Lately my mind has been turning to Papua New Guinea again as we plan an upcoming trip back to Alotau after a mere 41 years. As it does in these circumstances, one thought leads to another and before long I’m off on a tangent.
No surprise then that I picked up my copy of The Last Blue Sea the other night to re-read it. Originally published in 1959 the book won the inaugural Dame Mary Gilmore Award. My guess is that it would be the best part of forty years since I last read it, having first encountered the book in high school.
In theory the novel is entirely fictitious except for the presence of renowned war photographer Damien Parer. Whatever the truth of the specifics, there’s little doubt that the story builds on personal experience and a deep knowledge of World War II in New Guinea circa 1943 (post-Kokoda). It has an unusual writing style which ultimately seemed very effective but I confess I occasionally got confused as to which soldier was which, despite the list of key characters in the beginning.
This is one book in which the place (the jungle near Salamaua in what was then New Guinea) is very much a major character, shaping the individual soldier’s experience and responses. Having the tiniest understanding of just how impenetrable the jungles of PNG can be, I am in awe of their survival and persistence.
My take-away thoughts from this book were:
- The all-encompassing power of the jungle, the impact of the leaves and the enemy hidden within
- The sheer physical and mental brutality of survival, let alone fighting, in such conditions
- The impact of poor leadership and equally the commitment of the men to leaders in whom they believed
- The men’s tendency to hide the truth of the horrors they saw from their loved ones at home
- The courage of the men was very low-key and it evoked a memory of a family friend who fought as a sniper near Kokoda: you’d have thought it was a doddle from the way he spoke.
- The platoon leader calling his men’s lives “the crown jewels of Australia”: the loss of these men impacted Australia for decades afterwards
- The sheer horror of men who, severely injured, had to make their own way out of the jungle over precipitous mountain ranges, often alone because there was no other option.
- I was intrigued by references to the militia units at Bargara near Bundaberg at the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea. So far I haven’t tracked down the truth or otherwise of that element.
I found this novel to be very powerful and will be rereading it again soon, to absorb the finer points I missed in my rush to follow the story.
The nom-de-plume of the author was David Forrest and in fact I never knew it wasn’t the author’s real name. Turning to Google I found that David Forrest was the aka for Dr David Denholm. As soon as I read that, bells rang in my head. Sure enough he is the author of a BA (Hons) dissertation at The University of Queensland, on the Coming of the Germans to the Darling Downs 1852-1861, which I’ve referenced in my Dorfprozelten research. I was quite tickled to discover this link.
As I read the book the words of an Australian poet echoed in my mind. David Campbell’s poem Men in Green carries some of the same resonances. This is a short extract but please do have a look at the full poem from this link:
Their eyes were bright, their looks were dull,
Their skin had turned to clay
Nature had met them in the night
And stalked them in the day.
And I think still of men in green
On the Soputa track
With fifteen spitting tommy-guns
To keep a jungle back.
20 thoughts on “Thoughts on The Last Blue Sea”
One of my favourite books ever – so evocative and so well written. A side of the war I would never have known about if i hadn’t found this book many years ago. I recently bought an un-corrected proof copy and it is even better than my old copy. I have spent a fair bit of time researching it’s veracity and I think it is almost certainly deeply rooted in the truth and the information here… http://www.awm.gov.au/histories/second_world_war/volume.asp?levelID=67908 backs this up.
Seems we’re “on the same page” with this book, GMacP. I read it close to 50 years ago (OMG!!) while in high school and it impressed me mightily. Subsequent to that I lived in PNG for 8+ years so there was more reason to engage with it. Like you I think that in essence the story is truthful to the essence of jungle warfare. Thanks for the link -there’s heaps to read there. If you’re interested in reading about Milne Bay check out the tab on the side bar and also perhaps my Tropical Territory blog on Milne Bay -you might find aspects of the stories interesting because of the Battle of Milne Bay. Thanks for visiting. Pauleen
This book was given to me on my 12th birthday by a school mate, it is the book which started me reading. I am about to purchase my third copy as the last two have fallen apart. It is still one of the best novels of this campaign. Sean McLeay
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I totally agree Sean and yet many people have never heard of it, or read it.
I had to study this book in 8th grade in Brisbane in 1961, and its evocative descriptions of the PNG jungle and terrain became etched in my mind. It was no doubt one of the subconscious influences that resulted in my working in PNG for two years in the 1970’s and while there, meeting and marrying my wife in Port Moresby. I fell in love as well with the people and the country and left part of me there when I left. I did several extended walks in the central highlands and across the Owen Stanley Range in my spare time, and the memories of studying “The Last Blue Sea” were a constant companion as I experienced the real PNG for myself. I still have my original first edition hard cover copy and must read it again!
Hi Ian, Thanks for getting in touch and apologies for my delayed response. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how a book can have such an impact on our lives. Like you I read it in the early 60’s but it was meeting my husband in Brisbane that took me to PNG. I was impressed by your explorations.
This is a terrific novel and it deserves to be much better known than it is. It’s a shame that there have been some very fine war novels that have been too long out of print and have been denied to younger generations to discover unless they happen to come upon old copies. I first read this back in the late 1980s when Penquin reprinted it for a short period and I was very impressed by the way it captured the mood, atomsphere and sights & smells of the campaign, not to mention superbly portray the culture of the Australian soldier. I admired the way the author tried to get inside the heads of each of the main characters, conveying how they thought and mused during their experiences of the battle. That aspect of the novel anticipated a similar device featured in the 1998 film ‘The Thin Red Line’ although Forrest’s novel is not as dreamily lyrical as that film. However Forrest is trying not only to convey the sense of how men experience and behave in war but also how facing extreme hardship and danger can reveal a meaning to human existence and be the ultimate test of character. I liked the scene where one of the older NCOs is wounded and he and another wounded soldier have to walk back along the trail. The NCO, sensing the younger man’s strength is giving out and guessing that he has had a softer life prior to the war, goads him to keep him moving “Haven’t you ever had to fight for anything? Has everything in life been handed to you on a plate?”
The late great British military writer John Keegan once nominated his two favourite novels depicting combat in WW2- ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1962) by US author James Jones and ‘Flesh Wounds’ (1964) by British writer David Holbrook. I am convinced that if Keegan had ever read Forrest’s novel, he would have added it to the other two.
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Thanks for visiting and commenting with such informed and reflective detail. You’ve also given me some additional reading. I’ve lately been absorbed in learning more about POWs in Germany during WWII…fascinating, depressing and sobering.
Dave Denholm (aka David Forrest) was my history lecturer and later a good mate. He served in the 59th Battalion so knew his stuff. If you want an exceptional study of australian history, read his The Colonial Australians. Dave, like most, never really talked about his war experiences, although one episode really stuck in my mind. He was giving a talk on the necessity of confronting and recognising our individual biases and their relationship to writing about history. He asked us earnest young pups who is a racist here? Of course, no one admitted any such fault. David replied that he was. Not that he would ever do anything nasty, but his experiences meant that if he saw a Japanese person walking toward him, he would cross the road – after all those years he was deeply uncomfortable in their presence. Dr David Denholm, one of the loveliest and intelligent men I have ever met, RIP. Or as he put it to me once “Call me Diiiive” (in his best put-on ocker drawl.
hi Matt, Thanks for getting in touch. I hadn’t realised David Forrest and David Denholm were one and the same person. I have used his thesis on the arrival of the Germans to the Downs 1852-61 as my ancestor from Dorfprozelten Bavaria (and other compatriots) settled on the Downs and I have an interest in this group of immigrants – I mention this on my I will follow up the book you recommend. I feel I may have read it some time ago. I appreciated hearing from you. Cheers Pauleen
One of the very best books about war ever. Loved it. Whenever I see a copy I buy it to give away.
I also loved his hilarious book “The Hollow Woodheap” about young bank clerks in Brisbane during the Sixties.
A very keen observer of humanity, and an excellent writer to boot.
Thanks Pete. I haven’t seen “the Hollow Woodheap” so I’ll have to look out for it.
I endorse the comments of everyone about this marvellous novel (I love “The Hollow Woodheap” too!). I first read “The Last Blue Sea” when I was 12 and still have the same copy. My father, who fought at Milne Bay, Buna, Gona and Sanananda, said, after reading “The Last Blue Sea” “That’s about how it was.”
True authenticity when a soldier who fought there endorses it. Must look up the other book.
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here is a short review of the book that I recently wrote for the US website – negelectedbooks.com.
David Forrest was the pen-name of Australian writer, academic and historian David Denholm (1924-1997). Among his numerous works of non-fiction, including an acclaimed history, The Colonial Australians about the early white settlement of the country, were a few novels. The Last Blue Sea, published in 1959, was his first. The book drew considerably praise and attention when released in Australia and the US. However, the novel went out of print by the early 1970s and was then largely forgotten. Penguin Books Australia published a reprint in 1985 but the book has remained off the shelves since.
Forrest, a veteran himself of WW2, fought with the 59th Battalion of the Australian Army in New Guinea in 1943. That unit, although it had fought as a regular formation in the First World War, had been down-graded to a part-time reservist (militia) unit during the inter-war years. When the Second World War began, the 59th was re-assembled as a militia force. During the war, such militia units, comprised of conscripts and a smaller number of part-time reservists, formed a large part of the Australian army after 1942.
During the war, there was considerable animosity between the militia units and the men of the AIF (Australian Imperial Force), the latter comprising the volunteers who enlisted in the early part of the war. With some justification, the AIF units regarded themselves as better-trained, more professional and more motivated than the Militia men, whom the former nick-named “Chockos” i.e., chocolate soldiers who always melted under fire. There was no doubt that some militia formations deserved their poor reputations, especially those that remained garrisoned in Australia and were rife with in-discipline, desertions and poor morale. Yet some militia units performed remarkably well in the New Guinea Campaign, most famously at Kokoda in 1942. One can say “remarkably” considering the often poor training, lack of equipment and indifferent leadership many militia units were burdened with (some men arrived in New Guinea literally never having fired a rifle before).
With this background in mind, Forrest’s novel depicts a Militia unit—the 83rd battalion—in the campaign in eastern New Guinea in 1943 as US and Australian forces advance northwards, slowly pushing back the Japanese. The story is told from the viewpoints of a number of characters, including the battalion’s senior officers. But the primary focus is on one platoon and, in particular, on one of its’ sections comprising a Corporal and eight privates.
If the novel has any main characters, they would be two privates, 19-year-old Ron Fisher, a Bren-gunner and 26-year-old Robert “the Admiral” Nelson, a former schoolteacher and now an Owen (Australian-made sub-machine-gun) gunner. Nelson, the oldest of the section, has the fatherly role of the group. Yet even he, with his worldly wisdom, appears in awe of Fisher, an enigmatic figure, mature far beyond his years and whose background is only hinted at but indicates that he survived a tough childhood and is now a man that understands life more than many men twice his age.
The platoon engages the Japanese in the steaming, thickly forested steep slopes of New Guinea. The enemy, under-supplied and starving, fight desperately and with suicidal courage. In this struggle, there is no quarter, the enemy is never examined close-up, he remains a distant, hated figure. The militia men have to endure the taunts and insults from their AIF cousins. As the platoon advances through a ruined town, watching them are some AIF commandoes who snort with contempt “any battle they start, we have to finish.” The army is on a race against time, not just against the enemy but against the jungle and its climate. The campaign must be won before too many men succumb to malaria and before their rotting uniforms literally fall from their bodies.
The potential weaknesses of the militia is personified in one soldier of the section, private “Nervous” Lincoln who deserts early in the campaign but is caught and returned to his unit. He nearly makes it through to the very end of the advance before succumbing to his fear. To modern eyes, this might redeem him but as far as his comrades are concerned, “they would remember all their lives that Lincoln was not with them.” A major theme of the novel is the meaning to human existence that can be discovered by the endurance of hardship and danger. The Pacific Ocean (the “last blue sea” of the title) becomes a symbol as it slowly, tantalisingly becomes nearer as the exhausted soldiers advance through the jungle against the surviving enemy. A symbol of promise, of peace, of a just reward for hardship, sacrifice and duty. As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that faint-hearted types like Lincoln were the exception, not the rule. “Their uniforms were rotting and falling apart, but their weapons were spotlessly clean.”
The novel explores the inner musings of the characters. In this, it anticipates such a device employed in the 1998 war movie The Thin Red Line although Forrest’s novel is not as dreamily lyrical as that film. Like all war novels published prior to the 1970s, there is a curious lack of coarse language, a reflection of the need to satisfy censors of the day. One critic did suggest that the novel’s depiction of Australian soldiers lacked the cheeky humour that they were known for, saying the Aussies in this novel are “way too serious and philosophical” in their manner. That might be unfair, given that these half-trained soldiers had been sent to one of the harshest terrains of the war against one of the most fanatical enemies, so a sombre mood might be understandable. In one later scene, Nelson, now a walking wounded case, is sent back to the rear accompanied by a younger injured soldier. The two crippled men have to climb a forested mountain, through clinging mud and steaming rain, their wounds crawling with infection. Seeing that the younger man’s will and strength is failing, Nelson saves him by goading him, “Didn’t you have to fight for anything, Jonesy? Was life just dished out to you on a silver plate?”
In another scene during the long trek back, Nelson says to Jones, “You can make this mountain mean something. I climbed a mountain once. When I was your age. And then I wasted the next seven years. You see, I should have gone on and climbed the next mountain. Only when I was over the first one, I sat down. I had to come to New Guinea to wake up to myself ….”
The Last Blue Sea remains curiously little-known in Australia, despite the lavish attention bestowed on this nation’s military history. It is one Australian novel that deserves a fresh audience.
Thanks Pete, I agree it’s a book that should be better known and read – we’re both doing our bit to rectify that 🙂