Friday, July 20, 2012

Golden Boy in New Guinea

The Australian war correspondent and novelist, George H Johnston, was born a century ago today. He came to public notice for the first time as a young man with his reporting from Asia during the Second World War. During this period he also published books about the war, including a diary written in New Guinea. Later, having lived in Greece for many years, he returned to Australia and made a name for himself again with a series of autobiographical novels, one of which is now considered an Australian classic.

George Henry Johnston was born on 20 July 1912 in Melbourne, Australia, and then educated in local schools before becoming apprenticed as a lithographer. As a child he liked drawing and reading about ships, and aged only 16 an article of his on local shipwrecks was published by the Melbourne Argus. In 1933, the same newspaper took him on as a cadet reporter. He married Elsie Esme Taylor in 1938 and they had one daughter.

During the Second World War, Johnston was an accredited war correspondent, reporting from New Guinea in 1942, the UK and US in 1943, and from central Asia and Italy in 1944. He witnessed the Japanese surrender on board USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay in 1945. Also during this period, he used his experience to write several books, such as Battle of the Seaways and Australia at War. On returning to Australia in 1945, he found himself relatively famous, nicknamed ‘Golden Boy’ by his managing director, and appointed editor of the Australasian Post. Soon after, he met Charmian Clift, also on the paper, and their relationship caused a scandal which led to them both to moving to Sydney. They married in 1947, and had three children.

In Sydney, they embarked on a new career of fiction writing, and jointly won the Sydney Morning Herald prize for High Valley (1949). By then, however, Johnston was also working as a feature writer for The Sun. In 1951, Associated Newspapers Services appointed Johnston to head its London office, though he continued to write novels with his wife. In 1954, he abandoned journalism, and the couple moved to Greece, first to Kálimnos, and a year later to Hydra. They spent nearly a decade there, during which time Johnston wrote more novels (including five detective books) and many short stories.

Most significantly, with his life falling apart (money and relationship problems, and illness) Johnston embarked, in 1962, on an autobiographical novel. This was published in London in 1964 as My Brother Jack, and has proved enduringly popular. Johnston returned to Australia in 1964, once again popular, and his family followed a year later. My Brother Jack was produced for television; and a further autobiographical novel was published in 1969 - Clean Straw for Nothing. Clift, however, committed suicide just weeks before publication of the second book, apparently fearful of how she would be portrayed. Johnston worked on, but did not complete, a third autobiographical novel - A Cartload of Clay - before dying in 1970. Further information is available at the Australian Dictionary of Biography website.

During his time in New Guinea in the Second World War, Johnston kept a diary. This was published in Australia (Angus & Robertson) and the UK (Victor Gollancz) in 1943 as New Guinea Diary. Copies of this can be bought for under £10 at Abebooks, but there are no substantial extracts to be found on the internet. There are two, though, quoted in Eyewitness: Australians Write from the Front-Line by Garrie Hutchinson, some of which can read freely at Googlebooks.

According to Hutchinson, Johnston was one of the first two correspondents appointed in New Guinea in 1942 - the other was Osmar White. White, however, had little time for Johnston the journalist. He said in a 1990 interview for the Australian War Memorial that, ‘Johnston of course rewrote MacArthur communiques. I didn’t respect him as a war correspondent. He’s a very nice bloke personally, but I didn’t hold him as a war correspondent. He never tried to beat the propaganda gate.’ (Douglas MacArthur was commander of the US Army forces in the Far East.)

‘Perhaps this is a bit unfair,’ suggests Hutchinson in his book, since an entry in Johnston’s diary shows he was well aware of the problem; and a subsequent entry even provides a possible reason for White’s feelings.

16 October 1942
‘Up here everybody is incensed at new censorship bans including MacArthur’s personal censorship of Stone’s [articles] on his visit here which have been slashed to ribbons 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. Everybody is furious and Harold Gaund [U.P] has cabled a demand that he be recalled or that his resignation be accepted. Censorship now is just plain Gestapo stuff.’

17 October 1942
‘Barney Darnton is going to Wanigela for the Buna show and I have been asked to go as the Australian representative. At first I decided to go and then I decided against it. Too many other things are in the air and it’s the wrong time to be cut off from all other news sources.’

‘While Johnston did go to the north-coast battles at Buna and Gona later in the year,’ Hutchinson explains, ‘it indicates a different kind of reporting to White’s - White walked in and was there with the soldiers, observing and telling their stories. Johnston, for the most part, was back at headquarters getting stories by talking to blokes who had been there.’

For a Japanese soldier’s experience of the war in New Guinea written in diary form see the diary of Tamura Yoshikazu, as discussed in an essay on the Australia-Japan Research Project website.

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