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Authors: Garrie Hutchinson


BOOK: Eyewitness
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Published by Black Inc.,
an imprint of Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd

Level 5, 289 Flinders Lane
Melbourne Victoria 3000 Australia
[email protected]

Introduction & this collection © Garrie Hutchinson & Black Inc., 2005.
Individual essays © retained by the authors.

Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holders of material in this book. However where an omission has occurred, the publisher will gladly include acknowledgement in any future edition.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior consent of the publishers.

The National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:

Eyewitness : the best Australian war writing.

ISBN 1 86395 166 0.

1. War - Press coverage. 2. War correspondents - Australia. 3. War in literature. I. Hutchinson, Garrie.


Book design: Thomas Deverall
Typeset by J&M Typesetting Pty Ltd
Printed in Australia by Griffin Press

Dedicated to those Australian journalists killed on the front-line

World War II
Tom Fisher, Darwin, February 1942
Keith Palmer, Bougainville, November 1943
Norman Stockton, Over Germany, December 1943
Harold Dick, Queensland, December 1943
Penn Raynor, New Guinea, December 1943
Roderick McDonald, Italy, May 1944
William Munday, Italy, September 1944
Damien Parer, Peleliu, Philippines, September 1944
John Elliott, Balikpapan, July 3rd, 1945
William Smith, Balikpapan, July 3rd, 1945

Derek Pearcy, May 26th, 1951

Michael Birch, May 5th, 1968
John Cantwell, May 5th, 1968
Ron Laramy, May 5th, 1968
Bruce Pigott, May 5th, 1968

The Balibo Five:
Greg Shackleton, October 16th, 1975
Tony Stewart, October 16th, 1975
Malcolm Rennie (UK), October 16th, 1975
Brian Peters (UK), October 16th, 1975
Gary Cunningham (NZ), October 16th, 1975

Neil Davis, Bangkok, September 8th, 1985

Harry Burton, November 19th, 2001

Paul Moran, March 22nd, 2003
Jeremy Little, July 6th, 2003


If this book has its origin in a particular reading incident, it was when I came across a couple of pages in the 2/14
Battalion’s unit diary. The 2/14
was one of the legendary units that fought on the Kokoda Track in 1942. With the 39
Battalion it played a crucial role in the decisive delaying battle at Isurava, after which it could muster only 160 men, from the 542 troops who were there on August 28th.

The pages were extracts from a story written by Osmar White, Australian war correspondent, who had been there on the track and close to the battle with legendary photographer Damien Parer.

One passage that the keeper of the diary had re-typed (the story was published in the Sydney
Daily Telegraph
on September 14th, 1942) was: ‘Every man who has marched this [Kokoda Track] will remember it as an ordeal which strained his heart, muscles and lungs to the last fibre – as an ordeal which increased steadily in intensity even after it seemed that the limit had been reached; as an infantryman’s Calvary, where the pain of effort, the biting sweat, the hunger, the cheerless shivering nights, were made dim by exhaustion’s merciless drug.’

And that was how Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Honner, distinguished commander of both the 39
and 2/14
Battalions, saw it too when he had to write something about Isurava and Kokoda in 1990. He referred to Kokoda as his ‘soldiers’ Calvary’, their ‘grim Golgotha’.

The 2/14
kept this and the other paragraphs from Osmar White’s story because they accurately caught something of the truth of what was happening to them at that critical moment in their own, and Australia’s, history. Military history is full of critical moments, but the delaying battles on the Kokoda Track were clearly important to Australia’s war. Had the Japanese captured Port Moresby quickly, it would have been a different war.

White said later a good war correspondent has ‘an ability to see things clearly when the pressure’s on. It’s very easy to see things that aren’t there if you’re really running away very fast. Keeping your head and watching things and watching for significant things. How people are behaving in certain circumstances. You would notice all sorts of things, or train yourself to notice all sorts of things which are relevant to the situation that you’re endeavouring to report. If you can’t do that, you’re not much of a correspondent. Of course the other thing is to be able to write decent English …’

How lucky we are that there was a writer of the calibre and sympathies of Osmar White there on the front-line in New Guinea, to see what was happening, talk to the blokes, and get the story out.

Another ‘reading incident’ occurred in a country bookshop. I found a deeply dusty copy of Wilfred Burchett’s book
Democracy with a
which I thought was a very modern sort of title for a book published in 1946. Burchett was the first non-Japanese journalist to enter Hiroshima after the dropping of the first atomic bomb. At the end of the book is his account of how he got the scoop, and what he saw that caused him to write about ‘The Atomic Plague’ with the strapline ‘I write this as a warning to the world’. Burchett is a problematical figure in Australian journalism partly because, like John Pilger in a later generation, he had a strong political point of view on what journalists’ responsibilities were and what stories they should be reporting. Burchett followed his politics and the stories to the other side of the front-line in Korea and Vietnam, when the divide was much more clearcut than it is today. In doing this he earned the enmity of many journalists, the community and the Menzies government, which eventually confiscated his passport. His presence at the interrogation of Australian P.O.W.s in the Korean War is still widely reviled, though perhaps more understandable today when making a distinction between observation and participation in interrogation by Australians in Iraq is government policy.

Going and getting the story is sometimes a dangerous thing. Tony Clifton, who reported conflicts for 30 years for
, says he lost a colleague killed in action in each of those years. As I write this, more Australian journalists have been killed in Iraq than military personnel. That of course might change at any minute.

Clifton tells the story of the late legend Pat Burgess getting into trouble – well, a fight – in a bar in Vietnam in the 1960s for claiming, rightly, that as a proportion more journalists had been killed in that conflict than service people. As you could imagine this didn’t go down all that well, but it was true then – and is again in Iraq.

A further incident occurred when I found a list entitled ‘Australian War Correspondents: Casualties’ in Ken Slessor’s
War Diaries
with seven names to May 1944, then below it another three names, including Damien Parer, and beside the list, the tally added up – 6, 7, 8 – 10. The list is from Slessor’s notebook, and in his meticulous handwriting. The conclusive total was made in 1945.

Slessor, journalist and poet, gave up the latter when he ran out of things to say, except for his two wartime poems,
Beach Burial
, about the dead at El Alamein, and
Inscription at Dog River
, about an unnamed hubristic general (named Blamey) who had everything from his men except respect. I was interested in differences between Slessor’s journalism and his poetry (and you find a couple of pieces about El Alamein in this book with which to compare to
Beach Burial
). Slessor resigned in 1944 over the issue of censorship and accusations about the accuracy of his reporting and unjust slurs on his personal behaviour.

Slessor’s career is an example of what can happen to journalists who get up the noses of generals (Chester Wilmot was another) but also about the tension between what might be called the participatory school of war corresponding, and the more reflective and observational kind.

Charles Bean, ex-
Sydney Morning Herald
, was Australia’s first war correspondent. He wrote in his diary on the night of April 25th, 1915, having spent almost 24 hours watching and waiting for the story of Anzac to unfold on the beaches and ridges of Gallipoli. He described the waiting, the food, the bombardment, the landing … and at last ‘They are Australians!’ whom he saw at about 7.30 in the morning – and then, too soon, the wounded coming back aboard.

A couple of weeks before, he wrote: ‘As for me, I am in luck if ever any pressman was. This is perhaps the most interesting operation in the war – one of the most interesting in history; a business of this sort on this scale has never before been attempted. And I am nearer to it than [any] journalist has been to the actual firing line since the beginning of the war … Well, if we come through all right, we shall have an experience that will last our lifetime …’ It did for him.

Bean was there, on the spot, establishing some of the ground rules for an Australian war correspondent. He walked around the front-line, he talked to the men, he wrote down their stories, he helped out where he could, he suffered the censorship.

He had a lot of trouble filing his story, and was scooped on the landing by an English journalist, Ellis Ashmead Bartlett. He had the real story in his diary, in some of his dispatches – and permanently in his
Official History
, the finest and most detailed and tender narrative of ordinary soldiers that has been written. And criticised, like Mozart, for having too many notes.

Embedding of journalists on the front-line wasn’t of course invented in the Iraq War – it was just that the technology was different. Bean was more dependent on official sanction and means of communication in Gallipoli than was Paul McGeough in Baghdad.

The cruel truth about casualties and the failure of command was suppressed at the time – yet it was a journalist, Keith Murdoch (Rupert’s father), who despite signing the agreement ‘not to attempt to correspond by any other route or by any other means than that officially sanctioned’, and promising not to ‘impart to anyone military information of a confidential nature … unless first submitted to the Chief Field Censor’, caused the ruckus that brought the Gallipoli campaign to an end.

In early September 1915, Murdoch, en route to London, had called in at Gallipoli and later had a meeting with Ashmead Bartlett on the nearby island of Imbros. Ashmead Bartlett had by this time become very disillusioned by the progress of the campaign, but had been prevented from telling the real ghastly story. Murdoch offered to help and attempted to take a despatch back to England. He was arrested at Marseilles, where the copy was confiscated. Murdoch eventually made it to London, rewrote the story from memory and handed it to Andrew Fisher, the Australian Prime Minister. Murdoch’s story was inaccurate in many ways but was promptly printed as a state paper by David Lloyd George, the English Prime Minister. The British commander Sir Ian Hamilton was soon recalled, and the evacuation ordered.

Osmar White said: ‘You had to accept the necessity of censorship in a military sense. You also, I’m afraid, had to accept censorship in a political sense. All you could possibly hope to do was to avoid areas where you were going to be suppressed … the best you could do – as particularly in my situation as a special writer, as it were – was to avoid the strategic business and try to make war a sort of human experience … avoiding the nuts and bolts of the day’s news and to give colour and meaning – human meaning if possible – to what you were able to see.’

Professional war correspondents such as White and Bean are not the only eyewitnesses. There were soldiers – writing stories, diaries and letters and turning them into books in those heightened idle moments between actions, such as Geoff Fearnside with the 2/13
in Tobruk. And sailors, working on the miraculously preserved notes they made – I am thinking in particular of Ray Parkin’s extraordinary diaries of the Thai– Burma Railway preserved somehow by Weary Dunlop.

Parkin wrote: ‘It was originally written as a diary to capture that passing moment and hold it before it had slipped from our memory forever …’ – a witness to the truth of what was happening to him and his comrades.

Osmar White, Gilbert Mant and Frank Legg joined the A.I.F. as private soldiers and were ‘manpowered’ out – as Keith Murdoch said to White: ‘Oh we don’t want you rushing around with a pack on your back, you’ll fight the war with your pen, dear boy, you see.’ White soon found himself in New Guinea.

Frank Legg fought at Tobruk and El Alamein with the famous 2/48
Battalion and then was ordered out of officer training to become the ABC correspondent in Borneo and at the surrender in Tokyo. Gilbert Mant was manpowered out of the 2/29
before the fall of Singapore but found himself back there reporting for Reuters.

Soldiers are incorrigible writers and artists. Must be something about living and recording life at such a pitch, on the edge of death, that makes thoughts seem profound … What is even more astounding is how good many of them were. In diaries meant to be found after death there was no need to gild the lily. On the Thai–Burma Railway the materials for writing were so hard to come by, and so dangerous to keep, that each word was precious. Ray Parkin wasn’t the only person to have come through the hellfire of imprisonment by the Japanese a greater human being, but he was perhaps the finest writer. Betty Jeffrey’s experiences after the Banka Island massacre of Australian nurses were written in plainsong, perhaps less philosophical but nonetheless just as honest and true.

The front-line of contemporary conflict has shifted from the formal battlefield to the backyard and beachfront. Civilians are just as likely to find themselves on the front-line as dedicated war correspondents.

This happened to me in an early eruption of the so-called War on Terror. In 1996 I was following the World War I Diggers from their camp near the pyramids in Egypt through Palestine to Gallipoli. I found myself hijacked on an aircraft in Egypt by a mob called Gama’a al-Islamiya and eventually set free by Colonel Gaddafi’s men on an airfield at Tobruk.

Stuff also happened, in the current phrase, to journalists such as Tony Clifton in the Gulf, Monica Attard during the coup in Moscow in 1991, Lindsay Murdoch in Dili during the savagery that followed the referendum in 1999, as well as to Paul McGeough and John Martinkus in Iraq.

This is an Australian selection, but Australians have always come in many flavours. Ion Idriess was a sentimental nationalist teller of Australian yarns, while Alan Moorehead was an Anglophile who couldn’t wait to get out of the country but couldn’t quite get Australia out of his system. And some fought and wrote and came back; some never did.

Pat Burgess has a chapter in his 1986 book,
called ‘Aussies the Best’. He quotes Phillip Knightley, Murray Sayle and Tony Clifton to this effect. It’s something to do with training, with attitude, with ambition, about proving themselves in the great international news organisations.

There’s probably something in that – but in the end it’s about Australians being part of the wider world’s conflicts, as observers, as writers – and readers.

Garrie Hutchinson
September 2005


Pat Burgess,
Warco: Australian Reporters at War
, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1986.

Tony Clifton,
The Age
, April 13th, 2003.

Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner, Foreword to Peter Brune,
Ragged Bloody Heroes
, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1991.

Keith Murdoch at Gallipoli,
Sydney Morning Herald
, November 18th–20th, 1968.

Osmar White quotes from interview with Peter Jeppeson, 1990, Australian War Memorial, Keith Murdoch Sound Archive.

Matthew Ricketson, ‘Wilfred Burchett and Hiroshima’, paper presented to RMIT Australian Media Traditions Conference, 2003.

Peter Sekuless,
A Handful of Hacks
, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1999.

Thanks to

Monica Attard, Andrew Barnes, John Clarke, Peter Cole-Adams, Tony Clifton, Stephen Downes, Bill Downing, Peter Ellingsen, Lambis Englezos, John Fitzgerald, Cameron Forbes, Jack Herman, Charles Jager, Hugh Lunn, Yvonne Mant, Ross McMullin, John Parkin, Matthew Ricketson, John Searle, Tom Thompson, Peter Weiniger, Sally White and Neil Wilson for help, discussion, permissions, suggestions, information and detective work – another book could be made from the work of the journalists and soldier-writers that I have reluctantly omitted. ‘Pressure of space’, as an editor once told me.

BOOK: Eyewitness
7.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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