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After seventy years, forgiveness brings a great reward and an even greater gift. By L P AYER.
Dr. Jaya Lakshmi was making her usual round at the Smithfield Nursing Home in the northern outskirts of Adelaide . As ever, she received a friendly smile from Nick Rippon in his wheelchair, making the extra effort to come out of his room to greet her, fluttering a Southern Cross. But that morning his ‘BMW’ (Bound to My Wheelchair) had a Japanese flag as well. Knowing his not so friendly attitude towards the Japs – he had a reason for it – the doctor was surprised.
“I am welcoming my Japanese granddaughter today,” he told her.
The doctor was confused, perhaps it was the start of dementia. Administering the usual painkiller injection, she meant to continue the conversation, but just then the duty nurse called her to see another patient. Relieved of his severe back-pain, Nick gently closed his eyes and nodded off, but his memory flashed back to some seventy years ago…
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It was Thursday, February 19, 1942. On that unusually sunny day in the midst of the wet season, Father John McGrath, Catholic priest in Melville Island in the north-west of Darwin , saw something strange in the sky. It was a large formation of war planes flying towards the city. Besides being a defender of the Catholic faith, McGrath played a small, but vital role as coast-watcher in the forward defence of Australia . He promptly cranked up the wireless and called Darwin ’s coastal station to pass on a message to the RAAF base. But the base first mistook the planes as American Kittyhawk fighters returning from Timor and before the air raid siren could sound, the city was pounded by Japan’s First Air Fleet, led by Vice-Admiral Nagumo, the very force that launched the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii just twelve weeks earlier, on December 7, 1941.
The Darwin raid, the first ever attack on Australia by another country, was carried out by 188 bombers and fighters taking off from three aircraft carriers under the personal command of Mitsuo Fuchida, the same officer who led the Pearl Harbour attack, destroying the US Pacific fleet and drawing that country into World War II. The hour-long Darwin bombardment destroyed 21 vessels at the harbour and left 243 (292 according to some sources) military personnel and civilians dead, the highest toll in a military encounter on Australian soil. The toll would have been much higher but for the forced evacuation from mid-December approved by the least popular Administrator C L Abbott on orders from Canberra , of some 4000 persons. Only 2000 remained to maintain vital services. The evacuation was to conserve essential supplies since Darwin had no road or rail link with rest of the country, and depended on coastal shipping from eastern states for all its supplies. Adding to its poor design, this port had the most militant wharfies union. Labor Prime Minister John Curtin’s hope of getting better co-operation from them by appointing leftist Eddie Ward as Industrial Relations Minister proved elusive.
Since most of Australian defence resources had been diverted by Britain to protect other parts of its empire, local help was thin on the ground, air and sea. On December 7, Prime Minister Curtin, in an article in the Melbourne Herald made a famous declaration that “ Australia looks to America ”, implying moving away from its strong British links. But when black soldiers arrived as part of the US forces, the reaction here was different with Customs refusing to let them land. Foreign Minister Dr H V Evatt grumpily agreed that there was not much choice.
Japan’s raid on Darwin was to disable the US air and naval forces stationed there in order to protect fuel supplies from their recently captured oil fields in the Dutch East Indies ( Indonesia ) and to consolidate their gains in South-East Asia . In a matter of weeks, Japanese forces overran Singapore , Malaya , Burma and were edging closer to the Indian border near Assam . When Rangoon fell, Indian businessmen running profitable banking and timber trades fled for their lives by every available means, including trekking by foot. Such was the might of Japan at that time.
The two squadrons of Hudson bombers and Wirraway fighters numbering two dozen that were stationed in Darwin were no match to the mighty swarm of Japan ’s Kate bombers and Zero fighters. Once the bombs started falling, many fled, including some senior civil and military personnel, instead of putting up a fight. At a memorial in 1955, Sir Paul Hasluck, then Governor General, called February 19 “not an anniversary of national glory but a day of national shame.”
But even at that moment of shame, there were some acts of bravery. From the four ill-equipped anti-aircraft gun batteries, the one at Fanny Bay scored a direct hit on a Zero fighter, but not before the ace Japanese pilot dropped a bomb and destroyed the gun, killing all the gunners except 19-year old rookie Nick Rippon. Lying on the ground severely injured, he saw the Japanese fighter tail-spinning with a trail of smoke, and disappearing on the horizon. After emergency treatment Nick was transferred with the other injured via an army truck along the dirt track to Alice Springs, and then to Adelaide Repatriation Hospital where he underwent several surgeries to remove shrapnel from his leg and back, except the one close to his spine. As a result, Nick developed a limp. He did odd jobs to maintain himself and it took some years to get his war pension, as it did to locate his boyhood sweetheart Janet, who was put on a boat during the evacuation. It took a few more years to become father to his only son Jason.
* * *
A capable handyman and team leader of the Maintenance crew at the local Council, Jason finds a sense of satisfaction in serving as a State Emergency Service volunteer. He gladly gives his time whenever and wherever nature, in its fury, leaves behind a trail of damage and destruction.
On February 22, 2011 the city of Christchurch in New Zealand was rocked by a strong earthquake leaving 181 dead and hundreds of buildings in ruins. Jason was among the first batch of Aussie volunteers to arrive, to help their trans-Tasman cousins. Gruelling work did not tire him, but Jason was heartbroken when efforts to retrieve dozens of young international students buried under the debris of the Canterbury TV building had to be abandoned. The lives of so many youngsters from faraway lands hoping for a bright future were cruelly cut short. As a childless man in his forties, Jason agonised over how their hapless parents would handle the tragedy. Looking out the window on his return flight to Australia , every bundle of white cloud passing by reminded him of an innocent life lost.
* * *
With a thick trail of black smoke, the Japanese Zero fighter plane shot at by Nick Rippon plunged into the sea far from the shores of Darwin . But the 22-year old ace pilot, Kento Tanaka, bailed out in time and was picked up by a rescue raft from the aircraft carrier. On deck, his commander Fuchida applauded Tanaka for his daredevil deeds in Darwin , following his heroic hits in Hawaii . But Tanaka was somewhat subdued that his plane had been hit by a ramshackle gun battery. After the war he returned to civilian life in Sendai , north of Fukushima . With his love and knowledge of the high seas thanks to his aircraft carrier days, he joined a maritime fleet specialising in whaling. As in the air, he made his mark on the sea as well. After years of work Tanaka retired, but the 92-year old former pilot kept fit by going for walks along the foreshore twice a day with his widowed daughter. During such walks he had premonitions of being devoured by whales as an act of natural revenge for hunting them. As some premonitions would go, it did happen on March 11, 2011 when Tanaka, his daughter and 15,812 others were swept away by tsunami waves swallowing cars, boats, houses and everything in their way. The horrendous scenes hit every TV screen around the globe.
* * *
Even as he was unpacking his gear on his return from Christchurch , Jason saw those tormenting tidal waves tearing Japan apart and started re-packing. He never imagined that he would be on another mission within three weeks. If New Zealand was nerve-wracking, Sendai shocked Jason to the core. The scale of death and damage was soul-destroying, and he wondered if he would ever recover his senses. A day before his return, Jason helped to repair a community hall in which several tsunami-orphaned children were being cared for. Something yanked at his heartstrings. The only way he would regain his soul, he thought, was to be a saviour to of one of those victims. For one who had volunteered to rectify the damages of nature’s fury, it felt like a call of destiny. His offer to adopt three-year old Sumi Ahihito was approved after overcoming a mountain of bureaucratic hurdles on both sides.
* * *
After attending other patients, Dr Lakshmi returned to catch up with Nick, who was just coming out of his long road of reflection. Waving the little Aussie and Japanese flags he told his doctor the story of his acquiring a ‘granddaughter’, and waving them, Nick waved away his long-held animosity towards Japan.
Little does he know that sweet Sumi is the grandchild of the pilot he shot down, and the one who caused him such physical damage. Seventy years on, his physical pain has given way to sense of peace.
Factual details have been sourced from:
Australia Under Attack: The Bombing of Darwin by Douglas Lockwood
An Awkward Truth: The Bombing of Darwin by Peter Grose
1942: Australia ’s Darkest Hour by Timothy Hall