[c.12 July 1943, Brisbane – Whilst awaiting transfer to Darwin, Wep wrote 5 pages of recollections of how he ended up there from the time the editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly rang his home approximately a week earlier. It was not written as a letter to Jess and had no apparent ending.]
I was angrily unhappy. The phone rang and my wife said it was the office calling. I was suddenly sadly unhappy. From here where doing something I don’t like to something I positively hated. Editors are alright in their time and place, like doctors, and that is not on a cold and astrologically unfavourable morning when one is feeling unhappy, even angrily.
So I’m wanted in the office and I haven’t shaved or eaten or even got over getting out of the wrong side of the bed. And then of course I miss the boat because the two minutes time our clock is always short of. The forty minutes later would, as fate inexorably will it, be proudly ferrying the mother of one of those wretched infant prodigies of art. A rowing boat would be a sound investment – slow – but soulful.
I come out of the trance to hear the editor saying it seems – yes, and we’re sending you to Darwin for a couple of hours to do a complete compilation of life in the far north. Can you get away by yesterday?
“Oh, yes, yes,” I promise the world but secretly reckon that for the Northern Territory only I can hedge a bit on the vows.
For a week it’s all very vague and hurried, a few recollections come to light of a tailor saying H’m well make your suit inside out – of photographs which look like a balded Arnold Haskell – of an energetic sweat despite the cold – and some more photos for the office which will come in handy for the obituary if the plane falls to pieces in mid air.
About 12 midday after packing effects, personal and impersonal, I find I’m responsible for a huge weight and a most imposing bulk of gear which will probably never be used. At 2 am it’s down to only 40 lbs overweight; i.e. allowing for 40 lbs of clothing – razor, teeth, wig, etc. – The 40 lbs over represents false nose, paints, easel, canvas, paper, and all those oddly dirty things which artists use. The problem is whether sacrifice the paints or go quite naked. This one is, at 2am, quite easy, that is the pigeon of the office.
And in no time at all I’m in Brisbane. Diplomatic courtesy forbids me mention this noble duty except in so far as to mention that it is situate the south eastern corner of Queensland and has most salubrious and invigorating climate as well as women of presentable appearance and engaging manners.
I sleep in American quarters, I eat with Americans – I see pictures with Americans. I dream about Americans. I get blood taken out of me by Australians at the gentle suburb of Greenslopes and I’m told I have never had malaria. It would be something of a miracle if I had – but then it is just one of those things that science likes to prove you haven’t got. Caught a taxi back – holy heavens, what a price! Could scarcely have charged the newest boy from Oklahoma more. However the office paid up with good grace.
And so to the sleepless cot swaying amongst the sighings, the yowlings, the dropping of boots, the cleaning of teeth, the pulling of chairs, the washings of faces, the gurglings of throats, the coming ins and going offs of American airmen on service leave. No need for the night porter to call me at 3.30 a.m.. I’m looking at the City Hall clock and trying to work out what’s going on in the air raid shelter just opposite.
Doughnuts and coffee thanks to the American Red Cross.
As you can see by the letter head I am back on the mainland, killing time while I wait for transport up to Cairns. In all probability I shall be home in a week’s time. Have a nice steak in the house – and a cold bottle of course.
Will you please send me a page, or about 20 clothing coupons. Do not send the book as the Officer’s shop will accept loose coupons. I want to buy a pair of shoes they are very good and only 25/-. Post them as soon as you get this letter for I shall only be about 3 or 4 days up north. Shall then try and get home on the flying boat which gets to Sydney about 5 o’clock which, I hope, will just give us time to dash off a quick one at Coy’s. [Harold and Bassie Coy ran the Hotel Hunters Hill, a favoured drinking spot of Wep and Jess.]
How are all the parlour geese there? Can Molly [Turton] get through the swing doors now? Got any home brew?
Had a fine trip down from the island. Left at four on a slightly cloudy but moonlight morning and arrived here at 7.30 am. That’s good going. The dawn was really magnificent coming on while we were flying above the great cumulus clouds. The effect was brilliantly violent. It was a Superman sunrise.
Have struck Bill Marien, who, by the way, is married to that girl and has a kid about 18 month’s old. We had dinner at the Officer’s Club and a quantity to drink. It affected me poorly and I am now happily feeling the retirement of the ragged hangover that accompanied my awakening. The rest of my time has been spent dismally sitting on my bum and gloomily reading old Lifes, Reader’s Digests, Mans and other sundry publications.
Have just heard that I will be moving off tomorrow.
If you happen to be going to town will you pop into Moore’s Bookshop next the Criterion Hotel and ask if they have a copy of the cheap edition of Laurence’s (sic) Seven Pillars of Wisdom [T.E. Lawrence]. Also can you get me, at any bookstore a copy of Cleanliness and Godliness by Reginald Reynolds?
Have only had one letter from you so that if you have happened to send others I must presume their demise in the Jungle Hells of NG.
Nothing else of interest at the moment. So accept my utmost adoration. Your devoted willie.
[At some stage Bill visited the Atherton Tablelands where he then got a lift from Major C.H. Cheong, editor of the Army newspaper ‘Table Tops’ who drove him to Townsville presumably on his return trip home. It is estimated that he made it home by Thursday, 17 February 1944.]
Am back in Moresby and will soon (in a couple of days) be on my way back to the mainland where I am afraid I shall have to put in a week or so on the Tablelands. In any case it is certain that I shall be home within three weeks – maybe two.
Tommy [O’Dea] called into this unit on Sunday afternoon after five minutes after I had arrived back from the local air strip. Had only a few words with him but may go round to his living quarters tonight. Previously I couldn’t locate him as he is stationed away from the Navy proper. He drove off in a jeep. Christ, he looked funny! Quite a bleaming blade. Just as well he didn’t have a nurse or Amwas or something with him because on such occasions travel is accompanied by screams, cat calls and yahoos by all and sundry.
He looks well enough & quite happy. Said he flew up from Brisbane with only the slightest of brain flappings.
Bill Marien ex-Telegraph man (you will remember him up at the Castlereagh – big dark fattish chap with a girl wif lovely teef from Rockdale way) has gone back to mainland. I shall have a few drinks with him at the Officers Club where I last wrote you from.
Don’t write me any more letters here – or anywhere for that matter as I probably won’t get them. I received one from you while staying in the Ramu Valley. Sorry to hear you are so lonely – it won’t be so long now darling,
Hawkeye Hawkesley is the big noise around here. The life & soul of the party so to speak. Must get Tommy to take me down to the American Officer’s club as I would like to get myself some few things. Everybody at St Percy’s (as this school for boys is fondly known) has managed to get something or other.
Sunday saw a great organised picnic in the hills at a joint called Rouna Falls. Really very pleasant & falls quite impressive. The celibates managed to collect 5 nurses to take along. No Helens of Troy amongst them. 5 nurses to 12 men is a super abundance of feminity in these perfumeless parts.
Haven’t contracted as far as I know any scrofs, plagues or poxes. Have lost my pot belly and most of the other superfluous fats. Found it necessary to drag the belt in 4 holes. Sweated quite a bit in my time up here.
Had a few snaps taken of myself. They are not of much consequence.
Nothing doing here, so there will be no more news from me until after I get away.
Hope you are feeling well & are not getting too bats for public circulation. Be good until you see me again. Shall probably arrive at Martin Place about 4.30 pm one bright day. Bring the Ponty in & we’ll give Coys a slight break. [Harold and Bassie Coy ran the Hotel Hunters Hill, a favoured drinking spot of Wep and Jess.] Haven’t missed the grog up here. If it’s not about you don’t need it. Lots of love dear.
Am writing from an Advanced Dressing Station i.e. a base where surgeons work closest to the front line. Fortunately for the troops there is only one wounded casualty here at the moment, and from all information on the state of the war up here there are not likely to be any more. The Jap is definitely on the way out.
I’m somewhat limp after an afternoon stroll (?) up a mountain 200 ft higher than the spot where I now sit. All in all that damned ridge is about 4000 ft above sea level. God knows how the soldiers carried their packs (and the boongs the supplies for them) up these exhausting peaks. They must have been superhuman – it was all I could do to cart myself up.
The scenery round here is really magnificent. There’s nothing like it in Australia. Clouds encircling the mountains half way and passing fogs crown the peaks up to 4000 ft. The hills are treeless except for dark writhing tangles which follow the eroded creek beds slashing down the sides. Imagine the hills of Picton much more precipitous, higher & sharp edged on top – so sharp are some that only one man could cross the saddle at one time – as green or greener than those I painted.
After struggling to the top of this bloody mountain I came across some of the lads coming down. We sat & had a cigarette – they said they were Pioneers. I asked about Lloyd Martin and blow me down if he didn’t come round the track. I introduced myself. He was camped right on the top and all around were the most magnificent views. We had a cuppa which seemed to help me along. Then down the hill in practically a straight line & at a 45º angle. God! Did my legs wobble at the bottom. Unbelievable that I should really come across anyone in such a casual fashion in such a hell of an area as N. Guinea. However, it happened. He said that he had had a letter but two days before from his sister saying that I was on my way. The family resemblance is unmistakeable.
Tomorrow I am on my way up an even higher mount to a Ridge that has been well in the news. Heaven help me, even though I shall have a boong to carry my paint box.
That’s a picture to delight your heart. “Squire Pidgeon and Boong ascend the Hairy Mount.” The password for tomorrow is “Excelsior”. I’m definitely & most positively NOT looking forward to it. But the show must go on – albeit over my wracked & blistered body.
By the way, I am not the least less on the nose! The ground is wet with my honest sweat.
I think this hurricane lamp I’m using is about to give up the ghost any tick of the clock!
Will soon retire to my stretcher. I’m sleeping under native built grass roof in the malarial ward. I am not a patient. It is merely that I have been offered the hospitality of the base. The food here is the best that I have had in N.G. The cook was a chef at Scott’s of Melbourne so I guess he knows how to put even tinned meat & vegetables together. And have I had beans? Am not really eating well – don’t seem to be able to muster up any enthusiasm for the same damned stuff. Had alleged fresh meat the other day. Tasted (which word is an euphemism for it) like well worn saddle leather. I just couldn’t make the grade.
Have been taking my prophylactic daily dose of anti-malaria pills. In time they dye the old bod a fine shade of tangerine with the exception of the finger nails which appear to become whiter. Generally, a very smart effect, especially on persons of sallow complexion which acquires a rare old mahogany hue. I am approaching a very delicate pale primrose on the hands. Perhaps I’ll give you some real colour on my return. The boys say it has the same effects on the old doings as quinine. But what do I care – I aint goin’ no place.
I do hope you are really looking after yourself – eating, drinking moderately & keeping the old clods up on a chair or something, or anything that does for something.
Hope the family are still pottering along alright.
Regards to the Hunter Hillbillys [friends from Hunters Hill – King Watson and other drinking partners]. Even a schooner of Tooheys would cause a riot up here. N.G. is absolutely dry. I haven’t had a drink since Townsville. The boys at Moresby took a dim view of my alcoholless arrival.
Lots of love darling, Bill
P.S. The tea guzzling up here is staggering – every few minutes someone is making tea – if you’re not in the camp drinking the fairly lousy stuff you’re drinking it at a Salvation Army or YMCA inn along the road somewhere.
More love XXX
Wed. Feb 2 6.30 pm.
Jaysus! Do I feel sick! Have just done a very rough and very wobbly sketch of a fellow having his knee opened up by two field surgeons. Do they cut ‘em up! I’ve seen all the operations I want to for many a day. It was touch and go whether I would make a ninny of myself by throwing up on the spot! The day was saved by my extra rapid scrawl and an attempted wise look indicating the completion of my sketch. Phew! I bet I dream about it.
All that on top of tea which made me belch like hell & a slight sickness of exhaustion. I’ve been up and own the blasted mountains today my love. Started at 8.30 am & didn’t return to the camp till nearly 5 pm. Felt completely buggered and far from home. My knees are like jelly – my heels are sore from the thumping I gave them on the way down the mount. Banged all the nails through into my anything but calloused heels (incidentally it’s dammed cold at the moment – and raining too –a perfect setting for a first class whinge).
Well I have at least seen Shaggy Ridge and what a hell of a place it is. Heaven only knows how the boys took it over from the Jap. On either side of a track only wide enough for one. The earth face walls near sheer nearly 200 or 300 ft & the top of it was riddled with fox holes. It is all beyond me I’ll have to get hold of one of the crowd that did it to tell me all about it.
Don’t think I’ll write anything more tonight darling. Am feeling too depressingly tired. Keep a couple of gals for picking me up at Martin Place. I aim to be home this month via Flying Boat.
It looks as if I have been talking in a delirium. It is understandable that I thought I was home – God knows I ought to have been. Any bloody way I’m still waiting for a sanguinary plane and none is in sight. Oh Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?
All my little fums are to be so much air and fantasy, my little desires to be monuments of futility, and any welcomes to be jeering nothings.
I’ve given up predicting my arrival – it rests in the lap of the Lodestars.
What’s the point of my writing about nothing but sitting down near the strip waiting for a kite?
I hope I’ll be seeing my family one of these days. Teach little Graham to speak nicely and to think well of his old pa overseas. Be faithful dear, we shall soon start life anew.
Your old old husband, Remember?
That was Bill’s last letter. It is estimated he made it home by Sunday, 4 February 1945
Am settled down in a permanent base at last. Although I shall probably be in the mountains north of here most of the time I can at least have any letters you have written forwarded to me this area.
Yesterday I hitch-hiked out of Finschhafen, managing a jeep ride through prodigious jungle to an airstrip. After coming out of the really dense but only moderately high jungle around the areas in which I was these enormous tree were singularly impressive. Some seemed at least 200 ft high the trunks barely discernible beneath the profusion of parasitic vines orchids lichens and stag horns. The trunks thrusting like spears towards the light above – not much foliage in the dank darkness beneath the high green canopy. It’s a damn sight more satisfactory to see the country by road than it is either by air or sea. The details, the small and the undergrowth noise of birds and insects provide an intimacy quite lacking in those other forms of transport.
Lae looked no better to me on a second visit. Everything seems dry and blasted as well it might be after the pounding it received. Flying up the Ramu valley is everything Tommy [O’Dea] said it was – a hell of a lot more into the bargain. Now that was a trip to be seen from a plane. The most beautiful placer I’ve ever seen. The brilliant green kumai grass along the flats edging the Ramu River makes its way up the treeless & knife edged foot hills to the bases of two colossal mountain ranges which enclosed the valley. The clouds wind the depressions between peaks & plume off the highest points in great dramatic forms. The unbelievable blues & greens below edge off into the sombre silhouettes of mountains like Mt Helwig which is 10,000 ft. The fading light throughs the clouds into the starkness of black & white. Small grey thatched native villages appear at irregular intervals and I leapt from window to window of the plane with the alacrity of a flea.
There were only 3 passengers in the plane (a big Douglas transport job loaded to the plimsoll with tins of dehydrated potatoes, soup, ration tins & what have you). It seemed a long time getting off the ground – the tail did not appear to lift any too well. My stomach anxiously awaited the disappearance of the strip beneath. Next thing I know is that my guts are trying to get on the other side of my backbone – we had gone into a steep climb. Next we are over the grassy foothills so low that the bloody stuff seemed to be whizzing past the windows. Cripes I’ll bet the pilot cleared the ridges by only 4 feet. Then the grass on the plains would appear suspiciously close. I would think we were losing height because of the weight of cargo – then up and back the guts would go again. If it hadn’t been for the scenery the trip would have been an anxious misery.
Found on landing that we had been brought up by a Yank known as the Mad Major. He tosses these Douglas’s round like fighters. He has been seen doing loops and slow rolls with them. Too much bloody exuberance. Strangely enough he was no chicken although a big wildly laughing guy. I am told he was grounded for recklessness whilst with a Lightning fighter squadron. Ah me!
If you see Mrs Farrow or Farrar, the dame down the road, you can tell her that I have nearly met her brother. I found the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion but he wasn’t in the particular company I came across. I may meet him tomorrow. This beautiful country belies its looks – it’s lousy with all the worst tropical plagues, itches – and worse things.
This is by far the best camp I have stayed in. Good food – fairly cool – plenty of birds decent tents & native built huts – and amicable company. The press advance headquarters are here and 2 P.R. officers to look after us. 4 or 5 correspondents are here at the moment. So its just like living in the Journalists’ Club except that there is no tasty ale.
While I think of it, will you ring Syd King, police roundsman at the office & ask him how much my betting debt is. Then post him a check. Thankyou, my pet.
Nothing else at the moment. Have not been able to get a letter from you yet but hope to receive some from Moresby when I come out of them there hills. I have two days march in front of me after leaving the jeep track head. Boy will I be weak. May have a boong carrier to help me along.
Hope you are looking after yourself. Lots of love darling.
Am languishing for want of transport and you. (and Bub of course!) My! But doesn’t he look well – the cleber lill debil. Doesn’t look as if you have been fattening yourself up for me – anyway you’re still just as nice as you are. How nice will that be today – my little poppet?
This is a stinking hot island situated about 50 miles from the equator & although the breeze flowing in from the sea licks the body with a cool tongue it cannot altogether dispel the sweat. It rolls with steady calculation down the chest. I’ve got any amount of the stuff for the Weekly so I’m very conscious of the time wasted in getting home.
Anyhow now that I’m right here in the house how’s about it and a cuppa tea? Are you pleased to see me home? Lots of love darling give me bub for a while.
I should be home by the end of the week. I hope that pleases both you and young Graham. Unfortunately I will not receive any letters from you now as I’m leaving this island in the morning and shall be staying a few days on another closer to home. I would like to have known if the dear little chap has noticed my absence although it seems silly to think that he should – at his age at least. I dare say that even 3 weeks will have caused a marked change in his size & behaviour – to my keen fresh eye.
I don’t know where the boys have gone so I’ll use Eddie’s machine for a while. Went over one of the navy ships today and didn’t get back until after tea was over. It was an eye-opener of a trip but I can’t say much about it in this letter.
Yesterday went up the coast in a “duck” (one of those amphibious motor vehicles you may have seen in the streets at times). It is all so damn silly to be driving straight from a road in to the sea. The authorities gave us permission to visit Daoe [Daeo, Daejo or Doewo] village which is just outside the perimeter which is held by the yanks. There are about 2300 natives in the little area. Some are refugees from the Celebes and Borneo.
I’ve never seen so many blooming children in one spot before – must have been about 4 to every adult. The natives here are much more civilised than those of New Guinea. Under Dutch control they are well looked after. Schooling is compulsory and they are taught to speak and write Malay. The village also sports a hospital, which is under the guidance of a Javanese doctor who graduated in a medical school in Java. A pretty good job considering the wildness of the country. The people are rather good looking some of the little girls particularly so. The babies are cute but dirty and all of them are covered in yaws whatever they may be…they look pretty horrid anyway.
The boys seem to think me a bit nuts posting you a letter which will in all probability arrive home after me. However you like letters and I’m a very obliging gentleman.
I hope you are just as obliging my pet. Looks like me getting home on Saturday. So beware! Beware! Lotsa luv, luv.
Have just returned to our Canvas Palace after an arty evening under the stars, vines, clouds and fire flies listening to highbrow music as dispensed by some amiable sergeant for the benefit of the boys. It was very pleasant – cool too, for a change. We’re not asleep I bent my wandering brain to appreciation of the note.
We returned with the help of fireflies to where Hodgkinson promptly lies down “dreaming my love of thee,” The bastard’s bats!
Am moving out tomorrow on my way to the upper end of Ramu Valley. Should be able to get the best of possible stuff up there. Seems a year since I left home – all recollections of the lawn mowing week are vague and almost remote. I’ve packed so much into my popping eyes in the last fortnight. Roy will be staying on down here completing his magnus opus. I shall probably meet [William (Bill)] Dargie up there. Which reminds me I saw a par. in “Guinea Gold” (the soldiers’ paper) that there has been a wonderful stink about the Archibald Prize award. Nothing like a lively bout between artists. [The 1944 prize was awarded to William Dobell with a portrait of Joshua Smith which was being challenged in court as not a portrait but a caricature. The award to Dobell was eventually upheld.]
Went over to a field hospital today but didn’t get much out of it – most of those places are all the same. Managed to make a note of the dental corner. A picture of a soldier getting his teeth drilled may strike a sympathetic chord in the Weekly’s readers. Undoubtedly the most momentous occasion of the day was the decent shower I had up there. It was the first time I have had a proper wash since arriving in this area – Boy! Was it good. – For ½ hour anyway. After that I was as sweaty as ever.
I may be able to settle down to a better letter when I have this Tower of Babble. In the other areas I shall probably be alone.
Will write you in a couple of days – all my love darling.
Not too much hops, mark you and feet up. Regards to all More love from Willie
(written on side)
Enclosed petals look like hibiscus but are off a tree nothing like. It was apricot colour when I picked it. There’s a brilliant blue butterfly floating round dis ‘ere camp.
We have another lamp – scrounged from the same poor simple soul from whom we borrowed the remains of last night’s signal lamp.
Roy sits opposite writing his new sweetie (brunette & beautiful and with husband in internment camp) and punctuating the oppressing stillness of the night with requests regarding the correctitude of his spelling. The old garrulity with less physical actions. He writes like he talks – it pours out of him, pages flash past on the blink of an eye.
I haven’t had a clean shirt on since I hit Finschafen. The one I wear at present has the odour & appearance of a tarpaulin from one of Gearin O’Riordan’s trucks. The other is still wet from its rinsing in a creek down by the beach. Although I am as pleasant a little nosegay as one would find in many a week. A European Gorgonzola would walk away from me with a peg on its snout.
Now that the lamp is here I find myself regretting not having brought that New Testament with me as with its kindly simplicity I could have killed a few hours before sealing myself up in the meat safe up yonder bank.
You have guessed, I hope my uninspiring letters are due to the overwhelming enervation of the tropics plus the lack of comfort in the tent. I’m sitting on an oil drum with grinds of flesh off my behind, my eyes are full of coral dust – I’m due to start turning yellow from surfeit of Atabrin tablets (to suppress malarial infection) from neglect of taking salt tablets which they say are necessary to counteract the excessive loss of bodily salt in sweat, and God knows what else. The half if me that is alive is tolerably happy.
I don’t know particularly what to draw as under the present conditions camp life is practically synonymous with that in the N.T. Make it all green & the jobs done.
Went about 8 miles down the Road this afternoon – hitch hiked in half a dozen different trucks. May just have well flown as I was in the air at least half the time.
I forgot to give you a rough idea of what I look like in jungle green & American garters. Of course the Japs just flee squealing for the son of Heaven at such an apparition.
In front of me is a picture reconstruction of a beach landing for official War Artist Cpt R C Hodgkinson Military History Section.
The light is going out for want of kerosene. Bugger me – this is the sort of thing that slays one! I can just see you now. Everything is going black – it’s quite black now.
Later – we have managed to get some more kerosene, whacko the diddle-o! I’m not smelling any better – even the skunks are moving out. I don’t’ mind that so much but I seem to be bringing in the flies. Soon I shall thwart them in my little meat safe.
Am putting off going to the blarsted hammock. 12 hours of posing in various uncomfortable postures is much too much of a good thing even for a body like mine – “booful hunk of a man! These are the basic positions.