1912-1970 | Reporter, War Correspondent & Author
Johnston was Australia’s first accredited war correspondent in World War II. He reported from six countries and witnessed the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri in 1945. He was a role model and hero to post-war reporters in Sydney and Melbourne because of his style, personality, reporting skills and capacity to write racy books based on wartime experiences. Veteran journalist Jack Cannon described Johnston as the best and fastest reporter he had seen in Australia. Johnston wrote the classic anti-war novel My Brother Jack which punctured two great Australian cultural pillars – the Anzac legend and the Australian suburban dream.
In 1933, a few months after his 21st birthday, George Johnston was offered a cadetship on The Argus. It proved a sagacious hiring. Johnston was keen, hard-working, interested in the world around him and able to draw stories from even the most reluctant witnesses. And he was a quick thinker who wrote well under pressure – all necessary skills for a young man who, a few years later, was to become Australia’s first accredited World War II correspondent.
Between 1942 and 1945, Johnston filed hundreds of articles from New Guinea, Britain, the United States, India, China, Burma and Italy. He was aboard the USS Missouri in September 1945, when Japanese commanders and officials surrendered to the Allies. And his non-fiction war books – modest sellers at the time, but important documents-of-record now – introduced Johnson to a wider audience hungry for stories from the frontline.
In his introduction to Johnston’s The Toughest Fighting in the World: The Australian and American Campaign for New Guinea in World War Two (first published in 1943), Australia’s then Foreign Minister Herbert Evatt declared the author “a distinguished writer and newspaperman. His experiences in the New Guinea campaign were reflected in vivid day-to-day despatches. He and other Australian and American observers have performed magnificent service for Australia and for the common cause’’.
When he left full-time journalism in the late 1940s, Johnston turned to fiction. He was prolific and popular, and in 1969 he won Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award. But George Johnston’s war writing and his ability to bring the theatre of battle into the homes of average Australians remains one of his greatest achievements.
In his 1986 biography George Johnston: A Biography, Garry Kinnane discusses Johnston’s war journalism contribution: “He undoubtedly played his part in keeping the Australian public informed and quite possibly in sustaining its morale.’’
Kinnane adds: “Many of Australia’s best journalists - Geoffrey Hutton, David McNicoll, John Hetherington, Osmar White, Wilfred Burchett, to name but a few - earned distinction in their role, and Johnston firmly established himself among their ranks.’’
George Henry Johnston was born on 20 July 1912. He was the fourth child of Caulfield couple John, a tram repairer, and his wife Minnie.
Young George went to Brighton Technical School before being apprenticed to a lithographer. As part of his training, Johnston took art classes at the National Gallery School and spent hours as a teenager drawing and writing about ships. At 16, he submitted an article on local shipwrecks to the Melbourne Argus. The piece was published – the first of several he submitted - and five years later he was offered a cadetship.
In 1938 Johnston married Elsie Taylor. The couple settled in East Brighton and three years later their daughter Gae was born.
When the war broke out, Johnston was assigned to cover various Australian warship training exercises. In February 1941 he travelled to Sydney to report on the return of the HMAS Sydney, which had just spent six months fighting in the Mediterranean. This experience was the catalyst for his first non-fiction book, Grey Gladiator, which sold out on its first day and earned him an A Grade and a pay rise.
Johnston was torn by a patriotic desire to enlist in the army and an ambition to cover the war as a journalist. He chose the latter, but for years afterwards he suffered guilt that he’d avoided active service.
On 4 February 1942, Johnston was issued with an accredited war correspondent’s licence. Five days later he was sent to Port Moresby. Over the next three years his dispatches were published in The Adelaide Advertiser, The Sydney Morning Herald, and his own paper, The Argus. His articles also appeared in The Age, the London Daily Telegraph and Time magazine.
During his four months in New Guinea, Johnston filed more than 70 stories and collected copious notes for a book that eventually became The Toughest Fighting In The World. The book was published in 1943 and earned its author warm critical praise.
“No other writer has turned out a book on the fighting in New Guinea that can match Mr Johnston’s,’’ said The New York Times Times. “Superior literary quality projects this work far in advance of those earlier and more hasty accounts.’’
For the rest of the war, Johnston spent long periods on tour, punctuated by brief returns to Melbourne and the Argus office where he had become a celebrity. His marriage started to teeter and, on one visit home in 1945 he met his second wife, Charmian Clift, an AWAS lieutenant and editor of the Ordnance Corps magazine.
In 1946 Johnston and Clift moved to Sydney where they married one year later. In 1951 they became early members of an Australian post-war diaspora when Johnston was appointed head of the London office of Associated Newspaper Services.
In November 1954 Johnston resigned from newspapers and moved with his young family to the Greek Islands. On Kalimnos then later Hydra, the couple pursued their dream of writing full-time and living off their book royalties.
Johnston is best known for his fiction. His reporting experiences had a huge impact on his writing style and storytelling, however, and from a treasure chest of memories he was able to draw ideas.
The semi-autobiographical My Brother Jack, which was published in 1964, remains a bestseller and is Johnston’s best-known book. Part Two of this trilogy - Clean Straw For Nothing - won the 1969 Miles Franklin Award. These books, and the third and final instalment A Cartload of Clay, are part of Australia’s literary canon. The trilogy’s central character, David Meredith –a mirror of Johnston himself - is one of our most fascinating and flawed heroes.
Although Clean Straw For Nothing won the Franklin, My Brother Jack was perhaps Johnston’s defining work. It follows the narrator, Meredith, through his childhood and teenage years growing up in suburban Melbourne between the wars. Meredith’s brother, Jack (modelled on Johnston’s own older brother), is presented as a familiar Aussie bloke: hardworking, likeable and funny but uneducated and a victim of the Depression years.
As writer Nadia Wheatley wrote in The Monthly on the 50th anniversary of My Brother Jack: “The crucial element in the novel’s success, however, was that it came out at a time of cultural and political revival. As the seemingly endless Menzies era drew to an end, Australians were beginning to question and re-evaluate the whole business of their national character and identity.”
To most readers, Johnston’s novel played a role in this national rethink. In the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Garry Kinnane sums up Johnston’s writing style: “As a novelist, Johnston belongs in the tradition of journalistic realism. However, the autobiographical element in his best work gives it uncommon power and honesty, and in its blend of 'truth' and the fictive, a modernistic narrative sometimes paradoxically results …”
Corrie Perkin is a Melbourne bookseller and an award-winning journalist and podcaster.
Courtesy of Fairfax
Johnston (middle) in South East Asia during World War II. From the George Johnston & Charmian Clift Archive, courtesy of Harry Fatouros
Johnston (right) in South East Asia during World War II. From the George Johnston & Charmian Clift Archive, courtesy of Harry Fatouros
First licence issued to cover the Second World War "in Australia or its territories". Johnston reported from New Guinea for four months during the war. From the George Johnston & Charmian Clift Archive, courtesy of Harry Fatouros
Article in Time Magazine, 28 December 1942. From the George Johnston & Charmian Clift Archive, courtesy of Harry Fatouros
George Johnston and friend at Central Mt Stuart. From the George Johnston & Charmian Clift Archive, courtesy of Harry Fatouros
George Johnston and James Burke in Tibet. From the George Johnston & Charmian Clift Archive, courtesy of Harry Fatouros
George Johnston (left) near Kunming. US Army Signal Corps photo. From the George Johnston & Charmian Clift Archive, courtesy of Harry Fatouros
George Johnston at the Huating Buddhist Temple near Kunming. US Army Signal Corps photo. From the George Johnston & Charmian Clift Archive, courtesy of Harry Fatouros
‘Johnston, George Henry (1912-1970)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Garry Kinnane, ANU
Leonard Cohen, Marianne Ihlen, George Johnston, Charmian Clift - A Story of Enchantment (wonderfully detailed website with information about Clift and Johnston's individual careers and lives on Hydra)
The Toughest Fighting In the World, George H Johnston, Westholme Publishing, US, 2011
George Johnston: A Biography, Garry Kinnane, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996
My Brother Jack, George Johnston, William Collins and Son, 1964
The 50th Anniversary of My Brother Jack, Nadia Wheatley, The Monthly, May 2015
‘My Brother Jack At 50 – The novel of a man whose whole life led up to it’, The Guardian, Paul Daley, 23 December 2014