A story for ANZAC Day

During World War Two the Japanese guards brutally mistreated their prisoners of war, including Geoffrey Bingham

Geoffrey Bingham, 1945, taken on the ship bringing him home from war

At the end of the Pacific Celebration in Adelaide in 1995 an elderly Japanese tourist, in broken English, confronted Bingham as he was leaving to catch the bus home. This is what transpired.

In August 1995 Australia commemorated the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, with events around the country called ‘Pacific Celebration’ to mark the 50th anniversary of Victory in the Pacific.

Geoffrey Bingham, 1919 – 2009, was an Australia author, soldier, prisoner of war, farmer, Anglican minister, evangelist, missionary, theologian, entrepreneur and down-to-earth thinker about life, love and community.

In his late teens he began studies at Moore Theological College, but joined the army when World War II broke out, despite inclinations to pacifism. He was assigned to the 8th Division Signals and left for Malaya in February 1941.

A year later, he earned a Military Medal for outstanding courage and leadership under fire as Singapore fell to the Japanese. For the rest of the war, with a badly smashed leg, he was a prisoner in the Changi and Kranji camps.

Bingham wrote an account of his participation in the Pacific Celebration in August 1995 with his wife Laurel. The text is reproduced below, and close friend of Bingham, Trevor Faggotter, kindly read and recorded the story, press play to listen.

Bingham wrote many war stories. Many are available to download and read for free

Pacific Celebration—Fifty Years On

Geoffrey Bingham

Reproduced from the book No Life without Dryads

They are saying a lot about fifty years after the war, about the fiftieth anniversary, and I am hearing them.

I am hearing through and above the things pressing around me which are of the present. For example, the writing of a book, teaching others out of what little I know, and the extras, like being a husband, a father, a grandfather. It is she, Laurel my wife, who is interested in the ‘Australia Remembers’ celebrations.

So a friend of ours has composed a CD-ROM. I hardly knew what a CD-ROM was until I saw it on the computer where I was being interviewed by Rob Linn the historian who is its maker. His book titled Their Sacrifice also helped to prime me. Laurel and I saw both productions at Government House where some hundreds of us had been invited to the launching of the CD-ROM and book.

So, then, how could I escape the fiftieth celebrations in this city of Adelaide?

I rarely go to Anzac marches, since one leg is too gammy to take the distance, so I see it more easily on TV. Not today, however. She will go herself, on her own, if I won’t go; so I know I must go, and this requires a polishing of the old medals to their pristine purity pitch. Because a huge crowd is expected, we go by bus.

We wait for this Route 191 vehicle, and even before we get into the bus, folk are looking at the medals and nodding with a mite of reverence so rare in our everyday community. I respond with a modicum of embarrassment. All along the route, at each stop, folk clamber aboard and flash that look which tells us we are folk admired from the past.

The next thing is that we are in Victoria Square, heart of the city of Adelaide. I make bold to discover where we can join the parade in the luxury of a provided bus. The Army men and women see my medals, and kind of bow to me.

‘Buses? Well now, sir, things are just the same in the Army now as ever they were. Organised chaos you know! Ha! Ha! No! Wait! Sure! There will be a bus but when and where is not too certain! Look sir; look over there. That is the Chief Marshal. He should know if anyone would.’

I am pointed to the Chief Marshal. I visualise how I must look to him. An old gentleman with pure white hair, wearing a white shirt, a blue jacket with gold buttons, elegant grey slacks, and that double row of medals, one of them for bravery and a fern leaf for a Mention in Dispatches. They give me a little boldness of spirit.

He is tall, awesome with his Chief Marshal’s brassard. He, alone, holds the secrets. I politely interrupt his conference with less senior marshals. ‘A bus? Of course, just there sir. Not long now. You’ll see it come. Oh, by the way sir, there are the vintage Army vehicles. They will also be there. They should prove interesting.’

Armed with what we used to call ‘the griff’, we reassure a number of anxious widows who are wearing their husbands’ ribbons and medals. We even get seated in a bus, all dark- glass windows out of which we can see, but none can see us. We have always disliked anonymity, but the bus is so comfortable.

We look with longing at the vintage Army vehicles; jeeps, an amphibious ‘duck’, and an assortment of trucks. Everywhere they are getting ready for the parade. I suppose you call it a parade, a ‘Remembrance Parade’.

My Army mates are gathering over in one place and the men and women of the Navy and Air Force in other places. Ahead of us all will be the Police Band, its members tricked out in full ceremonial dress, including silver-piked white helmets.

Their rig-out reminds me of the old colonial days, the remnants of which I have seen on the Indian subcontinent and other places. Others are deeply interested in the vintage Army vehicles, especially the amphibious duck.

I am more interested in the university and college cadets, slightly amazed at the proportion of lassies tricked out in uniform. I remember my self-conscious days as a raw recruit. In all this I am beginning to relax. To see the event through to its end was my firm resolve, mainly to please my wife.

She has her memories, too, of fifty years ago when a ghastly war was suddenly concluded and she was a nurse in a Sydney Hospital. Ran up and down Martin Place, she did, with her nurse colleagues. Went crazy they did in their mad happiness.

Now we are both relaxed, and comfortable in the bus. Not for long, however. The eager Army folk crowd into our bus to tempt us out of luxury. Would we like to go in the World War II army vehicles, in the ancient jeeps, and the amphibious duck and the trucks?

My mind opts for the duck, but we miss out on that. Maybe the Jeeps, then! Alas! they are bagged by Land Army girls of our own vintage but less shy and more spry.

Would we ride, up high, in a truck? Would we! How would Laurel get up there? No problem: four of them lift and push and shove and assist and she is up. I have a bit of dignity to retain so I manage it myself, but then I don’t have arthritis.

Now we are seated in the truck, a bit cramped up, but happy. My dignity is dissipating. I am beginning to feel human. Fifty of my seventy-six years are beginning to dissolve. Strictly speaking, I am not back to the end of the War for it was in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp, and the Japanese Area General was refusing to surrender.

No matter: here we are in calm Adelaide, and I am as young again. Laurel’s eyes are roving over the massing multitude, and I think she is giggling. Also my writer’s sense is on the alert. Here I might catch another story.

The next fiftieth celebration is far away and probably well beyond our reach. So I turn to face the folk who will be crammed on the footpaths, looking up. I hope the vintage vehicles will lead the parade, but I dare not expect it. Of course, the Police Band will be to the fore.

I am both stunned and delighted, for the buses for the physically disabled and our old Army vehicles are going first, behind the Police Band of course. Unbelievably we are moving off, and the next thing is ticker tape floating down from the tall buildings.

Few of the new buildings have windows, but the old sandstone and brick buildings come to our aid. Down from above the flutter of white paper like flat flakes of snow. Easily shred and done! What is most surprising is the crowd we meet, caked on the edge of the footpath, crammed back almost to the shops and the offices.

The eyes of all are on us. The very old, the moderately old, the middle-aged, the young and the younger and then the children to the forefront gathering up piles of shredded paper to throw and snow upon us. Streamers fly out, unrolling, bringing back memories of ocean, postwar voyage departures.

None of those, of course, during the War. Then we slipped away quietly lest the enemy know of us. On other days people tread the city footpaths with solemnity, curved into themselves, unsmiling. Today everyone is smiling. People want to smile: the smiling is genuine.

The children are laughing and so the adults laugh. It is fun to laugh! It is a day of great glee. The children have no respect for my white hair and my natural dignity. They cast handfuls of ticker tape, made into paper snowballs, and shriek hysterically if they hit me or my wife, but smiles are breaking out in me and Laurel and our truckful of veterans.

I have not seen so many people together in years. Later they will tell us 73,000 have come in from every city and town and hamlet in the State.

Then I see tears. I see faces passionate with pain and pride. To some we are remnants of other proud days, and suddenly, afresh, they sense sacrifice. Maybe some are weeping because a husband or wife, a grandparent or a parent has gone beyond their ken.

Maybe they are just proud because so many can be so interested when, for a long time, small rivulets of life and pride had been almost lost in the wide continent, dry it was assumed, of national joy and delight at the valiant efforts of fighting men and women.

Suddenly they are realising a nation has not been asleep nor dry in its spirit. It has just lacked the opportunity to express itself. Today inhibitions are cast off, but not for some inane Dionysian revel, but for a celebration of the greatness the human spirit can know in its finest hours.

So we battle with the children and their paper bombs and their streamers, and the adults further back who are in the streamer-casting business and as delighted as children when one reaches us and we grasp it, a link with them however transitory.

Some communion of the spirit is effected, and they have huge joy. So they are laughing. It is not that there is much to laugh about in the world for the atrocities in the Balkans are in our mind. We have not forgotten the genocides in Burundi and Rwanda, and the breaking out of bitter tribal warfare in Zaire.

We have not forgotten the innumerable wars that have happened in the past fifty years, especially that vast war of attrition—the Cold War. We have memories of the Berlin Wall, but that has collapsed. The great powers have not really been at war for fifty years, albeit lesser powers have.

As though, then, this is the moment, a thousand white balloons are liberated and, up in the high air, a thousand pure spirits are dancing. Of course the people in the crowd are real Aussies, holding hands or helpless with pride and pain and tears and laughter.

We look down at children whose backgrounds are ethnic, who are the firstfruits of our multicultural society. They, too, are laughing up at us. When they shout and joke their accents are of this land. We are all one together whatever the rich cultural secrets they retain for themselves.

Suddenly we hear shouts. Our names are called. We look out with wide eyes and there are friends, folk we know and folk who are glad to know us, and maybe proud to see we have laid aside our regular dignity to become human again in a long march of humans in their human history. So we shout and wave madly and they do the same, and others are glad we have friends, but then they are all our friends.

We do not stop waving to all. We wave and we wave and smile and smile until smiles become almost fixed, but yet they are real and warm, and we grow with the interchange and the human communion. What we are not seeing are the folk behind us.

We simply have our gaze on folk, young and old, who have their eyes and, seemingly, their hearts fixed on us. Behind us, however, are thousands who are marching, and they are not spectators but participators in an event which can be considered to be major in their lives.

They, too, are from every walk of life. Some are the men and women of the fighting forces, their physical powers diminished by reason of age, but they are marching as once they marched, and as some might not beyond the year they are now in.

At home, later, I will see them on a recorded video and so I will see their quiet joy, their reasonable pride, their active tribute to comrades now gone from them. The tribute is there, also, to the society they love, with all its shortcomings.

Like others, these marchers, too, have their idiosyncrasies but these are reminders of our humanity. The way we are is the way we want it, and so we tramp in swaying rhythm. Some on the sidelines try to recapture that ‘first fine careless rapture’ they had known in the hour of the War’s cessation from its six long, weary years.

So they try to dance, try to sing, try to show the original joy, but not with much success. They are really quite overcome with a different joy, the development of nationhood which has happened in the half century, the change in life, the growth of an even richer identity, all built on the foundation laid in two wars of great significance to this continent of the south.

Time cannot be reversed. I appreciate the young man I was on return in 1945 but I do not want to be again that grown boy. I am glad of what fifty years has added to me as a person. I quietly revel in the gifts that have come to me and, I trust, gone from me to others, as theirs to me.

So, whilst, as others are now attempting to do, I could sing, ‘Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag’, and ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, even so, these songs no longer grip me in the way they did. I have sung other songs myself, those less jingoistic and more to the point of developed human living. My future has grown stronger than it was then. I have had other things to feed my hope. Beside me is a remarkable woman who has spent almost all those years with me.

We have no cause for cynicism or crass celebration. At last we are at the Parade Ground, and Laurel is assisted down, stepping on a milk crate and then on to the ground. I make my way down, myself, still insisting I have agility no matter what my age.

We make our own way across to Elder Park where the long stream of marchers is spilling into the swelling ocean of people. We all wander around, looking at one another, some exchanging secret looks, knowing nods as they recognise your war medals and calculate where you were and what you did.

You think medals should be worn daily for this reason, but then what would be the surprise of vagrantly finding out one another? Gratefully we find chairs, and sit, rest weary bones, wave to old friends, chat with a few, watch innumerable pies being munched and cans of drinks being consumed.

The unbeatable desire not to be stereotyped in dress or in action keeps manifesting itself. The variety is remarkable and it is all accompanied by a willingness to chat with those we have not previously met. Social, cultural and age barriers have all dissolved.

The time for the air-raid sirens has come. The machines from fifty years ago, now outdated, wail out the warning of the terror to come, but no terror comes. At the first siren all conversation dies to a murmur and then the murmur is lost and a holy silence is like an unspoken sigh.

Minds flow back to the terrible days that once were, and find their way to many war cemeteries, to turfed green fields with white crosses or other kinds of bronze plaques on white stone or marble.

Those who have lost the fifty years we have had in precious peace from war’s mutilation sleep unconscious of their sacrifice made deliberately or in bewilderment. They are missed, the beloved ones; and I see, silent with my eyes opened, tears starting in eyes, and tears trickling down faces, and I am made aware again of the depths of emotions human beings have for one another.

Children somehow seem caught up in it all, proud to be one with oldies and wrinklies and crumblies. The second siren wail is like a streamer across the assembly of rememberers. Yellow and green balloons are suddenly released, beating their way upwards to freedom. Siren and liberated balloon awaken a fresh sense both of the past and the present.

I am seated next to Laurel, and do not know her thoughts. My own are of our return to Australia from the prison camp, and the fast beating of the heart, the choking with emotion, the barely restrained tears, and the huge joy that enveloped us as we alighted at Circular Quay in Sydney in 1945.

That day, too, there had been a solid phalanx of joyous people meeting us with tears of pity and shouts of joy and a veritable snowstorm of ticker tape, old Sydney resounding to the music of the military bands and the cries of the people lining their foot- path. They had remembered us in the years when men wasted away with sickness and starvation.

I awake to the fact that this is the 15th of August 1995. I sit in silent joy, contemplating my fellow creatures. After a time we think we have had enough. We are satiated. Any more emotion may debilitate us. To this point it has kept us strong.

So we make our way across King William Road, whilst the long streams of schoolchildren are still flowing. We interrupt them and find a haven in a bus shelter whilst we await the time of the buses. I meet a bishop I have long known, and his wife and a brood of young grandchildren to whom they are interpreting this event.

Laurel, for some reason or other, is overcome with giddiness. She is glad to sit down and try to calm her trembling and the tension which is giving her chest pain. She takes tablets to counter the effects of the attack. I stand, walking stick in hand, waving it, trying to hail a taxi, but the traffic has only just begun to filter through. The few taxis I see are engaged. I worry a little.

Without thinking, my eyes light on a rather wry man who is, maybe, a tourist.

He is not dressed very well, but has a camera hanging around his neck. He is from the East. I sense he is Japanese. He has looked at me for some minutes, and makes a sign of greeting. He is gazing long at my war medals.

His eyes hold a kind of plea.

We use sign language, he to ask permission to take a photograph of me, and I to agree to his request. We stand whilst he takes the photograph. Then he comes across to me. As he walks across I am trying to determine his age.

Perhaps he is my age.

I feel a faint inner tremor as I think he may have been a guard on one of our prison camps. Perhaps he was once a harsh and cruel guard: I do not know. The tremor passes. I am calm. We shake hands. His voice is very soft. He is trying to communicate through broken English. His eyes are more eloquent than his words.

He is speaking haltingly.

‘Fifty years ago Japanese verry bad’, he says. He shakes his head regretfully.

‘Verry bad.’ He sighs. He wishes to be fluent.

‘Verry wrong.’ He looks into my eyes, and I sense sincerity.

‘Japanese bad.’ His articulation is spaced out.

‘Sorry, verry sorry.’

I know he is sorry. I am thinking of a book I have on my shelves back at home. Its title is Nippon Very Sorry—Men Must Die, words spoken by a Japanese officer on the Burma Railway, but there was no sorrow in that!

A great warmth for this man grows within me. I am in wonderment that on this day I should meet this man. I have met Japanese in their thousands in their homeland, but this one all alone and so stricken with sorrow affects me deeply.

I can scarcely withhold the tears.

I can scarcely remember such a moving time in all my life. Laurel is looking around from her bus shelter. She also seems quite moved. I take both his hands and hold them with affection. I would erase his sorrow, but I think it will remain, perhaps for ever.

He whispers almost hoarsely, ‘We pray for peace. We pray for peace of the whole world.’

I want us to talk on but I think he has exhausted his supply of words, though his eyes tell me the same message that he has spoken.

We both press hands, and he is gone; a lone, thin figure who has captured the picture of a white-haired, bemedalled man who was once the prisoner of his cruel regime.

I share my deep emotion with Laurel, and although she looks quite faint, she too has a joy. I return to hail a taxi but before that a bus comes and it has our number on it. Good old 191 all the way back to Kingswood.

Packed as it is, we are given seats by young children. That seems good to us as we make our way home.

Early in the morning at the bus stop a man had said, ‘Have a good time!’ Well, his bidding has come true.

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