Thoughts on The Last Blue Sea

In the midst of the jungle men pray for strength. MASS BEFORE BATTLE ON SALAMAUA TRAIL. (1943, August 16). The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), p. 3. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42021915

Lately my mind has been turning to Papua New Guinea again as we plan an upcoming trip back to Alotau after a mere 41 years. As it does in these circumstances, one thought leads to another and before long I’m off on a tangent.

No surprise then that I picked up my copy of The Last Blue Sea the other night to re-read it. Originally published in 1959 the book won the inaugural Dame Mary Gilmore Award. My guess is that it would be the best part of forty years since I last read it, having first encountered the book in high school.

News of the day: the battles near Salamaua. 11 ZEROS SHOT DOWN. (1943, August 4). The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954), p. 4.  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48762488

In theory the novel is entirely fictitious except for the presence of renowned war photographer Damien Parer.  Whatever the truth of the specifics, there’s little doubt that the story builds on personal experience and a deep knowledge of World War II in New Guinea circa 1943 (post-Kokoda). It has an unusual writing style which ultimately seemed very effective but I confess I occasionally got confused as to which soldier was which, despite the list of key characters in the beginning.

This is one book in which the place (the jungle near Salamaua in what was then New Guinea) is very much a major character, shaping the individual soldier’s experience and responses. Having the tiniest understanding of just how impenetrable the jungles of PNG can be, I am in awe of their survival and persistence.

My take-away thoughts from this book were:

  • The all-encompassing power of the jungle, the impact of the leaves and the enemy hidden within
  • The sheer physical and mental brutality of survival, let alone fighting, in such conditions
  • The impact of poor leadership and equally the commitment of the men to leaders in whom they believed
  • The men’s tendency to hide the truth of the horrors they saw from their loved ones at home
  • The courage of the men was very low-key and it evoked a memory of a family friend who fought as a sniper near Kokoda: you’d have thought it was a doddle from the way he spoke.
  • The platoon leader calling his men’s lives “the crown jewels of Australia”: the loss of these men impacted Australia for decades afterwards
  • The sheer horror of men who, severely injured, had to make their own way out of the jungle over precipitous mountain ranges, often alone because there was no other option.
  • I was intrigued by references to the militia units at Bargara near Bundaberg at the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea. So far I haven’t tracked down the truth or otherwise of that element.

I found this novel to be very powerful and will be rereading it again soon, to absorb the finer points I missed in my rush to follow the story.

The nom-de-plume of the author was David Forrest and in fact I never knew it wasn’t the author’s real name. Turning to Google I found that David Forrest was the aka for Dr David Denholm. As soon as I read that, bells rang in my head. Sure enough he is the author of a BA (Hons) dissertation at The University of Queensland, on the Coming of the Germans to the Darling Downs 1852-1861, which I’ve referenced in my Dorfprozelten research. I was quite tickled to discover this link.

As I read the book the words of an Australian poet echoed in my mind. David Campbell’s poem Men in Green carries some of the same resonances. This is a short extract but please do have a look at the full poem from this link:

Their eyes were bright, their looks were dull,

Their skin had turned to clay

Nature had met them in the night

And stalked them in the day.

And I think still of men in green

On the Soputa track

With fifteen spitting tommy-guns

To keep a jungle back.

Third Annual Great Genealogy Poetry Challenge to honour my father: The Trains by Judith Wright

Geniaus has brought to my attention, the Third Annual Great Genealogy Poetry Challenge initiated by Bill West. Bill has challenged genealogists world-wide to source a poem or music which is relevant to their family’s history as follows:

1. Find a poem by a local poet, famous or obscure, from the region one of your ancestors lived in. It can be about an historical event, a legend, a person, or even about some place (like a river)or a local animal. It can even be a poem you or one of your ancestors have written! Or if you prefer, post the lyrics of a song or a link to a video of someone performing the song.

2. Post the poem or song to your blog (remembering to cite the source where you found it.)

3. Tell us how the subject of the poem or song relates to your ancestor’s home or life.

My immediate thought was how much the song Danny Boy, my father’s favourite, bridged my Scottish and Irish ancestry. But I really wanted to find something more unusual so I turned to the bookshelves and my collection of high school poetry books. I found several that tempted me and related to various aspects of family history such as Old House or Bullocky by Judith Wright or The Teams by Henry Lawson (for my Gavin ancestor who drove bullock teams). Men in Green by David Campbell has meaning for me in relation to the history of war in Papua New Guinea, where I once lived, but was too recent.  I laughed out loud once more at On the Queensland Railway Lines evoking memories of my Melvin, McSherry and Kunkel families.

Negative number: 73715 State Library of Queensland, copyright expired. Trainee soldiers at Roma Street Station Brisbane waiting to embark on a train to Caloundra Camp during World War II 1940

But then I was stopped in my tracks by Judith Wright’s poem The Trains which relates to the railway bringing guns to northern Australia during the War in the Pacific. Throughout World War II, my father was a number-taker with Queensland Railways, a protected occupation as men with railway expertise were required on the home front to ensure the efficient movement of men, armoury and supplies. My father was one of the unsung, unacknowledged men who ensured this was achieved. He worked in the goods yard at Roma Street station nearly all his life and his war service became simply part of his duties. His day-to-day responsibilities were to ensure the goods wagons were loaded in the correct order in terms of offloading and delivery and to ensure the safe distribution of freight across the wagons. With heavy armament, guns and weaponry, the importance of this is evident. All this while working long hours in a goods yard with trains all around: highly dangerous day-to-day. He also told me a few years before he died that he had supervised Italian internees loading freight at one of Brisbane’s other shunting yards during the War: the Italians liked to take the early shift, work like navvies and get the job done before the heat of the day. The reference to orchards is also, for me, a nod to his German-born great-grandfather, George Kunkel with his fruit orchards at Murphys Creek.

This poem is for my father, to recognise the service to his country that he, and no doubt his colleagues, never received.

The Trains by Judith Wright (from my Year 11 poetry book The Poet’s World published by Heinemann, 1964)

Tunnelling through the night, the trains pass

in a splendour of power, with a sound like thunder

shaking the orchards, waking

the young from a dream, scattering like glass

the old men’s sleep; laying

a black trail over the still bloom of the orchards.

The trains go north with guns.
Strange primitive piece of flesh, the heart laid quiet

hearing their cry pierce through its thin-walled cave

recalls the forgotten tiger,

and leaps awake in its old panic riot;

and how shall mind be sober,

since blood’s red thread binds us fast in history?

Tiger, you walk through all our past and future,

Troubling the children’s sleep; laying

A reeking trail across our dreams of orchards.

Racing on iron errands, the trains go by,

and over the white acres of our orchards

hurl their wild summoning cry, their animal cry…

the trains go north with guns.