A Corpse That has Healed and Linked Japanese and Aussies

Ian  McPhedran, in The Australian, 23 April 2018, where the title reads “Anzac Day: for Jack Hart, battle within was more ferocious than hand-to-hand combat in war”

Jack Hart went to war — twice. The first time, he survived critical injuries deep in the jungle. The second time, it was the psychological injuries that nearly did him in, says his former wife, Jean.

Izumi and Bill Hart with a copy of a monograph about Jack Hart written by Bill’s mother, Jean, and the signed World War II flag returned to a Japanese peace museum.
Izumi and Bill Hart with a copy of a monograph about Jack Hart written by Bill’s mother, Jean, and the signed World War II flag returned to a Japanese peace museum.

John Edward Hart was born in Sydney in 1923, enlisted in 1941 and was posted to Rabaul on the island of New Britain as an anti-aircraft gunner attached to the 1400-strong Lark Force in August 1941. Five months later, the Japanese captured Rabaul. Hart was among a small number of Diggers who escaped. Most of Lark Force were either killed in the battle, captured and executed, or died later when an American submarine sank the Japanese prison ship Montevideo Maru.

As Hart fled with fellow gunners Archie Taylor and Bob Hannah, he fell down a cliff and suffered critical injuries, including a compound fracture of his right tibia and a broken shoulder. He might have died but for a group of natives who carried him to their village and set his leg in a mud cast.

His mates nursed him in a rat-infested grass hut for six weeks before the three escaped with 127 other Lark Force survivors to Port Moresby on the rescue launch Laurabada.

Jack Hart’s war could have ended during the months he spent recovering back in Sydney, but as soon as he could, the 19-year-old jumped a train bound for Townsville to rejoin the fight. After stowing away on a troop ship heading for Milne Bay, the former gunner managed to join the 2nd/24th Battalion of the 9th Division’s 26th Brigade.

As they swept along the northeast coast of New Guinea, Hart came face-to-face with an enemy soldier. Hart fired first and, as was customary, he removed personal possessions from the body — a signed Japanese flag, a wallet identifying the soldier as “Kawashita Hirokichi”, and a photo of a woman with a child riding a tricycle.

That photograph would haunt him through the years as he watched his own children grow and prosper.

Hart was promoted to lance corporal, survived the war and became an engineer. He married his 19-year-old bride, Jean, in 1947 and the couple had four children — Meg, Stephen, Bill and Phillipa. Mrs Hart, now a sprightly 90-year-old grandmother of eight living in North Sydney, believes her husband suffered undiagnosed post-traumatic stress from his war service.

“During our honeymoon at Medlow Bath, I saw the terrible scars on his body and legs, and his damaged shoulder was constantly falling out,” she says. “We never discussed his ­injuries. I didn’t ask, and people just tell you what they want you to know.”

What she couldn’t see were his mental scars. Mrs Hart, a Quaker and peace activist, says she can now see that he was struggling with his demons.

It was only after Hart told the story of the dead soldier to friends during a dinner party that she ­finally understood the cause of his troubles. “He had killed this man and he never got over it. After that, it was never raised again.”

By 1980, Jack Hart could bear it no longer. He left Australia and his family to live in self-imposed exile on the island of Lantau near Hong Kong, teaching art to local children. Ten years later, he achieved personal atonement, returning to Sydney to see out his days close to his children and grandchildren.

By then divorced, he and Mrs Hart remained close friends.

Jack Hart died in 1998. “When he came back home, he felt healed,” Mrs Hart says.

Hart’s atonement was enhanced after their son Bill fell in love with a Japanese girl, Izumi, and Jack Hart travelled to Japan to convince her reluctant parents they should be allowed to marry.

Thirty-five years and two children later, they remain happily married.

For years, Bill and Izumi Hart searched for Kawashita Hirokichi’s family. “We tried very hard to reunite the flag with his family but sadly we couldn’t,” Bill Hart says. So in April last year, in a further act of atonement, they presented the flag to the Wakayama Peace Museum, near Hirokichi’s ­home town of Kainan in southern Honshu.

    Our men and women in the battlefield need to be accorded the freedom and encouragement to fight for their values.


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