What was it like?
It’s December 7, 1956 – 15 years to the day that Japan infamously entered World War II by declaring war on the Allies by bombing Pearl Harbor, and executing a series of simultaneous attacks on Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Malaya.
Japanese swimmer Tsuyoshi Yamanaka is stepping up to the edge of the pool, readying himself for the 1,500 meter race against world record holders, American George Breen, and Australian Murray Rose. All three were born prior to the beginning of World War II, and all grew up listening to the propaganda of their respective countries during the war years.
But Yamanaka was in Australia. And while Australian attitudes to the Japanese today are overall quite positive and respectful, my guess is that in the 1950s, the many of the physical scars of the Pacific War may have faded, but not the mental ones. Memories of Australian POWS being forced to build the Burma Railway through the jungles of Thailand among others were powerful, and likely involuntarily arose when an Aussie confronted a Japanese.
I don’t know. And perhaps, Yamanaka was oblivious, as all high performance athletes tend to be towards distractions. What we do know is that the 1,500-meter race at the Melbourne Olympics brought war enemies together in a celebration of friendship, encapsulated in a photograph after Rose took gold and Yamanaka took silver, and seen by millions around the world.
In this documentary on Murray Rose, the famed Aussie swimmer explains the symbolism of that time and that photograph:
Murray Rose: When I was growing up, I was part of a propaganda campaign for the Australian war effort. Fast forward a few years, and I’m swimming at the Olympic Games, and my main rival and competitor is Tsuyoshi Yamanaka-san. We embraced across the lane line and a photograph of that time was taken and was picked up by newspapers all over the world. For one main reason – the date was the seventh of December, 1956, the fifteenth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. So it became symbolic of two kids who had grown up on opposite sides of the war and had come together in the friendship of the Olympic arena.
As the commentator John Clarke further explained in the video, Rose “did the Olympic Movement an enormous amount of good because it exemplified what Murray called the Olympic spirit.”
To watch Rose, Yamanaka and Breen battle it out, pick up the documentary entitled “Murray Rose – Life Is Worth Swimming” at the video below at the 21-minute mark.
Also see my post about the novel “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, a moving story of the Australian POW experience.