I only spent an hour with you twenty years ago.
One unforgettable hour.
You could not speak, yet I’ve heard your voice many times since then.
Bomana, your serenity and beauty and your reverence for life could not possibly be in greater contrast to the whirlpool of chaos, stench and malevolence that brought you into our world.
In your manicured elegance, you provide rest for almost 4000 men - mostly teenagers. I was twice as old when I saw you for that hour; beside the road between Port Moresby and the mountain ridge at the southern end of the Kokoda Track that runs north-south across Papua New Guinea.
Whilst on that ridge I ventured tentatively into such thick jungle that I could readily accept that being only two or three paces away from the Track could mean losing touch with it completely.
Cynical, battle-hardened troops had dubbed your teenagers as “Chocolate Soldiers,” for they were sure to melt in the face of so much heat. Take your pick from the relentless, stamina-sapping humidity; or the impenetrable, disease-ridden monsoon jungle that clings to the precipitous ridges and valleys that profile the island’s mountainous spine; or from the heat of battle against an irresistible enemy who was everywhere at once, yet impossible to see.
Almost as if gravity were on its side, the brutal behemoth of the Japanese army, navy and air force had brushed all resistance aside throughout China and Southeast Asia’s mainland and across half of the Pacific Ocean.
But it was not just the impassable terrain of that last land-barrier that sat between them and Australia.
These “Chocolate Soldiers” revealed such hard centres that they managed to stem the tide of the juggernaut and then begin to reverse it. They willingly recognise the invaluable support and compassion of local porters; their beloved “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels;” who laboriously carried their supplies and equipment to the conflict - and then carried their wounded away from it.
Thank you, Bomana, for you reveal the courage and suffering of young men who have seen, heard, felt and smelt what no-one should ever experience. Your meticulously-tended headstones recognise the lives that have been shortened by the futile necessity of war, so our generation could explore our potential and expand our influence in peacetime.
In peacetime prosperity, we can read books; log on for internet research; watch our DVDs or go to a cinema to watch the action. But we are free to close our books; to click “save” on our computers; or to know that the credits will eventually scroll across the screen. None of your teenagers had such luxury, plunged as they were into a ceaseless scenario that meant that at any moment an unseen foe might decide when their final breath might come.
Post-war prosperity allows time for military analysts to sift through the strategies; activists to make their hindsight-empowered accusations; politicians to sign trade agreements; and the rest of us get to on with life – and the teenagers you embrace have paid for it all.
In war, time was of the essence, as one leading industrialist observed after a meeting with high-level government and military leaders. They had just appointed him to shift Australian industry onto a war footing, and he said to his colleague: “Yesterday we had no money, and all the time we wanted. Today we have unlimited money – and no time!”
Bomana War Cemetery, you speak silently of sacrifice, however ironic the result may have proved to be; for Japan is now among our biggest trading partners. Because of you, our three daughters have learned Japanese and gone to Japan; by their own free choice rather than as indentured slaves at gunpoint.
The eloquence of your silence bridges a gap between those who have returned from being plunged into war, and those of us who have never experienced it.
Our lack of shared experience can frustrate their cathartic release, for we cannot comprehend by words or pictures alone.
We cannot fully appreciate all that they have been through, but God give us the grace to avoid presuming them to be all heroes or all villains; so we may listen to what they can share - when they need to share it.
Or at least to look them in the eye with a grateful smile.
Lest we forget.
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