Archives For WWII

Passing, and Not

August 28, 2021 — 11 Comments

Reading at the moment takes place in spurts – paragraphs interrupted by the demands of my granddaughters. Interruptions to which I am happy to cater, such is the treat of seeing them after two and half years. 

I am in Port of Spain, Trinidad, a country reopened in mid July to returning nationals, and those non-citizens who are fully vaccinated, yet still under a State of Emergency (SOE) which has recently been extended until the end of November. Masks are mandated everywhere, even in the privacy of your own car, for everyone over the age of eight. And yet, and yet, the Delta variant has spread its tentacles. At the moment confined but we’ve been lulled into false security in other parts of the world. 

Bella da Costa Greene

Aside from the vagaries of COVID, my willingness to put down my book was severely tested whilst reading The Personal Librarian, brilliantly written by a new partnership of two authors, Maria Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. A book that tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, a young Black woman passing as white in the early 20th century. The woman who became personal librarian to J P Morgan, who travelled to Europe on manuscript buying trips and who controlled his library for over forty years. Belle rubbed shoulders with the rich and very rich whilst living a dual life. I can only imagine the sheer exhaustion invoked by having a public persona so different to that of her private one. It puts the much-touted travails of Megan, Duchess of Sussex, rather in perspective.

The lure of The Personal Librarian nudged me to pick the book up each time moments of grand-parenting respite loomed. My knowledge, I would not presume to say understanding or the emotional toll, of Black passing as white has increased a hundredfold.

Josephine Baker

The book reminded me of a recent headline on BBC.co.uk – “Josephine Baker to be first black woman to enter France’s Panthéon.” The mausoleum in Paris, where she will be inducted in  November, is where those deemed French icons are honoured. Her neighbours will be luminaries like Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Marie Curie and Louis Braille. A Black American woman who fled her segregated home country to be recognised for bravery as a spy and resistance worker during World War II in her adopted country, France. That’s quite a story for the baby born to a washerwoman in St Louis, Missouri, who helped support her siblings by cleaning houses from the age of eight before running away at thirteen to work as a waitress. As the French embraced American jazz, they embraced Josephine Baker – as ironically did fellow Americans, Ernest Hemingway and EE Cummings. As fame came to the girl born Freda Josephine McDonald, so did an insistence that every contract signed contain both a nondiscrimination clause and assurances her audiences be integrated.

Perhaps it is this heightened awareness of the inequities, along with slavery, that darken American history that prompted me to read more fully another snippet spotted in the news – “Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act”. Who, I wondered are the Harlem Hellfighters? And why are they being recognised?

Again France plays a role.

Harlem Hellfighters

Against the backdrop of Jim Crow’s America during the First World War many white servicemen would not bear arms with Black men and so the 2000 men who made up the 369th Infantry Regiment, 70% of whom came from Harlem, were assigned to the French Army. They  wore the US army uniform but their weapons were French. As a fighting unit they spent longer than any other US military regiment in the field of combat during the War – 191 days, and were the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine. At the Second Battle of Marne and Meuse-Argonne, the last major German offensive on the Western Front, the 369th Regiment suffered huge casualties, with 144 killed. 

With the end of the War, and only a month after armistice, and in recognition of the Harlem Hellfighters pivotal role in Europe, 171 members of the regiment were awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal, with a citation for the same award being presented to the entire unit. Two members, Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were singled out for courage beyond the call of duty and were awarded the Croix de Guerre with “a special citation for extraordinary valour.”

It took the United States many years to recognize the tenacity and bravery of these two men in particular, finally posthumously awarding them the Purple Heart. In 2002 Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross which in 2015 was upgraded by President Obama to the Medal of Honor.

In August 2021 President Biden signed into law H.R. 3642, the “Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act,” giving the Congressional Gold Medal to the 369th Infantry Regiment, a long overdue recognition of an incredible fighting force known variously as: Black Rattlers, due to the rattlesnake insignia; Men in Bronze, the name given them by their French comrades; Bloodthirsty Black Men which was how German soldiers saw them which morphed in the Hellfighters. 

The Harlem Hellfighter motto, “Don’t Tread on Me, God Damn, Let’s Go,” is perhaps also a fitting adage for Belle da Costa Greene and Josephine Baker. And in another touch of irony, it was the Harlem Hellfighters who introduced jazz to France.

As I read to my bi-racial grandchildren each evening, savouring the time I have with them, I hope the love of the written word will lead them, when they are older, to follow tidbits of news from which they can learn of the true heroics of people often overlooked, or looked down upon, by their own countries. To stir their curiosity to better understand that courage comes in all colours.

White Feathers

February 20, 2017 — 3 Comments

p09909-005           Sister Ida Morse, my mother, back row, tall unhatted!

Over the years, I have been asked by those on the global trail how I have managed multiple relocations to multiple countries with a certain amount of sangfroid. This is how, and why.

I must have been about twelve. We were living in Kuala Lumpur so maybe that triggered the conversation about war, which prompted my mother’s comment, “Being shot in the stomach is a terrible way to die.”

This is Mum’s story.

75 years ago, on February 12th, 1942, 65 nurses from the Australian Army Nursing Service boarded the SS Vyner Brooke in Singapore. Not far offshore Sumatra the ship was bombed and sunk. 12 nurses drowned or were killed in the water. 53 staggered ashore at Banka Island having been in the sea for about three days. On Radji Beach, 22 of those women and one civilian, were lined up in the shallows and machine gunned. One, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, survived. Shot in the waist, she played possum in the waves until the Japanese soldiers moved on. She later surrendered and was interned in a POW camp. Of those 65 nurses only 24 survived to be rescued on 16th September, 1945.

Sister Bullwinkel and my mother, Sister Ida Arundel Morse (NX76286), were passing acquaintances. They met in the chaos of a Singapore under threat from the rapidly advancing bicycle brigade of the Imperial Japanese Army, which on December 8th, 1941 landed on the beaches of Kota Bharu on the north eastern shores of the Malay Peninisula.

An hour before the attack on Pearl Harbour began.

Fresh in people’s minds were stories filtering in from Hong Kong of the gang rape and massacre of nurses at St Stephen’s College, being used as a front line hospital, on Christmas Day 1941 just prior to the British surrender. As it became increasingly obvious the island citadel of Singapore would be breached, General Gordon Bennett ordered the evacuation of all Australian nurses.

Matron Irene Drummond called her nursing staff into the main hall, explaining there were two ships, the SS Vyner Brooke and the SS Empire Star, on which they could be evacuated. One to depart within the hour and the other the following morning. Volunteers were needed for the second departure. Every nurse stepped forward. The matron smiled,  nodded and raised her arm, unilaterally signaling one side of the room would leave immediately aboard the SS Empire Star. My mother was allocated the first ship. Each nurse was allowed one small case. Matron Drummond was shot on the beach at Banka Island.

The SS Empire Star, under the command of an irascible Brit named Captain Capon, not happy having women on board, had accommodation for 23 passengers and a crew. An air raid attack on the wharf delayed embarkation but eventually 2,160 people, of whom 59 were AANS or physiotherapists, were herded into the holds. They did not set sail until first light on the 12th February due to the darkness of the night, mines in the straits and the light buoy being shot out.

Japanese aircraft found them at 9am, bombarding and strafing the fleeing ship until about 3pm. It was due only to Captain Capon’s seamanship they survived with, at one point, bombs landing simultaneously on either side of the ship. If one of the bombs had disabled the ship completely they would have drowned, as most were in the hold. Two nurses were on deck, and threw themselves over the wounded. Both sisters, Victoria Torney and Margaret Anderson were awarded medals for their valour. There were three direct hits in which 37 men were badly wounded, and 13 men killed. It was one of these men my mother nursed until he died.

“What did you do during the attack?” I asked.

“No one panicked. We sang. Waltzing Mathilda mainly. Over and over.”

There was very little food on board. Mum remembers an empty tin of Players cigarettes being used as a tea cup, and someone had a bottle of whisky. The Empire Star eventually made it to Batavia (Jakarta) where everyone was moved to a Dutch vessel for 48 hours while repairs were made. “It was heaven. We had hot showers.”

It was overcast when they left Tanjong Priok and, feeling safe aircraft wouldn’t be able to find them, everyone slept on deck as they sailed for Perth. Disembarking, Captain Capon saluted the Australian nurses, saying it had been a privilege to know them. By the time the nurses arrived in their home states, about a month later, the fate was known of those aboard the SS Vyner Brooke.

Some of the nurses, including my mother, were met at train stations by people waving white feathers. Because these brave and selfless women had survived.
Sister Ida Morse was a pragmatic woman, not given to sugar-coating or dramas but was softness personified to babies, and those who were sick or injured, whether two or four legged.

After that initial telling, my mother rarely spoke of her wartime experiences, either in Singapore or later in New Guinea. She gave me a book, White Coolies, by Betty Jeffrey, a friend from the 2/10th Australian General Hospital, which told of the nurses internment in the camps in Indonesia.

Mum’s story unwittingly taught me a valuable lesson.

Those of us lucky enough not to be directly impacted by war or terror should, I sometimes think, emulate the courage of our parents and grandparents. Our relocations, or dislocations, pale in comparison and are, for the most part, merely inconveniences.