Pender, Margaret: A family memoir confirms the randomness of wartime outcomes for ordinary people

Margaret Pender*

‘A family memoir confirms the randomness of wartime outcomes for ordinary people’, Honest History, 16 October 2018

Margaret Pender reviews The Bulldog Track: A Grandson’s Story of an Ordinary Man’s War and Survival on the Other Kokoda Trail by Peter Phelps

This book is a family memoir, written by Peter Phelps about his grandfather, Tom Phelps. It is the story of the journey Tom made along Papua’s infamous Bulldog Track during World War II.

9780733639777Papua New Guinea was a theatre of warfare between the armed forces of the Allies and Japan from 4 January 1942 to 6 September 1945. America declared war on Japan on 8 December 1941 and four days later the Australian government ordered the evacuation of all women and children from its territories of Papua and New Guinea. During the early months of 1942 the Japanese advanced rapidly through South-east Asia and across the Pacific. New Guinea was to be the most southerly extent of Japan’s all-conquering offensive of 1941-42.

Tom Phelps had moved to New Guinea in September 1939, two weeks after the outbreak of war in Europe. With his employment chances in Sydney hampered by the Depression and a damaged leg, he had signed up to work as a carpenter and a goldminer for three years with the Bulolo Gold Dredging Company (BGD Co.), located in the Bulolo Valley, near Wau, in the highlands of New Guinea. There he earned as much money in one week as in two months in Sydney, or about 30 pounds a week. His family, his wife and five children stayed behind in Sydney.

The book deals with Tom’s escape with fellow evacuees from Bulolo after it had been strafed and bombed by the Japanese, then razed by the Australian authorities. The evacuees walked in March 1942 along a rough, little-known track down through the Owen Stanley ranges to the coast of Papua. They were supported – sometimes literally – by native New Guineans, the ‘bois’ who had worked with them at the Bulolo mine.

At the start of the book, we already know from the author’s introduction that Tom survived the trek, the ordeal. The book is based on Tom’s record of the trek, written on his pith helmet and on the map recorded on baking paper, plus the later recollections of his family members. The story is told mostly from Tom’s point of view, by a third person omniscient narrator, augmented by chapters reflecting his son George’s voice. These chapters depict the family’s reaction to his absence and to the war itself. The themes of separation, loneliness, doubt and heroism are all here, and we gain a clear picture of the emotional cost of war to an individual family.

While the book is based on Tom’s record, both written and oral, it reads more like a novel, though the author assures us it is not fiction. He states that, as an actor, he has spent years bringing other people’s stories to life, ‘to create the moods, actions, and responses that can convey their life to others’, and he tells us that at times he has condensed and sped up events to highlight the key moments. More than anything though, the book resembles a film script, in the way it is constructed, with flashbacks to earlier events in Tom’s life – his backstory – and the juxtaposition of scenes showing what is happening to his family in Sydney while he is away.

The story is dramatic and affecting: these men were not soldiers, but civilians deemed unfit to fight. There was no military command structure, so they had to work out a system of reaching decisions by themselves. Although provided with a rudimentary map, they were highly dependent on the help of the native New Guineans to guide them along the narrow tracks and to carry their loads for them.

The account of the trek itself is dramatic: we learn how, against the odds, Tom and the other evacuees set out from Edie Creek to Mount Kudjeru – uphill all the way, in single file on a narrow track, cold, with freezing rain. Magnificent views though.

On the descent from Mount Kudjera, Tom fell onto his bad leg, further inflaming his tropical ulcers. He was in severe pain, but made light of it to his companions. They walked for hours through mud, wind and rain across a flood plain to the abandoned Bulldog mine on the Tiveri River. Their route followed the Tiveri River onto the Lakekamu River, then to the coast. The ‘bois’ set out on foot, the white men build rafts.

The Lakekamu is wide and steep, with lots of bends. Tom is on a raft with five other men. They survive an encounter with a crocodile but then their raft is smashed to pieces when they encounter swirling rapids. They reach the safety of an island on the river but have lost all their food. After two days, they are miraculously rescued by a priest from the Terapa Mission, close to the coast. New Guineans from the mission ferry them in boats to the coast, where they walk along beaches for two days to reach the Catholic mission on Yule Island.

Meanwhile, on the home front, we learn about what happens to Tom’s family during his absence. His son, George, who is thirteen at the time of Tom’s escape, is a keen footballer; he plays cricket in the street with his mates. Most of what he learns about the war is what he sees at the Saturday afternoon movies with his friends. He resents his father’s absence and wishes Tom was there to watch him play football. When a man from the government comes to tell Tom’s wife and children that Tom and his fellow evacuees are missing and the situation is grave, the family is upset but does not quite believe the official as they have the utmost faith in Tom’s ability to survive.

500px-Bulldog7Bulldog Track 1970s (Wikiwand)

The account is short on geographic and chronological detail. The absence of a map is disappointing. Peter Phelps, the author, stresses that this is the story of Tom’s emotional journey, about the good humour, mateship and resilience that enabled them all to survive. The impressionistic details of Tom and his mates, told in the third person, would probably work better on film, where it is easier to ‘show not tell’, and the same applies to the author’s use of dialogue intended, he tells us, to ‘convey the life of others’.

The comparison with Kokoda – which took place later in the same year – is spelled out on the book’s front cover, with a quote from author Peter Ryan, describing the Bulldog Track as ‘longer, higher, steeper, wetter, colder and rougher than Kokoda’, and this quote is repeated in the frontispiece. Unlike the men of Kokoda, however, Tom and his companions were not soldiers. They were civilian evacuees fleeing the Japanese invaders, but there was no engagement with the enemy, no actual fighting. The challenges of the terrain, however, were the same: the mountains, rain forests and cold and damp, then, as they descended, the difficulties of the jungle: dense growth, swamps, steamy heat, tropical diseases including malaria, rapids, crocodile-infested rivers, and fear of the unseeable enemy. Just to survive was heroic.

The comparison with Kokoda is redundant. What Peter Phelps shows is how, during wartime, the outcomes for ordinary, everyday people are randomly decided, and they have very little say in their own destiny.

* Margaret Pender is a retired Commonwealth public servant who now does voluntary work at the National Library of Australia. She reviewed Ian Townsend’s Line of Fire and Carol Baxter’s The Fabulous Flying Mrs Miller for Honest History.

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