After 17 years in Japan I did not want to
cut all my ties with that country. So, when we arrived in Melbourne, in
early 1993, I joined the Australia-Japan
Society of Victoria.
Soon after, I received notification of a
Society function, to be hosted by an elderly doctor at his home, in the posh
Melbourne suburb of Toorak. I understood that this Dr Dunlop, though in his
eighties, was still practising medicine. I recall one Society member jesting
unkindly that she would probably not want him performing surgery on her.
The doctor was, of
course, the war hero
“Weary” Dunlop, and it is to my everlasting regret that I didn’t attend
the function, for he died a few months later, and I missed my chance to meet
one of the greatest men ever to have walked on Australian soil.
It was absolutely
typical that he should host a reception for an organisation whose purpose
was to bring together Australians and Japanese. For Weary Dunlop, who
experienced unspeakable horrors in the barbaric World War II Japanese death
camps, had devoted the rest of his life to reconciliation.
He even refused to
allow publication of his
diaries until 1986, wishing that a spirit of forgiveness prevail, and
worried that his writings would inflame old hatreds. But he also became
concerned that younger Australians had forgotten the sacrifices of an older
generation during the war. He agreed to the diaries being published, to draw
attention to the plight of many elderly veterans.
The diaries are
sensational. They are a vivid account of the daily struggles of a great man
as he works to alleviate the sufferings of prisoners of war, whose leader he
has become. The diaries are not especially reflective; rather, they are
intensely practical, concerned with the day-to-day problems of the camps.
And yet the man’s heroic nature shines through. The diaries reveal a man of
old-fashioned virtue, putting duty and service ahead of his own welfare.
They show a man of character being tested to the extreme and surviving:
3 October 1942
It was the same
soldier who had made trouble in the bathhouse. He at once advanced with his
rifle and took a swing at my face which I countered by raising my left
forearm and deflecting the blow smartly, he nearly falling over with shock.
I was then summoned to the guardroom and went with some qualms, hoping that
I might be able to protest to some other Nipponese. On entering, my
assailant who was equipped with a heavy length of bamboo about 3ft long and
4in across stood me to attention and then struck at my face with all his
strength. I deflected two blows with my left forearm, suffering some damage
to the same. He then struck three heavy blows to my left leg, one hitting
over the peroneal nerve with a horrid numbing effect of the leg suddenly
going to sleep and inflicting two lacerations. Desperately fed up, I
disarmed him and threw his stick away. Mad with fury, he seized another lump
of wood and was again deprived of it. He then kicked viciously twice, aiming
at the groin, kicking my thigh. Then a sequence of still more heavy,
murderous lumps of wood which piled up behind me. I was resolved to give him
a K.O. and pay the penalty when Hanamura-san, the small clerk of the office,
9 February 1943
Worked on site for
officers’ hut and most foully blistered my hands which are very soft. My leg
healing very slowly. I am ashamed at how little energy one has in this
climate. The nights are not quite so cold which is a good thing as I have
given my coat temporarily to Bob Haddon (who has pleurisy).
20 July 1944
Then all hell broke
loose. With angry bellowing the guard, led by the commander, fell upon me in
a fashion recalling an otter hunt or the hounds cornering a fox. They
belaboured me with rifle butts, chairs, boots, etc. whilst I rolled in the
dust trying to keep in a ball, my elbows protectively over my large fragile
spleen, face against my chest. Eventually I was motionless beyond
resistance, lying face down in the dust, conscious of broken ribs and blood
from scalp wounds. I was gathered up, dazed and rubber limbed, and trussed
and roped backward kneeling with a large log between my seat and knees. As
my head cleared there was the intolerable pain due to rough ground pressure
on the knees and the weight and pressure of the log. Breathing was sharply
painful with fractured ribs. Slowly the pain ceased in my legs because they
had no circulation. How long to gangrene in the tropical heat? Could I last
four hours? I squared my shoulders and stared in disdain at the guard.
….My ropes were
released. With a desperate heave, I disengaged from the log, but my legs
were functionless. Slowly, painfully, with the return of circulation, I
found I could move them and feel my feet again. At last, a little drunkenly,
I was on my feet. I stood to attention, bowed and said, “And now if you will
excuse me I shall amputate the Dutchman’s arm who has been waiting all day.”
I was determined to show them that Australians were tough!
His virtues were recognised. His death,
in July 1993, produced a flood of eulogies, along with a state funeral. A
statue of him has been erected in a public park, and his face has appeared
on a fifty-cent coin. Yet in another age many Australian families would
possess a copy of the diaries. Parents would read aloud from the book to
their children, discussing Dunlop’s character and his actions, and trying to
draw the appropriate moral lessons.
Would they have held him up as an example
of faith? Despite a traditional Christian upbringing - his family were
members of the Presbyterian church - he sometimes expressed doubts about the
strength of his faith. In the prison camps he worried that he was a poor
example of Christianity because of his inability to meet the command of
Jesus to love his enemy.
Yet this is typical. Those with the
deepest faith often feel themselves quite unworthy of God’s blessings.
In any case, what is
faith? It is one of the three traditional spiritual virtues - faith, hope
and love. These virtues require a spiritual relationship with God for their
fullest expression. American philosophy professor
Peter Kreeft, in his book
Back to Virtue, described it thus:
It is not mere belief,
or mere trust, though it includes both. Belief is an intellectual matter….(I
believe the textbooks). Trust is an emotional matter (I trust my
psychiatrist)….Faith is more. It flows from the heart….The object of faith
is God, not ideas about God. It is essential to know things about God, but
it is more essential to know God….Faith is more active than reason. Faith
runs ahead of all reason. Reason reports, like a camera. Faith takes a
stand, like an army. Faith is saying Yes to God’s marriage proposal. Faith
is extremely simple. Saying anything more would probably confuse it. Most of
what is written about faith is needlessly complex. The word yes is
the simplest word there is.
Weary Dunlop clearly
said yes. And yet, once again in our public discourse we have an example of
Australian spirituality being concealed.
Much gets written
nowadays about Dunlop, in books, magazines and newspapers. It is not
uncommon for such reports to mention his Presbyterian upbringing. Yet in
virtually all instances it is clear that “Presbyterian” here is a synonym
for “thrifty, hard-working, conservative and perhaps a little
old-fashioned”, rather than for “God-worshipping, prayerful and
Bible-loving”. Little is written at all about his faith.
major biography of Dunlop, published in 1994 (and largely read and
approved by him before his death), Sue Ebury noted that in the prison camps
he would rip pages from his Bible in order to make cigarettes. In
post-modern fashion, he memorised any verses that seemed useful, before
incinerating the pages around his tobacco ration. He retained to the end
only those pages that seemed especially relevant.
Last to go were the
pages in which Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount. Ebury said that
Dunlop decided: “This was the only part worth anything,”
And according to
Ebury, it was in the dreadful prison camps that he felt closer to God’s
kingdom of heaven than at any other time. She quoted him as believing that
the kingdom “was at hand, not a promise for the future, not dependent on
life or death, but here immediately for those who could shed the awful shell
of self and start loving their neighbour as thyself”.
He began to see God
reflected in the goodness of all humans and all of nature. He regarded
religious faith as coming in many forms.
After the war, Dunlop’s fellow doctors
could not understand his driven nature, his passion to help others, his
continual trips to Asia to seek rebuilding and reconciliation.
But Ebury says there is no secret about
this. “Hintok [Thailand] 1943 is the key, when he read the Sermon on the
Mount in the midst of ‘all the misery, the squalor, the grey rain and slush
and sick and dying people’ [Dunlop’s words]. He had never felt more useful.”
And it was at Hintok, amidst all the
squalor, reading his Bible, tearing page after page from it and wondering
what was the point of it all, that he was overtaken by a mystical
experience. “It was then that he was possessed by a ‘marvellous, almost
religious experience…a sort of happiness.’”
I do not want to read too much into
Dunlop’s words, as quoted by Ebury, and, of course, I missed my chance to
question him personally. But the impression is that he received an
experience of God’s presence such as is known by some of the Christian
mystics and others who are deeply spiritual. He told Ebury, in his simple,
forthright manner: “I understood what it would mean to love your neighbour
more than yourself.”
She commented that he was determined to
make the welfare of former war prisoners a personal mission, and he also
resolved to answer every call made on him by his country and his community.
In the West now, there
is enormous interest in spirituality, in numerous guises. But try to talk
about Presbyterian spirituality and you will be laughed at.
Yet the simple Presbyterian country boy
Weary Dunlop - Melbourne University heavyweight boxing champion, Australian
rugby cap, doctor, touched by God in the hell of the prison camps - emerges
as one of our spiritual giants.
In Chapter 14, I quoted John Flynn,
who said that
his desire was to make Australia prosperous and healthy, “which starts with
the body and ends with the spirit”. Yet we continue to ignore the breath of
God inspiring the great works of our heroes, such as Weary Dunlop. It is not
just our youth who are suffering in a spiritual vacuum. It is our entire
nation, and until we apply the cure our condition will surely remain pale
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