It was the autumn of nineteen forty-two; Australia
was a country besieged.
The bombing of Pearl Harbour followed by the fall of
Singapore seemed to most Australians to leave them open to Japanese invasion and
a mild panic was spreading across the country.
America was stunned by the surprise attack on their
naval base and England’s promise of naval protection had been an empty one.
The Australian people couldn’t be blamed for their
concern when the government was talking about a scorched earth policy in the
north which involved the burning of crops and the slaughtering of farm animals
that couldn’t be driven to safety.
In the major cities people were preparing for
invasion from the air and A.R.P. wardens implemented ‘brownouts’ in towns on the
coast. At night the public tried not to show any lights that would help Japanese
bombers, if they came, to find their way in the dark.
The rationing of some things had started and many
families were sending their children to inland boarding schools in case a
disaster happened on the coast. Cheap rail fares were offered to women and
children if they wanted to evacuate inland but many in the community disapproved
of this and labelled any that went as ‘Bomb Dodgers’.
After the successful battles of the Coral Sea and
Midway Island things relaxed somewhat, but the large contingents of Japanese
soldiers that were reported to be landing on the north coast of New Guinea was a
huge concern to the Allied Command, and the mobilisation of troops to the north
of Australia had already begun.
It was this mixture of troops that filled the trains
that sped towards the towns in northern Queensland; there were Americans that
had started to appear after the arrival of General MacArthur and Dutch airmen
that had found refuge in Australia after the fall of their colonies in the
With Australia’s standing army mostly on duty
overseas it fell to the militia companies to take a stand. These were conscripts
and military groups formed in small towns across Australia with the idea of
protecting the country in the event of invasion.
Under Australian law they couldn’t be sent overseas
but the steamy jungles and rugged mountains of New Guinea were an Australian
protectorate, so they could be sent there.
Army Intelligence had a problem; information
regarding these troop movements was getting out and fifth columnists, paid by
the Japanese, were causing more trouble than usual.
General MacArthur demanded the Australian High
Command put a stop to these disruptions and the job was given to Major Cameron
of the Special Intelligence Branch.
Brisbane, Queensland, 1942
Thomas (Tommo) Randall awoke with a start. He had
fallen asleep in his armchair, and for a moment in the dark he wondered where he
was. The fire in the small grate had gone out and it was cold in the draughty
rented room in Little Roma Street.
He rubbed his chin that had a ten-day growth of beard
on it and coughed a rasping smoker’s cough as he reached out in the darkness for
the bottle of cheap port on the small table.
It was empty so he threw it into the corner of the
room where it clinked against one of the many other empty bottles.
Tommo coughed again and spat into the fireplace.
Rising from the chair, he stumbled over to the iron-framed single bed and
dropped on to the hard flock mattress. He struck a match and looked at his
watch; it had stopped, but time didn’t matter much to this sad character as he
lay back on the bed and pulled the thin grey blanket over his wiry body.
When he finally awoke it was light. It was still cold
but a weak morning sun was shining through the gap in the threadbare curtains.
Tommo pulled them open and looked out on to the noisy railway yards at Roma
Street station, flatbed trucks clanked as the engines shunted them into
position. There were people about; men were on their way to various places of
work, and the day was coming to life. He opened his battered Champion Ruby
tobacco tin and rolled a thin cigarette before he pulled on his thick workman’s
jacket. The cigarette tasted good but it made him cough so he stubbed it out and
spat into an empty bottle.
He looked in the dirty mirror on the back of the
door, rubbed his chin and ran his fingers through his hair. The brown hairs were
rapidly losing the battle with the grey ones, but he just shrugged. It couldn’t
be helped, he thought as he pulled on his old First World War army officer’s
cap; the metal badge had long since been sold for enough pennies to buy a drink.
Tommo went down the stairs into the street. The café
in Turbot Street was just opening so he ordered a mug of black tea and picked up
a newspaper from a shelf that carried old newspapers and some books with missing
covers and turned-up corners.
He sat at a table in the window and opened the
newspaper. The date didn’t matter to Tommo, he felt as if by reading some news
he was still part of the human race.
It said ‘John Curtin has made a passionate appeal
to the nation for an all-out war effort.’
Not another ‘tighten your belts’ speech, thought
Tommo. What did Prime Minister Curtin call it? ‘A long struggle of
His tea arrived.
‘Sugar?’ he asked the girl in the faded apron.
She just said, ‘Rationed,’ and went back to the
Tommo turned the page. ‘The Allies have halted the
Japanese advance in a major air and naval engagement in the Coral Sea’ he
‘We’ve actually won something,’ he said out loud but
the other diners ignored him.
We need to win a battle on land, he thought, but all
the time Blamey keeps sending under-trained conscripts to New Guinea we’ll never
He threw the paper back on to the shelf with a grunt
and rolled another cigarette to have with his mug of tea.
The war was a sore point with Tommo. At the outset
he’d tried to enlist in his old regiment but had been told he was too old at
fifty, which is not a thing anyone likes to hear.
Not much of a breakfast, he needed a drink, he
thought as he shuffled along Roma Street and across the Grey Street Bridge. It
was too early for the pubs to be open but he knew one with back-door service.
They’ll sell you anything over here in South Brisbane, he thought, they even
serve blacks and Yanks.
After a visit to the back door of the run-down pub he
shambled away with a bottle wrapped in newspaper. He’d feel better when he’d had
a drink but he would have to wait until he got back to his room. The police were
always on the lookout over here for people drinking in the street, with all the
American soldiers around there were often fights between the larrikins and the
When Tommo reached his street door he was accosted by
a boy who was sitting on the pavement, leaning against the brick wall. He was
the sort of urchin that could be found in most parts of the city. He was wearing
patched shorts held up by braces and an army shirt that was several sizes too
big for him.
‘You Randall?’ the boy asked without moving.
‘What’s it to yer?’ said Tommo, putting his key in
‘There was a bloke here looking for you,’ the boy
said, getting to his feet.
‘What sort of bloke?’
‘Just ordinary, he gave me a message for you.’
‘Well, tell us what it is then.’
‘He gave me sixpence,’ said the wily youth.
‘I’m not giving you anything, piss off.’
Tommo opened the door and pushed his way inside,
closing it behind him but not before the boy shouted, ‘He’s got a job for you!’
Tommo opened the door again and said, ‘What?’
‘He said if you went to the Grand Central Hotel in
Queen Street at five o’clock there would be a job.’
‘Ask for Bruce Dalby.’
‘Is that this bloke’s name?’
‘Dunno,’ said the boy. ‘Can I have a zack?’
‘No.’ Tommo slammed the door and climbed the stairs
to his room where he opened the bottle of port and poured himself a glass.
A job, he thought. He could do with one. The boy
hadn’t said what the job was but he didn’t suppose he could be too fussy. He
poured another drink and lay down on the bed.