Lucky to survive, Nicholas Butler

Greece Crete Stalag Dachau: A New Zealand Soldier’s Encounters with Hitler’s Army
Jack Elworthy
Awa Press, $40.00, ISBN 9781927249123

The Lost Pilot: A Memoir
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Penguin, $40.00, ISBN 9780143568766

 

There is a void at the heart of both these WWII memoirs. In Greece Crete Stalag Dachau, it is the time Jack Elworthy spent in Stalag VIIIB, four of his five years at war but given just eight pages in the book, a time he’s tried to forget. In Holman’s book, it is the space left by his father, lost first to the Navy, then to the war, and later to drink, gambling, prison and, finally, cancer.

When Warrant Officer Jack Elworthy sailed for war in 1939, he left behind a new wife and a baby boy. His son would turn seven before the family was reunited. War took Elworthy through defeat in Greece, capture on Crete and imprisonment in Germany. Freed by the US Army, he contrived to join, very unofficially, an American artillery battery for the last months of the war and the liberation of Dachau.

The old exercise books he’d filled with his experiences came home and, when Elworthy retired in 1999, were pulled together “for my children and their children – in case they might one day be interested”. Daughter Jo was, and edited his recollections for publication. She calls it his “unvarnished story”, which is partly true. Elworthy does not gloss over the raw realities of war, but nor is the tale without polish.

The tone is matter of fact, though shot through with flashes of dry wit, and the storytelling direct. Unobtrusive shaping has produced a taut account, with every incident building texture, and the straightforward chronological narrative building tension. Even though I knew Elworthy was captured, I found myself holding my breath, hoping he’d get away.

Vivid, often visceral details convey the sensations of war: the rising whine of thousands of flies disturbed as he enters a makeshift hospital; the stench in the locked hold of a prison ship, latrine bucket slops and vomit sloshing an inch deep on the floor; the shower-room walls in Dachau, “rough and torn where people had dragged at them with their fingernails”.

Elworthy seems to have survived one of our darkest hours without developing a black and white view of the world. Every man is judged on his merits, with decency the cardinal virtue. He is at times astounded by the civilised behaviour of the Germans. He is also saddened by his comrades’ descent into an every-man-for-himself rabble, scrambling for evacuation on Crete’s beaches, and shaken by the almost feral fight for food and shelter that followed their capture. My Commando comics notion of brothers in arms didn’t survive these scenes.

Beyond a fervent wish “to get off this island where everything went wrong and no one seemed to know what was going on”, Elworthy is no backseat tactician second-guessing his commanders, but nor is he always impressed by the officer class, who arrive on Crete carrying tennis racquets and golf clubs and choose to evacuate their furniture instead of soldiers.

He doesn’t shy away from his own failings. He is well aware, for instance, of the pain he caused his wife by fighting on in Germany. Though he doesn’t say so explicitly, his reasons for staying also probably explain why, of all his traumatic experiences, it is the four years of relative safety in the Stalags that he least wants to relive. He tells of a fellow POW, a pilot badly scarred after bailing out of his burning plane, who received a scarf and gloves in a Red Cross parcel. In reply to his letter of thanks, the sender tells him how disappointed she is the parcel went to a prisoner – it was meant for a fighting hero, not a coward who surrendered. Returning to the war was a chance to restore self-respect and this, as much as the simple fact of his survival, may well explain why Elworthy considers himself one of the lucky ones.

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s father was also lucky to survive the war. The inspiration for The Lost Pilot was a battered snapshot that caught the moment a kamikaze bomber detonated in the water so close to the HMS Illustrious that the starboard wing smashed into the carrier’s superstructure. Aboard the ship, Chief Petty Officer William Holman survived. The plane’s pilot, of course, was lost.

The book, the author tells us, “is the story of the search for my father and his enemies”, a “cross-genre monster” combining history, memoir, travel diary and poetry.

The attack on the Illustrious is the story’s fulcrum. In this short section the narrative has a fine-grained intensity, zooming in on the action to give a minute-by-minute account of the moment the two halves of the story meet: his father the fallen hero, and the falling cherry blossoms, the kamikaze. The focus swings from Holman’s family, growing up in London and Liverpool, Blackball and Greymouth, to the kamikaze and to Holman’s trip to Japan to meet the families of the tokkōtai, the Special Attack Unit that tried to destroy his father’s ship.

His quest to understand kamikaze and connect with the families is moving, and his exposition of the origins of the practice is clear and cogent. He’s made good use of material, only available in English in the past few years, that lets the kamikaze speak for themselves. Holman’s evocation of the world of the kamikaze, drunk on sake, smashing clocks so they cannot see time tick towards their death, is often as vivid as his portrait of his parents.

Holman no longer sees the kamikaze as fanatics, but they are, at the very least, the product of a fanatical culture. In this, they have more in common with today’s jihadis in explosive vests than Japanese like Ritsu Hall, author of the book’s introduction, would like to believe. As Holman points out, the kamikaze shared a tiny chance of survival with RAF fliers in the Battle of Britain, among many other combatants. The difference is that the families of Spitfire pilots didn’t want their sons to die. Once you were a kamikaze, though, death was your duty and survival shamed your family.

Holman’s Japanese pilgrimage helps make the book something more than the usual misery memoir, but it’s also part of the reason that I felt his monster had, like Frankenstein’s, got away on him. The disparate parts can feel crudely stitched together, and in the travelogue especially, the combination is jarring. One moment we’re getting febrile epiphanies – in tears on learning he’s to meet the brother of one of his father’s attackers, Holman wonders “Is it God crying through me?” – and the next we’re getting Facebook-style updates about what he had at McDonalds.

The book also lumbered somewhat towards its conclusion. The penultimate chapter referencing German genre-bender W G Sebald may have helped secure his writer’s residency but, to me, the musings on memory and silence muddied the story’s emotional charge. The final poem, though, has a concision and unforced resonance the rest of the book didn’t always manage.

What makes The Lost Pilot remarkable, and Greece Crete Stalag Dachau too, is the way the writers have come face-to-face with fanaticism, with the deadly machinery of the kamikaze and the concentration camp, and emerged with faith in humanity intact.

Nicholas Butler is a Wellington reviewer.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction and Review
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