Medal for John
Lieutenant John Tapp struggled up the rain soaked mountain track. It was 1944 on the Huon Peninsula, New Guinea. He looked out over the mountain valleys, as the mist seemed to float down and kiss the tops of the trees. The beauty of the countryside delighted John in this country beset by the horror of war.
For John, the misery of war seemed to take over everything. It was there when he awoke in the morning and all through the day. Then at night, his mind would remember all the terrible things he had to do in the service of his country. Finally, he slept and the nightmares would take over until he awoke screaming.
The rain ran from his slouch hat down his gas cape then seemed to surround him and form a shield. There were no orders to give or receive. Soldiers always surrounded him and he savoured the chance to be alone. The track ended and he sat down on a wet log, gazed out from Mount Sattleburg, and took in the beauty of the mountains and the mist.
John stood up again, stretched out his arms, gazed up at the rain as the sweet drops fell on his face and entered his mouth. He willed the beauty that surrounded him to enter his body and take away the horror that was his life. Slowly, the tension left him as the rain ran down his neck and he could feel the wetness inside his clothes. It felt like nature was cleansing him of all the horror he had seen since 1941.
He sat on the log again. He had to decide about the medal.
It was difficult, all he wanted to think about was the fresh faced young accountancy student who graduated then joined the Army because he thought it was his duty to do his best for Australia. What a joke! He was sent to Tobruk to fight for the British, then El Alamein to fight for the British again. He was sick of fighting for the British and was almost glad to fire a shot in anger for Australia when he reached New Guinea three years later.
He didn't accept that King and Empire bullshit. He couldn't care less about the British. Let the Huns have them. It would not have much effect on Australia. He knew from talking to British Officers they couldn't care less about Australia. Yet, here he was at Tobruk as the German big guns pounded them and they lived like rats in holes and attacked the Germans at night. He had to fight to stay alive.
To his surprise, he discovered he was a natural with weapons. He emerged from his training as a marksman. John had no way of knowing that this ability would make him a killer. It would also make him less likely to be killed. When the Army had soldiers with special abilities like John they kept them out of the hand-to-hand fighting.
He was issued with a special snipers rifle and his job was to watch the enemy lines during the day then pick off any targets that presented themselves. Although, Tobruk was mainly an artillery and tank war it was surprising how many Germans and Italians John and his special squad of snipers killed
John was isolated from the war. He was never closer than five hundred metres from the fighting. Occasionally, he received reports from scouts about the dead bodies his snipers caused. They were graphic about heads smashed and bloated bodies feeding the desert vermin. John still saw plenty of death on his own side. Many of the dead were mates. He didn't have time to grieve. He had to get back to the war.
Tobruk was dirty, dusty and there were many desert insects that had vicious bites. John felt that the big guns and tanks were coming to crush his frail body. The noise was incredible and the heat just seemed to pulverise his body with its intensity. Somehow, he survived. After eight months, they were relieved.
There was more training, then leave in Tel Aviv in Palestine. Soon they were building walls in Lebanon to keep out the Axis forces. John felt human again; there was no fighting and no killing. The mountains of Lebanon were pleasant and he was able to wander away and take in the rugged beauty.
Rommel smashed through and took Tobruk. The Allies stopped the German advance at El Alamein. The Australians were rushed from Lebanon and were soon in position at Ruweisat Ridge near El Alamein.
There was no remote war for John this time. He took his place at the head of a platoon and they were soon fighting for their lives. The Axis forces threw themselves at the defenders. The defenders knew that if Rommel broke through at El Alamein he would soon be in Cairo and the war in North Africa would be over.
The Allies held after furious fighting and heavy losses on both sides. The exhausted Armies needed to resupply and regroup. There was a lull in the fighting; it lasted about two months.
They waited and perspired in the heat of the day on the 23rd of October. Darkness came.
The battle of El Alamein had begun. John went into the battle at the head of his platoon.
John felt the buzz of the enemy bullets as they kicked up dirt around him. Some of the Platoon had been hit. There was a break in the fire and he slipped behind a sandbag as he watched the forward Platoon. He could see wounded men crawling as best they could away from the fighting. Others were not moving. John could see outlines in the darkness as the forward Platoon was pinned down. They sustained heavy casualties. Then he heard the noise of a German eighty millimetre anti-tank gun. It was shooting at the Germans. The boys must have captured it and were using it against the Germans.
They were not pinned down any more and John rushed forward. They raced towards the enemy machine gun post as the eighty millimetres blew away the covering from the machine gun nest. With half of their number dead, the machine gun nest surrendered. John rushed past the captured Italians and started firing at further machine gun nests. The Australian advance overwhelmed the Italians who lost many as the Australian riflemen caught them trying to escape. John fixed his bayonet and killed three Italians. The rest surrendered. They took fifteen prisoners. From then on, John rushed at the other machine gun posts as the frightened Italians died when the Australians over-ran them. The Platoon fought fearlessly against machine gun posts and finally drove the enemy away.
The next day the German tanks over ran the Australian troops and they had to withdraw. The furious battle raged at maximum intensity until one morning there was no sign of the enemy. The Allies had won and John was still alive.
He was angry, he wanted to kill more of them. How dare they run away when he was ready for them. He was disappointed when they were ordered to return to Australia. He wanted to stay in the fight.
It took three days for his emotions to calm down and he realised what had happened. John knew he was good at killing. He wasn't prepared for the memories. The exploding flesh as his bullets found their mark, then the endless killing as they got the advantage over the enemy. The feel of the bayonet as it entered the enemies' body. Hate and anger for the enemy as they killed his mates. Then the incessant screams as men died. Why was he so good at what he hated doing?
Soon he never wanted to sleep because of the dreams. He never wanted time alone because of his memories. He cursed his country for what they made him do and making him into the man he was.
He returned home to Adelaide and three weeks leave. He met a nice girl and the memories of the war receded as he thought more and more about his girl friend. The leave finished and he was sent to the Atherton tableland for Jungle training before fighting in New Guinea.
The diggers were stalking the enemy to kill them; there was no front line. The attackers and the defenders could be anywhere in the jungle. Finding the enemy was the key. Know where he is and you can kill him. If he knows where you are, he can kill you. To conquer the Japs, you first have to conquer the jungle.
The jungle was trees, vines, mud, rivers, and endless rain, mosquitoes, disease and Japs. The fighting was close and sometimes hand to hand. To the surprise of the Adelaide accountant, he was good at it. Malaria and dengue fever devastated the troops but John survived. He was respected by his Commanding officers. He was killing again.
The diggers advanced up the mountain track in Company strength. Lieutenant John Tapp led his Platoon in the van. Shots rang out from Japanese positions taking Shorty McMillan in the chest. He died in John's arms. John called for the Medics as he picked up Shorty's Bren gun and took cover.
The Company commander slipped into the bush beside John. ‘We have to get through them Tapp. We have to get to Sattleburg before nightfall.'
‘Leave it to me Sir. We'll get rid of ‘em. A grenade will sort ‘em out.'
John signalled to his Sergeant and four other soldiers to follow him. They slowly made their way up the left of the track as the main body engaged the machine gun nest. They were almost within grenade range when gunfire caught them and pinned them down. John told his Sergeant to engage the enemy.
He stood with the Bren blazing and ran towards the machine gun nest. He had about five seconds before they realised what was happening. It was enough. He stood on the mound and emptied the magazine as he killed the Japanese. Jumping into the nest, he kicked two bodies aside, and replaced the Bren magazine as he set up the tripod then fired on the Japanese who were holding up his men.
The enemy were in full retreat as the main body of the Australians rushed up the hill. John's Bren spat out lethal rain as he caught the retreating Japanese at point blank range. Soon the firing stopped. The Commander jumped in beside him. ‘That was brilliant Tapp. I'll be recommending you for a medal. Well done.'
The Sergeant came up to John and said they had some prisoners. The Commander turned to John and said, ‘We haven't got time for prisoners.'
‘What will I do with them Sir?'
‘That's up to you Tapp. We don't want to be burdened with them.'
John nodded and moved into the jungle. A nod of his head brought a burst of gunfire.
Now on the mountain he looked up at the sun shining through the mist on Mount Sattleburg as his mind returned to the present. He thought about the letter in his pocket advising him of his award of the Military Cross for bravery. General Blamey would be visiting Lae in two weeks with General MacArthur and they wanted to award the medal during a Divisional Parade.
He didn't want the medal. It was part of the war and what had to be done to defeat the enemy. He always calculated the risk and never moved unless the risk was acceptable. It would remind him of the killing. The look on the Japanese prisoners face as they died still haunted him. They could keep the medal; give it to someone else. He could just tell them to shove it. Then he would have to explain why he had refused one of his countries highest honours. They would never understand. The questions would go on forever.
John thought of all the brave men who had died, he thought of Shorty McMillan. He couldn't take a medal with them lying in their graves. The dead men would haunt him forever. Why did they want to give him the medal, because he was good at killing? In peacetime, they would hang him.
He wanted to forget the war. John had pictured his home coming a hundred times in his mind. He would walk through the front door into his bedroom and rip off his uniform. Then he would dress in his civilian clothes as he took his uniform and Army things out to the incinerator and burnt the lot. He never wanted to know about the Army again. The Returned Soldiers League could do what they liked but he would never walk through their door. He would never march on Anzac day and he would avoid all contact with anything to do with the Army. What he had seen and done would stay inside. He would never talk about the war to anyone.
John touched the letter in his pocket. He hoped he lived long enough to be a civilian again. He was still in the Army and he knew he had to do what the Army ordered. All it meant was, he had to stand while he let Blamey get some glory and be photographed pinning on this bloody medal.
He wondered whether Shorty would look down and smile when John placed the medal on his grave.