Andy Smith was a very private private in the Second Australian Imperial Force of World War Two. He loved books. His father was a professional theologian, a pacifist and a public opponent of the fighting in World War Two. When Andy turned 18 he delayed volunteering for the war for 9 months out of respect for and fear of his dad.
In June 1945 in the massive allied army camp in Morotai, Andy slept in the same tent as Harry Howitz, another private, who came from a beef farming family in Wangaratta. They were friends in a competitive sort of way. While Harry would look at the Morotai jungle for enemies, Andy wanted to go there for the shade.
The jungle was off limits, but Andy was a frequent visitor to Air Kaca, a waterhole where General Douglas MacArthur had built his wife a bathroom.
One quiet Sunday afternoon Andy was sitting at Air Kaca holding a book of his father’s theology and both looking at it and making long surveys of the canopy of trees.
General MacArthur approached followed by a small retinue. He stopped, contemplated Andy from a distance & signalled to his followers to move back. They left.
Andy does not notice MacArthur moving closer, till the general sits near him and gazes with him at the trees.
Andy stands stiffly but MacArthur says, “At ease, son, at ease. I can see that you also feel the magic of this place.”
Andy relaxes saying, “Yes, sir. Some of my father’s theology finally starts to make sense here, sir.”
“Yes. God. God. When I was a boy in The Wild West, my Indian friends taught me so much more about how to find creations’ truths than I normally care to say.”
“When I was a boy” smiled Andy, “I remember being lifted by the waves body-surfing at Bondi Beach & feeling like my prayers were answered.”
“Water is pure, son. Especially here. Earth-cleansed. Pure.
Your dad’s a theologian. My dad was a soldier. So I always do a survey of surroundings: the cracks between these boulders prove there’s always been water. The birds delighting us with song promise fresh meat. The pure air and ground say we can drink here. Through all these things I feel one binding thread: I am my father’s son, put on this earth first and foremost to survive and then to cherish and protect my people and our friends. In such thoughts we soldiers find our strength.
How long have you been serving, son?”
“Three years, sir. Townsville, then here. It took me some time to find the right job. I’m field ambulance now. I wanted to fight, but …….”
“The army needs all types. If all we ever did was shoot, we’d never win at all. So you stuck at it even when you weren’t sure?”
“Then you stayed clean. Quitting wrinkles the soul. I like talking with a guy who reads and sees creation in the trees. I need more soldiers who read.”
A few days later Andy and Harry are sitting at the entrance to their crowded gloomy tent in a heavy storm.
Harry breaks into Andy’s reverie saying, “Watch out for the branches in the big winds. So what’s it like being Uncle Doug’s choir boy?”
Sergeant Potter interposes: “Careful, Harry.” who replies, “You know it’s strange, Sarge, a big brass officer who talks with the enlisted blokes. Especially with Andy.”
“You’re telling me.” Says Andy. “He asks me so many questions. He wants to know all about me. Just like dad.”
“And as for being careful” says the Sergeant “that goes double for you, Smith.”
They all stare glumly at the rain.
The next day, at Air Kaca, Harry approaches Andy, who is reading.
“Are you still on that book, mate? It must be a good story.”
“Theology actually. How God made us and is sort of part of us.”
“Oh yeah. Your dad. The Professor. Are you going to the flicks tonight mate?”
“A western. To get us ready to shoot ‘em up in the show next week I suppose.”
“I’ll stay here today. Contemplate the beauty of creation.”
“You’re as bad as Uncle Doug. But the nurses’ll be at the flicks. Some of them really like you, mate. Give yourself a chance. Pick one. Clear the field for the rest of us.”
Andy paused then said, “The general’s right about this place. The crystal clear waters where he bathes beneath these ancient trees. A place for thoughts to shine. It feels like a part of me already. Not theirs. Or ours. Or mine. The ocean just down there: its subtle swell. No enemies here. Just friends: these simple happy people. The playful Dolphins & the beaches full of coconuts. The coral and the skies as blue as sea. No movie can compare. I’ll just drink in this space. Slow down. Sit still. And read my father’s words. Of God. Of Truth. Of Beauty. The things that are our home.”
A few days later Andy and MacArthur are strolling into Air Kaca.
MacArthur asks, “What souls do you think reside among these trees?”
Andy steps forward putting both his palms and fingers up on a huge trunk and slowly raising his eyes to the canopy, then says, “General, all you have to do is look and touch and smell and hear to feel a greatness way beyond our marches and our guns.”
MacArthur stands beside Andy and puts one hand on the trunk in the same way as Andy but looks around slowly scanning 270 degrees, then saying, “As you know I am just a soldier’s son. Here I learn from you.”
Andy nods and says, “What we find here in trees is God.”
MacArthur sits motioning to Andy to do the same.
The private sat and listened intently.
“Mankind needs to find peace, son. Always has. Always will. And peace is of the spirit, not of the flesh.
My job is to organise fighting men and to have them ready in the right time at the right place.
You have a very different calling. Not everyone in the army will appreciate that. But we need a few men of God to get us where we really need to be. A better world. Based on faith and understanding.”
This unusual friendship of a proud American general and a modest Australian private happened in the primal magic and then still lush forests of coastal Morotai.
The two men never met again.
(A short story posted by Geoff Fox on Pearl Harbour Remembrance Day, 2020, Down Under.)
Lest We Forget
My father served under General MacArthur at Morotai and in Balikpapan in 1945.
The above fictional story imagines what might have happened if an Australian soldier in some ways like my dad had met General MacArthur and made friends.
Click here to see a micro-movie of an image of my dad which was kept at the sacred heart of Air Kaca by the traditional owner for most of the previous decade.