphone in hand, listening to the stories of the POWs. Some of his news despatches of these interviews have been preserved.

  Sergeant Donald Woolley . . . and Private Charles Dodds . . . told the grim story of Japanese inhumanity at Macassar where there were eleven hundred POWs including American, Dutch and English . . . The Japanese were at first frightened by the POWs, and always carried rifles and threatened to behead ten prisoners for every one that escaped. Some escaped prisoners were caught and beheaded . . . The Japanese soldiers needed no reason to hit prisoners and did so whenever the mood suited them. Early this year two hundred men were beaten at one time. The padre was made to read the funeral service before the beatings and the POWs were made to bow their heads, shut their eyes and pray. Several died later. During the beatings the Japanese poured water over the men to prevent them from fainting.7

  Duckmanton would spend about an hour making a recording and then up to six hours transcribing the text onto multiple carbon copies for the censor. Len Edwards was briefly in Morotai with Duckmanton, helping him record interviews and messages home from the soldiers stationed there, but, for a time, Duckmanton was recording by himself using the wire recorder, and receiving advice from the ABC as he tried to make his own r
unning repairs.

  If wire breaks do not mend with cellulose tape but stop the recorder immediately. Heat both ends of wire with match and when cool, tie in a reef knot, cutting off the ends, leaving about one eighth inch, then heat again to set knot.8

  By late September, Duckmanton was the only war correspondent left on Morotai and he was considering ways to cover the issue of war crimes.

  The life here I like and really have no complaints at all in that direction. The ADPR [Assistant Deputy Director Army Public Relations] and his staff are a good bunch of fellows and give every co-operation. I wish that I could do some actualities from the camps where they have the Jap war criminals working.9

  Suspected Japanese war criminals were being interviewed by Australian officers, and Duckmanton and the recently arrived Bill MacFarlane recorded one such interrogation, which was part of the preparation of evidence for the expected war crimes trials.

  In this small native hut at the headquarters of the 32nd Japanese Division, Major Thomas is about to question two suspected Japanese war criminals. Now these two men were at Ternate. One is a naval officer . . . and he was executioner really at Ternate, and the other . . . was the assistant to the secret service investigator at Ternate. This is just to give you some idea how the Australian officers go about collecting evidence and information from these suspected war criminals.10

  Even today, despite the somewhat slow pace of the questions, answers and translation, the recording is compelling listening, in part for Duckmanton’s calm, almost intimate introduction – a modern style that engaged with the audience as if they were there in the room – but mostly for the contrast of the discussion of execution, beatings and torture, set against the very ordinariness of the process and the sounds of daily life such as a rooster crowing in the background.


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