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THE RETURNING

RETURNING
 

The  Returning follows events from WWII – the Japanese conflict in The Pacific – and follows on eight years later when the characters meet up to confront past issues. 

The story sees a small group of Japanese POWs escape from a train taking them to the Cowra internment facility and the impact upon a small community scattered in the Nullabor Plain region. 

This adventure drama unspools in suspense, secrets, surprises and the unexpected and is at times confronting. 

The climax reveals a cover-up of what really took place when a surviving Japanese soldier reappears eight years after the war ended in 1945.  

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ISBN:   978-1-921919-97-8
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 212
Genre: Fiction

Cover: Clive Dalkins

Author: Alan Wardrope
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2013
Language: English

 About the author

 

Alan Wardrope, former journalist and writer was first published when just 17 years of age. He has spent more than 30 years in the international motion picture industry, including major studios, spanning writing, production, marketing and repping the interests of Australian and offshore producers. 

Alan Wardrope has worked in New York, Los Angeles, London, Sydney, and at various locations in Asia. His book Secrets of the Screen Trade has attained reference status within the movie industry. 

Wardrope has worked with Paramount, CBS Theatrical Films division (Cinema Center Films based in North Hollywood), Universal, MGM, independent producers, as well as running his own international production and distribution group, California Connection. He returned to Australia in the mid 70s to head up the newly formed Australian Film Commission’s international push.

He was also a lecturer at the Australian Television School where he addressed graduating students.

He continues to write and edit screen material.

Author’s Note 

 

While events depicted herein are set within a frame of real events which occurred during and following World War Two, the various characters and their situations are largely fictional.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, the Gato-class US submarine Flounder existed and saw service in the Pacific, and references to the state of the Royal Australian Air Force and aircraft in 1942, including the attack on Darwin, are based on fact.

There was an escape from custody by Japanese prisoners of war in Australia, with resultant loss of life, though that which is depicted herein occurs under different circumstances.

The determination of Australian authorities during World War Two to withhold, downplay or distort that which was taking place from the public, is today a matter of record. This policy of secrecy was set firmly in place following the first raid on Darwin, about which the Australian people were kept in the dark. The four Japanese submarines which were stationed outside Darwin Harbour a few weeks before that city’s first air raid, for example, are seldom mentioned to this day.

I am indebted to, and gratefully acknowledge, the assistance of former train driver and railway historian Graham Houghton for his input concerning the transcontinental railway in the Nullarbor Plain region and elsewhere, both pre and post the steam-locomotive era.

The references relating to the arrival in Melbourne in 1942 of General Douglas MacArthur with his wife and young son and some elements of the situation in which he found himself are factual.

Finally, this novel is primarily an exercise in unfolding suspense, mystery, surprises and relationships based upon a screenplay written during my time in Hollywood, and which was never moved forward into production when other projects intervened.    

Introduction  

The year 1942 was a deadly milestone in the War in the Pacific, especially for Australia. Japanese forces had rampaged, seemingly unstoppable, throughout South-East Asia, and had occupied the island of Timor, situated off Australia’s near-empty and practically defenceless northern coastline. A small detachment of Australian infantry, which had been dispatched to Timor at the eleventh hour, had soon been brushed aside, though many would be rescued under cover of darkness, thanks to assistance by local Timorese and submarine pickups sent from Australia.

The only city in the vast and remote region was Darwin – itself not much larger than a country town – with a few Hudson bombers which served in reconnaissance roles and other aircraft of Number 12 squadron. Although dubbed as fighters, the squadron’s Wirraways were primarily trainers, of limited speed and equipped with twin Vickers 303 small-calibre machine guns. They were to be no match for the forthcoming Japanese Zero fighters. The only pilot in a Wirraway to down a Japanese fighter was J.S. Archer, of Number 4 Squadron in action over New Guinea in February, 1943. The Japanese lost little time in exploiting the situation.

However, unbeknown to Australian authorities, four Japanese submarines, equipped with both torpedoes and mines, had been positioned outside Darwin Harbour as early as January 1942. One vessel, an I-124 class submarine of 1,142 tons, was later sunk by the corvette HMAS Deloraine, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Desmond Menlove. The remaining three submarines retired from the area.

On February 19, ten weeks after occupying Timor, swarms of Zero fighters and Val dive bombers were launched against Darwin from the fleet carriers Raga, Soryu, Akage and Hiryu. It would be the first of many raids on Darwin and the north-west coast, during which Darwin was virtually flattened. The firepower unleashed in the repeated attacks by far exceeded that which had been directed against Pearl Harbour just nine weeks earlier on December 7.

The raids took a heavy toll on shipping, including vessels which had fled from the occupied regions of the British, Portuguese and Dutch colonial territories seeking refuge in Broome.

When Darwin was first attacked a transiting squadron of US Kittyhawk fighters was caught on the ground. The few aircraft which managed to claw into the air were no match for the battle-seasoned Japanese flyers, despite the heroism of the young American pilots.

Australia braced itself for possible and imminent invasion from the north, when a glimmer of hope appeared in late March with the arrival of the flamboyant General Douglas MacArthur. In circumstances reminiscent of a Hollywood epic, under orders from Washington, MacArthur had made a daring escape from the besieged island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay on March 11. Under cover of night, accompanied by his wife, Jean, four-year- old son, Arthur, and a nanny, MacArthur commenced a perilous dash for the southern Philippines in a small MTB (motor torpedo boat), a wooden craft powered by twin straight eight Packard engines, which normally powered automobiles of the same name. MacArthur’s boat undertook the voyage in company with two other MTBs which carried his entourage of staff officers.

After dodging Japanese patrols, with some close calls, four days later the small party reached the island of Mindanao where on March 17 a rendezvous with a B17 bomber sent from Darwin was made.

The B17 concluded the ensuing ten hours’ return flight to find Darwin under heavy attack by Japanese aircraft, forcing a desert landing at Batchelor Field, forty miles inland. It had been another close call for the MacArthurs.

Eschewing further air travel, the remainder of the journey was made by train, via Adelaide, which saw the MacArthurs arrive at Melbourne’s Spencer Street railway station on March 21. Exhausted and weary, they had arrived on a weekend with the city’s stores closed. To enable a change to fresh clothing as they had been on the run for eleven days, authorities had to arrange for Melbourne’s Myer store to be opened. Staff from the clothing department were hastily rounded up from their homes and driven to town.

It was an inauspicious arrival for the man to whom Australia was to turn for deliverance from invasion.

While Douglas MacArthur had been appointed Commander of United States Forces in Australia, which in fact was to include the Pacific theatre of conflict, he was soon to discover that 25,000 US troops already in Australia – some having been diverted from the Philippines – were poorly trained, inexperienced, with no tanks, no artillery, and the few combat aircraft in questionable condition.

The build-up of US forces in Australia was slow to materialise, adding to MacArthur’s frustration and the Australian government’s anxiety.

Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had persuaded US President Franklin Roosevelt to prioritise the conflict in Europe and the Middle East, relegating the Pacific to what in effect would be a holding operation, to await the defeat of Axis forces. It took the combined complaints and overtures to Roosevelt by MacArthur and Prime Minister John Curtin to ameliorate the situation, which in itself took some time.

Meanwhile, to the south of Darwin, towards the end of the range of land-based Japanese combat aircraft, a United States Navy submarine base was to be established in the Exmouth Gulf region. Its area of responsibility included the Indian Ocean and the Arafura-Timor Sea region, the latter washing Australia’s far-northern coastline.

The US submarines were among those of other flags to play a major role in harassing Japanese shipping besides carrying out valuable surveillance operations. They were to be supported by a gradual build-up of Allied aircraft at a scatter of remote desert airstrips.

One such submarine was the USS Flounder, one of the first of the large Gato Class ‘Fleet Boat’ vessels which represented the latest in undersea technology of the 1940s. With a tonnage of 1526, they were larger than Germany’s IXD2 submarines, with torpedoes that left no wake.

Flounder, under the command of Captain Bryan Pearson, was on one of its regular hunting and reconnaissance patrols off the Timor coast. By day Flounder remained mostly submerged to avoid detection by Japanese aircraft, and under cover of darkness would prowl low-hulled on the surface. It was then that Japanese supply vessels and barges would undertake the north-easterly run from which they could access relatively secure passage to points north and recently occupied territories. An easterly track offered passage to the Solomons by skirting north of New Guinea.

This night was to be different. Flounder’s impending encounter was to have unexpected consequences. They would impact upon the lives of many, extending well beyond the end of hostilities in 1945, when Japan finally surrendered.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 The afternoon was fast fading into dusk, which would be followed by a rapid transition to night, a characteristic of the tropics. Flounder edged upwards to periscope depth. The submarine’s Soundman had picked up the faint throbbing pulses of a ship’s screws and the skipper wondered what might be awaiting them on the surface.

Commander Pearson twisted the whirring scope slowly on its axis, his head bent forward and pushed against the rubber cushion of the calibrated eyepiece. As he scanned the surface Pearson experienced some difficulty in maintaining a clear view and was obliged to work the scope up and down on its shaft between the rise and fall of the lumpy seas. The detected signal suggested either a small vessel or a distant target. The sonar soon confirmed the former.

His interest was snared by a shadow-like smudge on the blurred horizon line. ‘Contact nor’-east,’ he called for the benefit of the watch. ‘Bearing three two-zero. Range six thousand.’ The watch members clustered about the periscope alcove in the lower bridge murmured among themselves in response to the news. The boredom of the past fifty hours might be coming to an end.

Pearson completed a final slow sweep then retracted the scope. He turned to Steven Ault, his Executive Officer. ‘Probably a freighter. We’ll track it until dark. Then we’ll go upstairs to see what we have.’

With nightfall less than half an hour away, Pearson decided to surface under cover of darkness when he could switch over to the diesels to close the gap on the contact. Waterproof oils were distributed among the assault watch, who would crew the bridge topside. Silence descended upon the men as Pearson again raised the scope for a final check in the dimming light. A stickler for established procedure and one who always played it safe, Pearson wanted to satisfy himself that there had been no change in the target’s course, besides confirming there was no sign of distant escorts, perhaps beyond the range of his sonar.

The minutes ticked away, seemingly slowly, when at last Pearson ordered, ‘Blow tanks.’

The Flounder’s nose tilted upwards and appeared to drag the remainder of the hull which slowly broke the surface. The assault watch crowded into the bridge preparatory to going topside. Pearson paused to await a final word from his Soundman. Reassured of no change in speed or direction by the target, he motioned to the exec, who pulled on the hatch release lever. The hatch clanged open to admit a cold wind, with spray swirling down into the faces of the watch.

Led by the Captain, the five-member team clambered up the steel rungs to take assigned positions on the sea-soaked bridge. A fingernail slice of a moon cast a faint hue over the darkness, though not sufficient to spoil Flounder’s security. The freighter was about 5000 tons and obviously swift, which helped explain the absence of an escort, aside from it being a relatively small vessel sailing alone.

Pearson gave the order to switch over to diesels. He calculated that Flounder would need to hold its maximum surface speed of 20 knots to overtake the target, and once ahead, manoeuvre into an attack position. In all there would be little change from 90 minutes to execute the approach, provided the freighter held course and speed.

As Flounder ploughed through the swell, head into the wind, water and spray surged and splashed about the bridge, soaking the watch, legacy of their vessel’s low-hulled position. As the gap between the two ships narrowed, Flounder veered ten degrees to port, to place the rising moon on the far side of the target and setting a course for a broadside attack once ahead of the freighter.

Ninety-five minutes later Flounder had drawn ahead of the target on a parallel course with a separation gap of one thousand yards. The submarine slowed and turned to starboard, commencing to move in on an intercept course. The dark conditions, choppy seas and Flounder’s low silhouette favoured the predator, making it nigh impossible for any lookout who might have been peering into the night through spray-flecked glass.

Pearson called down to Executive Steve Ault waiting below in the lower bridge, ‘Stand by with one and two.’

The freighter loomed closer out of the gloom, lifting and falling as her bow cut through the chop. Lurching from side to side in the cross sea Flounder was now down to seven knots. Those on the sea-swept bridge and down below fell silent as the seconds crept by.

With all lights blacked out, the freighter was about to slide across Flounder’s line of sight. The assault crew held its collective breath. Above the moan of the wind and the slap and hiss of the sweeping sea, Pearson ended the wait. ‘Fire one!’ He then counted slowly to five and called, ‘Fire two!’

As each torpedo was unleashed the recoil registered a sharp bump and a momentary brake on Flounder’s forward progress.

The first fish struck the freighter on the port side just aft of the bridge. The second impacted amidships. For a few moments it appeared as though nothing had happened to bring the target down. Then it all changed. A series of explosions erupted from the freighter. Flames of red and orange belched into the night sky along with fragments of steel and debris. Those on Flounder’s bridge could hear the muted boom of collapsing bulkheads and the ear-piercing screech of falling masts.

The exec’s face appeared in the open hatch as he clambered up to join the others on the bridge. The flickering glare from the stricken ship played on the faces of the assault watch, taken aback by the sudden and catastrophic destruction.

Then came another eardrum-numbing explosion whose hot breath swept over those on Flounder’s bridge. The freighter’s bow speared forty-five degrees into the air, water streaming down its riveted plates. As the vessel’s back was broken, the stern followed suit, though twisted itself free of the hull as it rose into the sky, the screws still turning slowly. The stern section crashed back to the surface shedding clouds of deck debris to the screech of ruptured metal. Within five minutes of the final blast the freighter slipped beneath the surface; a spreading patch of burning oil became its funeral pyre.

Executive Steve Ault was first to break the spell of silence. ‘Looks like we shan’t be having any Nips from that lot, Skipper.’

Pearson knew Ault was referring to a recent order to all and sundry. It directed both naval and air forces, wherever practical, to take prisoners for interrogation. The order had been in response to an urgent need for upgraded intelligence on likely intentions and timetables of Japanese forces in the near north.

Pearson took a final look at where the freighter had gone to its grave. Aside from a scatter of dispersing wreckage and a few burning oil patches, the brilliant and eyeball-impacting glare had largely dissipated, with darkness about to resume its nightly reign.

Pearson turned back to the watch whose wet and glistening oils reminded him of a group of drowned seals. ‘We’re done here, gentlemen. Time to get below.’

Once the hatch had banged shut and the throbbing diesels surrendered to the whine of the battery drive cutting in, Pearson’s Opsman withdrew his earphones to confirm that the target had been unable to get away a Mayday call. For now the Japanese should have been unaware of the loss of the vessel and importantly, the presence of Flounder in the area.

Pearson speculated that the freighter had most likely been bearing munitions and other volatile explosive materials, judging by the violence of the fireworks display. The latter would have been those employed for the blasting of roads, landing strips, makeshift port facilities, gun emplacements and the omnipresent coral reef impediments, engineering challenges which characterised the Pacific War for friend and foe alike.

While it had been a copybook operation, Bryan Pearson was obliged to suppress a momentary feeling of regret at having sent another vessel, along with seafarers like his own men, to a cold and watery grave. It was a fleeting emotion, soon put to flight by the rationalisation of duty, country and the survival of his own crew and the protection of others.

However, unbeknown to Pearson and the crew of Flounder, the encounter with the freighter, named Nasagama Maru, was not yet concluded. In fact, it could be put that in the long term, it was merely the beginning.

 

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