An Unknown Soldier
A father’s World War II keepsake sparks a harrowing journey
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In April 2009, I attempted to climb Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo. Kinabalu is a stark granite freak of a mountain, 4095 metres high and topped by a crown of crazy spires wrapped in skeins of thick swirling clouds. Almost twice the height of the surrounding mountains of the Crocker Range, it is a sacred resting place for the ancestral spirits of the Kadazandusun people of Sabah and, it is said, the spirits of the Australian, British and Bornean war dead from World War II.
The climb is conducted in two stages. The first stage, a 1400 metre ascent over 6 kilometres, takes climbers to the Laban Rata guesthouse, where they have dinner and rest a few hours before setting off for the second stage at two o’clock in the morning, with the aim of scaling the summit in time to watch the sun rise over Sabah.
Sadly, stage two, which involves hauling yourself up sheets of granite using thick ropes in the thin, cold air, defeated me. Though accompanied by my local Kadazandusun guide, Darwun, I couldn’t see where I was going. I felt tired and heavy, as if I was wading through water. My heartbeat thundered in my head. I advanced in tiny painful increments and every time I stopped to catch my breath, I nearly threw up. Darwun hovered discreetly, neither urging me on nor suggesting retreat.
Finally – to his relief, I suspect – I chucked it in and we headed back to the Laban Rata. The trip down was easier although I continued to stumble all over the track like a newborn giraffe. Darwun gave me his arm to lean on. My balance improved and the nausea receded.
When I had recovered enough to chat I asked Darwun if he had children. He told me, yes, two, and that he was one of nine. His father was still alive and recently had his 88th birthday. All his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren had helped him celebrate.
Then he told me that during World War II his father had killed a Japanese soldier. He said the Japanese had come to his father’s village and stolen the food and raped the women. His father, armed with a machete, had hidden behind the kitchen door. When the Japanese soldier had entered, Darwun’s father had jumped out and taken the soldier’s head off. Darwun embellished this with a ‘zzzzt’ sound, while running his finger across his throat.
We continued down the track in silence. I was left with the vision of a bloodless Japanese head, cone-shaped cap in place, rolling across a floor and a leaping brown man circling a machete above his head. Gusts of wind and sharp darts of rain threatened my balance. I took a firmer grip of Darwun’s arm and asked him how he felt about guiding the myriad young Japanese – by far the largest number of climbers – who flocked to Sabah every year to climb Kinabalu.
Darwun chuckled and shone his flashlight so I could see his very smart, very expensive hiking boots. They were a gift, he said, from a grateful Japanese man. Darwun had helped him brave altitude sickness, trembling legs and a great weariness to reach the summit by dawn.
I never knew my father had killed a Japanese soldier until I was 25. It was 1966. I was a midwife by then, home on leave. My visit happened to coincide with Anzac Day, traditionally a long day for my father. This particular Anzac Day he’d rolled in singing and swaying and, after he’d eaten, lit a smoke and gave my mother and me the day’s highlights. Somewhere into his third cuppa, in the middle of several overlapping yarns, he abruptly changed tack and started talking about a Japanese soldier he’d faced across “a bloody great log” during an ambush in New Guinea. How they’d both jumped out at the same time and for a split second stared each other down. My father said he didn’t know who got the biggest fright but he got the first shot. He frowned into his teacup and talked about the photo he’d seen of a wife and child. His mood darkened.
I was more intrigued than horrified. The war had hovered in the background of our home all my life. Not in a scary or malevolent way, more as a normal part of our family history. After the revelations of the Japanese war atrocities my parents, like a good number of Australians, had taken a dim view of all things Japanese but they mostly kept it to themselves.
By the time my father died in 2005, of pneumonia and a broken heart, six months after the death of my mother, the story of the dead Japanese soldier had become blurred, almost forgotten, somewhere between reality and myth. The few times I’d attempted to get him to revisit the story he’d clammed up.
Three years later, my sister came across a small, tarnished oval disc engraved with a string of Japanese characters, inside a globite suitcase that had belonged to our father. The disc’s sudden appearance stirred up unsettling memories; we knew what it was, and whose it had been. Over the next few days my sister and I had many circular discussions. We thought it was morally wrong to remove ID discs from dead soldiers. This was at odds with everything we knew about our father, and we wondered why he’d done it. But we figured that the events were long past and that giving the soldier’s family some idea of what had happened to him should surely take precedence over any other considerations.
We decided to send the disc back to Japan.
Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be a complicated procedure involving numerous to-and-fro conversations with the Australian War Memorial and the Japanese Embassy over many months. At first we were told that it would be impossible to find the family as Japanese soldiers only had numbers, not names, on their discs. But our soldier had been an officer and, as officers had names as well as numbers engraved on their discs, there was a slim chance his family might be found after all. Much to our astonishment, shortly after I returned from Borneo, word arrived that the family had been located and would be very pleased to receive the relic via the Japanese Embassy.
Two months later, the embassy informed us the family was pleased to receive the relic but did not want any contact with us. Fair enough, my sister and I agreed. Perfectly understandable, we didn’t mind at all.
But I did mind. The Japanese family’s response had triggered a disconcerting undercurrent in me, a mix of anxiety and anger.
Why not send us a short reply? Perhaps they thought of our father as one of the aggressors, from the side of the mass murderers who had dropped the A-bombs.
And what would Dad have had to say about all this? His children, so carried away by the warm moral glow of their personal reconciliation with the Japanese soldier’s family, hadn’t given a second’s thought as to whether this was what he would have wanted.
The day after I’d stumbled back down Mount Kinabalu, I visited the Kundasang War Memorial Gardens, established in memory of Australian and British prisoners of war. The memorial had a profound impact upon me. Between 1942 and 1943, the Japanese incarcerated 600 British and 1800 Australians in a large camp in Sandakan, on the north-east coast of Borneo, where they had laboured under appalling conditions. In 1944, when it became apparent their war was going badly, the Japanese High Command had ordered the prisoners to be marched 260 kilometres across Borneo, the expectation being that few would survive the arduous jungle trek. Those too ill to leave were murdered. For those who reached their destination, a village in the west called Ranau, the horror intensified. At Ranau, a short distance from the memorial, the POWs died of disease, starvation and beatings at the rate of seven a day. The last men alive were shot 12 days after the official Japanese surrender. Only six out of 2400 men, all Australians, escaped and survived.
Perhaps my trip to Borneo influenced my reaction to the Japanese family’s cool response in the ensuing months. I still knew virtually nothing about the Pacific War but, for the first time, I wanted to know more. I dived into a great pile of reading matter on the subject – an ad hoc guzzle of fiction, memoir, history, investigative journalism, reportage, opinion, studies and articles by Australian, Dutch, British, Japanese and American writers of diverse backgrounds.
Concerned by my increasing ill feeling towards the Japanese, I bent over backwards to remain objective. I read and felt what I could for the Japanese soldiers, abandoned by their superiors, left without food and resources to fight to the death, only for the surviving veterans to be shunned and despised by their people at home. I read shattering accounts of the tragedies of the A-bombs and the fate of civilians in Saipan and Okinawa. I learnt that all the major players in World War II, including Australia, committed rape and other war crimes.
Nevertheless, my diligent objectivity was swept away when I read details of Japan’s imperially ordained rampage perpetrated in the name of liberating the people of South-East Asia from their white colonial masters. The scope of Japan’s atrocities was so excessive that, as far as I was concerned, no appeal to moral equivalency, hinted at in some of the material I read on the grounds of the Allies’ war crimes, or of the Allies’ prewar colonial, racist and economic policies, could make it comprehensible. In contrast, I felt the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were completely understandable in the world as it existed back then. I couldn’t help but stick with the information I had absorbed as a child, from adults convinced that the A-bombs had ended the slaughter and brought many Australian servicemen, including my father, safely home.
Months passed. My obsession with the Pacific War gradually faded. The resentment about the unacknowledged ID disc shrank to a barely discernible flicker.
My sister called. Correspondence had arrived from the Japanese Embassy, a note to say that they were forwarding a letter from the recipients of the relic. The embassy’s translation of the letter was basic and polite: “Thank you for the relic.”
“But,” said my sister, “there are three pages here, all written in Japanese.”
“Send it to me,” I said. “I’ll ask a friend to translate it.”
The letter arrived. Inside a slim, elegant envelope were three sheets of flimsy rice paper covered in delicate and precise characters. My Japanese friend kindly translated it:
The autumn colours are deepening in Japan these days.
How are my dear Mrs Robin Barker and Mrs P. B.? I am trusting in both to be in good health and your business to prosper.
I like to express my sincere gratitude for your kindness to return my late uncle’s relic, a soldier disc. So courteously, kindly keeping it safe for so long.
I can only imagine my late uncle’s deepest longing to return home, now he is rested along with his parents in the family grave. All must now be at peace and would be thanking for your doing.
While my thoughts will go for all the heartaches felt in the past, I hope for everyone peace and harmony in the future.
Signed off in thanking,