My name is Douglas Stanley Park and I am writing a record of my experiences during the war because I feel it will be of interest to future generations. I will start at the end rather than the beginning by saying that I feel very grateful I fought for my country and survived, and that above all, the war gave me confidence.
Doug put down the pen because even after a short time of focusing steadily on the movement of his hand across the page, he was beginning to feel tired. He felt it was a decisive opening, especially the bit about confidence. Not many people understood that about war, how a fellow could come back feeling as tall as a house, knowing that at the age of twenty-seven he had already been a squadron commander in charge of other men’s lives.
Definitely not that chap back at the National Insurance company, bringing him into his office like that and asking him, was he ready to be a manager? Ready? Did he think he was the same ‘office boy’ who had left when he was twenty-two? Ready, sir? Do you think the Battle of Italy fought itself, sir? How do you think the Germans were defeated while you were attending to insurance claims?
Yes, sir, I am ready.
He would have said anything for the chance to get back on a ship, leaving New Zealand again, bound for England. Yes sir, let me be manager of the London office. Dunedin is suffocating me and I’ve only been home three months. Put me on a ship back to England.
Doug sighed and closed his papers. At this rate the memoirs were going to take him until his retirement. Every time he sat down to write, too many memories demanded his attention, his thoughts tumbled over each other in no particular order – how he wished he could order them to arrange themselves like his men, to position themselves chronologically and stand at attention while he wrote them down!
Doreen’s head poked around the door. “Are you alright, dear?” She had acquired this irritating habit of pushing her glasses up her nose that Doug abhorred. She had taken to doing it while correcting her students’ homework. Doug wondered if she only did it to remind him she was a schoolteacher.
Doug closed up his books. “For heaven’s sake, what is it, Doreen? Can’t you see I’m busy?” How was a man to get any work done with all these infernal interruptions?
“We had a letter today, I thought you might like to read it, darling. That’s all.” Her thumb and forefinger grasped the rim of her glasses.
“America! Ameeeerica!” Graeme turned to the gaggle of children who were following him up the steep path. As he spun around, he heard shrieks and squeals of laughter and he glimpsed a scurry of bare feet flapping over the stones as their owners disappeared behind walls. Three of the braver boys stood still in front of him, dressed in bedraggled cloth wrapped around their thin bodies.
“America,” repeated the biggest of the three and stretched out his hand. A few grubby faces peered cautiously around the edges of nearby houses, fingers in front of giggling mouths. Graeme shook his head. He didn’t have any sweets or pens left. The boy looked disappointed for a second then his eyes brightened and he held two his palms up on either side of his eyes and pressed one finger down. Click!
Graeme reached into his rucksack and pulled out his camera. He put one hand out to the boys telling them to wait as he loaded a new film. The boys grinned and took positions, wrapping their arms over each others’ shoulders and holding up two fingers into peace signs. Graeme snapped and there was an animated discussion amongst the three. Graeme watched as one went running into a nearby house and brought back props that caused a great deal of excitement.
The boys posed again leaning on each other as before. In their hands they held up toy guns and smiled for the camera. “Bam, bam!” they shouted as Graeme walked away.
Nearby, a woman leaned against a street corner watching the scene. Her neck was draped with gold chains. “Hello America,” she trilled as he went by. “You like have fun in Thailand?”
“Not American,” he answered without stopping. With all the Americans taking a break from the war here these days, Chiang Mai was transforming so rapidly he hardly recognised it as the quiet town he had moved into. Hotels were springing up advertising mountain views and sweet Thai girls with soft skin and voices attended to the needs of weary soldiers relaxing in lush gardens, in discreet massage parlours posing as hairdressing salons, and less-discreet restaurants and bars.
A man fell in step beside him. “Hello, how you like Thailand?” Graeme, without turning or slowing his step, replied in Thai: “Your country is very nice.” The man grinned exposing a gap in his top row of teeth. He wore a sarong knotted around his neck and waist.
“I no speak Thai,” he explained. Graeme stopped. “Then where are you from?”
Ostensibly, all Arun wanted was for Graeme to buy him a beer. But by the time he had emptied it, he had explained that he was a Karen from Burma, an ethnic minority fighting for their right to a separate state. He had been studying in Rangoon during the military coup and fled to the jungle camps with most of his classmates to join the rebels. New groups were springing up all the time – perhaps over a hundred – Graeme had heard the names, Kachin, Karenni, Karachi, KMT, KLA, KNY, Shan National United Army, The Shan State Army, Wa, Mon… Sometimes they fought with each other, sometimes they fought each other.
And then there was the one they called ‘The Prince of Death’ who ruled the jungle with his army of 20, 000 like it was his own private kingdom. Khun Sa.
Graeme told him he was staying in Chiang Mai teaching English at a local school. Arun bared the gap in his teeth. “Professor!” he exclaimed. Graeme had been warned about the camps in the north, they were dangerous places filled with opium warlords and refineries for transforming the plant into heroin and exporting it to the West. Opium funded their revolution.
“Hey Professor,” he brightened and touched Graeme lightly on the arm as though the thought had just occurred to him, “You want see Karen camp?”
The soft grey lights of the television set flickered on Doug’s glasses as Doreen clattered the plates and cutlery together on the table, laid out the napkin holders and carefully rolled each napkin and slotted it inside the silver ring. There were just three places now.
“Would you keep it down?” Doug said without turning.
“Oh I’m sorry darling,” Doreen answered then added, “Dinner is ready.” Doug got up slowly and made his way to the table. Lyn emerged from her room and took her place, grabbing a dish from her mother on the way and setting it on the table. She wore her hair to her shoulders and curled it outwards in a way Doug found most unbecoming. A silence fell upon them as Doreen dished out the stew onto their plates. They bowed their heads.
“Oh Lord, for what we are about to receive, we are truly thankful,” Doreen said.
It was Doug who began. “You were on the news tonight,” he said without looking up from his plate.
“Was I?” Lyn answered quietly. “I didn’t know they would broadcast it.”
Doug continued to move his fork around the plate without eating. “Do the words Anzac Day mean nothing to you?”
“Dad,” Lyn said but he averted her gaze. “We didn’t disrespect anyone, we asked for permission, we only laid a wreath and if you actually read the inscription you would have seen it said, ‘For the dead and dying in Vietnam.’ It did not specify which dead and dying.”
“And I suppose you are going to tell me, you were not in that –“he grimaced at the bitter taste of the word in his mouth,” – that demonstration today, on Anzac Day of all days? Have these people no respect? Your friends?”
He pushed his plate away and stood up. “Oh darling, eat something,” his wife begged.
“I was not,” Lyn replied and her curled hair bobbed as she answered but he didn’t notice it because he had already left the room. “They are drawing a ballot making twenty-year old boys go to war, Dad!” she cried after him. “Twenty years old! Do you care about that?”
“Twenty, twenty-two, what’s the difference?” Doug muttered down the small hallway. He sat down in his study, pulled open his drawers and extracted the papers where he had already begun writing. He felt strong rolling the pen between his fingers. Below the final word, confidence, he wrote in careful downward strokes.
Conscription had not come in yet in New Zealand but there was talk of it. A few years after I began work at National Insurance, Austria was annexed by Germany and it was only six months later in the beginning of 1939 that the Germans marched into Czechoslovakia. The general feeling was that this sort of thing had to be stopped. Nobody made us go to war, we felt we needed to bolster up New Zealand’s defences. It wasn’t that we were belligerent, or wanted another war but we felt that by doing our very little bit that we were going to give some strength to the maintenance of peace in the world.
He paused a moment, then scrawled: Rightly or wrongly, that’s how we felt.
Ah what a feeling it had been to finally set sail as a Fleet Air Arm officer. If he closed his eyes now, the wind was still rushing over his face and a school of porpoises jumping and diving alongside the ship. His life had a real purpose at last. They had had a gay old time on that boat, been treated like kings though in reality they were just boys, given a fine old send-off. He still remembered Doreen’s face as she clutched her handkerchief and waved him off from the dock, her eyes brimming over. He would be back in a year.
Doug opened his eyes and stared at the papers before him. A year? It had been a full five years before he saw Doreen again.
We had quite the shock when we arrived in England for training. No one had been sent to fetch us and we had to pay a barge to take us and our luggage (we had brought far too much with us) across the harbour. ‘We’re paying a penny to go to war!’ we joked. By the time we arrived at barracks, no one had the least idea who we were. They grumbled and woke someone up to fix us some hammocks that we pitched in a room crowded with a hundred sailors. We hadn’t the faintest clue how to pitch a hammock and we hadn’t eaten for hours but we didn’t dare tell anyone how hungry we were. They must have thought we were terribly daft. There were a few New Zealand boys already there. “Why did you come here?” They said. “You should have stayed home.”
It was a three-hour journey bumping along a pot-holed track through the night as the forest drew itself closer around them. Their luggage was piled high on the back of the truck – an assortment of animals, children, bags and baskets, and secured with a net. The passengers climbed on top and dug their fingers into the netting. Graeme’s legs dangled over the side and he wrapped a scarf around his head to protect his face from being hit by passing foliage. When the truck lurched over a bump, he went flying into the passengers behind him. A baby cried relentlessly.
Dawn cracked over a ramshackle collection of bamboo huts strung out through a clearing and crowding the spaces between the trees as far as the eye could see. Boys in dirty sarongs tumbled in the dirt or helped their fathers work. Women chattered and washed clothes in the water carried carefully in buckets on the heads of their daughters. Everywhere there were children, playing in the dust, kicking a ball, peeking out from the cracks in the walls, hiding behind their parents, children crying in their mothers’ arms, new children being born.
“Many die here. We have no medicine for malaria,” Arun said matter-of-factly.
Later, they cut past the endless stream of huts and made a long trail deeper into the jungle. Arun had brought an older man, Thaung, and he had excellent English that he had learned at school during the colonial era. They came to a halt and motioned him to take cover behind some thick bush. They pointed out a thin line extending into the distance, picking a slow path through the foliage.
“Maybe you do not see clearly but they are mules on their way to Chiang Mai from Burma. First Chiang Mai then Bangkok,” Thaung explained. “They carry opium.” Graeme made out a long caravan of animals accompanied by drivers and guards.
“Who owns them?” He asked. “Are they yours?”
Arun tutted and Thaung told him the Karen didn’t sell opium, they sold timber.
Thaung shook his head no. “They pass through here too, they take cheap goods to Burma, things from outside that the government has banned – how do you say? Yes, the black market. They also carry weapons for the CIA to China. But look at these men, they are not rebels, they are KKY.”
“KKY?” They were dressed like soldiers with better weapons than those they had in the camp.
Thaung explained, “They are militia for the Burmese government. Khun Sa was once KKY but he became strong and made his own army.” He turned and smiled, “You see Professor? Everybody he wanna get the opium.”
As night fell, the fighters would return to the camp. Some of them had been gone for months at a time and they came back lean and hardened with gaunt cheeks, sharp eyes and tired bodies. “Hey Professor!” they shouted when they saw him. “Teach me English I’m gonna get beautiful American wife!” By night, they were rested and they lit a grand old fire and sat around it telling stories that made them laugh until tears poured from their eyes. When the cup they were passing around came to him, he took his turn and the liquid was strong and poured fire down his throat. The rebels were drunk.
“Professor! Professor!” they slapped him on the back and later they put their arms around him and they laughed and gabbled in a language he couldn’t yet understand but don’t worry they would teach him my friend yes you stay in camp with us is beautiful here you teach English to our children so they can be clever even we don’t have good school here in camp, we need teacher bring books from England, and the fire burnt down but they threw more wood in it the precious wood they needed for selling to get money for guns and they drank and Graeme’s head got cloudy and the next thing he remembered they had brought their guns to show him and they were saying go on hold it and he held the gun he didn’t know it would be so heavy and everyone wanted him to hold their gun so he was holding all the guns and smiling because they found his camera and were taking photos and he was trying to tell them how the guns made his shoulders ache and then Arun helped him to a hut where there was a mat to lie on the floor and he slept for a long time.
Lyn had been coming home late the last few nights and yesterday she hadn’t come home at all. It was the last Saturday of the month and as usual Tom had come to visit with his wife. Evelyn was in the kitchen with Doreen and the men sat by the Evening News sipping their gin.
Lyn stopped to greet her father and Tom as she passed through the salon on her way in. “Hello, Lieutenant,” she always addressed her father’s friend by his title but Doug felt there was a tinge of mockery in it. He didn’t know whether his daughter disliked Tom because he was American or because he had recently returned from the war abroad that was now playing in black-and-white on the television screen before them.
“Lyn,” Doug called out. The men had been discussing the rugby, their favourite sport, and the controversy over the All-Blacks’ planned tour of South Africa. Although the Maori players were not going to be banned this year from competing as before, they had to be classified by the apartheid system as ‘Honorary Whites’. Under such conditions, many New Zealanders were opposed to the team playing against South Africa at all. He leaned forward in his armchair. “Do you think the All-Blacks should play in South Africa, yes or no?”
She opened her mouth to utter a sentence.
“Yes or no?” Doug repeated.
“Well if I have to answer in a single word,” she said, “then… no,” and he replied, “I thought so,” and turned his attention back to his gin and his friend.
“What we have here is a failure to communicate,” she murmured on her way out.
“You know, Doug,” Tom drawled, “I’m an army man myself, but y’know I always thought about going into the airforce. It must be an amazing feeling to fly, really.”
The older man leaned back slowly in his chair. The gin was going to his head, he had to be careful what he drank these days. Long gone were the carefree nights on the ship where even the most expensive drink would only set you back a penny and boy, could you keep on going. Nights with the chaps singing dreadful drunken songs and bragging about how many girls they had been with, and most of the time you knew they were lying, and everyone pretending to have a sweetheart back home who was true and faithful even while they were larking about and you could go about feeling fine because you knew yours really was, you had the letters to prove it.
“The most wonderful feeling in the world,” he murmured. He hadn’t flown for twenty-five years.
Flying made me terribly sick, he wrote in his memoirs.
The women had entered the room and on occasions like this, he knew they loved to hear his stories, even those they had heard before. He told them about the year they spent stationed at Gibraltar, soaring like eagles over the Rock in their fighter planes, watching out for German subs and waiting to be sent down to French Morocco and to Algiers. Once, mid-story, he caught the eye of Doreen and he smiled at her as his hands rose in the air motioning the storm they had weathered when the carrier was tossed from side to side on ferocious waters, and that well-worn image flashed across his mind; Doreen waving goodbye as the ship pulled out, smiling so sweetly and sadly. The letters that arrived like clockwork for five years. The only thing you could count on.
Doreen’s face flushed with pride. But he didn’t tell them that they never received the order to go down to North Africa.
Bangkok sweltered under the sun. Graeme had stupidly overstayed his visa by two months, all that time he spent in the camp and it had never crossed his mind! If he just went to the Immigration Office, explained his case, slipped some money discreetly across the counter, he was sure he could sort it out. The city snarled around him, cars honked their horns in the stagnant traffic, women held their baskets up to him, imploring him to buy fruit and vegetables, held their babies up to him shrieking for help. Small boys knelt at the feet of older men, wiping their boots clean with filthy rags. Goods poured out along the side of the road; books, papers, matches, brooms, sweets, perfumes, make-up, clothes, apples, Coca-Cola spread out on carpets and lined up on wooden stalls. A beggar huddled in a corner with an outstretched palm. A motorbike roaring past in a cloud of grey. The wheels of the tuk-tuk kept getting stuck in the holes in the road, lurching the little taxi from side to side.
As his destination approached, Graeme reached into the small backpack he had carried down with him from Chiang Mai, leaving the majority of his possessions behind. He would be back at the camp in a few days. He unzipped the pocket at the front of the bag and felt inside. With a pang of shock, his hand groped around the empty space where his wallet had been.
That wretched little brat! He remembered the little boy with a shocking grin who had sat beside him on the rattling train and chattered away in Thai for several hours.
The tuk-tuk was still in motion when Graeme sprang into the jumble of people. An old man dropped the wooden cage he was carrying and chickens squawked in all directions. His feet pounded unsteadily as the road widened into a mob of students blocking the road. As he glanced behind him he saw the enraged tuk-tuk driver had abandoned his taxi where it stood in the middle of three lanes of traffic to come after him.
He ducked between the students, their fists pelting the air around him and chants rising like a wave of heat. Some of them held placards screaming DOWN WITH CORRUPTION and MILITARY OUT, DEMOCRACY IN. The driver melted in the crowd but as Graeme dashed into a narrow alley, he resurfaced a few steps behind him. “Thief!!!”
The lane ended abruptly and the next street was quieter and lined with trees. Graeme came up against a heavy stone wall, uneven and knotted with crevices. He hurtled towards it and hoisted himself to the top of the wall, gripping the spaces between the stones and scraping his elbows. He lifted his legs over and dropped, crashing down on the other side and landing painfully on his knees.
A grand building stood before him at the opposite end of the garden, topped with a towering pagoda. A man rushed towards him shouting in a language he did not understand. He peered at the inscription adorning the doorway of the building. There was no mistaking it. It was Chinese.
The North Africa thing was over after the Germans surrendered and the next thing was to strike at the heart of Italy and that meant putting an army ashore at Sicily. We were stationed at the mouth of the harbour a few miles away in case the Italian army came out which they could at any minute. They didn’t.
There was a big attack planned at Salerno and our carrier was the largest in the fleet; and the strategy was that if we took Salerno we could speed up the retreat of the Germans through Italy. At dawn I went out on the first flying patrol to see whether all was right for the attack to go ahead. I felt history calling me, an immense unspeakable sensation swelled my chest as I got into the fighter. As I dove over the ocean, I spotted an Italian submarine coming down between the fleet and the shore, on the surface. There were some Italian sailors on the submarine lying back sunbathing. That’s when I understood – the Italians had surrendered the night before.
Doreen was rustling around in the other room and Doug opened the study door a fraction to see what on earth she was up to at this time of night. She sat at the dining room table with term papers scattered from one end to the other, and at the sound of his approach she turned and removed her glasses.
“Oh sorry darling, did I wake you?”
He didn’t bother to tell her he had more important things to do than sleep. Without a word, he walked over to the lamp that cast a dim glow over her side of the table and yanked the cord from the socket. They were plunged into darkness. As he tramped back towards the study, the telephone rang.
Graeme leaned heavily against the desk of the Head Warden and replaced the telephone set. His father had sounded as terse as always, but not angry. They had both agreed it would be sensible to hide the situation from his mother. And yes, not to worry, he would send money for bail immediately, it would not be long before Graeme was on a plane out of there. He was accompanied back to his cell and pushed roughly inside. The room was crowded with twenty men, jostling for space to stand or sit hunched up on the rough dirt floor. An overpowering smell poured from the brimming latrine in the corner. In the past few days, it had not been emptied once.
He should have been glad to be spared a lecture. But he wished to God for once his father would lecture him. That would be something.
The man from the consulate had explained his position clearly and he was not such a fool he couldn’t understand. He had been caught in the Chinese embassy. The Chinese had thought he was a spy for the KMT, the party Mao had deposed who had taken up positions as fighters and opium lords in the Burmese jungle. The Thai believed he was a Burmese spy for the ruling Socialist Party. The Burmese had thought he was a CIA agent negotiating arms deals with the KMT. The KMT also suspected he was with the CIA selling weapons to their rival Khun Sa who was now rotting in a Burmese jail. The CIA thought he was a Communist spy probably working for China.
“Your situation is very precarious,” the man from the Australian consulate explained. New Zealand had no representation in Thailand. “To be honest, you should consider yourself lucky to get away with a deportation. Get out as soon as you can before anyone changes their mind.”
Graeme nodded. “Will I be able to return?”
“Afraid not,” he replied. The man looked at him hard. “You want my advice, son? Just go home.”
Coming home was the hardest thing I have ever done. We were full of excitement naturally, we sailed into Christchurch and there was a big spread put on for us and celebrations and so-forth. But then the real thing sets in and you hang up your uniform and say goodbye to that life for good. Doreen and I were married after three weeks.
He hadn’t needed to ask her to stop working, she had resigned as a matter of course and things remained as they should have for a long time. One time he found a women’s magazine tucked under her bed, the front cover cried ‘The Stranger Who Has Returned’ and had an illustration of a sad woman serving dinner to a monstrous-looking man, and he quickly stashed it away again.
It was expected that I would return to the company and I did so and continue to carry out my duty there. And that was that.
Graeme had been home for a month now and he showed no signs of going back to university, never mentioned finishing the degree he had left so abruptly a couple of years earlier. When pressed, Doug heard him tell his mother that he was looking for some kind of factory work but he didn’t seem in an awful hurry to do that either. He spent most of his time holed up in his room.
Doug shook his head. Yes sir, coming home was the hardest part no matter how you looked at it.
You just have to get on with things, son. That is what I want you to understand.
Looking back over it, he saw his introduction as stuff-and-nonsense. Never mind future generations and history books, it was your own children that were wanting your help to tell them how things were.
Doug carefully pressed his notes together and picked them up. A blanket of dusk was falling and the house was still, Lyn was out somewhere or other and Doreen sat doing her corrections on the table and Doug let her be. He carried his memories tucked under one arm and went in search of Graeme. The only sound was the floor creaking under his slippers and the crackle of the fire in the salon. He found his son kneeling on the rug before it, feeding papers into the flames, one after another.
“What are you doing?” Doug asked and the boy looked at him without pausing.
“I’ve been working on a book,” Graeme said as the last page fluttered into the coals and was swallowed. “But I figured it is pointless to write it down. These words aren’t worth a damn.”
Doug made no reply. His papers were extended out before him. With an unsteady hand he folded them and returned them under his arm. He turned and went back to his study, closing the door behind him.