Damien Parer: Stories of Service
In the 21st century, it's easier than ever to find media coverage of conflicts. Technology allows us to record skirmishes and make stories available to millions of people. In the Second World War, filming battlefronts involved heavy film and audio equipment. This tells the story of Damien Parer, an Australian correspondent who filmed armed forces in North Africa, New Guinea and the South-West Pacific. His images showed Australians the true nature of combat, especially in New Guinea. Parer took many risks to film Allied troops in action. He preferred to be on the front with the troops so he could capture their courage and commitment in an authentic way. His films are as important today as when he made them in the midst of numerous battles.
Student inquiry questions
- Damien Parer worked as a camera operator in Australia before the Second World War. How might that experience have influenced his work when he was filming service men in battle?
- Damien Parer filmed battles in environments such as scorching deserts, rugged mountains and hot tropical jungles. What sort of challenges would each environment have presented to him as he tried to film the action?
- Much of the filming Damien Parer did was used in newsreels. These were short films shown in cinemas in the days before television and the internet. Newsreels presented news and current affairs to people at home in Australia and other countries. Read about newsreels in our resource Curiosity. How might newsreels have been different to the news we watch today?
- Damien Parer produced a film about the fighting on the Kokoda Track in New Guinea in 1942. Kokoda Front Line! won an Oscar at the 1943 Academy Awards in America, for best documentary feature. What does the award say about the quality of Parer's work?
- Damien Parer was killed while filming American soldiers fighting Japanese forces on the island of Peleliu, in 1944. He had taken many risks while filming soldiers in battle. Why would he have repeatedly put himself in harm's way when he was making those films?
Opening credits - collage of drawings – soldiers, fighter aeroplane; video title ‘Stories of Service: Second World War’; the credits change to a blank white space – a right hand holding a pen appears from the bottom of the screen and starts a black and white drawing of a 1940s-era Australian soldier in combat uniform holding a large rifle and standing in amongst some dense foliage. Music.
The drawing of the soldier changes from black and white to mostly green, with the rifle becoming brown, the soldier's uniform becoming khaki and his face and arms becoming European skin-coloured. The rifle he holds disappears.
'The front line of any war is a dangerous place, so imagine being in the fighting on the front line and not having a weapon ...'
The presenter Warren Brown is seen sitting on a low stone wall in front of an open grassed area. He wears a dark, long-sleeved shirt and trousers and is seen from the waist up. He holds up a smartphone with its screen facing the camera.
'Instead, having to carry a camera, and I don't mean one of these.'
The screen changes to a background of old-looking paper with a smartphone in the centre of the screen. The smartphone screen has a black and white image of a cameraman in an army uniform and helmet looking into the viewfinder of an old-style movie camera on a tripod. A hand-held version of an old-style movie camera appears in the lower left corner of the screen.
'... but heavy film equipment that's just not suited to combat conditions, and it weighed 90 kilos, as much as a baby elephant.'
The screen changes to show a black and white photograph of the cinematographer and war correspondent Damien Parer. He wears an army shirt, army shorts and a beret. He squats down on a stony surface while holding an old-style movie camera in front of him.
'Damien Parer first discovered he had a talent for taking remarkable photographs when he joined his high school's camera club.'
The screen changes to show a teenaged boy in clothing from the 1930s era, facing the viewer. He holds an old-style still image camera in front of him and looks down into the camera's viewfinder. He then looks up at the viewer.
'His photos were so good, in fact, he won a prize for photography in a competition run by a Melbourne newspaper. He knew then he wanted to be a photographer and a filmmaker.'
The screen changes to a background image of Australian men from the Depression era, walking in a group. Newspaper headlines from the era appear over the image of the men. A black and white photograph of film producer Charles Chauvel appears at the right of the screen. He wears a suit and has dark hair. An image from the movie Forty Thousand Horsemen appears in the centre of the screen. It shows two male actors from the movie, facing each other. A poster for the movie appears at the left of the screen. It shows two characters from the movie – a man and a woman. Troops on horseback are in the background.
'On leaving school, finding a job as a cameraman during the Great Depression wasn't easy, but Parer's abilities caught the attention of the famous Australian film producer, Charles Chauvel, who appointed him to shoot several movies, including the Australian World War One epic, Forty Thousand Horsemen.'
The screen changes to a background image of Damien Parer's military service record. A black and white photograph of him in his military uniform appears at the left of the screen. The background image changes to a photograph Australian Second World War soldiers and sailors on a ship. A black and white photograph of Damien Parer in his military uniform and holding an older style photographic camera appears toward the centre of the screen. The screen then changes to show a map indicating the route taken by the ship Damien Parer travelled on from Australian to the Middle East.
'When the Second World War broke out, Parer was enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Force, the AIF, and assigned the role of Official War Photographer for the Department of Information, sailing with the AIF from Melbourne to Libya to record the troops in action in the deserts of the Middle East.'
Brown is seen walking toward the camera as he tells this part of the story. Behind him is a large grassed open area and beyond that is a hill with trees on it. He wears a dark long-sleeved shirt and jeans and is seen from about the waist up.
'As part of the film unit, Parer saw himself as a link between the soldiers on the battlefield and the people at home. In those days, there wasn't even television in Australia, let alone Google or Instagram, and to tell the experiences of the men and women who served on the front line, he needed to be there with them.'
The screen changes to a background that looks like an old photograph album. Three old black and white photographs appear. The top left photograph shows some soldiers on a tank. The bottom left photograph shows a large group of soldiers standing outside a stone building. The right side photograph shows two men filming Second World War Allied fighter planes taking off. This photograph changes into a head and shoulders image of an Allied soldier wearing his helmet and a scarf around his neck and head. The top left photograph changes into an image of two Allied soldiers standing in front of a sign that says ‘Business as usual during air raids and shelling’. The bottom left photograph changes into an image showing four soldiers together in a desert environment. Three of them are sitting while one stands.
'Parer photographed and filmed the early victories in Libya and the fighting in Greece and Syria and at the siege of Tobruk. His photography and films depicting the fighting in the Middle East provided a first-hand account of the political, social, and cultural environment that is part of war.'
The screen changes to a black and white film sequence showing the guns of a warship firing and being loaded, a sailor looking through binoculars at a distant coastline.
'In January 1941, Parer put himself in the firing line, filming from the deck of the warship HMS Ladybird during the bombardment of Bardia in Libya.'
The screen changes to a black and white photograph in the centre, showing a harbour with fires burning and ships on the water. An image of Damien Parer operating a film camera while wearing a uniform and helmet is to the right of the photograph. Part of the image of Damien Parer overlaps the photograph. A black and white photograph of cinematographer Frank Hurley appears to the left of the screen. He wears an army uniform, army hat and glasses.
'With another famous Australian wartime photographer, Frank Hurley, he captured the dramatic siege of Tobruk.'
Brown is seen standing in front of a low stone wall in front of an open grassed area. He wears a dark, long-sleeved shirt and trousers and is seen from the waist up.
'3 days later, he accompanied C company, 2/11th Battalion in its attack on the aerodrome at Derna. He took footage in the Greek and Syrian campaigns and flew on an air raid with the Australian crew of a Royal Air Force Blenheim bomber. Soon, his images were broadcast in newsreels across the world.'
The screen changes to map showing Australia and South-East Asia. The map then zooms in on New Guinea, which is highlighted to show its location.
'When Japan entered the Second World War, Parer was sent to cover a new battlefront. This time in the jungles of New Guinea. The soldiers admired and respected him, welcoming him into their dugouts.'
The screen changes to show a blurred background image where a soldier with a camera to his face is toward the left side of the image. A black and white photograph is in the upper centre of the screen. It shows three Australian soldiers on a patrol in tall jungle grass. Another black and white photograph appears in the centre of the screen. It shows four Australian soldiers lying on their stomachs. Two of them look at something in the distance. Two of them look at something on the ground just in front of them. A third black and white photograph appears to the lower left of the screen. It shows two Australian soldiers standing and facing each other. The soldier to the left holds a ‘dixie’ (an army eating utensil) in one hand. The soldier to the right holds an enamel mug near his face.
'He accompanied them on patrols where he was able to capture the human side of war. Sometimes, Damien disobeyed orders to get the story.'
The screen changes to show a full-screen blurred image where a soldier with a movie camera to his face is toward the left side of the image. The soldier appears to be filming something beyond the left side of the screen. The soldier begins to move backwards across the screen from left to right, keeping the movie camera to his face. As he moves, an old black and white photograph appears to the upper left of the screen. It shows an Australian soldier in a jungle setting. He holds a large machine gun at waist height and points it to the right of the image. Another old black and white photograph appears in the centre of the screen. It shows an Australian soldier leading a wounded comrade across a creek in a jungle setting. Two Indigenous New Guinean men are in the background, carrying supplies. A third old black and white photograph appears in the lower left of the screen. It shows three Australian soldiers standing together in a jungle setting, looking at something beyond the left side of the image.
'He disliked staged reenactments. He preferred to be at the front line, often risking his life to race ahead of the action where he would turn around and walk backwards to film his advancing comrades. His footage of the brutal fighting between Australian and Japanese soldiers along the Kokoda Track in New Guinea suddenly confronted everyday Australians with the horrors of a war in the jungle taking place so close to home.'
The screen changes to a sequence of images from an old black and white movie. The sequences show Indigenous New Guinean men carrying wounded Australian soldiers on stretchers across a creek, carrying supplies up a steep and muddy slope and carrying a wounded Australian soldier on a stretcher to a thatched grass hut. An image of the Academy Award won by the Kokoda documentary appears at the left of the screen, superimposed on the old film sequence. Two Australian soldiers walking in heavy rain between thatched grass huts is the last part of the film sequence.
'Thanks to Parer's camerawork, for the first time, the world could now experience the appalling conditions for solders fighting at Kokoda. His footage released as the documentary, 'Kokoda Front Line!' in 1943, his remarkable film went on to win Australia's first Oscar at the Academy Awards for Distinctive Achievement in Documentary Production. The film's producer Ken G Hall, dedicated the award to Parer for his 'Bravery, skill and endurance.' "He made it possible".'
Brown is seen in an open grassed area, walking toward the camera as he speaks. Behind him are several trees. He wears a dark long-sleeved shirt and jeans and is seen from about the waist up. He stops walking and continues to talk to the camera.
'But eventually Damien's luck ran out. In September 1944, while walking backwards to film the faces of US Marines in the heat of battle on the island of Peleliu, he was killed by Japanese machine-gun fire. His story of service is truly remarkable. He, like many of the soldiers he encountered in the jungle and the desert, served his profession with distinction.'
The screen changes to a selection of old black and white photographs that show images from Damien Parer’s photography and cinematography. The images include scenes of Australian soldiers training, in the Libyan desert and on leave in Egypt. There are also images of Damien Parer in a portrait setting and at work preparing to film scenes of combat. The selection of images finishes with a photograph showing a smiling Damien Parer looking at the viewer and an image of the Academy Award won by the Kokoda documentary.
'Ultimately paying the highest price. Damien Parer didn't carry a rifle into combat. Instead, his camera and the films he made became powerful weapons, revealing to the world the shocking reality of a world at war.'
The Australian Government Department of Veterans’ Affairs crest appears on a black background.