Kokoda by Peter Fitzsimons

Peter Fitzsimons’ original claim to fame was as a Wallaby, a representative Rugby Union player, who got sent off the field during a game against the All Blacks. He went on to sports journalism which led to writing numerous books, including biographies about Australian icons such as Nancy Wake, Les Darcy and Charles Kingsford-Smith. 

Yeah, he wears a bandana seven days a week.

Fitzsimons has since become a bestselling non fiction writer with his military history books, Tobruk, Victory At Villers-Bretonneux, and my personal favourite, Kokoda.

Kokoda details the Japanese invasion of Papua New Guinea, just north of the Australian coastline, during World War 2, and the Australians’ efforts at turning the tide of that war. 

Are the Events of Almost Eighty Years Ago Still Relevant?

A friend of fifty years standing recently shared that her father, whom I used to wave too as a child whenever he drove past, took to swinging a Japanese sword at the neighbours as he aged. He had taken it from a dead soldier at Kokoda. I never knew Old Billy was a soldier, only as the father of my friend who drove the blue car.

I nearly lost another friend recently. I had known previously that her Dad returned from serving at Kokoda with half the sole of his army boot still imbedded in his foot. I had no idea that when she was born some years later that she was quarantined in a hospital ward for the first three months of her life because his Equatorial disease had passed to her, thereby weakening her heart.

A younger friend, with two beautiful round, brown babies, recently shared that her grandfather, a native of PNG, used to share food with Australian Soldiers on the Kokoda Track.

My daughter’s friend, a military lad, recently related how a program to assist young men with behavioural issues included trekking the Kokoda Track where they learnt life skills such as team work, persistence, and personal strength.

Best Things About Fitzsimons’ Kokoda?

  • Written in a language that is easy to read for those who don’t usually read military history, particularly the female demographic. Military objectives are clearly explained as are outcomes, and personality and power conflicts between world leaders, as well as military leaders, are not swept under the carpet
  • The characters have been personalised which emotionally connects the reader. For example, we follow the Bissett brothers as youngsters, to playing football at the local club in their teens, to their enlistment, to service in North Africa, and then at Kokoda. I even retained the Obituary Notice for Stan Bissett when I spotted it in the local paper in recent years . Another farm boy, meets his sweetheart before the war, marries her once demobbed and we learn what maintained the couple for the next forty years.
  •  Perspective. World War 2 began less than 170 years after Australia was settled by Europeans. She was a young country still learning her way. I was fascinated by the political decision making processes. In WW1 Australia followed the orders of the British Empire. When the Japanese invaded the Pacific in WW2 the Australian Prime Minister fought tooth and nail for leadership of the Australian Army in order to better protect our own nation. Fitzsimons also provides the perspective of boys on the front, Padres, nurses, medics, families waiting at home for news, and the individual leaders.
  •  There are so many fascinating tidbits of information within these pages. Did you know that acclaimed Kokoda War Photographer, Damien Parer, was apprenticed to Charles Chauvel, the Australian film maker who made Wake of the Bounty with a very young Errol Flynn in 1933? Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s visits to Oz, especially with his family, are a good read and will raise a smile or two, as well as provide insight as to the reasoning behind certain haunts around Brisbane still bearing his name. War Correspondent, Chester Wilmott’s dismissal when he savagely reported on the preparedness, or lack thereof, for battles on the island is also interesting stuff.

“ In the Kokoda battle their qualities of adaptability and individual initiative enabled them to show tremendous ability as fighting men in the jungle. They were superb.” Lieutenant-General Tsutomu Yoshihara, chief of staff of Japan’s South Seas army.

This book so beats little old gentlemen in suits writing dates on a blackboard with chalk. One of my all time favourite books…..

With special thanks to my beautiful friends who shared their stories. Our Dad’s kept their daughters in the dark, didn’t they….

Eyebrows, Netflix and A Book

With no reprieve from the heat and the temperature now nudging 42 degrees I’ve given up the good fight and have succumbed. I’m not comfortable binging on Netflix though it has prevented the odd burst of madness. And who knew that “ watching Netflix and chilling” was slang for something else?

So I’ve watched BirdBox along with 45 million other people from all over the world this week apparently, (Creepy as), and also Tidelands, Netflix’s first Australian production.

Tidelands, with its eight episodes, is about drug trafficking and Water Sirens from Greek mythology. Bizarre concept, right…..Does it work ? The critic from the Adelaide Review summed it up with, “in essence, it’s Home and Away with bosoms and magic, and that augurs well for its future……”.

I have never seen so many beautifully crafted eyebrows, nor attractive young men in tight leather pants at the beach, as you do, of course, and I will forever more look at the use of kitchen bench tops differently. Blaming the heat I will admit to battling with the storyline, from beginning to end, but yeh, must get the address of that brow sculpture specialist.

On to Bruce Willis in Hart’s War, which in turn led to an interesting book, The Black Knights, The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen, by Lynn Homan and Thomas Reilly. This was a fascinating read about the African Americans who participated in a flight training program during WW2 as a social experiment and went on to serve escorting bomber planes over Europe and North Africa. Great book with personal stories and photographs which made it so much more interesting. It’s also not that long ago….

Please, no walking around in blind folds and always remember to keep your kitchen bench tops clean.

Fairy Penguins Rule.

“Is this Heaven?” asks a ghostly baseball player in Field Of Dreams.
“No. It’s Iowa”.

No, it’s the beautiful Hunter.

When I open the front door to walk the Lab in the mornings I am greeted by grazing kangaroos in green paddocks.

Thirty minutes to the west are the beautiful vineyards of the Hunter Valley, although if you are expecting to pick up some cheap plonk these are not the venues for you. Cellar Doors and eateries within the wineries are big business these days, unlike 40 years ago when they consisted of mainly tin sheds.

Thirty minutes to the east is the coast where I caught a fish yesterday, spotted a pod of dolphins, and frolicked in the waves.

To the north by ten minutes is a little township steeped in history. Our country towns are fantastic places to explore especially with the aid of a Heritage Walk map. Interestingly, I stumbled across this hitching post from America from the late 1800’s. If we can no longer call them Fairy Penguins and are no longer able to buy golliwogs, then please explain…..

In a park in Maitland not featured on the map I came across a Memorial to those who lost their lives at Sandakan during WW2. If you want to touch up on Australian history read Paul Ham’s Sandakan and learn why a previous generation wholeheartedly supported the Australian car manufacturing industry.

Soon I will venture south some thirty minutes to the local zoo where I have an appointment at the Meerkat enclosure. I’m all for collecting experiences but being peed on by a meerkat is not one of them. Thanks, daughters of mine.

Reading When One Is Not Reading.

Despite having more spare time I seem to have less reading time. I guess this will change once I come to grips with the fact that Rome wasn’t built in a day and everything doesn’t have to be done at once.

I have finished a couple of books, all very much stop and start efforts:

The Debs Of Bletchley Park by Michael Smith should have been a great book. Recounting the stories of women recruited to break German codes, translate messages, and pass on intelligence during World War 2, some of the 8000 women who lived and worked in poor conditions for the War Effort share their pride in working alongside men and aiding their country at Bletchley Park.

Lots of fascinating information but not an easy read. Ok, yes, maybe the brain needs to shift out of party mode. Blame me and not the author.

A Man Named Ove by Fredrick Backman.

This was my chosen paperback for plane travel, which has also been turned into a movie.

Bleak. That sums it up.

An old man wakes up each morning planning to kill himself following the recent death of his wife. He is no ordinary man either – he is one of those blighters who was curmudgeonly at 25. Hey, we all know one, don’t we? Anyway, it does have a happy ending, kind of, but you suffer for it.

I had to laugh at the back of the book where there was a questionnaire to check if your personality type was the same as Ove’s. I figure that could send some people over the edge…….

Kittyhawks Beyond The Gap by Dennis O’Leary

This one was lent to me by a friend I hadn’t seen since her wedding, nearly forty years ago. Her Dad was a soldier on the Kokoda Track and her late husband was Navy, so she has an interesting collection of reading material. I could have filled a suitcase!

In the words of his dedication in Kittyhawks, former RAAF engine fitter Dennis O’Leary has written this book as a resource for students ‘so that the youth of today may know what the youth of yesterday did for them’. My friend met O’Leary in his 80’s when he used to enjoy working in his garden.

This was an easy yet fascinating read and I particularly enjoyed learning about the Morotai Mutiny, when pilots were disgruntled about their limited participation in events happening around them.

Another one that should be in all High School Libraries…….

I think I’ll now reread Peter Brune’s “A Bastard Of A Place”,  about this conflict. You seem to gain more out of a (historical) book when it becomes personal, dont you think?

One Crowded Hour by Tim Bowden

One Crowded Hour, by Tim Bowden, details over twenty years, from the early 1960s, when Australian photographer and war correspondent, Neil Davis, brought images of the full horror of war directly from the battlefront to the world’s television screens.

Davis is best remembered for the years covering the conflict in Indo-China. He was the only western cameraman to film within the South Vietnamese army and actually managed to cross over battle lines to film with the Viet Cong. He also covered the war in Cambodia and Laos, and in 1975 scooped the world’s press by filming the taking of Saigon’s Presidential Palace.

This is an absolutely fascinating read, once again because it covered a period not mentioned by the Education Department at that time. (One daughter studied Modern History in the late ‘90’s. Ask her about the Korean conflict and she’ll talk for hours.  Not so this one. An aside : she actually met her future husband in a debate about Korea. Funny how things work out, hey…)

Davis must have been an interesting character, coming from a pioneering farming family in Tasmania. He was an athlete and had a quick brain, and from all accounts, had a fondness for the ladies.

This recount of his life is from his diaries, conversations with friends, newspaper cuttings, and some delightful letters to and from his Aunt Lillian from which he comes across as genuine and down to earth, despite some of his derring-do tendencies.

He has an artist’s eye when describing the beauty of Balinese women in the rice fields and the ancient temples and I just loved his commentary about Australian Government Officials before they had any power.

From 1967 in Saigon:
The Australian Minister for the Army, Malcom Fraser, is here at the moment – young and impressive looking but really a dreary bore with little intelligence to look further than he is officially shown. Which is in contrast to another young MP, Andrew Peacock, who recently visited at his own expense.

Fraser. Boring ? Can’t believe that, can you?

Like a lot of men that like to live on the edge, Davis had varied interests. He was a partner in a nightclub on the Mekong River and availed himself of the beautiful “dancing” girls, and had cards printed that said “I think I could fall in love with you. Ring me on xxxxxxxxx. Neil,” which he had on his person at all times. Sounds like a bloke you want to tip a glass of water over or what! But wait, there’s more….

He also set up and supported an orphanage.         Sigh…….

Davis’ personal motto, which he inscribed to the front of each of his diaries was the last two lines of this stanza :

Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife,
Throughout the sensual world proclaim,
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name

Thomas Morduant

In September 1985, having survived so much war, Davis was killed while filming an attempted coup in the streets of Bangkok. Incredibly his still-running camera captured his own death.

There is a music version of these events called An Ode To Neil Davis if you are interested. Go to : https://youtu.be/kLZ_K51yZLM.