A Week in September book talk

DEAN LEE: Welcome to the Shrine of Remembrance. For those of you who don't know me, my name is Dean Lee. I'm the Chief Executive Officer here at the Shrine, and I don't think we could have asked for a better Melbourne day to mark both Valentine's Day, but also for us to come together to hear this remarkable story, as will be told to us by Peter and Doug.

Today we're hearing about A Week in September, which is written by Peter Rees and Sue Langford.

The Shrine is held in care by the Shrine trustees on behalf of all Victorians.

We embrace the diversity of the community that we live in, and I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Bunurong people of the Kulin nation. I offer my respect to their elders past and present, and to past and present members of the Australian Defence Force, It's a pleasure to welcome you back here to the Shrine.

Our guests today are Peter Rees and Doug Heywood OAM. Peter is an award-winning author of several books, including Lancaster Men, The Australian Heroes of Bomber Command, Desert Boys, Australians at War, from Beersheba to Tobruk and El Alamein. Peter, however, is perhaps most widely known for his touching book on Australian and New Zealand nurses. The Other Anzacs inspired the ABC mini series Anzac Girls.

Doug Heywood will be known to some of us for his musical endeavours, including his involvement with Melbourne's Christmas Eve carols. Today, we're discovering a lesser-known side of (Doug's) life story. A Week in September is based on his parent’s letters to one another during the Second World War. Letters discovered in the shoebox hidden in a wardrobe when Doug was a teenager.

Peter is going to start us off this afternoon, followed by Doug, and there will be time for questions

following our presentations. So please join me in welcoming our two speakers Peter Rees and Doug Heywood.

PETER REES: Thank you, Dean.It's a pleasure to be back here. We were just working it out, I think that's the sixth time I've had the opportunity to talk about books here. And it's really, really wonderful to be able to do it in a place as historic as the Shrine.

And this book is very special, but, Let me start by telling you a bit about Scott Heywood.

He was born in 1911, and he grew up in Stawell and he was even placed fourth in the Stawell Gift in the early 1940s. He might have won, but he had a bit of a hangover, it seems.

A bit of a lad, maybe, but he joined the militia at the age of 22, clearly indicating that he had a sense of duty and responsibility. Then, when war became inevitable in Europe, he joined the permanent Army before transferring to the Second AIF when war did break out.

He was a young Australian soldier who, because of the looming threat from an expansionary and militaristic Japan, volunteered to fight in defence of his country. He served overseas with the Australian Army Service Corps with rank of warrant officer.

He did so, leaving Margerie, his young wife and two very young children at home. And of course, Doug is here today. Scott was there for the defeat in Malaya and the fall of Singapore. He took up arms in that conflict.

Tomorrow, of course, is the 80th anniversary of that fateful event. He wrote to Marge a few days before the city fell describing to her the unfolding catastrophe.

And let me quote from that letter "We get some good searchlight displays at night. There seem to be dozens of them throwing their beams across the sky. The AA guns are near us. They give us the jumps occasionally when they open up. You hear the shrill whistling up and then the dogs go woof."

This could hardly have been reassuring for Marge. Her husband was in mortal danger, and it would have struck her with cold fear.

But there was more in the letter. Much more personal. That would have touched her heartstrings.

And let me read from that. And this is what Scott wrote: “I think of you a lot these days, my beloved you seem to be very close to me all the time. That's why I'm so sure I'll be home to you. I still love you my darling one, more than all the world. I miss you so much treasure. Get very lonely at times. I want to be with you and our bairns in our own heart and our own home. Well, my darling, I will be leaving you now and seeing you again about this time tomorrow. Look after your precious self, beloved and keep on smiling, all my love, sweetheart, and lots of kisses from a loving husband. God bless you and keep you safe and our bairns safe always. I love you, my darling one".

This was the last letter from Scott that Marge read before the capitulation of Singapore. And you can tell from the tone of that letter that Scott was increasingly worried about the situation. With Singapore in Japanese hands, Scott thus became one of 13,000 Australians who were forced to work as prisoners of war on the infamous Burma Railway.

Nearly 2650 Australians died on the railway, 479 of them on the Burma section. Many of them were Scott's mates. And after Burma, he was sent to Japan to works as slave labour there. On the way he survived the sinking of the transport ship that he was on, the Rakuyo Maru. More than 540 other Australians, again, many of them his mates, died.

Scott was an inveterate letter writer. From the time he met Marge, he couldn't stop writing to her. Such was their connection. He was very open about his feelings for her. In fact, he talked about her to anyone who stood still long enough and was quick to whip out her photo. They all thought he was a lucky man and so did he. But it was the solitude of those minutes before sleep in the POW camps that were devoted solely to her. And that's what is so unique about this story.

We have 570 of Scott's letters to Marge, just on 400 of them written as a POW in Burma. In the 20 months he was there, he averaged20 letters a month. How many of us today write that many letters? Come to think of it, any letters?

Scott's letters thus form a rare diary of the war as it played out in Malaya and Singapore. And then when he was in captivity as a POW in Burma. So how did this book come about to be able to tell the story of those letters?

A friend put me in touch with Doug. And he told me how he had discovered the bundle of letters in a wardrobe as a teenager and over many years transcribed them. When you look at the letters, that's no mean feat and the letters are up here on the wall. Necessarily, Scott's handwriting, as you can see, was small and tight. It had to be if he was to maximise the supply of paper at his disposal. They’re not necessarily easy to read, but what a story they tell.

In Burma, Scott couldn't post his letters, of course, because he was a POW. There were no post boxes on the Burma railway. He had to hide them. If the guards found them he faced severe punishment. Sometimes he had to bury them. While the guards didn't ever find them, white ants did. Scott endured unimaginable brutality and near starvation, but he continued to write even while ill with tropical diseases. This underlines just how much these letters are an uplifting and optimistic treatise on how to survive in extreme circumstances.

But while describing Scott's daily life, they were fundamentally letters of love and hope. This is what kept Scott going during his darkest days. He focused on returning to Marge and his two small sons. He lived in the past and imagined a future in order to tolerate the present. This was a deep and committed love. He would commune with Marge, every night at 9:00, this was their pact before he went away.

For Scott, it was life sustaining. How he would raise his sons playing footy with them in the backyard and having Marge sit on his knee in front of a roaring fire. His wants were simple. Thus, the letters he wrote with a photo of Marge at hand. And there's an example of that sort of photo that he had on the wall here gave Scott a means of transcending his daily reality, enabling him to take a different perspective in a POW camp where everything was designed to make prisoners lose their certainty and identity.

 And this is also the story of Marge, back in regional Victoria, nurturing their children. For more than a year, she didn't know whether Scott was alive or dead. And then there was the wait; waiting for letters that never came. And waiting for information from the government, which was meagre and irregular and sometimes dead wrong. She was under unbelievable pressure, but she too lived in an imagined future when Scott would finally come home, when he would walk through the front gate.

Coincidentally, Scott's experience in some ways paralleled another story that's become world famous. That of Viktor Frankl, a young psychiatrist who was separated from his wife when they were interned in Auschwitz concentration camp 7000 kilometres away in Poland. Their crime was being Jewish, of course. The means used by both of these men, Scott and Viktor Frankl, to survive their ordeal were uncannily similar. Frankl's professional background gave him the knowledge of how to survive psychologically, while Scott relied on intuition and trial and error. Survival under such extreme circumstances is truly inspirational.

Viktor Frankl wrote of his experience in a small book published shortly after the war ended in 1945and titled Man's Search for Meaning. The book has sold millions of copies and if you haven't read it, it’s really, really worth reading. Scott Heywood wanted to write a book about his experiences, but never did.

This book, A Week in September, is his story, and there are important themes that emerge in telling that story. It tells us about survival and resilience, how it is tapped into and how the power of love sustains men and women in war. It tells us of the importance of living with meaning and purpose, how having a 'why' to live enabled Scott to bear the 'how’.

Like those of Frankl, Scott’s words have a profoundly honest ring. All the familiar pillars of life were gone. All that was left literally was his naked self. He knew he had to hold on to sanity at all costs. Writing to Marge, expressing his love for her, visualising her, together with feeling wonder and awe at the beauty of the jungle in Burma, was that means. It brought a measure of peace amid the hardship, disease and death that surrounded him, even if he couldn't post the letters, he was still writing, and he had that connection.

And not to be forgotten in this was just how important mateship was on the railway. Scott had a group of friends and they all looked after each other. Daily. Amid the brutality. Scott imagined how their connections would continue when they returned to Australia with their families. Besides, his mates believed they would know Marge if they saw her walking down the street as he talked about it so often and proudly showing them the photos. They were sure they would recognise her before she recognised them.

Black humour abounded among these men in the POW camps mostly at the expense of guards. As Scott put it in one letter, All of them have nicknames, Dopey, Stupid, Pig's Head, etc. They answer to it. It is funny at work. Someone calls out Dopey and he comes running. This gave Scott and his mates, a momentary sense of power back.

What these letters also reveal is how a young and gung ho Scott was so eager to get into the fighting in Malaya and how quickly excitement turned to disillusion after the collapse of Singapore and then the prolonged mortification of being a P.O.W. set in. This was dehumanising nothing they could have prepared for.

The other side of this story is Marge and the impact on her and indeed so many others left behind in Australia just like her. Further to that, it exposes the failure of Australia's post-war medical services to understand and treat post-traumatic stress among not just veterans, but also their wives, widows and families, it just wasn't recognised for decades.

This is an important part of the book, because for too long it was considered that only returned soldiers might need psychological help. Marge’s story exposes the fallacy of that belief. Throughout these letters on the railway, Scott didn't hold back in his descriptions of the cruelty and the Japanese and Korean guards.

Yet interestingly, he wanted Marge to know that not all the guards were brutal. Not all of the guards were thugs. That there were some he wanted to maintain contact with if circumstances allowed it post-war. Some had wives and children just like him. And in this, while on the Burma Railway, there was a mutual recognition of the suffering war caused families, whether aggressor or defender, guard or POW.

 In researching this book, I contacted the Japan POW Group, a body based in Tokyo. One researcher there, Taeko Sasamoto took special interest in Scott's story.I sent a copy of the book to her when it was released, and she wrote back to me, “I was deeply moved to learn that he wrote hundreds of letters to his wife during his captivity. He was able to overcome the unspeakable hardship of the Burma Railway, the sinking of the Rakuyo Maru and brutal camp life in Japan because he kept the hope that he would be reunited with his wife and children. We Japanese feel sorry for how badly the Japanese army treated the POWs.”

Pain comes in many forms. For Marge, it was psychological as the information blackout only added to the trauma and fear that she and countless other wives went through as they desperately tried to find out what was happening. Whether husbands like Scott were indeed still alive.

Today, with mobile phones and sophisticated communications, it is hard to comprehend something like Marge and Scott's experience. And as this exhibition shows, they were not alone. So many wives and girlfriends, mothers and daughters went through the same excruciating fear of the unknown. It is through Scott's letters that we can open a time capsule to a past 80 years ago to a different world and through it, come to understand what true love in war can mean. Thank you.

DEAN LEE: Thanks very much, Peter, that's terrific. And as I said, there will be opportunities for questions at the end of our presentation. It's now my pleasure to invite Doug Heywood to speak.


Thank you. Thank you for coming. It's a delight to see those lovely eyes behind the masks.

And thank you, Peter, for that introduction to the work and also thank you to Laura for setting up this lovely exhibition. Thank you so much for that.

It's quite a story. By the way, the book that Dad wanted to write was called Guests of the Uncivilised.

What you're looking at here are all the letters that I transcribed over the time. There's letters from Malacca, letters from the camp and also all the articles that Mum was reading trying to find out something about her husband. The only time I saw my father is up there on the wall.

I was four months old. I don't remember anything about it. So he went to war and we were home  having a really lovely life up in the country. Mum never spoke much about the war ANZAC Day, we would go to services.

As young kid, you ask questions about Dad. "Your father was a lovely man. I loved him very much. He was a fine, wonderful man." No more.

It is too hard for her to discuss the war. What it meant to a young widow when she found out what had happened.

As a teenager, we moved from Hamilton down to Williamstown. And I was a young teenager, about 12, 13, inquisitive, and in the closet found a box full of papers. And I said to Mum "What are these?"

"Oh," she said "They're letters from your father to me."

I said, "Can I read them?" 

"Of course."

So there, you can see some of them up there.

I started to read them, first of all, the letters from Malacca, which in this very small tome of 1300 pages, and she read all those because they came with pictures of life that the boys were enjoying in Malacca, learning about the culture. Dad even took a church choir there. And all while in Malacca.

And then I found the first letter that Dad wrote from Victoria Point. Where he says "I should have written earlier I'm just having to write to the parents of Bob Goulden, who was executed"

So I started to read the letters. Young teenager. Found them a bit difficult, I never knew Dad of course, found it difficult to read them. So I'd pick up a little bit and read a bit more. And I became a very angry teenager.

So much so that when I was at Bendigo working, I went and saw The Bridge on the River Kwai. And I got thrown out of the theatre. Because I thought "How dare that man bow down to the Japanese!"

"Look what they did to my father!" I was so angry and I kept going back to the letters with the ambition of transcribing them and would start.

And it was too hard, so I'd walk away from them. It wasn't until my Father would've turned 100, my son, Thomas said "Dad, get those letters transcribed."

By this stage, I'd given them to the, the original letters, to Melbourne University within the archives for people to study. So I started to seriously and I had dabbled reading with a magnifying glass, as you can see up there, the type, the writing was so small, so I was picking and pecking on the typewriter over some years. But, couldn't cope with it, and

So I started to read the letters and transcribed them.And that's when I got to know my father. To begin to understand him as a person. To understand his strength, his positivity, and above all, to understand the love that existed between Dad and Mum, and also to begin to understand as I go through the camp and as I began to read the correspondence Mum was getting from the Army saying one day your husband's dead. No, he's alive, no he's dead, no he's alive. That's a roller coaster of emotions.

And,I started to realise many things about my Dad, which was fantastic.

It took me over ten years to transcribe these and with those lots of footnotes. Because things that we take for granted now, a modern, young reader wouldn't understand them, the colloquial languages.

And what fascinated me was what Dad was hearing up on the Burma railroad was being printed at the same time in Australia. On their crystal sets, like in the news, so every time Dad would mention something happening in the Middle East or whatever,

I'd go and research, thank goodness for Trove, would research a paper and to see if what they were hearing on the camp was in fact accurate.

So in this tome here, and it was, to the day, in this book here, everything he mentions I've gone to the newspapers and mentioned where that article was that they were hearing about.  I found that fascinating, that what they were hearing.

I'll just tell you one story very quickly that I thought that Dad had lost it. I must admit over the ten years, I had to walk away several times. I started to type and it would get too much.  So, I'm out of there.

And he said, December 22nd, '42, and Dad wrote I just heard that the Russians built a bridge 18 inches under the ice across the Don River. Come on. No, malaria has got to him, that's not true. In fact, it was. Russians there, Germans there, Don River, ice. The ice is thick enough for the troops to walk over, but wouldn't take the tanks.

So what the Russians did was to send troops upstream, cut logs, bring them under the ice,make a bridge, took them three days to do this. They ran out of vodka to keep them warm. On the third day, the Russian troops came across, the Germans were expecting this, next minute the tanks came across, the ice broke, there was the bridge and they got across. Now I think that's a great film in that, and I found it fascinating, learning about the history of the war, what Dad was hearing. And it was to me, a journey where I got to know a very wonderful man.

And also it showed me the strength of what love is between Mum and Dad. Mum never remarried. You can see by the photos up there, she's a good looking lass, and she had suitors, and as a young teenager, I would say to Mum, "Look, he's beaut, why don't you marry him?"

"I was married to your father, and that was enough."

Like many, like many, I think war widows after, they wanted to stay true to their husband.

And this is true of all the material that Mum kept, searching for answers about her husband during the during the war time and also showed me the strength of not only the love between them, but also the strength my mother had, like many other war widows, to bring up two young kids. Because she had no idea what was going to happen to her husband,

I won't tell you the dream that she had just before the end of the war, but it showed to me what love meant and also the courage of my mother to start a new career as a law clerk, then as a singer, then as an artist and all the time during our very happy childhood days.

I never missed Dad because I didn't know him.I knew of him, and I got to know him by doing this, but it just shows, we were not aware, I wasn't, as a young teenager, of what Mum had gone through. Every now and then, Mum would go to Repat Hospital, and we'd think, "Oh, she's just tired." No, it was a nervous breakdown. But we didn't understand it until much later.

And it's a story that's true, no matter which side of war we are on. People are damaged. Very seriously damaged.

But they learn how to cope. Mum had similar things that Dad had, learning how to cope with what cards she's been dealt at the time. She had the love that she had for us and obviously my father had for us both. And to me, it is a wonderful story.

So having completed this little book,I can reach a top shelf now. At having completed it, Ray Martin was having a talk to me, he saw it on my kitchen table and said "That cannot stay on your kitchen table. It's too important a story to be told."

So he put me in touch with Peter Rubenstein, who was doing a lot of video work for Ray and other TV shows, and Peter said "Can I show this to my friend Peter Rees?" And I said "Yes, absolutely"

Because that's not a Penguin pocket edition that's going to be easily read, and then Peter rang me up.

He read the whole 1300 pages. Well done, Peter.

And he said, "I'd like to write the story."

And what Peter's done is transferred this, and this in itself is a book in its own right. And it's just to me, it's amazing. Actual accounts. Every day, everything that happened, nothing taken out.

Peter ended up with a lovely narrative about what it means to be human. What it means to love. To understand what it means to suffer. To understand what it means to be lost. And to understand how to recover from that loss. And live a full and rich life and understand what life is about, that comes in this book and it comes in the narrative that Peter and Sue have written, and I thank them both for the dedication they had in writing this story.

And I do hope you read Peter's book because it does tell a very important thing to understand in life - that life is important. People are important. Love is imperative. Thank you.

Reviewed 03 March 2022