Down Under, March 2018. I arrive in the Capital Territory, the manager of a high school rugby tour group. As part of our itinerary, we take in the Australian War Museum.
For a history buff such as myself, it is a day very well spent. So much to see, so much to learn. Exhibits, small scale battle scenes, movie footage, light shows. Memorabilia, of soldiers’ letters home, of medals, uniforms, and firearms.
There is a stillness all about, visitors moving quietly among the impressive displays.
Hours later, the clock edges to 445pm. In the Commemorative Courtyard, as part of a much-anticipated daily ritual, an ode reflects on heroism and sacrifice. A sole piper plays a lament, a bugler then salutes the fallen with “the Last Post.”
It is a somber, sobering ceremony.
Even so, it is a larger than life statue, prominent in the Sculpture Gardens, that also draws me close.
Interestingly, the figure is not dressed in military fatigues but rather in a rumpled suit and tie. An elderly, gentle and humble man. Contemplative, head slightly bowed, well-worn hat in hand.
He is Edward Dunlop.
Born in 1907, as a young man he is awarded a scholarship to study medicine at Melbourne University. On his way to graduating with first class honours, he acquires the nickname “Weary”, a moniker that remains with him for the rest of his life.
A superb sportsman, he becomes a top flight boxer and excels at Australian Rules football. Then, with rugby union also a passion, he first represents his country in 1932. Two years later, as a rangy, aggressive flanker, he is a member of the first Wallabies team to capture the coveted Bledisloe Cup from arch-rival New Zealand.
With the onset of World War II, Dunlop enlists in the Australian forces, working initially as a medical officer in Greece, in the Middle East and during the battle of Tobruk. Then, in 1942, with his unit, he transfers to the island of Java in the Pacific theatre.
However, a desperate situation soon becomes worse, as the island is overrun by the marauding Japanese Imperial Army. Dunlop becomes a prisoner or war, first after a transfer to Singapore, then, in January 1943, while a physician on the infamous Burma-Thailand railway project.
There, he and the soldiers now under his command endure unimaginable depravity and cruelty. Starvation, brutality and disease are commonplace. Cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, sheer exhaustion, shocking workplace conditions and injuries decimate their ranks.
Nonetheless, Dunlop, without medicine or proper surgical equipment in his ramshackle jungle hospital, saves the lives of hundreds of his fellow prisoners. And, though personally subjected to severe physical and psychological torture, he stands up to the barbarism inflicted by his Japanese captors in order to protect other sick and starving comrades from dying while on the slave labour gangs.
Remarkably, Dunlop survives nearly three full years under the harsh prison regime. In 1946 he demobilizes, returns to Melbourne and marries. Over the years, he receives numerous honours and appointments, including an OBE and a knighthood. He becomes arguably Australia’s most well-known war veteran, his death from pneumonia in July 1993 seeing him laid to rest at a state funeral attended by some 10,000 people.
I marvel at his accomplishments and his legacy, at a life of limitless courage, vision and indomitable will. Because, if ever any person has just cause to seek revenge or harbour extreme resentment, it is Dunlop. Instead, upon his liberation, “Weary” makes a conscious decision to reject hostility and violence. In its place he promotes reconciliation and espouses the repair of fractured relationships.
And so, using his significant profile and influence, Dunlop starts to slowly reconnect the people of Japan, Australia and southeast Asia. I discover that, in helping break down the stigmas and isolation hardened by decades of war, rugby becomes one of his tools to cross the massive divide.
The initial result is two test matches, played in 1975. Australia hosts Japan, then called the Cherry Blossoms, at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The link continues to the present day. Just two weeks ago, Japan, now the Brave Blossoms and darlings of the international scene, again meets the Wallabies, before traveling to Ireland and Britain for additional games.
Yet, sporting contests between once implacable foes notwithstanding, Dunlop champions much loftier goals and dreams. Certainly, in 2021 and beyond, these may be more important and relevant than ever. Namely, that regardless of circumstances, hope springs eternal. And that hatred and savagery are never solutions.
The world currently is messed up, still struggling mightily with a pandemic, dealing with culture and climate wars, grappling with racism and extremism, battling gross social and financial inequalities. Misinformation, uncertainty and lack of trust, spawned often by the toxic impact of social media, rule the day and split societies.
Given all this, perhaps it is appropriate that Armistice Day looms on the horizon. And so, with its arrival, among other reflections I will hark back to the museum visit in Canberra.
Of the countless examples of valour and gallantry. Of the soaring notes of a trumpet.
And of “Weary” Dunlop.
Perhaps you might also think of him, take inspiration in those times when events spiral downwards and life appears its darkest.
Envision a simple statue. The hint of a smile. A poppy, the sign of remembrance.
And a right hand, fingers partly open, ready to reach out. Readying, without doubt, to extend the gift of friendship.