“My War”

At one time I considered the Vietnam war to be “my” war.

Not because of any real personal or family connection, but because it was going on when my family decided to migrate to Australia, and Australia was one of the combatants; taking its usual stance to support the USA in all of its major military ventures, whether that support was justified or not.

So, at the age of 13 we moved to a country at war, where conscription was practiced.

I was still 5 years away from what I thought was conscription eligibility, but at that time who knew how long the war would continue? (Conscription was actually from age 20, so I was two years out in my expectations). If it continued long enough I could have found myself being sent away to fight.

Then in December 1972 Australian conscription was brought to an end by the new Labor government within days of their taking power. They also stopped Australia’s involvement in the war.

Recently I watched a 10 part documentary series about Vietnam,; a fascinating insight into the history behind it, how American involvement came about, and the political lies that helped perpetuate it.

The series also looked at he increasing opposition to the war within the USA at a pivotal time of cultural change.

Some of what was going on in America was no less disturbing than what was happening in the war itself, with Government violence on American soil leading to tragedies like the killing of students at Kent State, a well-known event I’d heard about decades ago, but not an isolated or unique case of its type.

One thing that stood out in one of the early episodes, was the sense of deja vu I had when I learned how America had backed Ho Chi Minh and his rebel forces during WWII when the future North Vietnamese leader was fighting to free his country from the Japanese invader. Apart from the “irony” of the US later usurping that role as invader, the similarity to another situation a few decades later was obvious; when the US financed and trained the future leaders of Al Qaeda in their attempt to free Afghanistan from  Russian invaders, and then went on the be the invaders themselves, under attack from the very people they had trained and armed in the past.

Watching that series inspired me to return to a book I’d put aside a few years ago. View From A Low Bough by Barrie Crowley, is about the author’s personal experiences in Vietnam.

Vietnam Campaign Medal
Vietnam Medal awarded by the Sth. Vietnamese Govt. to US and Australian personnel after 6 months service

 
Once again I’m not finding it an easy read, but I’m determined not to give up this time. Crowley tries to write as if he’s taking the reader on a personal tour of events and places, to see hear and smell the war he experienced. The style doesn’t always work for me, but I appreciate his interesting insights into life in camp and out on patrol. Enough to make me very grateful that it didn’t become MY war.

The book is also full of “Strong Coarse Language” – as it would be described on an Australian DVD censor’s classification. But that seems appropriate in the context of young men thrown together in a harsh environment, witnessing, or involved in some of the worst aspects of human behaviour, for reasons they could never hope understand.
If they understood would they have gone along with the corrupt political hypocrisy that had sent them there? Even so, they were not blind to the ineptitude and irrationality of those directing the course of the war.

From View From  A Low Bough

“Hearts and Minds, one of the programs was called, one of the greatest abuses of the English language ever perpetrated. It worked this way. Fly over some Nogs and drop some pamphlets about love and peace, fly back later and napalm the ****s. Schizophrenic behaviour; hard to defend allies like that, but we tried”

A third journey I’m taking into 1960s Vietnam is through the 1980s series China Beach. I’m sure I watched some of it when it was first screened 30 or so years ago, but apart from a couple of the characters I don’t remember much.china-beach-season-1

I saw it described as M*A*S*H without the laugh-track – but I don’t think the comparison is fair.

So far I’ve only seen the 90 minute pilot and the first episode and it hasn’t really jogged my memory of any previous viewings.

The opening sequence of the pilot is very evocative in portraying the absurdity and incongruity of the conflict. It starts with a young woman in a red bikini, sitting on a beach. Her solitude is disturbed by the increasing volume of an approaching helicopter. She rises and starts walking away from the beach, firstly through tropical beachside bushes, that start giving way to sandbags, barbed wire, armed soldiers in uniform, and eventually the landing helicopter bringing its cargo of dead and wounded. The woman grabs a surgical smock and puts it on over her bikini…

One clear similarity with M*A*S*H, and the main reason for my interest in the series, is that it’s main character is a nurse in a military hospital, and there’s a regular influx of dust off helicopters bringing casualties to be put back together. Last year I read a few books by (or about) former Vietnam war nurses, and through their eyes got a very different perspective of the war and its human cost, and it’s that aspect that most interests me, so I’m looking forward to having time to watch more of China Beach.

 

nurse badge

Australian Vietnam nurse’s collar badge from my collection.

 

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A Nurse at the Front, by Sister Edith Appleton

The First World War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton.

This is a book I’ve been reading over a long period – not quite for as many years as it took for the original diaries to be written, but I’ve been dipping into it since I bought it, back in April 2015 and I finally finished it last weekend

I don’t find diaries the easiest things to read, but those written from within big historical events are worth it to get the “raw” impressions of those going through the experience, especially from the point of view of “every day people”.

The surprising thing about Edith Appleton’s account is the mix of experience described. There are the obvious times of extreme stress, when increased activity at the front results in waves of countless casualties needing hospital care. But there are also the quieter times: of country walks, afternoon teas, swimming in the sea. Those quieter times are the things so often missed out of the histories. The contrast is shown below.

 

July 4, 1916

Wounded! Hundreds upon hundreds on stretchers, being carried, walking – all covered from head to foot in well-caked mud. The rush and buzz of ambulances and motor-buses is the only thing I can remember of yesterday outside my wards. Inside it took us longer than the whole day to anything like cope with the work of changing, feeding and dressing the wounds of our share of them. We had horribly bad wounds in numbers – some crawling with maggots, some stinking and tense with gangrene, One poor lad had both eyes shot through and there they were, all smashed and mixed up with the eyelashes.

 

September 17, 1916

Had the day off yesterday. Indeed, I think about half the staff did too as we had so few patients in. I went for a walk with Wood and Maxy over the cliffs and lunched with Madame – crab, roast mutton, grilled potatoes and salad, then a delicious sort of cheese that is traditionally eaten with sugar then cider, and all followed by coffee. At 1 o’clock Matron, Maxy and I started off for Caudebec en Caux… The journey was a joy of beauty, bathed in sunshine. The Seine was most picturesque, with all the trees and hills along its banks just beginning to turn to autumn.

There is an Edith Appleton website where the diaries are accessible online, along with a lot of other information about her.
http://anurseatthefront.org.uk/

Sister Appleton received the Royal Red Cross, a medal awarded for exceptional services in military nursing. It’s the kind of medal I’d love to add to my collection of Medical Militaria, but I would never expect to find one for sale.

Then by accident today I found this one being sold, but for some reason Gloria won’t let me buy it. Maybe she thinks the $1,200 AUD could be put to better use for things we actually need 🙂 .

While History Passed, by Jessie Elizabeth Simons

Knowing that I love to read, whenever I visited Gloria’s family, her dad would hand me one of his very few books.

He’d served in the RAAF in Borneo towards the end of WWII and as a result disliked the Japanese.

I always thought he wanted me to read the book so I’d know why the Japanese were so contemptible. The book was White Coolies by Betty Jeffrey.
As politely as possible I resisted his attempts to “indoctrinate” me, so after a brief flick through the book I handed it back unread.

220px-paradiseroad1997posterFast forward a couple of decades, and not long after his death, I realised the book was probably something worth reading. By that time I’d heard more about the events it described. Unfortunately no trace of it could be found among his possessions and I regretted the lack of interest I’d shown over many years. If only I’d foreseen the interest I now have in the lives of military nurses.

White Coolies is Jeffrey’s account of her time as a prisoner of the Japanese, captured after the sinking of the ship, SS Vyner Brooke that was taking her and other nurses away from Singapore and its imminent capture by the Japanese army.
The story was adapted into the 1997 film Paradise Road

I haven’t yet obtained a copy of Jeffrey’s book. Maybe I need to get over the realisation that I could have obtained a hardcover copy, old but in good condition, that also had a few relevant, period news clippings slipped between its covers.history But I have come across other accounts of the same events such as On Radji Beach by Ian Shaw, a book I’ve had for a while but haven’t yet read and While History Passed by Jessie Elizabeth Simons, who was part of the same group of nurses held prisoner by the Japanese. I came across a second-hand, ex-library copy a few weeks ago. Until then hadn’t been aware of the book’s existence, so was willing to overlook its condition. (It seems a child decided a lot of the pages were too plain without their addition of colourful scribbles).

Simons tells her story of evacuation from Singapore as the Japanese were moving in, of the sinking of the ship taking her to safety and of her subsequent capture and imprisonment by the Japanese after surviving some time afloat at sea.

Others weren’t so lucky. Many drowned and those reaching shore first were rounded up and murdered by the Japanese. Men were taken into the jungle and bayonetted. The nurses were forced into the sea and machine gunned.

Simons survived three and a half years of the malnutrition and disease that claimed the lives of many of those imprisoned with her. She wrote:

“…the death rate soared to a new record, daily broken.
We had to dig graves, construct rough coffins and bury our own dead, often at the rate of three a day in our own circle of acquaintance. For mothers who had sacrificed from their own rations for the past two and a half years to give their children a better chance of coming through, Muntok camp was a grim, never-to-be-forgotten last stand against their children’s starvation. Far too many of them fought a losing battle; one woman saw four of her five children die within a week from the accumulated effects of malnutrition. Total war!

Somehow there were always a few flowers for the funerals, pathetic little processions of a few friends paying respects to one who had “gone before” – a banal phrase that leapt to new life and meaning as the half-dead wondered whose turn would be next.”

This was posted on 12th February 2017. I had intended it to be on  the 75th anniversary of the Vyner Brooke’s sinking, but somehow along the way I mixed up the dates. The anniversary was the 14th.

One Woman’s War and Peace by Wing Commander Sharon Bown (Ret’d)

one womans warTHIS is a book I was very eager to get from the time I heard it was being published. I pre-ordered a copy months ahead of publication, and then had to wait longer, because Gloria insisted on paying for it to add to my Christmas presents

 

Sharon Bown was a vital part in my growing interest in military medical work, after I came across a quote from a speech she gave, providing a moving and poetic, but graphic description of her work as an RAAF nurse in Afghanistan.

 

“I have worn their blood
So many of us have worn their blood”

Bown enlisted in the RAAF three years after her graduation as a nurse. Her autobiography takes us through each stage of her military career, from officer training, through service in Australia, overseas deployments and her role as Aide-de-Camp to the Australian Defence Minister.
A defining moment came in East Timor, during a flight to an isolated village where a woman was going through a difficult child birth. The helicopter crashed and Bown was severely hurt, receiving spinal fractures and a broken jaw among other injuries.

It seemed like her career could be cut short, but with determination she pushed through to a remarkable recovery and was eventually able to be deployed overseas again: in Afghanistan.

During her time in Afghanistan, Australian troops were involved in significant confrontations with the Taliban, one of which resulted in SAS Trooper Mark Donaldson being the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross since 1969.

While she mentions Donaldson by name in relation to his award, she earlier tells the story of a tall red haired soldier who had been blown metres into the air from an armoured vehicle after it had triggered an explosive device. He fell almost uninjured still holding tightly to his gun. While she doesn’t name this soldier, a comparison with VC winner Mark Donaldson’s biography makes it clear that he was the tall red-haired soldier in her story.

Like so many who serve in war zones, Bown wasn’t untouched by PTSD. She continued to be haunted by memories of her helicopter crash, with recurring nightmares and flashbacks related to the crash.

Bown is now retired from the RAAF and serves as a member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial.

Military Medicine. Three Conflicts

bad-medicine

Bad Medicine by Terry Ledgard.
Subtitled “a no holds barred account of life as an Australian SAS Medic during the war in Afghanistan”.

This would be the most disappointing book of the “military medic” books I’ve read. Firstly I thought it had too little about the author’s work “during the war in Afghanistan “ (as the title led me to believe). Secondly I found the “no-holds barred” description relates more to a style dependant on clumsy “blokey” crudities than on gritty uncompromising reporting of a medic’s work in a war zone. It seemed to me that he was trying too hard to come across as a “bad boy”

 

combat-medicCombat Medic by Terry Pickard.
Now THIS is the kind of book I expected when I bought the one mentioned above. Despite the slight similarity in author’s names, I thought this book presented a far more honest “no-holds barred” account of a medic faced with the horrors of a war zone. In this case the author recounts his experiences during the Kibeho Massacre in Rwanda in April 1995.

Engaged in a UN peace keeping mission, Pickard and his colleagues found themselves caught up in a devastating killing spree carried out against refugees by the Rwandese Patriotic Army where more than 4,000 men women and children were murdered. The exact number of dead far exceeded the confirmed number, but further counting of the casualties was prevented by the RPA after UN officials had reached the 4,000 mark. Also it was clear that many bodies had been disposed of prior to the count starting.

Pickard’s return to Australia after his deployment in Africa saw him suffer severely from PTSD, resulting in his discharge from the Army just short of the 20 years’ service that would have entitled him to a military pension.

 

tearsTears on My Pillow by Narelle Biedermann.
Here is a slightly different side to the military medical story, concentrating on Australian nurses serving in Vietnam.
The first part of the book gives a brief background history of the war, an overview of the successive Australian field hospitals and a brief introduction to the nurses’ role.

The second part gives individual stories of several of the nurses who served throughout Australia’s involvement in the conflict. Heartbreaking stories could never be avoided when young men, just entering manhood were regularly being killed or maimed in horrific ways, but there are also lighter moments of all too short breaks from the heavy workloads of understaffed operating theatres and recovery wards.
Stories from several different nurses show how differently each of them coped (or not) with what they were facing, but two things remains constant, firstly how little preparation they were given to get them ready for the extremely demanding and stressful work and conditions they were sent to face. And secondly how little support they were given to help them return to lives back in Australia.

Edith Cavell: Faith before the firing squad, by Catherine Butcher

Edith Cavell: Faith before the firing squad, by Catherine Butcher.

Edith Cavell was an English nurse who helped establish a nursing school in Brussels, at a time when nursing practice in Belgium had low standards and little community respect. Cavell sought to change all of that by training young women to the same kind of standard she had learned during her own training in London and through her experience as a practising nurse in Britain. In 1907 she accepted the role of matron at the new training school in Brussels.

edith-cavellIn 1914 Germany invaded Belgium, thereby drawing Britain, allies of Belgium, into the First World War. Cavell chose to stay in Brussels with her trainee nurses and helped to look after wounded troops from both sides.

When wounded French, British and Belgian soldiers were in danger of being killed by the German invaders, she started to help the Belgian resistance to get them to safety across the Dutch border.
In August 1915 she was arrested and two months later was tried, sentenced to death and shot by firing squad.

This book tries to piece together a part of Cavell’s life that has probably been omitted from many other biographies: the way her Christian faith prepared her to face premature death.

The author looks at the religious routine Cavell followed throughout her life, first as the daughter of a Church of England vicar, and later as a continuing part of her daily devotions, following the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and readings from other devotional books known to be used by Cavell.

Apart from Cavell’s own story, the book touches on the role of religious practice across general society, particularly within a hospital environment, where it is said that prayer and bible reading were the essential starting point of each day in the wards.
How things have changed!

Cavell was shot at dawn on the 12th October 1915.

“Her last glimpse of life on earth would be the gloomy mists of an autumn dawn in Belgium. Her expectation was that in the ‘twinkling of an eye’ she would be in the presence of Jesus.”

A Rose for the Anzac Boys

a-rose-for-the-anzac-boys

In A Rose for the Anzac Boys  Jackie French vividly depicts the horror and heartbreak of battle at the Western Front during WWI. While not glorifying the violence, she doesn’t compromise at all with the gruesome truth of it.

The story concentrates on Margery (Midge) MacPherson and her experiences in France, serving tired and wounded troops near the front lines.

When war starts, Midge is away from her New Zealand home and lives at a school for girls in England. She and her English school friends decide to leave school so they can play their part in the war effort by setting up a canteen for the troops in France, not realising how much their lives will be changed.

Partly told in the form of letters, the realities of war are made clear, as Midge corresponds with family and friends at home and at the battle front. I found the letters to be a powerful and convincing part of the book, fitting in naturally with the ongoing narrative of Midge’s story. They had an authenticity comparable to the real letters and diary entries I’ve read before and were some of the more moving portions of the books. Maybe my desk at work during tea and lunchbreaks wasn’t the best time and place to read these sections.

While the book is set behind the lines, some of the letters from soldiers give us a glimpse of life and death at the front, while Midge’s experiences take us into the world of the many volunteers who worked as caterers, ambulance drivers, VADs and nurses. We see that few were left unaffected by the cost of the war and that the effects continue through following generations.

After the story, French includes a 19 page “author’s note” to give some historical  context to Midge’s story, bringing to the reader’s attention the neglected, but significant role women played during World War I.

How many women fought in World War I?

We’ll never know. But there were thousands, or even million – as many, perhaps as the men who fought there too.

Few women in World War I carried weapons. But these days we say a soldier ‘fought’ in World War I or II if they were in transport, or administration, and not just one of the relatively small portion of soldiers who actually faced the enemy. The women of World War I fought in other ways, and often in battles as hard as the men’s. And most their war was unrecorded.

 

VAD

With a degree of poignant synchronicity, I read the last part of the book on the 100th anniversary of the battle of Fromelles, probably the most tragic single day in Australia’s military history, where almost 2,000 Australian troops lost their lives and many thousands more were wounded. There were more Australian casualties on that one day than in all post WWII campaigns combined.

 

(see my other blog for more about Fromelles: https://onesimusfiles.wordpress.com/2016/07/19/battle-of-fromelles-centenary/  )

The author’s web page related to the book:  http://www.jackiefrench.com/#!a-rose-for-the-anzac-boys/o3kat

Publisher’s page :  http://www.harpercollins.com.au/9780732285401/a-rose-for-the-anzac-boys/