The gunner’s story

DarwinPostOffice-bombed1942Those who’ve fought never talk about war. They talk about other things. People, moments in the sun and the quiet of a day when the guns did not sound or when someone else did something they could remark on. Or jokes about some crazy officer, or betting on flies climbing canvas…

Then Jim’s Dad told him about the day the zeroes came in. Bluey Hampson with a durry [1] dangling from his lip and about to lay down a flush and then the sudden wham of planes overhead and the air ripped by machine gun fire and Jim’s Dad, so Jim imagines, sees the bombs looping lazy in the air and then whump whump and the air singing dirt, and everyone running and Bluey Hampson heading for the East Creek and diving in and another bomb falling whomp… smash and water everywhere and them needing nets afterwards to scoop up poor Bluey Hampson. All this slow and interrupted with long silences, the sentences pulled from Jim’s Dad like reluctant teeth.

Jim’s dad told him that story the day after Jim turned 18. He’d brought home beer – ‘Now that you can drink legal , and all’ – and they’d had one or two or maybe three, Jim’s dad probably drinking more than one for one.  Jim asked, ‘what was it like, the war I mean?’ Nothing from his Dad, just a tilting of the head. So Jim pressed on, growing perhaps more indignant with his Dad’s stoomness over the years; one too many beers for him also. ‘You never tell us much except silly stories, like the one about betting on who had the most weevils in your porridge or how you lacquered some poor sod’s rear end in his sleep with boot polish, or betting on trying to hit corellas on the wing by shooting backwards using a mirror to aim …’

‘What do you want to know… ?’

 

‘Anything that’s not a joke,’ said a plucky Jim. ‘I mean, you were there in Darwin when we first got bombed and that’s, well, that’s big. It can’t just be all jokes.’

‘It isn’t,’ said his Dad. ‘And you didn’t let me finish. I was going to say, what do you want to know about that for. War, I mean… But I guess I know, and I suppose I should tell you something that isn’t funny and that I can’t forget. And so you won’t either.’

That’s when he told Jim about the zeroes and Bluey Hampson and in his mind’s eye Jim saw scum and sausages that weren’t sausages being scooped up from that creek… His Dad didn’t tell him that; Jim was sometimes blessed with too much imagination.

‘There’s more like that that any number of blokes could tell a son,’ his dad was saying. ‘We were told not to write details about attacks and to keep our letters home light. It was good for the war effort, the officers said. As if I’d write stuff like that to my Mum or girl. And I didn’t write to my old man. And anyway, we knew the letters were read and censored by the officers…’ His dad took a long swig of what must have been bottle number five for him. There was far off look in his eyes and Jim figured maybe he wasn’t there, not so far as his Dad was concerned. He wasn’t looking at him but up at something above the window sill. ‘I wasn’t in Darwin when the first bombing happened. February. I was out on an exercise near Katherine. 17 people killed, the wireless said. We knew that was probably bullshit but we didn’t know how bad it really was. Didn’t see it until a week later: Darwin a mess and we found out there were hundreds dead. Nobody much knew that until years later. They were scared about morale and didn’t want people worried. And the truth of it was we were scared too [2]. We wondered when the Japs were coming. If they could take Singapore they could take Darwin…’

His dad suddenly looked him in the eye. Opened another beer for him. ‘Not a lot of truth bandied about in a war, Jim. Not in my war and not in any of the wars that have come after… Maybe too much truth would help them stop but the truth is we hardly ever talk about it, even among ourselves. Yep. It’s mainly jokes and remembering stuff that isn’t real, even among the vets. We did bet on how many weevils we’d find in our porridge and I did win ten quid one day with a guess of one weevil, because I’d secretly paid the cook to set aside a bowl with just one weevil in it. The average was usually about seven. And I did tell the blokes about my deception maybe five years later and had to buy a round. They all laughed too. That was a good war story.’

‘But that’s not what you want to hear.  So here’s a real gunner’s story for you, son, straight from my war archives…’

‘This was after Bluey died. The zeroes came again, once or twice, though the truth is I don’t remember exactly how many times. We got better at picking when they might come and we had better warning systems but they’d still racket in suddenly sometimes and scare the be’jesus out of you. Most of the time, though, as they say, war is 99 percent boredom. Drills and parades and not much time to get up to mischief, though we’d try.’

‘Aaron Johnson and me got nicked for something and we were put up to digging the new latrine for my battery group. We were supposed to cover up our old latrine, which was full and fairly disgusting because we’d just had a bout of diarrhoea through the group but all we’d done is throw a few shovels of dirt and lime over the top to hide the worst of the stench and stick an air raid shelter sign next to the hole for a bit of a joke… Couldn’t have worked out better if we’d planned it.’

‘There was an officer, a lieutenant, no one liked. Put on airs, gave us hell for a loose button or a not-snappy-enough salute every chance. The worst thing was that he put on this toffy nosed pommy accent because he’d done his university course in England. Thought he was better than the common old working class stiff. He’d been away from our station for a week on leave and his jeep happened to pull up right beside us. I knew he’d chip us for something and that’s when it happened. Wham, two zeroes in and the whack whack whack of machine guns. They liked that – to do a strafing run and then come back hard and fast and hit us with bombs.’

‘Our dear old loo-tenant was suddenly all girly screeching and where’s the air raid shelter? Without a word Aaron and me pointed at the recently covered old latrine ditch with the air raid sign knocked in next to it. The zeroes were coming around and that lieutenant  high tailed it, zero noise pitch rising to a roar, and dived in. Aaron and me bolted another way and never got pinched because old toffy nose couldn’t remember who’d pointed him at the lurid air raid shelter that was in fact filled with something other than escape from bullets and bombs.’

‘And that’s a real gunner’s story,’ Jim’s Dad said. ‘And that’s war.’

 

[1] Durry is slang for a cigarette

[2] In fact quite a few servicemen deserted after the initial attacks.  According to national archives records: ‘Three days after the attack 278 servicemen were still missing.’ See http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/fact-sheets/fs195.aspx

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