All in My Stride, John Gilmour's Story:
Changi to World Champion by Richard Harris
Hesperian Books, Perth, 1999, $20.00 All in My Stride, the story of veteran runner John Gilmour, as told by wellknown WA journalist Richard Harris and published by Perth's Hesperian Press, is a truly inspiring book. It is one of those handful of books that every Australian should read.
For me, it completely eclipses the much-praised A Fortunate Life as a great Australian story of the triumph of the human spirit over odds. Read it, and you will have a great deal of trouble feeling sorry for yourself again.
Harris has told Gilmour's story in the first person, and the book is the result of a close and happy co-operation between the two. It seems the best way to do his story justice since like many truly great men Gilmour is also very modest.
Born in Scotland in 1919, John Gilmour came to Western Australia as a child with his family in the Group Settlement scheme. His first years here were spent in a windowless tin hut at Rosa Glen in the South West, where his family worked clearing a block with primitive, backbreaking toil. They eventually moved td the metropolitan area and he left school at 14.
Despite the Depression and all the limitations of life, Western Australia in the 1930s-and this is by no means the only book I have read which captures this feeling-seems to have had a lot of happiness. Gilmour was making a name for himself as an outstanding runner. He and his friends joined the Army Reserve and when the Second World War broke out he joined the 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion, fated to be captured at the fall of Singapore.
Of 976 men in the battalion, 400 were killed in action or died in Japanese hands. They had only a week's fighting, but enough to make the machine-gunners especially hated by the Japanese. Gilmour spent 15 months in Changi, and was then sent by sea, in an old ship under submarine attack, to work as a slave-labourer in Japan. By this time he was almost blind from malnutrition. He had seen many of his mates die from starvation and disease or tortured to death. Chinese who tried to help them were killed slowly with bayonets. `Sometimes when we were marching to work we would see Chinese heads impaled on steel picket fences'. His eyes were covered with styes and he had dysentery. To add to his mental strain and suffering, his brother was also a prisoner.
It seems typical of Gilmour's greatness of spirit that, amidst all the almost unimaginable horrors he lived through and describes, he goes out of his way to praise those Japanese who did treat prisoners humanely: `He was tough but he looked after us', he says of one. Another was `one of the most decent men I ever met'. He also mentions that crews of German warships based in Japan intervened to protect the Allied prisoners. Once he recalled waking after being tortured:
The `hospital' was one room. There were six of us patients lying on mats on the floor. I was in a lot of pain from a foul blow But I was still alive and determined to return to Australia one day. I dreamed of how I would run barefoot through the pine forest at Melville but when I opened my eyes all I saw was a man with a fixed glass eye watching over me with sympathy and concern. It was `Nelson', the Japanese guard with an artificial arm. He'd come to visit me. With his good hand he gave me a packet of cigarettes. I accepted them with thanks. Not that I ever planned to smoke them ... But the pack of cigarettes was worth half a bowl of sugarmaybe a small bowl of peanutsand that's the kind of trading that enabled me to stay alive.
Meanwhile, prisoners working on the wharves were able to do their bit for the war effort by creatively sabotaging the cargoes they were unloading. Gilmour's proudest moment was to destroy, at incredible risk to himself, a major Tokyo Steel furnace by contriving to have a heavy naval shell loaded into it. The whole plant was wrecked. Weirdly, the only punishment for this was a slap across the face and `We had to sign a paper saying we would never sabotage anything in Japan in future'. Gilmour was regarded as a `yoroshi' (good) worker and apparently the Japanese thought it was an accident. The prisoners were all very near death when the atom bombs ended the war.
Gilmour, who had begun the war as one of Australia's most promising young athletes, ended it a physical wreck, beaten, tortured, traumatized and permanently almost blind. He was helped off the ship at Fremantle weighing 41 kilograms. He was, he says, glad his eyes were so bad he couldn't see the look on his mother's face when she saw him.
The first part of the book is a tremendous story of survival. The second part is equally one of tremendous achievement. `Not being able to see' as he put it, `is definitely a handicap in running'. He resumed his athletic career while convalescing, against the advice of a doctor who told him: `Your body has already suffered too much punishment'.