He was a Camera: A great Historian

The following article is taken from The Bulletin, May 25, 1963.

A great Historian

He was a Camera

by Ek Dum

The Eyes of Damien Parer, Frank Legg, Rigby, 35s.

No Australian associated with World War II can share the special niche occupied by Damien Parer; no man was so much a man of destiny. From 1940 till the sad day of his death on Peleliu it might have been said of him that he had seen more of the Australian side of the war on a broad scale, knew more about it than any other man. Other people reported it brilliantly or filmed it brilliantly, but none of them covered the same wide geographical field or had the same faculty for finding himself not only in the front line, but in the very front of the front line. No fighting soldier ran more risks, or was shot at more often as an open and unarmed target. And yet nobody involved was so confident that he would survive, until the very last when he seemed just as sure that he would soon become a sacrifice. He was fearless and unconcerned and certain in his faith in the hereafter.

Damien was a Spaniard, containing an alloy of Irish. He was a Spaniard in nature, courage, habit, temperament, religious outlook and appearance. Nobody who encountered that eager, observant personality could ever forget it: the lithe darkness, the flashing and the mind as vivid and graphic and recording and a genius for selecting and expressing the heart of any violent situation.

Towards the end he formed a close friendship with his fellow Catholic, Jack Brennan, of The Bulletin, who was a man of similar habits to himself and with the same habit of being in the very front of every action—or, in front of the front if he could get there—and the same habits of religious devotion. Honolulu on their way to cover the Peleliu landing. And they lived together all the way to the islands sharing similar experience, each of them hearing on the same night that he was to become fathers, though Parer was only a few months married and Brennan some years and with a family. They went into action, Brennan with the right hand of two spearhead tanks, Parer with the left hand one, agreeing to meet afterwards, but Damien was not there for the meeting.

He died at the height of his fame. He was 32 years old. His career had divided itself into three parts—first there was a civilian one with Charles Chauval’s camera crew on the films “Heritage“, “Forty Thousand Horsemen” and some short films of his own. The next phase was with the Second AIF from the beginning, his first film being “Life At Sea” made in the Empress of Japan in which he went aboard in the first convoy.

This period, beside a lot of incidental photography, produced five films of the training of Australian troops in Palestine. The next began with the assault on Bardia seen from HMS Ladybird, a crazy little vessel which shook like a colander in an uncertain hand every time her two six-inch guns fired, but without preventing Parer from getting some magnificent shots. From January, 1941, right through the fantastic permutations and combinations of the heroic desert campaign from Bardia in January, 1941, to the relief of Tobruk in December and the culminating epic of the RAAF’s battle for Egypt, he produced 22 historic pictures, some made in conjunction with Frank Hurley.

These form a remarkable record, but were only a pipe-opener to the next year of work, even though they included his Greek campaign from landing to evacuation, seen from points nearest to the enemy all the time after the advance started, his exclusive coverage of the Syrian campaign in four priceless, historic series and the product of four trips by destroyer into beleaguered Tobruk, in August-September (made with Hurley).

The first three picture series of 1942 were still of the African fighting. But the rest of the major nine made that year were all of the New Guinea campaign, with the exception of the one produced by his excursion to cover the operations of Veale’s lost force in Timor, unique in itself.

Nothing in the history of war photography compares with his reports of the fighting in New Guinea in 1942, or in depicting courage, endurance, devotion to duty. They are superb reflections of his perceptive capacity and artistic skill. his pictorial record of events from the “Return of the Seventh Division” to the Academy Award picture of the “Kokoda Trail” is something immortal. He engraved the feats of the Kanga Force, the 39th Battalion, the Moresby-Lakekamu-Wau supply route, the jungle warfare of the Kokoda front indelibly into Australian history in all their dramatic and tragic facets – the struggle, the squalor, the mud, the hardship, the boldness and the suffering of the newly wounded in the forefront of the attacks. The next year ended the second phase of his war-time career. Though it was not productive of so much, he rose to his topmost height in his pictures of the “Battle of the Bismark Sea” seen from “the front of the grandstand” in a Beaufighter over the shoulder of “Torchy” Uren, and his “Assault of Salamaua“.

Stills from 'Assault on Salamaua' : Department of Information.jpg

The third and last phase began in August, 1943, when he felt that he had reached the parting of the ways with the bureaucrats of the Information Department from whom he had experienced nothing but frustration since his return to the Pacific. There was a good deal of behind-the-scenes envy  of his performance and of official irritation with his exercise of initiative in disobedience to orders – one instance was responsible for his Kokoda Trail picture. So when he was ordered to go off to Broome (WA), where somebody or other anticipated an entirely improbable Japanese landing, he broke with the Department. After he had completed the Salamaua Assault film he resigned and joined his English friend Ted Genock, who was news editor of Paramount, at a net salary eight times that which he was being paid by Australia, stipulating that his primary duty should be the filming of Australian operations. And as he progressed through the blood of the Tarawa landing to Arawe and Cape Gloucester, the Admiralties, Hollandia and the legendary invasion of Guam with the United States Marines. Finally to his death on Peleliu where he himself passed into legend. He was never quite at home away from the Australian Diggers.

Parer was a great cinematographer and war historian in every sense of the word. An impetuous bundle of Iberian energy, he was probably the greatest frontline observer of battle in Australia’s Second World War; and methodical one to boot, since his technical documentation of his films was meticulous, detailed and informative both technically and historically.

Book cover of Frank Legg’s “The Eyes of Damien Parer”. Photo originally supplied by Tim Own. Damien Parer as he rarely looked. For this picture for the Department of Information, specially posed after he had boarded the Empress of Japan, in January 1940, to sail overseas with the first contingent of the Second AIF, Parer consented to don the officer-type-cap—which he later refused to wear, even for his own wedding.

Though Frank Legg’s book is magnificent within its compass it is a pity that some steps are not taken for a more copious memorial volume which would include the “dope sheets” of all his pictures of note.

It seems strange that, though his work was recognised with awards and medals by the Americans, his own country did nothing to honour him. If ever a man-at-war deserved a George Cross for selfless gallantry in the interest of the national morale, Damien Parer did. But he made the mistake of not loving bureaucrats.

The Bulletin

An Australian magazine, The Bulletin was first published in Sydney on 31 January 1880  and focussed on politics, business and literature. The Bulletin was influential in Australian culture and politics until after the First World War, and was then noted for its nationalist, pro-labour, and pro-republican writing. It was revived as a modern news magazine in the 1960s, and was Australia’s longest running magazine publication until the final issue was published in January 2008.

Ek Dum

Malcolm Henry Ellis, an Australian journalist, historian, critic, reviewer and staunch anti-communist. Ellis won praise during World War II for his column, ‘The Service Man’, which appeared under the pseudonym ‘Ek Dum’. Using radio reports and his knowledge of terrain, he described military campaigns in a realistic manner so that it was assumed he was present.


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