Almanac Book Review: Ken Haley on Ron Reed’s ‘War Games’





Review by Ken Haley



If you’re in the habit of cataloguing the titles in your personal library, this seventh book from veteran Melbourne sportswriter Ron Reed is going to pose a challenge.



Your initial impression will be that this is a biography, the clue being in the subtitle. Ron Reed’s father, Bill, was taken prisoner in Java, along with a shipload of evacuees from the Malayan Peninsula, as the Japanese Imperial forces spread across almost the entirety of Southeast Asia so swiftly they would have called it a blitzkrieg if it had been in Europe.



While we should never become immune to the fact that his was a fate shared by hundreds and thousands of others, the story of 21-year-old Bill Reed – and that of his childhood mate from Warrnambool, Murray Jobling – stands out for two reasons.



Harrowing as the struggle for life at Changi and Kanchanaburi was, we the heirs of their ultimate victory have heard less of the privations undergone by those Diggers than has been taken to mainland Japan itself. This book does what it can to redress that balance.



The descriptions of how Reed, Jobling and others made it to the comparative safety of Japan – ‘comparative’, mind you, to the distinct lack of safety in drowning – after the ship bearing them to the Land of the Rising Sun was torpedoed have a rare vivid quality. Their desperation is palpable, such is the power of Bill’s words.



Yes, Bill’s, relayed and now brought to a wider world by son Ron. For the term ‘father & son memoir’ is possible, without a skerrick of false advertising, because before he died at 67 in the late 1980s Bill was planning, after decades of keeping shtum – typical of that generation which witnessed the horror of war – to write his own memoirs.



Nineteen pages of handwritten notes were his contribution to this account but it is Ron, whose career as a reporter across the sports spectrum included on-the-spot coverage of eight Olympic Games, that brings it all home in a labour of love clearly combined with a sense of filial duty.



Bill Reid was extraordinarily lucky that he lived for his son to tell the tale, being one of twenty-four Australians in a prison camp at Nagasaki when the second atomic bomb was dropped over that city on August 9, 1945. There was another reason not to tell his story back home in later years: few would believe anyone who said he had walked away from an atomic explosion.



That they did while so many thousands perished is simply a remarkable fact, but given their knowledge that the entire Japanese population was preparing to defend the home islands with anything that could be used as a weapon tended to give the survivors from Fukuoka Camp 14-B a different perspective on the evil of killing thousands of civilians in one massive bomb strike from the air.



Later investigations would reveal that their Japanese captors had fixed the PoWs’ execution date for August 19. As one of the Aussies, Allan Chick, said: ‘… the bomb added 50 years to my life. I’m all in favour of it.’



But, before you plan to arrange this testimony alongside Wilfred Burchett’s Shadows of Hiroshima or The Day Man Lost, think again.


His father’s war story takes up only one-fifth of the book: the rest, though imbued by the awareness that if his father had not survived the war he would not be around to have enjoyed, seen and written up anything afterwards, is devoted to his passion for sport and the life his ability with words has bequeathed him.



And so we take the up-ramp to the highway of reminiscence, bringing fifty years of reportage to a more permanent page. The ‘main game’ begins with a connective chapter linking the realities of Japan at the end of the war and in the midst of its reintroduction to the world stage, at the Tokyo Olympics just two decades on.



There are reminders and revelations here for those who thought they knew their Olympic history well enough. As Reed relates, at the 1964 Games Australian swimming sensation Dawn Fraser became the first person of either sex to win three Olympic gold medals in the same event, half a century before Usain Bolt would do so in two (the 100m and 200m sprints). And here’s one for your next pub trivia night: in the depths of the Cold War, athletes from east and west of the Berlin Wall competed as the United Team of Germany, providing a template Korean athletes would emulate at Sydney 2000.



From his quadrennial attendances at the Olympics all the way down to London 2012, the last time he wrote reports and columns from a Games city for the Herald Sun, we accompany Reed as he covers cricket Tests, boxing bouts, swimming meets, the nation’s easily sinkable fling with America’s Cup yachting, horse racing – including an obligatory, and predictably futile, quest to discover who (or what) killed Phar Lap – Australian Rules football and road cycling.



Much of the drama stems from the tensions that are bound to arise between reporter and sports star (which, in what may be taken as an analogue of war or of yet another sport, sometimes approximate the relations between a hunter and his quarry). Young Shane Warne as victim, boxer Azumah Nelson as a man whose obsession outruns his body, are as entertaining as any study in human psychology can be.



Unfortunately, it is in these chapters where the book’s bloopers tend to reside as well: on p. 178, fight promoter Reed takes us to fight promoter Bill Mordey’s 2004 funeral: two pages later, still in 2004, ‘he had been dead for four years’. (If both statements are true, it sounds like grounds for a coronial inquest). Ghanaian boxer Nelson is repeatedly referred to as a (non-existent) Ghanian. Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin misspelt Courbetin. The Seoul Olympics of 1988 are switched to 1992. Editors, like marathon runners, can get over-fatigued, but this cluster of sloppy errors right towards the end of the work amounts to ‘hitting the wall’.



From a writing point of view, perhaps the shrewdest move Ron Reed made in this out-of-retirement return to form was not to invoke, even by insinuation, the insulting cliché that sport is war by other means.



It was never true. While grit and guts are virtues in both fields of endeavour, there is nothing sporting about organised slaughter and no soldier, or reflective competitor in whatever sport, would pretend otherwise.



Occasionally the disciplines collide, as they did in Colombo back in 1996 when the author was lucky to escape being caught up by the bombing that killed dozens and laid a Test tour low. But he never confuses the superficialities of play with the matters of life and death.



For sparing us that false equation, and not sparing us the truths he has passed down about war, along with those seen with his own eyes in a post-war world where the same people who play the game often play up after hours, Ron Reed has placed the readers of this sports-mad nation in his debt.



It was no easy choice in the end. But the main game is what carries this work through to its conclusion, so now it sits on my sports shelf, between Tony Hardy’s ‘Race Around the Sports World’ and Alex McClintock’s tale of an amateur’s foray into the pugilistic arts, ‘On the Chin.’





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  1. Ron Reed says

    Thanks, Ken, for the incisive and positive review. I apologise for the handful of minor bloopers, which do not distort or discredit the narrative at all, thankfully. I have always found it difficult (and I know of many other writers who agree) to detect flaws in one’s own copy no matter how many times you re-read it. I suspect the brain sometimes sees what it expects to see rather than what it actually does see. Anyway, perhaps you and I are square on this matter — I covered nine Olympics (one winter), not 8, it’s Bill Reed, not Reid, he and Jobling were not childhood mates — the copy clearly states they ended up living in the same town after the war — and the 1996 Colombo bomb disrupted a World Cup, not a Test tour. Like mine, these are minor errors that don’t get in the way of anything. They just go to show that any piece of writing, short or long, is very rarely perfect. Anyway, glad you enjoyed the book, and I appreciate you taking the trouble to assess it.

  2. Ken Haley says

    And thank you, Ron, for pointing out my own errata. You are spot on about the difficulty of detecting flaws in one’s own copy. My personal theory about this is that one day scientists will discover that the part of the brain engaged when a product of artistic endeavour is being created – whether in prose, sound, paint or marble – lies directly opposite the part that’s engaged in critical or analytical thought. Perhaps they’ve discovered that already and I missed out on hearing it (very likely). Be that as it may, I hope that no one reading the review would come away with the impression that War Games is anything less than a tour de force. I hope it sells by the thousands: it certainly deserves to!

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