George Johnston
1912-1970


  
GEORGE JOHNSTON - WAR CORRESPONDENT  1942 - 1945
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George Johnston
in India 1943?

On Feb 4, 1942 George H. Johnston was accredited No.1 Australian war correspondent. He worked in New Guinea (1942), Britain and the United States of America (1943), India, China and Burma (1944), Italy (1944) and in Burma once more (1945); he also witnessed the Japanese surrender on board U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay in 1945. In a popular, racy style, he published in Sydney several quasi-documentary books on the war, including Grey Gladiator (1941), Battle of the Seaways (1941), Australia at War (1942), New Guinea Diary (1943) and Pacific Partner (New York, 1944). He chronicled his service in Journey Through Tomorrow (Melbourne, 1947). Johnston returned in October 1945 to find himself famous and favoured, especially by the Argus' managing director (Sir) Errol Knox who nicknamed him 'golden boy' and appointed him first editor of the Australasian Post.


George Johnston - War Correspondent by Garry Kinnane  

My dispatches were admired, syndicated, published abroad. If you are given the privilege of having your name in the papers every day, and on your own terms, deception and self-aggrandisement are easy arts to practise. (MBJ 335)  

After joining the Argus in 1933 Johnston had worked under a succession of editors: R. L. Curthoys, who had hired him, W. P. Hurst, E. G. Bonney, and from 1942 E. A. (Ted) Doyle.1 Alec Chisholm had been Managing Director until 1937, when he was succeeded by Errol Knox. Knox presided, indeed was something of a dictator, over editorial matters for the remainder of Johnston's time on the paper. Johnston drew on several of these editorial mentors for the character of the tough-talking newspaper boss Bernard Brewster in the Meredith trilogy. According to Greeba Jamison, who had joined the paper as a reporter in 1939, Brewster bears some physical resemblance to Ted Doyle, but in terms of his relations with David Meredith there are characteristics of Curthoys, Doyle and Knox in him. Of these, it was Knox who had the greatest influence over Johnston's career. Bruce Kneale says he was Knox's clear favourite of all the journalists working under him, and it was commonly known that under his patronage Johnston was destined for higher things.2 If he could make a success of a war correspondent's job, it would be an important step in his career.

While waiting in the last days of 1941 to hear whether the jobs would be offered to him, George hurried to finish the proofs of Australia at War. Plans for a Christmas edition had been delayed by a dearth of binders, though Angus & Robertson, who were enthusiastic about the script and confident it would 'be a winner' 3 were eager to get the book out. Reflecting the research that had gone into it, this book was Johnston's most ambitious piece of writing so far. In Part One there is an account of the state of Australia's war preparations throughout the country and the kind of training each corps was undergoing. It also looks briefly at the contribution being made by private industry. Part Two praises the toughness and courage of Australian soldiers in action in the Middle East, and at such places as Bardia and Crete. Johnston had no qualms about inflating Australian heroism to mythic proportions. He writes of an infantryman 'having the figure of a Greek god', and of 'youngsters from the world's youngest civilization' marching 'into the land of the world's oldest civilization',4 terms that have an intentional suggestion of epic about them. The descriptions of action have all the headlong ardour, and all the triteness, of Boy's Own Annual stuff:

Hour after hour its [the AIF's] remaining units held the ridge against the great waves of German infantry. Below them hundreds of their comrades were wading out to the waiting ships. The time limit given by the Navy had expired. The ships  were  beginning  to  move  away  across  the blue Mediterranean. The gallant rearguard, its ranks sadly thinned now, its ammunition almost gone, did not look back. They had nothing to hope for now ... nothing but death or imprisonment. Still the guns snapped and barked at the advancing Germans. Still the ridge was held.5

Repeatedly, connections with World War I are made, so that this conflict is seen as 'the story of a young nation's manhood that began at Gallipoli [and] had gone into a second volume'.6 How well his upbringing in that patriotic house, with that obsessively war-conscious father, fitted him to write things like this! The belief was deeply instilled into him that the full status of Australian manhood was somehow tied to the dark forces of blood sacrifice, and that it was the sacred duty of the succeeding generation to attain its maturity by a re-enactment of the same heroics that initiated its fathers. Nor was this an individual rite: the whole nation, in the minds of the many Australians who were in the thrall of this myth, was being given the opportunity to prove its mettle to the world.

Johnston held these beliefs in such a way that, whatever changes he underwent in later life — and this included becoming an outspoken pacifist in his last years, when 'the Vietnam war was on — he was never able to view those succeeding generations of World War I and II participants with anything but awe. He never became ironical about them. In his most serious moments, such as his writing of My Brother Jack, in which the whole vision of the novel is framed by the two wars, his respect for those who fought is profound. In 1956, in long, serious conversations with Sidney Nolan, he was to talk with such eloquence about the war and its mythic significance that he inspired Nolan to paint his Gallipoli series.7

Yet Johnston did not choose to place himself in that heroic role. Again, this was always a matter for self-denigration with him. That praise of Australian heroism is invariably accompanied by the kind of painful sense of failure that is so characteristic of David Meredith when he is confronted by the reality of the initiation that men like his brother are undergoing, but which he has, to his own cost, forgone, as he confesses in My Brother Jack:

And the anguish inside me had twisted and turned into an awful and irremediable sense of loss, and I thought of Dad and the putteed men coming off the Ceramic, and I thought of Jack when I had seen him at Puckapunyal five long years before, looking just like these men, hard and strong and confident and with his brown legs planted in the Seymour dust as if the whole world was his to conquer, a man fulfilled in his own rightness, and suddenly and terribly I knew that all the Jacks were marching past me, all the Jacks were still marching.... (MBJ 378)

This sort of writing is, of course, a lifetime away from Australia at War, which contains almost nothing of Johnston's personal experience, and thus nothing of this anguish, which in any case took years to accumulate. It does have the same respect for the Australian soldier, and the same tendency to place him in the kind of mythic context that echoed the feelings of a whole era of Australians struggling to establish the nation's identity. Moreover, the fact that Johnston did not participate in the sacrificial aspect of that struggle probably became a compelling reason for his talking and writing about it in such glorified terms.  

Johnston did get the war correspondent job. Errol Knox appointed him in late January 1942, and on 4 February he was issued with the first accredited war correspondent's licence for a newspaperman to cover a war in Australia. Osmar White, who wrote for the Melbourne Herald, remembers: 'He beat me to the barracks and got number one licence, and I got number two.'8 Johnston's dispatches were to be published by the Argus, Adelaide Advertiser and Sydney Morning Herald group, though articles of his were also to be published from time to time in the Age, the London Daily Telegraph and Time and Life magazines in New York. Five days after his licence was issued, he was handed a uniform, given an honorary ranking as captain, paid £59 15s 9d in lieu of holidays and posted to Port Moresby. He was to receive a briefing at HQ in Townsville before flying in.9 

War Correspondent Licence (Top right-Number of Licence - 1) Captain (Hon.) George H. Johnston

The Japanese attack on New Guinea had begun about a month before this. By the time Johnston arrived, Rabaul had fallen and Port Moresby was the only defence base standing between the Japanese and the Australian mainland. Singapore fell only a few days after he landed. There was, therefore, plenty of action to report and considerable danger in doing so. His arrival date was Friday, 13 February, and he wrote in the notebook, which he immediately began to keep: 'Ominous date, but arrived safely.'10  He might well have thanked his luck: the Lockheed aircraft that had flown him and Osmar White to New Guinea crashed in a Cairns swamp on the way back, killing both pilots.  

The scene that confronted him in Port Moresby was chaotic. There had just been a bombing raid, and most of the Europeans had been evacuated. Not content with enemy damage, Australian troops had just looted the town, including the local museum, from which they had 'souvenired' valuable artefacts. The Australian 39th and 53rd battalions, poorly equipped and untrained for the kind of warfare they were about to wage against a well-equipped and successful Japanese army, inspired little confidence. On top of all this, the heat, sandflies, appalling mosquitoes, bad water and food, all conspired to give war correspondents such as Johnston a testing baptism.11  

George Johnston - Somewhere in New Guinea George Johnston - Somewhere in New Guinea

He could not relate such dismal information back to his paper. Censorship was strict, often unnecessarily so, a matter of constant annoyance to the correspondents. Johnston recorded in his notebook many details that the censor would not have passed: incidents of desertion, for instance, and troop and artillery statistics and movements, as well as the destructive effects of Japanese air raids. He also recorded the shooting of a Lutheran missionary by an Australian soldier, after it was discovered that the missionary had helped the Japanese. In fact this notebook had a strict purpose. It was not a true diary, although it was recently published as such; it contains no personal information, and many of its entries are not of witnessed events, but are based on hearsay, and frequently of doubtful accuracy.

It is likely that Johnston intended to get a book out of New Guinea from the moment he knew he was going there, and that the 'diary' was simply the formula upon which to base it. Much space is given to colourful anecdote: stories of heroism, humour and mateship among the men, and horror tales of shocking injuries and mutilated bodies. A common one, which stuck in his mind for years afterwards, involved troops moving along the Kokoda trail giving a shake to a severed hand wedged in a tree beside the track. Another incident, which he remembered in his last months of life, was hearing that Japanese soldiers kept their fingernail clippings in tiny urns to be sent back to their relatives if they were killed. Odd details such as these he remembered long after the standard wartime heroics had faded from his mind.12  Many of them went into the notebook in preparation for his New Guinea Diary book.

During the first four months in New Guinea he sent back more than seventy articles, mostly on the rescue work of pilots, the heroism of ground staff, relations with the natives and between Australian and American troops. He also wrote pieces on the enemy that are notable for their grasp of Japanese competence at a time when a fatuous brand of racism among the Australian public caused many to underrate dangerously the ability of the Japanese. Nevertheless, like most correspondents, he deliberately painted a rosier picture of the allied campaign than was true at the time in the interests of maintaining morale at home.  

Johnston returned to Melbourne in June, and was temporarily replaced in New Guinea by Geoffrey Hutton. Elsie may have put pressure either on him or the office for his return, for relations between them were under some strain. According to Bruce Kneale, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the Johnstons were drifting apart. 'George was taking giant strides in developing himself, while Elsie was standing still,' he observes.13 Rumours were flying about the Argus office that Johnston was having an affair with one of the office girls.  

When Johnston returned to Moresby in September it was obvious to Osmar White that he was withdrawn and tense. He confided to White that he had grown bored with his marriage. His popularity among the other correspondents was low, too, although this was more to do with his attitude to the work than anything else. His undisguised ambition and competitiveness engendered wariness among his colleagues in the correspondents' mess. 'He was not', says White, 'a good sharer of information. If George went off to see the General [whereas] most of the other blokes would say what the hell he was saying, George wouldn't tell you: he was not prepared to. He was after the beat, which made him a damn good newspaperman.'14  

George Johnston (seated) - Somewhere in South Pacific

George Johnston (right) - Somewhere in South Pacific

  

White had been to the Kokoda area with photographer Damien Parer and correspondent Chester Wilmot, and, despite the danger of such a mission, they did not mind keeping up the tradition of sharing information with those correspondents who, like Johnston, preferred to operate from base. According to White there was no resentment or charges of cowardice levelled at Johnston for adopting this approach:

He decided to play it that way, and I think he was probably quite right to play it that way ... I think he felt he       could serve his newspaper better by staying far enough away from it to get the whole picture. It was a point of view that I came around to very much later in Europe — that sometimes when you got terribly close to it you couldn't see the wood for the trees. You had to spend at least part of the time back where the intelligence people could tell you what was going on.15  

Nevertheless, the possibility that he could be rightly accused of cowardice was one that haunted Johnston for years after the war. The corollary to not enlisting was that war correspondence work would always have the stigma of evasion attached to it, and later in his life he became a harsh critic, not only of his own role as a war correspondent, but of the very nature of the exercise.

In the latter half of 1942 the allied forces had a number of successes in New Guinea, and Johnston, like his colleagues, gave a glorified account of the Australian and American campaigns. In his notebook, however, he again recorded comments that would not have passed the censors, particularly about the Americans. When General Douglas MacArthur arrived in October, Johnston wrote: 

Oct. 3rd. MacArthur up on the track (Kokoda) today; only as far as the road went through! 

Oct. 16th. Everyone is incensed with the new censorship bans, including MacArthur's personal censorship of stories of his visit here which have been slashed to convey the impression (a) that he went right up to the front line (which he certainly did NOT) and (b) that this was NOT his first visit to New Guinea. Censorship now is just plain Gestapo stuff!

Along with many Australians who knew the truth, Johnston was angered by American attempts to take full credit for saving Australia from the Japanese:

Nov. 12th. The fact remains that no American ground soldier has fired a shot in this campaign so far, but there is a widespread tendency for many Americans to decry the Australian efforts and perpetrate rumours that the A.I.F. is only opposed by a handful of Japanese — 90 or 250. One American was asked today if the hundreds of wounded Australians coming in had been in traffic accidents!

In fact American efforts were often marked by confusion and incompetence:

Dec. 12th. Yesterday, for the sixth time, American bombers dropped bombs on their own positions, killing two and wounding six. 

Johnston omitted incidents of this kind when he put together the book based on his notebook, called New Guinea Diary, which he set to work on immediately when he got back to Melbourne. Like its predecessors, this book was aimed at the popular market, confining itself almost entirely to action and feats of heroism.  

(L-R) Ian Mitchell (London Daily Express), John Grover (Associated Press of America) & George Johnston

George returned from his New Guinea duties five days before Christmas 1942, and was immediately granted a month's leave. To Elsie he seemed tired and unsettled, as if he always wanted to be somewhere other than where he was. The strain between them was not helped by an unwelcome surprise that came in the mail for Elsie one day. A letter arrived containing an opened love-letter from Johnston, posted from Brisbane to the girl in the Argus office. Some third person in the office had intercepted the letter and redirected it to Elsie, by way of informing on Johnston. Elsie confronted him with it, but he shrugged it off as a trivial flirtation. Intent on saving her marriage, Elsie phoned the girl, arranged a meeting, which ended amicably, and the affair petered out.16  Johnston still seemed unsettled, however, and agreed to every office request to travel about. He relieved Geoffrey Hutton in Brisbane for six weeks in February. When he returned in March, he was back barely a week when he agreed to another assignment, this time a substantial one. He was to accompany the Federal Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs, Dr H. V. Evatt, on a diplomatic tour of the United States. Elsie greeted the news with dismay: again she would be left on her own with Gae, and with few indications of support from Johnston's family. Amid the bustle of getting away, Johnston telegraphed Angus & Robertson 'unable to complete galleys of New Guinea Diary'. Cousins managed the corrections, and the book came out in mid-1943, while Johnston was away. He left Melbourne on 1 April, arriving in San Francisco with the Evatt entourage on 8 April.

George Johnston (3rd from left) - near  Alice Springs 
Northern Territory, Australia
George Johnston (right) at 'Devils Marbles' 400k north of
 Alice Springs Northern Territory, Australia

Johnston's movements over the following eight months are unfortunately obscure. He wrote few letters home and seems to have been deliberately secretive about much that happened during this time. He was certainly in Washington in May, and either there or in New York had a warm reunion with his old friend Sam Atyeo, in the company of Evatt. The improbable Atyeo had been appointed personally by Evatt to the Australian War Supplies Procurement Office in Washington, and whenever Evatt visited the States he spent some time with Atyeo, whose company delighted him. Johnston and Atyeo talked over old times as Gallery students, and generally got along well together. Unfortunately, Evatt and Johnston did not. At some stage they had a 'furious row', says Geoffrey Hutton,17 and when the Evatt party left the country in June, Johnston was no longer with it. Elsie believes it had something to do with an American woman called Jane, with whom Johnston had become involved to the point of neglecting his journalistic duties. Up until that point, relations between Evatt and Johnston had been good: Evatt had written an Introduction to his latest book, The Toughest Fighting in the World, an American version of New Guinea Diary, in which he gives high praise to Johnston's work in New Guinea. The details of what went wrong between them have not yet come to light.

Johnston wrote to Elsie on 20 August, saying that he had 'stayed on ... writing a book on Australia, including the effects of Americans on Australians'. This book was eventually published in 1944 exclusively in the United States as Pacific Partner. He was also producing articles for Saturday Evening Post, Life and Collier's magazines, mostly on New Guinea subjects, including a portrait of MacArthur for Life that amounts to an astonishing piece of whitewashing, after the comments he recorded in his New Guinea notebook. Among other things, he excuses MacArthur's failure to give proper recognition to the Australian fighting efforts:

There was some resentment among several war correspondents who insisted that MacArthur was trying to convert what was a purely Australian ground victory into a combined success. This was actually unjust. At that time it was important to prevent the Japanese from knowing that the Americans were being kept intact as a separate force to be flown into the north-coast areas for the final assault on Buna.18

This might have warmed American hearts, but it would have made some Australian blood boil. Johnston had been, after all, one of those correspondents who objected to the way in which MacArthur promoted the image of American troops at the expense of the Australians.  

George Johnston (right) at Adelaide River, 
115K South of Darwin - Northern Territory, Australia

George Johnston (left) at Central Mt. Stuart, 
200K North of Alice Springs - Northern Territory, Australia

The glossy American journals were, according to Geoffrey Hutton, 'mad keen to get him',19 and since he was writing for them as a freelance, the fees, generous by Australian standards, were going into his own pocket. He told colleagues that he had made thousands of dollars in America, and spent them all in the New York night clubs, presumably with Jane. Certainly Elsie knew nothing about such money. Johnston's relationship with Jane was hardly covert, although her surname is unknown. He introduced friends and colleagues to her as his girl-friend, and Geoffrey Hutton recalls that she was 'exactly like his wife', although 'not overloaded with intellect'.20 Johnston later used her name for the heroine of the novel The Far Face of the Moon (1964), but whether there is any further resemblance between them it is not possible to say. The fictional Jane is a virtual nymphomaniac.

During the last half of 1943 Johnston's letters home became so rare that Elsie sought an explanation from the Diplomatic Service. They had none, but agreed to include her mail in the official bag to ensure their safe arrival. Still she received no replies to her letters. She went to Ted Doyle at the Argus office, but he had no news either. Doyle had expected Johnston home in September, along with Errol Knox (now a Brigadier) and his son-in-law, Major Henry Steele, who had been visiting the States. Finally, Elsie received a letter in November from him saying that Knox and Steele had been transferred to a faster ship in Panama, and that he had been forced to remain 'still ploughing along' in a cargo ship. But Elsie believed that the real reason for his delay was his reluctance to leave Jane.  

Indeed, when he finally arrived home in December, he could talk of nothing but Jane. He assailed Elsie 'on the couch one morning, and told me about this Jane, and that he wanted to divorce me and go back to her'.21 Rows and bitter accusations followed, and Johnston went into moods of black depression. He even threatened suicide, and left a note in his trouser pocket for Elsie to discover to the effect that he had been found dead somewhere. His despair grew partly out of the knowledge that the affair, which had been as much with America itself as with Jane, could not be renewed. Nevertheless, it brought matters to a climax with Elsie, and within days after his return he decided that they should separate. He terminated the lease at Mackie Grove, and found a flat in East St Kilda for Elsie and Gae. For the time being he was going to stay at a hotel.  

He didn't last long, however. Three days before Christmas he moved into the flat with them, and so the turmoil of uncertainty continued. If he was unhappy at home, Johnston was more exuberant and popular than ever at the office. He sought the centre of attention, and played the raconteur at every opportunity, as Greeba Jamison recalls:  

He would burst into the big reporter's room, described in perfect detail in My Brother Jack, and the whole place was turned on end, particularly for the girl reporters. He would snatch up the best-looking one he saw, grab her on his knee or swing her up towards the ceiling and catch her in his arms; everyone, men and women, would cluster round and George would tell us with tremendous gusto, a spate of exaggerated adjectives generously sprinkled with bloody (one of his favourite words), great gusts of laughter, of his exploits in the war, Very Important People he had met, women he had made love to. Usually we would repair to the Duke of Kent hotel across the road in LaTrobe Street and the story would continue over many rounds of beer. 22  

This was very much the Johnston that his colleagues saw: 'the complete extrovert', wrote Geoffrey Hutton, with whom he was sharing an office, 'with inexhaustible talent for making friends'.23 It was about this time, too, that he began acquiring the tag 'golden boy', in reference to his fair colouring and the favour of the Argus hierarchy. Bruce Kneale says that it was he who gave him the name, not least because everything he touched seemed to turn to success.24 His marriage was an obvious exception to this.

From America Johnston had sent Angus & Robertson the typescript of his first attempt at a novel, entitled 'The Sun Rose Twice', but when he got back he requested its return, with the intention of rewriting it. It never reappeared. Instead, he worked on a new book, about his American experiences, which turned out to be a problematical homage to Jane, provisionally titled 'Hey Listen, Jezebel!' This sets out to be a humorous sequence of anecdotes of an ingenuous Australian's encounter with the sophisticated world of wartime New York. The script was finished by February 1944, and Angus & Roberston agreed to publish it under the alternative title of Skyscrapers in the Mist, although it was to be another two years before it finally came out, after a great deal of equivocation. One story it contains has a premonitory touch:

It is said, though I cannot corroborate the story, that the bar [of a New York restaurant] carried a sign copied from a London taproom announcement of the early eighteenth century: 'Drunk for a cent. Dead drunk for two cents, Clean straw for nothing'.25 

Twenty years later this grim little epigram would have a special significance for him.

Johnston discovered early in 1944 that he would be going abroad again, and wrote a rather depressed note to W. C. Cousins on 28 January, saying, 'pushing off in a month ... to India, Burma, Africa and then to the U.S., and will be away probably two years or so'. For some reason he wanted his absence 'to be kept confidential as far as Sydney newspaper circles go'.26 He added that he hoped to get a 'real rip-snorter of a book' out of this trip.

Once more Johnston's departure was in haste. He wrote to Cousins from Perth requesting that all royalty cheques be paid to Elsie, and also to send her the proofs of Skyscrapers in the Mist for correction. This was an odd thing to do. She had never proofread anything before, and had no idea what was required. More important, as she read through the proofs she discovered that she did not like the book in the least, neither its subject-matter nor its flippant tone. So she simply sent it back to Angus & Robertson, telling them as much and leaving the corrections to them. Elsie wondered, however, whether the gesture of giving her some part to play in the book might not have been George's way of making a peace offering, of putting the whole Jane affair in the context of his great discovery of America, so that it might at least seem more understandable to her, if not more forgivable. In her circumstances, optimism was Elsie's best refuge.  

George Johnston In Burma

George Johnston somewhere in the South Pacific

Again Johnston's movements abroad are difficult to trace; he travelled about so frequently that it is possible to give only an outline for most of the time, though occasionally specific details of his activities in Asia are clear. His first address was the Army Public Relations Office at South-East Command in New Delhi, and from this base he was to make regular trips by air and road to surrounding regions affected by the war during most of 1944. His official brief was a roving commission, which meant that he could generally decide for himself the areas from which he would correspond. The many articles (over 150) that he sent back to the Argus and other publications from the Asian region formed the basis of a comprehensive book, which he was to put together at the end of the war and call Journey through Tomorrow. This book provides the best guide to the events in his life during 1944-45. It was an important two years for Johnston, because of the range and newness of experience that Asia was to provide him with.  

Johnston spent March and April in Ceylon and India relaxing, after which he went to Burma to report on the bitter fighting in the northern town of Myitkyina and the Mogaung Valley area generally, where the bid to recapture Burma was under way. Reading his reports, one is struck by his broad view of the correspondent's role. Unlike the war books he had so far written, he did not confine himself to racy descriptions of action and heroism. In fact he did little of this from now on. Instead, he wrote on the many human touches he observed, such as the effects on the civilian population, or the behaviour of soldiers when they were not fighting. He sent back to the Argus pieces on the Kachins (the native head-hunters of North Burma), on Burmese national pride, on Australian soldiers playing two-up, and on the way the arrival of a monsoon brought the fighting to a halt. He was appalled by the wanton destruction of local culture, and especially the brutal disregard by Americans for Burmese sacred objects:  

George Johnston at 'Huating Buddhist Temple' in the Western Mountains near Kunming, China

When I first arrived at Namkam, not far from the Chinese border, it was almost noon and I stopped to eat my luncheon ration alongside a large temple, almost completely destroyed by bombing. Like most Burmese places of worship it was a gimcrack structure of corrugated iron and hideous fretwork, now jumbled into a heap of tangled wreckage. Curiously, the holy images were untouched — a number of miniature Buddhas and three huge Buddhas sitting back to back. An hour later the Americans arrived and went to work with tyre levers and hammers. By nightfall the three large Buddhas had been beheaded and all the smaller Buddhas ripped from their pedestals.27

Elsewhere he makes the point that the Japanese during their occupation of Burma showed considerable respect for the local culture, and did not generally practise this kind of desecration.

In June Johnston flew to China for the first time, travelling via the dangerous route across the Himalayas in northern Assam known as 'the hump'. He entered a description of it in his notebook as 'A mass of twisting ravines and sharp-fanged peaks, it had always been something real and personal, and oddly malignant, to hundreds of pilots flying into China'.28 He was to fly 'the hump' many times in the next sixteen months, and was always to find it frightening.  

George Johnston (Left) near Kunming

Most of his time in China was spent in the western provinces of Szechwan and Yunnan, specifically in the cities of Kunming and Chungking. Kunming, on a high plateau at the end of the Burma Road, had so far managed to escape the ravages of the war and to preserve its beautiful medieval character. By contrast, Chungking consisted almost entirely of newly built temporary shacks, and had a particularly uncomfortable climate. It was the wartime capital of Republican China, and had been bombed so often that the authorities had given up attempts at permanent reconstruction. It was here that Chiang Kai-shek made his headquarters for his direction of the Chinese war effort. Johnston writes about unexpectedly coming across him one day:  

... towards evening I saw a huge sedan black and glistening, draw up beside a dried-up parkland which extended from one of Chungking's dusty streets to a similar dusty street on a higher level. A small man stepped out. He was wearing a simple khaki suit of some light material with flat buttons of brass. The big car drove away, and the little man strolled alone in the park with his head bent thoughtfully and his hands clasped behind his back. I knew who he was, although I had never seen him before, and he looked much smaller and older than I would have imagined. Moreover, he did not look like a soldier; more like a scholar or a professor worried by taxation demands. He had a quiet, intelligent face heavily lined. I looked at the lonely little figure as he walked gently uphill and stepped into the shining car again at the higher road. It was my first sight of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.29  

The incident prompted Johnston to think about Chinese politics. He sent the Argus a piece titled 'China's Political Problems',30 in which he discusses Chiang's peculiar grip on power, and his obsessiveness and obstinacy, while at the same time defending his dictatorship as a necessary means of uniting China against Japan. He also points out the considerable support for Chiang among the Chinese people and their provincial leaders. This was the first time Johnston had attempted to write seriously on political matters, and it is interesting that it was not politics as such that triggered his interest but the incongruous sight of that small frail figure commanding such immense power. The novelist in him was responding to the human aspect of the drama he was observing.  

George Johnston on Sampan  on Main Canal, Kunming Main Canal - Kunming, China

In September Johnston witnessed an event that touched him deeply. The people of Kweilin learned of a Japanese advance on their city, and they fled in their hundreds of thousands south along the road to Liuchow. As it happened there was also a famine in the country, and thousands of refugees died along the way. Johnston took a jeep along the Kweilin/Liuchow road and was staggered. 'Imagine', he wired the Argus:

   the entire population of Melbourne abandoning their homes and taking to the roads in flight from the city.... On the road south to Liuchow struggles a constant procession of wooden-wheeled pony carts, water buffaloes, decrepit trucks, wheelbarrows,   rickshaws   and   sedan   chairs. Already thousands of refugees have died by the sides of the road, where the bodies of old men and women, cripples and children are rotting in the hot sun.31 

As a child, the sight of the single corpse in the lounge-room of his home had disturbed him. Consider the effect of seeing thousands of them in such terrible circumstances. Throughout his life he was to talk and write of this event.

In October 1944 Johnston set out on a three-month trip to Europe — his first. This turned out to be a 12,000-mile tour that began in the Middle East and took in Italy, Greece and Jugoslavia, transport by courtesy of the US Air Force. He did not write much about this trip, indeed the only piece published by the Argus at this time was a defence of communism in southern Europe. 'Almost always', he wrote, 'it is a spontaneous expression of feeling that comes from people who have suffered and are suffering still, rather than emanating from a clever, calculated indoctrination.'32 He spiced this with a swipe at democracy for its indifference to the poor. Five years later, in the Cold War climate, the Argus would not have printed such views, but during the war the communists were on our side, so it was allowed to stand. He wrote, too, that when he was in Athens he could see 'hints of future bitterness and unrest' between the Greek political factions. He could hardly have imagined at this time how significant this country would become later in his life.  

Most of the three months of this trip of Johnston's was spent in Rome, where he was loosely attached to a US Press contingent, with accommodation provided by the US Air Force. He probably was not happy there. No articles appeared by him at this time, but he did write a story that suggests he was lonely and homesick. His central character, Barrington, has a brief affair with an Italian woman whom he meets in a jewellery shop while buying a mosaic bracelet for his wife back home. The language barrier between Barrington and the woman intensifies his feelings of alienation in Rome. He considers writing to his wife about the affair, but in the end decides that she would not understand, and keeps it from her. Johnston gave the story the title 'Roman Mosaic', but he did not send it off for publication straight away. Possibly he thought of it as a draft, and wanted to tinker with it some more.  

Johnston left Rome in January 1945, and flew back to Burma, arriving in time to report on the Allied advance to re-open the Burma Road. His articles tell of the huge quantities of war supplies that could now be pushed into China along the Burma Road, and the successful repulse of the Japanese forces that followed. K. E. I. Wallace-Crabbe, who was then a squadron leader in the RAF, recalls seeing him in Burma about this time:

   [it was] at a place called Maymyo, about one third of the way up the Burma Road to the Chinese border of Wanting . .. The night before, our location had been severely bombed in an attempt by the Japanese to 'collect' either Generalissimo Kai-shek or the U.S. General 'vinegar Joe' Stillwell. In our partly wrecked building, and the few remaining bungalows in the smashed courtyard, we were a strange, mixed collection. Suddenly a superbly uniformed U.S. war correspondent intruded. To my surprise it was George Johnston. He said he had come by air from Chungking, and had with him a staggering collection of watercolours he had painted in different war areas of China.33

None of these pictures seems to have survived. He evidently kept up his sketching and painting wherever he was, and he used some to illustrate feature articles on New Guinea and Asian topics in American magazines, such as Collier's and Saturday Evening Post.  

By March 1945 the Burma campaign had been successfully completed and Burma and India made safe for the Allies. As things cooled down, Johnston's interest wandered increasingly away from war matters. He had not seen much of India to this stage, so he rectified this by making an extraordinary tour by train across the northern breadth of the country, taking in Calcutta, Delhi, Benares, Jaipur, the Punjab, and then on to Kashmir and Afghanistan. This journey gave him the chance to write the sort of journalism he most liked: feature articles, which the Argus placed in the Weekend Supplement. In these he writes with great enthusiasm for the country and its people, and covers such matters as the influence of the English, poverty and the caste system, Indian bureaucracy, and a conversation about cricket with the Maharajah of Patiala. Fascinating though it all was, he ended the tour thoroughly exhausted, and when he returned to HQ in April he was sent home on a month's leave. He was in Melbourne by 20 April, fourteen months after his departure.

At home, Elsie was still nagged by the problem, now assuming the proportions of a saga, of the proofs of Skyscrapers in the Mist. Angus & Robertson had refused to correct them and had redirected them to her. She then wrote to W. G. Cousins, making her views on the book clear: 

   Dear Mr. Cousins, 

   May I write frankly to you? I do NOT like Skyscrapers in the Mist!' In my opinion it is not right to waste precious paper on such a subject .. . Australia does not want second-rate novels, and to my way of thinking Skyscrapers in the Mist is one. Also, after the reputation Mr. Johnston has built for himself, I think he would be very foolish to spoil it with this book ... 34  

She added that Johnston had himself expressed doubts about the book (which is not a novel) in a letter to her. Even so, in his tiredness he was hardly in a mood to quibble or to carry out a substantial rewrite of something so far in the past, so he simply corrected the proofs himself and returned them to Angus & Robertson for publication. It would take another year for it to come out.

Up until this point Johnston had published no fiction, though he clearly was eager to do something with 'Roman Mosaic'. Bruce Kneale, who was now magazine editor of the Argus, tells how Johnston asked him in the office one day about the stories Kneale wrote and published in various magazines. 'Hey, sport,' he said to Kneale, 'tell us how you go about writing a story, what do you do?' They talked about it, and next day Kneale was astonished when Johnston slapped a story on his desk and said: 'There you are — read that and tell me if it's any good.' Kneale read it and was impressed. Indeed, he thought it was too good for the Argus magazine, and advised him to send it to one of the big American journals.35 What Johnston did not tell him was that he had written a draft of the story in Rome over the winter, though he did tell Kneale that it was based on an experience he had had. Kneale still thinks of the occasion as an example of Johnston's remarkable facility — asking how to write a story one day, and offering the finished product for publication the next! 'Roman Mosaic' appeared sixteen months later in Collier's magazine, and was his first piece of published fiction since his school-magazine days.  

Relations with Elsie seem to have been cordial enough during this month of leave, but the fact that Johnston would soon be off again may have prompted a kind of truce between them. Before he departed, however, an event occurred which, though nobody could have known it at the time, was profoundly to change the course of his life. One lunchtime he was holding forth to a group of friends and colleagues in the Australia Hotel, when Bruce Kneale came up to him and said: 'I've got someone here who wants to meet you.'36 There, beaming at him, was the most astonishingly beautiful AW AS lieutenant he had ever seen. Her name was Charmian Clift, she was interested in writing, she knew exactly who Johnston was and what he had done as a war correspondent, and she was herself the Editor of the Ordnance Corps magazine, For Your Information, at the Albert Park barracks. The three of them, Kneale, Johnston and Clift, all in Army uniform, sat in the Australia Hotel all afternoon talking. It was not long before Kneale could see sparks of mutual attraction flying between Johnston and Clift. However, it went no farther at that time. Whatever feelings they may have felt had to be suppressed, because Johnston was leaving shortly for Asia again. He departed on 19 May 1945, but no doubt he had carefully filed away in his memory the name and whereabouts of Lieutenant Clift for future reference.

Johnston flew to India, and almost immediately went back into China. For the next two months he shuttled frequently between his familiar haunts of Kunming and Chungking. He knew them both so well by this time that he could write detailed descriptions that vividly evoked the contrasting characters of the two cities. Of Chungking, with its extremes of climate and terrain, he wrote:  

   Huge cellars open up from the footpaths of the main streets and looking down one sees precipitous warrens of clustered huts and hovels falling away hundreds of feet down the boulder-strewn slopes on which the pavements surprisingly rest. It is like opening up a trapdoor in a street that outwardly appears normal and seeing down below, instead of a cellar, a whole suburban area standing on end!  

Street market in Kunming, Western China Young girl labourers near Kunming, Western China

   During the ghastly period of the air-raids, Chungking's clammy fogs gave the city protection for seven months of the year, and the terrain for the remaining five months provided the sheltering tunnels and the cave shelters burrowed for miles beneath the great crags — provided also the cave hospitals, cave schools, cave factories, cave arsenals. Here for years of suffering and hardship such as even London never knew the battered population lived like troglodytes.37  

Kunming, on the other hand, the centre of business and situated on a fertile plateau, is personified as:  

   ... a fat voluptuary, sensuous, rouged, heavy with jewels and sprawling on a sheet of fine satin that had become soiled and frayed.

   Few, if any, cities in all China so swiftly absorbed modernism and the paraphernalia of the Western World. The Burma Road and the smuggler's trails out of Tibet, the roads frequented by the secret operators of the opium ring, all led to Kunming ... One would see the fat profiteers and parasites and the men in beggar's rags dying or dead in the muddied streets.38  

Johnston's style of writing here has reached a degree of definition. There is a confidence and energy that communicates itself to the reader immediately, and the long sentences avoid confusion or tedium by containing vivid and clearly realised images. It is a good, descriptive journalistic style that would have pleased his editors because it is highly readable. Admittedly he is also wholly concerned with surfaces, and so there is little evidence of a capacity, in point of view or in terminology, to get beneath what is visible and analyse. Johnston was not an intellectual; his writing at this stage reflected the way in which his job demanded that he report the world, and that was to convey the experience without going far into the meaning. Not only is this good reporting, but it is also a sound training for a novelist.  

Later in his life he was able in his writing to draw meaning from his experiences, including some he had in Kunming. He once walked along the main canal of the Pan Lung river where he came upon some Australian eucalypts, which contained, wedged in their lower forks, the bodies of dead babies 'clad in fine clothes and with their tiny, cold feet hanging from the scented foliage, neat in shiny slippers of bright new satin. They were there to placate the evil spirits and to prevent the next child from dying.'39 He was to recall this experience in the last months of his life, while writing the novel A Cartload of Clay. There he places it in the context of David Meredith's struggle to find meaning in his life by establishing connections that will transcend differences of time and place. The result is a peculiar suggestion of personal destiny in the events of Meredith's past:  

   So Meredith kept his eyes lowered and sought for links, and now he could pin down one important point in the arabesque, because little Emma, the maternal grandmother who had looked after him while their parents were away in the First World War, had been an orphaned girl in Bendigo during the gold rush, and for a time had lived with the Chinese miners in the diggings at Eaglehawk . . . And when these Chinese had grown older and had prospered or failed or been driven out by the hardening and stupid racism of the awkwardly growing country, they had gone back to their homeland, to Canton and Foochow and some of them farther out west to the Yunnan plateau, and they had taken with them as gifts little exotic trees in pots to demonstrate to the stay-at-homes the bizarre distance of their journeyings, and these were the stately trees, massively flourishing in an unfamiliar soil, that overhung the Pan Lung river, where once upon a time he had walked and talked with Wen Yi-tuo. It was not altogether unreasonable to imagine that they might have been the very trees planted by one of the Chinese diggers who had befriended his grandmother in Bendigo. (There had been one evening, a tranquil dusk of velvet violet, smelling of damp moss and dust laid by rain, when the poet had pointed out to him the dark bundles jammed into the forks of the trees, the bodies of the dead babies...) (CofC 39—40)  

Johnston met the Chinese poet Wen Yi-tuo around this time, in Kunming. They were probably introduced by the subject of another of his experiences in that city, a woman whose name is unknown but who appears in A Cartload of Clay as 'Phoebe'. She seems to have been an American who had gone to China as a Methodist missionary before the war, but when Johnston met her she had taken a job buying pig's bristles and shipping them back to the States for paint brushes. In an album covering his time in China there is a photograph that is likely to be of her, for her appearance loosely fits the description of Phoebe in A Cartload of Clay as 'small and shy, with freckles and auburn hair and a childish snub nose, and of a rather scholarly bent' (CofC 41). In the novel Meredith talks in a callous way of his affair with Phoebe. She was, he says, 'an ardent and accomplished mistress, which rather surprised him, knowing her earlier prim background and her Methodist upbringing' (CofC 41). He goes on to say that he rented a tiny doll's house of a cottage in the grounds of a hospital and kept it for months as a 'place of assignation'. The affair ended, he says, because of a combination of her possessiveness and his guilt at not telling her about his wife in Australia. Elsie recalls Johnston telling her about a woman in China he was involved with, but doesn't remember any of the details. One thing that Johnston could not resist about the woman was her occupation, and he used it several times in his fiction.  

The mysterious 'Jane' or 'Phoebe' in Burma Flower vendor in Kunming, Western China

By mid-1945 the war in China was no longer headline news in Australia, and Johnston's reports were now usually found on the back page of the Argus, whereas the year before they had been consistently in a position of prominence. Headline space was now increasingly given to pieces by Geoffrey Hutton and David McNicoll on the European conflict and its aftermath, or to Axel Olsen and James O'Connor on the continuing struggle against the Japanese in the Philippines. In fact the war in China was rapidly cooling down. This gave Johnston an excuse to take a break. In what sounds like a plot for a comic movie, a group of US Cavalry people were taking a plane-load of Australian slouch hats into the high country of Tibet in order to trade them for hardy Tibetan mountain ponies. The Tibetan nomads were apparently very partial to digger hats. The colonel in charge of the operation invited Johnston and Liberty magazine photographer James Burke, who spoke fluent Chinese, along for the ride, though it turned out to be somewhat more testing than they expected.

The party flew from Kunming to an airstrip near the town of Yung Kwan Chai, which was some 3600 metres (12,000 feet) above sea level, 'the highest airfield in the world', wrote Johnston.40 As he stepped from the plane he was breathless, and not just from the lack of oxygen:

 Here was a valley of breathtaking colour and beauty ... a valley of a million flowers glittering in bright warm sunshine ... And dominating the far end of the valley, in peerless, shimmering majesty, stood the white, 25,000 ft. peak of Minya Konka, appearing to cover half the sky . .. 41

He pressed some of those glittering flowers into a letter back to Elsie. It was the beauty of this valley, and others like it, that inspired the setting for the novel High Valley (1948); Johnston never tired of enthusing lyrically about the valleys of Tibet.  

Together with Burke, Johnston went with a pack train into the higher peaks around Minya Konka, where blizzards, freezing temperatures and precipitous ledges made progress extremely hazardous. They camped with Tibetan nomads, sleeping in their yurts (tents), eating tsamba (a heavy barleymeal bread) and drinking Tibetan tea with lumps of yak butter floating in it. One nomad, an extraordinary cowboy (or yakboy) called T'se Ch'i, accommodated them, along with his family, for three days and nights. T'se Ch'i had introduced himself in an auspicious way when Johnston was instructing some lama priests in the use of a rifle:  

I looked up and saw a tall, slim man watching us, a picturesquely handsome man with the face and bearing and dignity of a red Indian chieftain. I handed him the rifle. He took a quick aim — there was almost no difference in his movement to accept the weapon and his actual firing — and he plugged the tobacco tin clean in the centre.42

(L-R) George Johnston & James Burke in Tibet (L-R) George Johnston & James Burke in Burma

Here, enjoying a strange hospitality, Johnston had his thirty-third birthday. He was one of the very few Australians, perhaps even the first, to have visited the high regions of Tibet up to that time. He reflected with a hint of nostalgia on how, beneath the unfamiliar exterior, life in the Tibetan community was not unlike life on an Australian farm. 'There were the children', he wrote,

   playing at evening, throwing stones at the sheep. There was the constant stream of neighbours and visitors dropping in for afternoon tea, or to borrow a cylinder of yak cheese, or to compare jewellery and babies — I doubt if any people in all the world are more affectionate towards children than the Tibetans — or just to gossip as women do at afternoon tea gatherings the world over ... There was T'se Ch'i striding along with us in the afternoons when we went to shoot rabbits and pheasants ... There was an old man and his two sons returning with his yak train to the little nomads' camp, and being welcomed by shouting children and barking, tailwagging dogs, and the old man lifting the smallest boy to the back of his horse for the ride into the horse lines. There was so much of warm living and kindness and humanity . . .43

It was during this time that Johnston had an unforgettable meeting with the leader of the white sect of lamas known to his followers as the Living Buddha. It was known that the great man's proudest possession was an old phonograph, so Johnston and Burke had gone prepared with a gift recording. It happened that the only one they could lay hands on was of a popular song called 'It Must Be Jelly 'Cause Jam Don't Shake Like That', so it was with some anxiety that they awaited the Living Buddha's reaction. They need not have feared: 'The tune was received with tremendous approval, the Living Buddha nodding his head rhythmically to the beat of the hot jazz, his eyes closed, and a beatific expression on his face. Then he played for us his two records. One was Mei Lan Fan singing a Chinese operatic piece. The other was Noel Coward's   'Don't  put  your   daughter  on   the   stage, Mrs Worthington'!44  

After the entertainment, Johnston and the Living Buddha settled down to a serious debate on reincarnation and the comparative merits of Christian and Buddhist beliefs. 'Christianity has a childish logic that appeals to large groups of simple people', asserted the sage, 'but to an intelligent man it is unsatisfactory. Logic in religion should not be easy to find. Ours is a religion for the individual scholar or thinker, yours is a good enough religion for the masses.'45 There could hardly have been an Australian precedent for such a lofty conference, nor hardly an Australian less qualified to participate. Johnston had no religious faith at all, and no professed respect for Christianity. On the other hand, he had acquired some appreciation of Eastern philosophical views. He did not, however, record his own responses to the Living Buddha's opinions.

Johnston's time in Tibet did nothing for his respect for the general lama population. With Burke he spent some time in a lamasery called Konka Gomba, reputedly the setting of Shangri-La, the retreat in James Hilton's novel Lost Horizons. Johnston found the reality to be far from the ideal refuge of the fiction, for within the lamasery walls the lamas showed all the jealousy and avarice that characterised the war-torn world outside. They were not even particularly devout, being more preoccupied with the dollar exchange rate than with prayer. Johnston and Burke were relieved to get away from the place.  

The final days of the Tibetan interlude came close to being tragic. As they descended from the higher regions, Burke developed a severe kidney infection. The pain was such that he grew delirious, and one night attempted his own life with the colt .45 they were carrying. Johnston injected him with morphine and nursed him back to a state fit for travel, although, with Burke continually falling off his horse, progress was slow and painful. They arrived back at base camp later than had been arranged, only to find everything cleared away and the DC3 that was to fly them home standing at the end of the runway revving for take-off. As it made its run, Johnston's heart sank: they would never get out of such a remote place, he thought, and would die before anyone found them. Miraculously, at that moment the aeroplane's starboard engine cut out, and the pilot was unable to complete the take-off. Johnston fired his revolver, and they were rescued. Burke recovered and stayed on in Asia for many years after the war, and he and Johnston managed to maintain their friendship, although their lives went in widely different directions. There is a brief but affectionate sketch of him under his own name in A Cartload of Clay, where the rescue incident is described, and is concluded by a reference to Burke's fatal fall in the Himalayas in the early 1960s.  

   It was the right ending for Jim. And a damn sight better than dying in the squalor and cold and rat-stench and misery and pain of that terrible chorten eighteen years earlier. (CofC 100)  

Although the visit to Tibet lasted only about five weeks, it was an important time in Johnston's imaginative life. He was to write six novels and one factually based book out of his Asian experiences, and two of these, High Valley and Journey through Tomorrow, make substantial use of his knowledge of Tibet. Tibet had not only provided a break from the war, it had also put him through something of a mind-expanding experience of a kind he could never have had by staying back at base. Indeed, Asia generally was an important educational and imaginative stimulant, and he was to write about it often in the next decade. Specifically, his prolonged contact with Asian cultures planted a seed of respect for an attitude to life that is not obsessed with a successful career, though it would be years yet before that seed would germinate.

In August Johnston was back in Kunming in his role of war correspondent. One of his first reports after Tibet was on the pitiable return of those masses of exiles from Kweilin almost exactly a year earlier. They were struggling along that same road, in the opposite direction now, but just as overwhelmingly lamentable as before, with just as many collapsing to die along the way beside the littered remains of last year's victims. Certain images, especially ones that expressed the will to survive, stuck in Johnston's mind for a lifetime: 'an old woman in faded coolie blue with a treadle sewing machine strapped to her back, and a wispily-bearded man with one trachoma-whitened eye who was bent double by the great weight of the sow he was carrying' (CSFN 22).

There were also moments of levity. In Kunming, Johnston and Sydney journalist Nigel Palethorpe along with the townspeople celebrated (slightly prematurely) the end of the war by setting off fireworks. When they went back to the store for more fireworks, they found, Johnston wrote, that 'with shrewd oriental realization of the principles of supply and demand the price had already trebled'.46  

Late in August the wind-up of the war quickened. Johnston joined James O'Connor in Manila to cover talks between General MacArthur and Japanese envoys about the terms of surrender. Then in September this pair followed MacArthur to Japan for the last stages. On the way Johnston was able briefly to go to the now recaptured Shanghai to report the Chinese acceptance of surrender from Field Marshal Oka-mura. It was his last look at China, where he had seen so many new and extraordinary things.  

In the weeks leading up to the surrender ceremony, Johnston and O'Connor sent back reports on the turmoil of life in Japan immediately after the dropping of the atomic bomb. Johnston's pieces concentrated, again, on matters of human rather than military interest, which were left to O'Connor. He was appalled by what he saw of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He stood on the rubble (alarmingly ignorant of the radiation effects) and reflected 'dazed, uncomprehending . . . fearful' on the implications of what had occurred, and concluded that

   The pent-up forces of India, heaving and tumultuous; the unpredictable power and violence of China, where civil war blazed again even as I stood in a shabby mission garden near Hiroshima; the strange mysticism of Tibet, which had not known this war; the soft, misleading apathy of a ravaged Burma — all these things were no longer as important as the dead birds and the blasted flowers.47 

The saturation bombing, too, had left its mark on the people of Yokohama, Kawasaki and Tokyo:  

   ... children hiding their eyes or fleeing in panic, girls turning their backs and cringing as if expecting blows, men just looking at us without expression. Sometimes a little boy would poke out his tongue and then flee wildly across the fields. In most of the faces there was a dull apathy, in some dismay, in some bewilderment, in many a sullen hostility. One had the sensation of walking precariously along the crumbling lip of a smouldering volcano, but nothing happened.48  

As well as the victims, there were those who had benefited from the war. Johnston interviewed a group of nine Japanese millionaires at their plush hotel — bankers and industrialists who had made massive profits. It was a sour and uncomfortable interview, as the businessmen, immaculately dressed and, according to Johnston, eating lobster from silver plates, deplored the effects of the war on the Japanese working man. He sent the Argus a suitably sarcastic piece on this, and another on the luxury in which Axis diplomats were living in Tokyo at this time. Another piece conveyed the atmosphere of fear and suspicion as MacArthur's men began the search for war criminals:  

We walked back to the sumptuous dining hall, panelled in teakwood, and two Germans came hurriedly towards us, the leading man breathlessly announcing that he was not a Nazi but the man following him was, and the second man stared at him malevolently and snarled 'Pig!'  

There was a constant whispering in the gardens of bamboo and decorative pines, and in the dim corridors of the cream-coloured building there were the shadowy figures of fear and intrigue and treachery and distrust. It was a scented place, but we were glad to get away from it.49  

Then there was the group of right-wing dandies — a mix­ture of Russian, French, German and Swedish men and women, mostly young — who had been living in the hills of Karuizawa as parasites on the country they had expected would win the war, but who now turned collaborators. Now that the Americans were in control, they expressed hatred for the Germans and Japanese, and complained bitterly that they had refused to share their luxuries with them. 'Will we have to become Soviet citizens now?' one of them weakly asked Johnston, who wrote: 'They had filled their glasses with the last of the vodka and they were toasting a picture on the wall — a framed yellowed photograph of the last Tsar of all the Russians ... '50  

The last phase of his war correspondence duties took place on 3 September, when he attended the surrender ceremony between Japan and the Allied forces on board the USS Missouri. Johnston and O'Connor sent the Argus a joint report, which occupied the whole of the front page, giving full details of the signing of the treaty and conveying the atmosphere of a moving and spectacular occasion. After this there was only the business of tidying up and preparing to go home. He did not do this immediately, however, but stayed on for a few weeks putting together his material for the book on Asia that was to become Journey through Tomorrow.

How is his contribution to war journalism to be valued? He undoubtedly played his part in keeping the Australian public informed and quite possibly in sustaining its morale. This was what every conscientious war correspondent hoped for, and it is difficult to find anything wrong in that. Many of Australia's best journalists, Geoffrey Hutton, David McNicoll, John Hetherington, Osmar White, Wilfred Burchett, to name but a few, earned distinction in the role, and Johnston firmly established himself among their ranks. Furthermore, he did this without alienating himself from their comradeship. On the contrary, he was generally well liked, despite a certain wariness at times of his magpie approach to gathering in­formation. It is true that in New Guinea some correspondents had reservations about him; but others, such as Osmar White and Geoffrey Hutton, defended him warmly. Geoffrey Hutton wrote that he had the gift of 'dissolving personal and social barriers, giving cheek to politicians, editors and generals. Nobody ever resented it. He could charm the birds out of the trees.'51 Bruce Kneale tells a story that illustrates this. When Johnston came back from Asia, Errol Knox said to him one day in the office: 'You'll have to come back and start work again on the paper soon.' Knox was a figure whose dignity nobody on the paper except Johnston dared to lower. 'Christ, Knokka, I can't come back yet,' he retorted. 'I've still got six hundred quid of yours in expenses to spend!'52 Greeba Jamison insists that Johnston had a kind and sensitive side that was endearing: 'To some of the younger journalists who were taking their work frightfully seriously, he was always helpful, encouraging; he was never the "distinguished war correspondent" when he came back on leave — just one of the gang in the reporter's room.'53 With testimonies such as these from his colleagues he had every reason to feel pleased with the way he had conducted himself as a journalist and war correspondent.

Yet Johnston was to look back on this time of his life, and the work, with scorn. At least, this is so if we take his autobiographical fiction as representing his actual views on the matter. It is difficult not to feel that the following passage from My Brother Jack is self-reproach of the harshest kind, and that this is one of the moments in the novel when David Meredith is closest to his creator:

... the falsity I built, or allowed to be built, around myself is perhaps less excusable. I wrote copiously and I wrote bril­liantly and I wrote with all the practised 'flairs' for which Gavin Turley had commended me, and I skulked and dodged and I was desperately afraid, and 1 wrote myself into my own lie, the lie I had to create, so that it was taken for granted that I was there, right there, in the thin red line of heroes, and gradually I picked up all the tricks of evasion and avoidance and wove them into an almost fool-proof pattern. I suffered nothing more than a spurious, self-inflicted heroism. (MBJ 330)

One wonders if anyone ever did accuse Johnston of this kind of deception, because there is nothing in his war correspondence or his war books that deliberately attempts to give the impression that the writer is 'right there' in the front line of the action. As has already been pointed out, most of Johnston's war articles concentrate on human interest subjects away from the actual conflict. Why then did he suppose that people did infer this, making him a liar by default?  

The reasons seem to have been both professional and per­sonal. He had always felt that the very situation of the war correspondent was parasitical, and that the only authentic roles in war were the soldier's and the victim's. One recalls with what conviction he wrote about Australian heroism and 'blood sacrifice' in the war books (and later in My Brother Jack). He was to devote a whole novel, The Far Road, to exposing the essential self-interest, not only of the role of the war correspondent, but of journalists in general. David Meredith says in the latter novel that 'Duplicity was inextricably woven into the modus operandi of the game',54 and that 'In a later age, Judas would have been a journalist'.55

As well as this disillusionment with the profession, John­ston came to hate himself for having chosen it. He must have thought of that failure to join his mates at the enlistment centre, of Rod Maclean, of his brother and indeed of his father in World War I, and believed that he had taken the less honourable course. One perceives that his question to Bruce Kneale 'You think I'm a coward, don't you?' suggests that it was really Johnston who thought of himself as a coward, and that his choice to serve out the war in the capacity of a war correspondent was an act of shameful self-interest and evasion. When he came to write about that sense of personal and professional dereliction in The Far Road and the Meredith trilogy, it formed part of his tortuous purpose to expose that particular George Johnston he once had been, and to annihilate him.

ENDNOTES

1.    This succession of Argus editors was compiled from Who's Who in Australia.

2.    Bruce Kneale, interview with GK, 1985.

3.    W. G. Cousins to GJ, 26 Nov. 1941 (Mitchell Library).

4.    Australia at War 5, 275.

5.    Ibid. 227-8.

6.    Ibid. 4.

7.    See George Johnston, 'Gallipoli Paintings' in Art and Aus­tralia, Sept. 1967, pp. 466-9. Nolan confirmed this in
       an interview with GK, 1982.

8.    Osmar White, interview with GK, 1983.

9.    Personnel records of the Argus and Australasian Limited.

 

10.  The notebook was begun on Friday, 13 February, but he backdated entries to 3 January, based on 'enquiries,
       ex­aminations of reports etc., of earlier activity'. The note­book, a simple exercise book, was discovered in an
       Amer­ican rare book catalogue and purchased in 1981 by the National Library, Canberra, who published it in
      1985 as
War Diary 1942.

11.  This account of the state of Port Moresby when they arrived was given by Osmar White, interview with GK, 1983.

12.    Sidney Nolan recalls Johnston telling him these things in Greece in the 1950s: interview with GK, 1982.

13.    Bruce Kneale, interview with GK, 1985.

14.    Osmar White, interview with GK, 1983.

15.    Osmar White, interview with GK, 1983.

16.    Elsie Johnston, interview with GK, 1984.

17.    Geoffrey Hutton, interview with GK, 1981.

18.    Life,, 5 July 1943, pp. 104-12.

19.    Geoffrey Hutton, interview with GK, 1981.

20.    Geoffrey Hutton, interview with GK, 1981.

21.    Elsie Johnston, interview with GK, 1984.

22.    Greeba Jamison to GK, 13 Feb. 1983.

23.    Geoffrey Hutton, 'He Died Alive', Age, 23 July 1970.

24.    Bruce Kneale, interview with GK, 1985.

25.    Skyscrapers in the Mist 99.

26.    GJ to W. G. Cousins, 28 Jan. 1944 (Mitchell Library).

27.    Journey through Tomorrow 379.

28.    Ibid. 84.

29.    Ibid. 100-1.

30.    Argus, 25 Aug. 1944, p. 2.

31.    'Battle Looms in Kwangsi Province', Argus, 23 Sept. 1944, p. 2.

32.    'Communism Spreads in Southern Europe', Argus, 4 Dec. 1944, p. 2.

33.    K. E. I. Wallace-Crabbe, 'Pens and Yarns, Wings and Wheels' (unpublished MS).

34.    Elsie Johnston to W. G. Cousins, 28 March 1945 (Mitchell Library).

35.    Bruce Kneale, interview with GK, 1985.

36.    Bruce Kneale, interview with GK, 1985.

37.    Journey through Tomorrow 97—8.

38.    Ibid. 117-18.

39.    Ibid. 120.

40.    Ibid. 218.

41.    Ibid. 223-4.

42.    Ibid. 284.

43.    Ibid. 288.

44.    Ibid. 291-2.

45.    Ibid. 296.

46.    'End of the War Brings Big Problems', Argus, 20 Aug. 1945.

47.    Journey through Tomorrow 399.

48.    Ibid. 389.

49.    Ibid. 396.

50.    Ibid. 397.

51.    Geoffrey Hutton, 'He died Alive'.

52.    Bruce Kneale, interview with GK, 1985.

53.    Greeba Jamison to GK, 13 Feb. 1983.

54.    The Far Road 47.

55.    Ibid. 75.


The above is Chapter 3 of  "George Johnston: A Biography" 1986 by Garry Kinnane - Reproduced by permission of the Author.

© Garry Kinnane