In the lead up to Christmas I will be serialising, my dad, Michael S Parer’s book Xmas Down South. The book replicates the look and much of the content from a one-off family book that Damien produced for his parents for Christmas 1939 when they were living in Wau, New Guinea and he was in Melbourne, Australia. It gives an indication of what the Christmas period was like for the middle class of Melbourne at the time. Michael Parer adds a postscript which is the story of Damien as he was known by the Parer family at large. The book was published in the summer of 1982 by Alella Books. I have not edited the text at all, it is as it appears in the book.
Damien left with the first contingent of the Australian Imperial Forces and saw his first action as the 6th Australian Division and the 7th British Armoured Division attacked the Italian port of Bardia. Damien was aboard the HMS “Ladybird”. He recalled it in an Australian Broadcasting Commission interview with Chester Wilmot:64
…the AIF didn’t see much of the war and we had to make stories out of the trivialities, but I absorbed the Middle East atmosphere and gained experience I badly needed in handling the camera and telling a story with it. Then, at last, there was an attack at Bardia. Frank Hurley was with the AIF and so I went aboard the gunboat “Ladybird” and took a film of the naval bombardment at Bardia. This little gunboat had two six inch guns and whenever they fired, the ship shouldered so much that I thought I would shake to pieces and it was very hard to hold a steady camera. In any case, my hand wasn’t too firm, as this was the first time I had been under fire.
Damien was twenty eight and the war had given him a rare opportunity to work his craft. He always appreciated the support and direction that he received from others in the industry and especially from Cinesound and Ken Hall who recalled:65
When Damien went away to war he was a photographer with a very limited experience as an assistant in minor documentary and in still photography, but as for putting a strong news story on the screen, well, he knew nothing about that. And it showed in his earlier work from the Western Desert, but the promise was there acknowledged the help he got from the people at Cinesound, all of them experienced professionals. And believe me, he needed and had a very great deal of help not only from me, but from all the people at Cinesound, experienced, experienced newsreel cameramen and film editors on how to shoot film that would ‘cut’ well. How to write clear dope sheets for the benefit of film editors and the commentary writer, which during the war was always myself. He came straight to Cinesound when he got off a plane from the battle zones. He never went near the Department of Information group if he could help it and to my knowledge, never thought of visiting Movietone. We took an interest in him when almost nobody else did in the early days. I saw his talent for telling a story develop and through the weekly newsreel, publicised his name on the titles of anything he was responsible for. Movietone did nothing but use some of his footage. Damien was a good outdoor photographer. He did not live long enough to perhaps get a chance to be a cinematographer shooting indoors, controlling light sources which were not the sun and controlling and directing a large group of electricians who directed beams of light exactly where the chief of cinematography wanted it. Even in those days that kind of cameramen are commanding five to seven thousand dollars a week in the major Hollywood studios. Damien was good in his field but he had a long apprenticeship to serve to play in that league.
Damien’s next encounter in battle was at the Derna airstrip. This is described by Frank Legge in his book, The Eyes of Damien Parer:66
The 2/11 Battalion came to a white Italian blockhouse which commanded extensive views of the Derna airstrip while the Australians formed up to attack the fort which was believed to be lightly defended. It quickly became apparent that the Italians opposing them were uncommonly determined and in fact greatly outnumbered the attackers. Parer courageously kept filming, but as he guiltily confessed afterwards, “I missed the best of them, I ducked every time a shell came over”.
It was at Derna that Damien discussed with his closest friend, Ron Maslyn Williams, the idea that he must portray war through the soldiers’ expressions and emotions at the height of the battle, “There was a straight line from Derna to the day he was killed”67 said Ron Maslyn Williams.
Ken Hall stressed to Damien the need to tell a story: 68
This is the line I constantly fed to him, as indeed I did to all the cameramen in the Cinesound organisation. Try and you won’t always succeed, but try nevertheless to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, particularly an end or at least a climax, however minor. My letters also repeated more than once the need to tell the story of war through the expressions and emotion on the men’s faces. Back in Australia Damien often talked over that aspect with me and my dictum that “People are interested in people”, which I never missed a chance to impress.
Damien and Maslyn Williams then headed for Greece, as John Hetherington described:69
For three days they were caught up in the endless convoy that was withdrawing across the Aliakmon River along the single road, crowd-strafing attacks from Stukas. Parer did most of the driving. He was a daring and wild man at the wheel, while Williams lay on the floor of the vehicle, watching for planes. At each attack Williams banged on the roof. Then Parer pulled up and they both leapt for the scant cover of the roadside bushes. One Stuka, strafing them from a range of about twenty yards, was hit by fire from a Brendan; it zoomed over their heads and crashed into a nearby riverbed. Oblivious to the rest of the flight which was still machine gunning the convoy, Parer dashed back to the truck, retrieved his camera and stood filming the blazing wreckage.
Damien remained in the Middle East until Pearl Harbour and was recalled to go to New Guinea to Sydney under orders from the Department of Information. He disobeyed and went up the Kokoda Track with the first units of the Australian Infantry Forces which took over from the understrength and retreating militia units. He jettisoned much of his equipment and returned with eight hundred feet of precious film. With this he begged a ride to Sydney with the Royal Australian Airforce who were always glad to accommodate.
Ken Hall tells: 71
When he saw the developed negative on the screen, sitting beside me, he apologised and said he now felt it was better. He was genuinely disappointed, just as he was wildly excited when he saw the first finished print next evening including his own contribution which I had written for him and directed him through. It was what we had done with the seven hundred feet we had left after the camera stops had been eliminated that won the Academy Award. Movietone had exactly the same material and yet no one even noticed its presentation. We cut more than three hundred feet of stock material all previously shot by Damien, because we had to have a thousand foot newsreel anyway and because that material made some of the great highlights. Without Damien there could have been no Academy Award film. Without Cinesound’s treatment of his film there would have been no Academy Award anyway.
Damien resigned from the Department of Information.72 No longer could he tolerate the “official pinpricking and parsimony”73 as he put it, nor the “humbugging and organisational bungling by some officers in the Department” as Phonse reported.74 In particular he could tolerate no longer the ineptitude, as he saw it, of what he considered to be incompetence, of the Departmental head, Robert (Bob) Hawes.75 Even the Minister of Information, Arthur Calwell, was unable to win the basic requests that Damien and still photographer George Silk and sound recordist Alan Anderson all sought.76 Silk went to Time-Life and Anderson threatened to become a tail gunner. In page after page of his detailed diary Damien wrote and considered the two issues of his resignation and his final film on the Australian Soldier. Damien’s resignation was a great pity. His arguments were those of a naive cinecameraman, preoccupied with his craft and inexperienced about the realities of human bureaucracies. He made demands of the public service system in a time of war, when politicians had to operate with their departmental heads. No matter how bad Bob Hates was, he had the power and could not yield to threats and demands of what he saw to be a young cameraman getting a swelled head.77
Before Damien left the Department of Information he had one tour of duty in New Guinea and filmed his tribute to the Australian digger with “Assault on Salamaua”. He considered this his finest of work and in the tradition of Wil Dyson.78 This is the impression that emerges from his diaries, but Ken Hall does not agree:79
Damien went into the fighting of Salamaua trying to get the best coverages he could of what was for everybody concerned, a damned dangerous operation. He was not actively trying to make a statement on the Australian soldier. He was covering action and he had to take what he could get. He brought it back the same way he had done with Kokoda and again we built previously shot stock material into it and I cannot be certain of this but I think those marvellous effective shots of the soldier’s funeral in the rain I used to finish the story were from stock. I agree that this was a better film than even Kokoda and even more worthy of the award. “Assault on Salamaua” was made by Cinesound from some fine photographic material brought in by Damien. He, as usual, saw the negative projected with me and Terry Banks the film editor. He had nothing further to do with the film until he saw the finished answer print next afternoon. He had no say in what went into the film or what we took out. He knew nothing of the library material we added, or what the musical score would be, or the sound effects track, or the commentary. I had only his hastily scribbled camera dope sheets which amounted to shot lists of each roll and little more. But we were used to that; it was our business to make these things work and were doing it every day with negatives from many sources. Even the titles were given to the productions by Cinesound and I personally directed the commentator, at that time Peer Bathurst, through the recording of all Damien’s films.
However, Damien’s diary reveals another story. On Monday 20 June he wrote:80
My desire to do an infantry section film is mounting. The idea is growing more vivid every day. It could turn out to be better than the Kokoda Trail film and quite different. When suggesting the idea of the film to Ken Hall he was somewhat doubtful as to whether it could be put across in a non-dialogue film. I disagree, it can be done. It can be portrayed in the gesture, the faces, the eyes, the everyday incidents of self sacrifice and the hundred trivialities of life. This life that is so far removed from ours is one where men are seen at their finest. No fake, dinkum, half light climbing up the stick ridge, up the telephoto lens for unposed close ups helping a wonderful cobber. These men are worlds apart from us. The rain as massive sleet, pelting down runs off the grass roof of the native’s hut, the native’s lean to. The camera tilts down, a wounded lad, a close up of his sweating face, his cobber is with him, this wonderful mateship is the common thread with the last war Anzac and for the first time in our theme newsreel coverage of this war. We are now working with a clear central theme. A theme that will stand the test of time because of its essential truth. Its propaganda value is a by-product. It is the truth that Will Dyson painted in the last war. The greatest binding force in our army is mateship, this is found to the highest degree in the infantry platoons and sections. The particular quality of this mateship is uniquely Anzac. The rain, fog slush and malaria conspire with the Japanese to lick our boys, but these things are part of the factor that adds fuel to the fire that helps forge the great mateship and most important the film must have a good finish – perhaps it is the withdrawing of the company or platoon from the forward area, perhaps it is the evacuation of one of the robbers wounded, perhaps we could have a platoon parade. If any lads have been killed there will be a sudden gap in the ranks. If I film the dread lad previously a double exposed print shot could go over the parade showing the shot with him in it. Suggested titles – Spirit of Anzac, Mateship, Henry Lawson called it mateship. I’ll consciously differ these shots from Kokoda front line material.
His diary returns to this theme again and again. Indeed a week later on Wednesday 30 (sic) June with much repetition:
Over all runs the finest mateship in the world. This mateship was founded in the kindred spirit and the hard toughened trained to the fighting pitch, it is fostered in the close hard life and the fine Anzac spirit that was borne at Gallipoli. It is forged into a glorious steel in the heat of battle and tempered in the trying times of waiting and waiting, in short it is the most striking quality exhibited in any of our fighting services. It is not necessary to have a dialogue to make this film. It is in the gestures, the faces, the eyes that we can bring to the screen images saturated with our central idea, here is no fake, it is dinkum. Nearing half light, clambering up the stiff ridges use the telephoto lens for unposed close ups helping the wounded cobber. Here we are a world apart the rain merciless pelts down, it runs off the grass roofs of the native’s lean to and a camera tilts down to a wounded lad with close up of his sweating face, his cobber with him. This great mateship is the common thread that runs through the Anzacs of the last war and this one. The theme of our own film is the greatest binding force of our army’s mateship. This is founded in the highest degree in the infantry platoons and sections with the particular quality of this mateship which is uniquely Anzac. The first time in our film coverage of this war we are working with a clear central theme, a theme that will stand the test of time because of its truth. Its propaganda value is a by-product. It is the truth Will Dyson painted in the last war on the battle fields of France. The rain, sleet, slush, dysentery, the malaria conspire with the Japs to lick our lads, but they are factors that add fuel to the fire of mateship. The film must have a good finish; it might be with the withdrawal of the company from a forward area, it might be a final parade with a platoon, the camera travels along the ranks and comes to rest on our section; if any of the lads of this section have been killed and have appeared in the film before there’ll be a gap in the ranks; the double print will be made over the shot of the lad. That’s the finish!!
This is not a new theme for Damien. It was in his series “This Place Australia” and in his letter to Max and Olive Dupain from the Middle East on 3 October 1941 he wrote:81
Chester Wilmot, an ABC commentator and a bloody good bloke, was down there and I saw a story he had written. A couple of the parades struck me as being marvellous and I asked him to rewrite them slightly and let me use them for the finishing words of my film (the newsreels back home permitting). Here they are: “The spirit that has made Australia is the spirit that has held Tobruk. The inspiring and binding force in Australian life isn’t tradition or nationalism or social revolution. It’s quite a simple thing. Henry Lawson called it MATESHIP… the spirit that makes men stick together. In Australia, by sticking together, men have defied drought, bushfire and flood; in Tobruk they scorned hardship, danger and death because no Digger would ever let his robbers down. In Tobruk for the first time in this war the Germans were thrust back by a spirit that not even tanks or dive-bombers could conquer.”
Although Damien had resigned from the Department of Information he returned to New Guinea and the “Assault on Salamaua”. His diary reveals how he felt about this theme and how he began to build up the shots for his film:82
This afternoon a lad assisted by a good Anzac came along the track, he had dressing over his forehead covering his eyes and his arm was in a sling. I got a walking shot of him. He rested on the old RAF and Gordon Ayie took him forward. I went along. The rain started to come down and as Gordon was helping him across the creek a line of carriers passed them. I got a long shot of the bloke close up. They are the best two I’ve done so far. Perhaps it’s a copy of George Silk’s blinded digger but it’s effective just the same.
This scene is perhaps one of the most well known of all Australian war time news reels. Six weeks later he wrote about another sequence that was used at the conclusion of the Cinesound news reel “Assault of Salamaua”:83
Father English came over this morning to bless the graves of Bonnie Muir, Buck and Hoosie. It was raining, the mist moving over the mountain. Slowly the boys filed past down and around the graves and took off their hats and bowed their heads as the burial service started. Hard fighting, tired men, wet capes, with down-turned eyes they prayed with true sincerity in homage to their three fallen comrades. It was the most moving ceremony I have seen, not a man looked at the camera. The last shot I took was from underneath, showing the huge figures standing silently by the grave as the service came to a close. Before I left Johnnie Lewin gave me one of the Jap watched that the boys had souvenired. It was from the platoon he said. I felt awkward, as anything I had done in my short association with the lads was nothing compared to the gallantry, their resistance and spirit. He said, “The boys would like you to have it”. Hell, what chaps these are. I thanked him awkwardly and felt very small beside such chaps.
A few weeks later Damien was called early one morning by a pilot, Magee, who offered him a place in his plane for an attack. Damien wrote:
I had a feeling that I might cop it today and repeated my trust in Our Lady’s protection not only from death but if I was to die to do it well. We came down low. I waited. Suddenly the bark of guns. Zeros attacking us. The guns firing. I saw the ship below us. I got some shots. The navigator was a bit paler than usual, his arm blood splattered. The plane had been hit. We pushed a leather flying jacket into one of the holes where the hydraulic fluid was blowing fine spray. Rip looked pale so I gave him some oxygen. The motors sounded healthy to me. Magee was confident. Flinching around the strip we had thought a belly landing. The gunner told me to brace myself and put my head down. We weren’t sure whether the wheels were locked. We stayed braced util it pulled up. The boys met us and the doctor took Rip off to hospital. I got some shots and we were surprised to see a circular hole 1 ½ inches in diameter in one blade of the wing.
In the four years that Damien covered the war he established himself as a national figure and a major communicator of the Australian digger at war to the Australian people as they crowded the “pictures” on Friday and Saturday nights and the “hourlys” at the “newsreel” cinemas in the cities. He was aware of what he was doing, perhaps a little naive, but he had suddenly been thrust into a position of prominence. He wrote in his diary while filming in Salamaua in November 1943.84
We photographers don’t actually realise the powerful weapon we hold in our hands; a weapon not only of immediate value, but in the future it will be another stone in the building of an Australian tradition. Our sons will see with their own eyes the story of the cream of our own youth, of their country, who are now dying. I find my faith means more and more to me. This devotion to Our Lady is wonderful. I am sure I could never carry on my work or feel as much in sympathy with our boys if it weren’t for this Grace. I feel quite ready to die. The thought of being killed on a mission is not one of great alarm.
Newsreels were the only national medium and had a far wider circulation than any of the four large newspapers. Newsreels were shown on more than a thousand screens in Australia and three hundred in New Zealand. They were the most powerful instrument of propaganda and Ken Hall made “no apologies for using it as such. we were in a war we could easily lose, and there was far too much complacency among the people.”85
While Damien was in New Guinea he got a job with Paramount News. On 3 October 1943 he wired his mother at 304 Mont Albert Road, Surrey Hills: am now accredited Paramount News stop am coming south for weeks rest in a few days, love Damien86
What happened to Damien when he joined Paramount was predictable. His name dropped out of the Australian newsreels, the Americans made no great fuss of him. All that remained here because of the reissue of some of the Cinesound films using his previous work.
In 1966 I was returning from the United States and at Hawaii met Chips Rafferty. we spoke at the airport and I remember his extrovert and loud judgement:
So you’re related to that bloody photographer who had to go out and get himself killed. A damn fool he was, with a death wish. He should have looked after himself for the industry after the war.
Damien died on 17 September 1944 on the island of Peleliu in the Palau group of islands. He was married to Elizabeth Marie Cotter on 23 March 1944 at Saint Mary’s church in the Jesuit Parish of North Sydney. The only child of the marriage was born on 15 February 1945 at the Mater Hospital Crows Nest and was christened Damien Robert. He is presently working as an independent film producer in Sydney.87
Many questions remain about Damien: was he a great photographer? Did he pioneer a new style of war coverage? Did he endanger the troops he filmed? Did he enjoy the thrill of war? Would he have been a great cinematographer in the post war film industry? and so on. These are all valid questions for the historian of war documentaries and biographies. There is no doubt that he made a large impression on his close contemporaries, he was an eager apprentice and a quick learner as a war cameraman under the fine tutelage from Cinesound and he made a significant contribution at a time of national peril to Australia and by dying young has remained forever youthful. This folio of “Xmas Down South” with the letter to his parents bypasses many of the above questions and recalls for us some of Damien’s freshness of spirit and love of photography and family.
End of Book.
You can read Part 3 here
- Damien Parer ABC Chester Wilmot interview 24 January 1941.
- Ken Hall, a letter to the author, 16 May 1982.
- Frank Legg, The Eyes of Damien Parer, Adelaide, Rigby, 1963.
- Ron Maslyn Williams ABC-TV, “The Legend of Damien Parer”, 1964.
- John Hetherington, Australians: Nine Profiles, Melbourne, Cheshire, 1960.
- Ken Hall, Australian Films, The Inside Story, Summit Books, Pages 134-138.
- Ken Hall, a letter to the author, 16 May 1982.
- “Exhibition” 23 September 1943.
- Daily Telegraph, 12 June 1943. Family file, Volume 2, Page 34.
- Daily Telegraph, 3 June 1943.
- Damien Parer diaries dated 26 May 1944 and Ken Hall’s notes on Page 206 of unpublished.
- Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October 1943, family file, Volume 3, Page 27.
- Ken Hall, a letter to the author, 18 August 1982.
- Damien Parer diaries and note books kept in Mitchell Library, Sydney, as he worked out the storyline of “Assault on Salamaua” and filming shot last 29 June 1944.
- Ken Hall, a letter to the author, 18 August 1982.
- Damien Parer diary held in Mitchell Library, 20 June 1943. Manuscript 10971, item 1, page 18 and 19 transcript.
- Damien Parer, letter to Max and Olive Dupain, 3 October 1941, from Official War Photographer AIF Headquarters Abroad, pages 2 and 3.
- Damien Parer diary held in Mitchell Library, 1 August 1943. Manuscript 10971, item 2, page 20 of transcript.
- Damien Parer diary held in Mitchell Library, 22 November 1943. Manuscript 10971, item 2, page 24 and 25 of transcript.
- Damien Parer diaries dated 26 May 1944 and Ken Hall’s notes on page 206 of unpublished manuscript Damien Parer biography.
- “Exhibition” Carlton Newsreel Theatrette, family file, Volume 3, Page 29.Film Weekly, 11 March 1943. “We revive three Damien Parer Epics”.
Sunday Telegraph, 21 March 1943
Sydney Sun, 18 March 1943
in family file, Volume 3, Page 13.
Daily Telegraph, 3 June 1943; 8 June 1943
Robert Nelson in Smith’s Weekly, 2 June 1943
Daily Telegraph, 12 June 1943
in family file, Volume 2, Page 3
- Damien Parer Telegram, 1 October 1943 to Teresa Parer, family file, Volume 3, Page 42.
- Elizabeth Parer, a letter to the author, 21 June 1982.