I hope the Internet never forgets, because I’ve decided to set down some second-hand World War II tales before they’re lost. My father’s dead, and my memory won’t last forever.
In WW II he served in the navy – an Australian who, because we had more volunteers than ships, was seconded to the Brits. Specifically, he served on a British destroyer called the Quiberon.
Look, if you want accurate history, there are plenty. If I ever get an engagement or date wrong, I apologise. I’m recording stories: there is no warranty that my father told the truth or remembered things accurately. Some things, I would imagine, he would embellish to make them funnier or more dramatic.
But his dreams didn’t lie. I don’t know his dreams from the inside (who could?), but I can tell you this: some of the things he dreamed were the sounds of sonar.
On the Quiberon, one of my father’s postings was as an ASDIC operator – early sonar: in his memory, the acronym stood for Anti-Submarine Detection, Interdiction and Combat. Wikipedia disagrees; it doesn’t matter.
Even as late as the 1970s, my father’s Sunday afternoon doze on a particular chair would invariably be accompanied by a sound uncannily similar to what movie producers presented to the world as “sonar sounds” in war movies. Except he made the sounds, in his sleep, in his mouth.
I’m genuinely, seriously, one-hundred-percent not kidding. Dreaming on a soft chair on a Sunday afternoon, his mouth would make sonar sounds.
How do I know that it counted as “nightmare” instead of dream?
Well, one hint is that war isn’t a dream.
Another hint was that my father was extremely reluctant to discuss himself, ASDIC, and combat. I suppose, from a long perspective, that his instinct must have been protective. I had no shortage or “war movies” in my childhood – but I seem to have been shielded from “war reality”. Battle of Britain, Tora Tora Tora, Saving Private Ryan – yes, I saw those, and plenty of others.
But this: I was twenty-nine when my father died. There was, at that age, only one tale he would tell of life of a sonar operator: that the Quiberon, on his signals in the ear-phones, spent three days racing around the Pacific Ocean in pursuit of what turned out to be a whale. He was mortified: what if the depth-charge that killed the whale had turned out to be the one the ship needed to save itself?
And he felt bad about the whale. As a story, it was hilarious: “We picked up the echo and followed it for three days. When it finally stood still for a while, we fired the depth charges, and what floated to the surface was whale meat.”
The sonar nightmares lasted as long as his brain did.
And the point of this story?
Only to tell the story. Dad knew his objective: find enemy submarines, locate them, and help the gunners in charge of depth-charges to kill them. Did he feel it?
Certainly: I remember his recounting of meeting Japanese tourists in Katoomba in the 1980s:
“They asked me how to find Echo Point, and I told them. And they said ‘thank you’ and bowed. Don’t they know I might have killed their grandfather?”
That is one of the few times I can remember him crying.