Shadows on the Track
Australia’s Medical War in Papua 1942-1943
By Jan McLeod
Published by Big Sky Publishing
RRP $34.99 in paperback • ISBN 9781925675900
Historian Jan McLeod acknowledges her great uncles who both served in the 2/4th Australian Field Ambulance.
My father Frank Masters also served in New Guinea around this time, in the 2/6thField Ambulance, so I am personally grateful to Jan McLeod for filling in many of the blanks concerning the role of the field ambulance in the New Guinea campaign.
McLeod writes of Australia’s lack of preparedness to fight a ‘medical war’ in such a hostile environment and this is borne out by the almost total lack of tropical medical training given to the men prior to their departure.
To give you an example, my father returned from the Middle East via Ceylon and within four weeks, was on a ship bound for New Guinea.
Illnesses and tropical diseases were rife, particularly malaria, and McLeod highlights the criticism levelled at senior officers for the ‘… Crimean mentality exhibited by those in charge’.
As a result, almost 30,000 Australian soldiers suffered from illness and disease and
McLeod believes not enough credit has been given to the medical personnel who cared for these men. In fact, it appears that medical care was far from a priority at any stage of the campaign in Papua.
As McLeod writes in her conclusion, ‘the men of the field ambulances bore witness to the best and worst of the campaign.’
In writing this book, she has attempted to reshape the ‘one-dimensional myth of ‘Kokoda’ into a more complex and multi-dimensional narrative …’ putting flesh ‘on the bones of heroes, angels, soldiers and men.’
For the first time we are seeing the action, not from the front line of the fighting, but from the point of view of those who came behind to deal with war’s terrible consequences.