Excerpt from “Ordinary Heroes” by Barry Dickins ~~Wal Johnson~~

I was in the wrong place at the wrong time

Wal Johnson

He sees Damien Parer’s photographs of him ‘as a bit of bad luck’, but you can see in one glance why Wally is famous for these front-line images. Resting on the wiry little arms of stretcher-bearer Sergeant Gordon Ayre, the shrapnelled soldier with blinded eyes and defiant stump of cigarette wades almost unconscious to the other side of a stream. We see Fuzzy-wuzzy Angels carting tucker in tubs in the background. Taken from Parer’s 16-millimetre footage, this picture was everywhere during the wartime recruitment drives, making Wally a reluctant vehicle of patriotic propaganda. …

Points to photograph of himself.

When Parer shot this phota – you see it there? – we never knew a thing about it. When we got across the river he introduced himself. ‘Both of you are on film. I’ve got you going right across.’ It was a movie camera. He was friendly – not pushy. He said to us – I couldn’t see, just heard him say, ‘Damien Parer – Australian war correspondent …’

Could I see? No. Temporarily blinded – shrapnel, dirt, dust, you name it. Flying bits and pieces. Two of us set out on patrol to see but not be seen, picking up Jap positions on Razorback Ridge and … and … unluckily for us we were seen first. Next thing we know it was booom! … boooom! – grenades! Blew us over the ridge – over the kunai – that’s the big spiky grass. They come out of their positions and machine-gunned us.

His hands are parallel lines of machine-gun fire.

In the morning, it was. How was I feeling before we went out? Damned nervous! This happened in a place called The Coconuts.

Said thin-lipped.

It seems a long time ago now.

Why is this picture so famous? I wouldn’t … have … a … clue! Parer named it ‘Comradeship’ …

He leans forward to show me his skull up close – points to a fragment of metal-particle lodged in there somehow – we are now eyeball to eyeball.

See in there, in the hair …? One bit in there. See it now? Right cheek. See that bit of metal? Ayre took me to the dressing station. He took me over there to the edge of the river and I collapsed. I’d lost a lot of blood. Copped it in the arm.

I ask him to roll up his sleeves to show me. He obliges willingly. The shrapnel wounds have come up a dark red unwelcome colour.

I was young. Nineteen when I joined the army. Nineteen, I was. That’s July 13th. I was twenty-one there.

Looking at the photograph.


1 Comment

Filed under Literature, Military, Non-Fiction

One response to “Excerpt from “Ordinary Heroes” by Barry Dickins ~~Wal Johnson~~

  1. Walter Johnson (VX132355) was born in Bairnsdale, Victoria on 10 April 1922. He enlisted in the Australian Army on 7 October 1941, aged 19 years, and was posted to the 58/59 Battalion.
    On 13 July 1943, he was injured in the battle for the ridges outside Salamaua and was filmed by Damien Parer, as he was assisted across a stream by Sergeant Gordon Ayre (VX89711).

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