My pop's Anzac nightmares

'That was fairly close.' Even to my 15-year-old mind it sounded like an understatement. My maternal grandfather, Graeme Mills — Poppa — had just finished describing a long, hard night in New Guinea during the Second World War, when, as a stretcher bearer, he'd tended to two landmine victims, including one who had lost his leg. He spent the night darting between the two maimed men, providing physical aid, and whatever comfort and assurance was possible. Turns out he was lucky that he didn't end up laid out alongside them: the next morning he discovered that the entire narrow ridge was riddled with mines.

I carelessly lost the original recording of that interview, which I conducted as part of a high school assignment around Anzac Day; to my knowledge, it was one of the few times Poppa spoke so openly about those experiences. But I still have a copy of the article I wrote, which captures snippets of his voice, along with my observation that his 'face is expressionless; he is simply an old man reminiscing about events from his past'. There is also a youthful jingoism contained in my closing line, 'Those who returned, we should thank for the life we are able to lead today. For those who fell — Lest We Forget.'

In my naivety I missed the gravity of Poppa's stories. He was, I noted in the article, 'apparently ignorant to exactly how exciting' they were. Of course, to someone who lived through those experiences, 'exciting' probably doesn't come into it. Poppa was a Salvationist and a cornet player, who joined the military so that he could play in its marching band, which had impressed him with a performance in his hometown of Broadford in country Victoria. When the war broke out six months later it was duty, not adventure, that took him to New Guinea as part of the brutal Salamaua–Lae campaign.

I don't know how he felt about Anzac Day. Unlike the Vietnam veteran brother of Julie Kean, who wrote in Eureka Street this week, he did participate in the annual parade, and years prior to the interview he was proud to allow me to wear his medals for a parade at my primary school. But his memories of the war read to me now not as thrilling tales of derring-do but as a kind of sustained anxiety dream. 'We were fired upon by a Japanese Woodpecker [machine gun]. The chap standing next to me was hit in both feet. The shells went between my feet, cutting the dirt out from under me. I quickly jumped down the blind side of the hill.'

That war is not an adventure, but a nightmare, is the overriding message of a new Singaporean-Australian film, Canopy. Written and directed by first-timer Aaron Wilson, it stars Khan Chittenden as an Australian fighter pilot, Jim, lost in the Singaporean jungle in 1942. It is a technical tour de force; brooding soundscapes, deft editing and menacingly beautiful cinematography combine to create an immersive evocation of the physical and psychological horror of this particular wartime experience. The elements, the jungle itself, seem at one with the distant thunder of explosions and burr of gunfire, a murderous beast with Jim already in its belly.

The film has its shortcomings. Other recent 'human versus nature' epics, such as Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity and J. C. Chandor's All Is Lost, have married similar technical proficiency to a well-plotted story. Canopy, by contrast, never really progresses beyond its brooding first act. It does, however, contain a touching, prolonged digression: Jim encounters a similarly stranded Chinese soldier (Tzu-yi Mo); pushed together under perlious circumstances, the two men become allies, then friends. They bond over their shared humanity, despite the lack of a shared language. This provides a positive emotional fulcrum for what otherwise would be a cinematic dirge.

There is another story about my Poppa, of which my mother's sister recently reminded me. 'He and a small party of others were separated from the main party in the jungle with no rations. He discovered a small tin of Vegemite in his pack which he mixed with water and shared out.' I am uncomfortable with the quasi-religious dimension of the Anzac tradition and troubled by the Australian tendency to revere and glorify its military past. But I can't help but be touched by small human stories such as this. Likewise, for all its shortcomings, Canopy's focus on the small moments between two frightened men appropriately balances humanity against horror.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Canopy, World War II, Khan Chittenden, Anzac Day, Aaron Wilson



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