Tonight's assignment was not starting well.
Sophie had suggested to her editor that a series of interviews with old soldiers might be a good idea. The centenary of the First World War would keep stories of any war since 1914 in the public interest domain for at least four years. Each day, the Returned Services Associations were losing veterans. Just last month, Sophie had watched her girlfriend's Grandfather lowered into the crematorium as a bugler played The Last Post.
Too many stories have been lost, she argued.
Their editor agreed but wanted David, the paper's senior journalist, to accompany her. David had screwed his face when he learned the RSA visit was Friday night. Sophie knew on Friday nights, David and his friends met in a city sports bar. But the editor had insisted. It was the one time the old soldiers gathered en masse. David insisted they use his car, wanting the night over quickly. She reluctantly agreed, but only if they called on her Grandfather. It was on the way. Otherwise, she would drive herself.
David sped and didn’t slow until close to her grandfather's house. Then he braked. The sudden stop flung Sophie forward. The seat belt cut into her breasts. She gasped, glared at David, and then, clenching her teeth, turned away. He had hurt her, but she was not about to let on. When he sulked, he was unpredictable, and tonight he was sulking big time. If he sniped at her right now, she would cry, and she wanted to stay angry. He was her boss, and she had slept with him. What a fool. It started a disastrous relationship that she ended after three months. It left him bitter. Nowadays, journalism was a tough business, and many major newspapers had closed. The Evening Star was one of the few still employing reporters. She needed her job, which meant she had to put up with him.
David turned the key. The motor died. He pulled the key from the ignition and then sat back in his seat, jiggling the key ring between his fingers, eyes fixed on a spot on the window, his breathing heavy in the silence. Without looking, she knew his bottom lip would have drooped. He would pout, as he always did when he couldn’t get his way.
Sophie released the seatbelt and rubbed her chest. The David she first met was a caring, attentive and sensitive man. Then they had sex, and he changed. How naïve and stupid she had been. David was a womanizer and saw her as a possession, not a girlfriend, and that mindset had not changed. Now, the stress of seeing him daily had her scratching her arms most nights - a nervous habit from childhood and right now, her arm itched like hell.
“Are you coming in?” Sophie asked.
“We’re late, Sophie. You run in. I’ll wait here.”
“Would it kill you to say a quick hello? You’ve met Granddad before, and it will hurt his feelings knowing you wouldn’t come in.”
“Don’t tell him I’m here.”
“I’m not lying to my grandfather.”
David firmed his chin. “All right. But in and out! Okay?”
He flung open the door, climbed out, and stomped past the car's front onto the footpath. He waited with his back to her. She toyed with the idea of staying put, then decided against it. Instead, she climbed out of the car, slammed the door shut and hurried past. David aimed his key at the car and pressed the lock button. By the time he made the veranda, Sophie had knocked twice.
“He could be asleep,” David said, hopeful.
Sophie ignored him and tried the handle. The door opened. She stepped inside.
“Granddad,” she yelled. “It’s me, Sophie.” To David, she said, “He’ll be in the lounge, crashed in front of the television.” She made her way along the hallway, leaving David standing in the doorway. “There you are.”
“Sophie,” Andrew Johnson said, a little confused. “What are you doing here? Is it my birthday?”
No, Granddad, it’s not your birthday. Mum asked me to check in on you. She worries. You left the front door unlocked again.”
He gave her a sheepish grin.
“What are you watching?” She picked up the DVD cover. “John Wayne again. There are other DVDs.”
“John Wayne will do me fine,” he replied. A grumpiness to his tone. “And I don’t need you mothering me. Why aren’t you at a party somewhere? It is Friday night, isn’t it?”
“I’m working. I have a colleague with me. You remember David Jensen?” Andrew nodded that he did. “He’s waiting outside,” Sophie smiled. “We’re on assignment together.”
“Invite him in.”
Sophie stepped into the hall and waved to David, who was still standing in the doorway. He glared but moved forward and followed her into the sitting room. David waved. Andrew Johnson waved back.
“Can I make you some tea? Have you eaten?” Sophie asked.
“I might be almost ninety, but I’m not an invalid. What work are you doing on a Friday night? You’re still doing that silly journalism. Give it up. There is no future in it. I told you this before.”
“Granddad worked as a reporter many years ago,” Sophie said to David. “For real newspapers that employed objective, dogged journalists who pounded pavements seeking the truth and not downloading news stories off the internet. Isn’t that right, Granddad?”
“Mock all you want, young lady, but a reporter had respect in the good old days. We had ethics. We didn’t manufacture stories to sell newspapers. Not like today.”
David said nothing. Looked at his watch.
Sophie kissed her grandfather on the cheek. He softened.
“And what is your assignment?”
“We’re doing a series of war stories. We need to interview a few old soldiers and thought the RSA would be a good place to start. We’re on our way there now.”
Andrew nodded. “And what type of story is going to grab your attention?”
Sophie shrugged, “I guess we do the interviews and then decide what might interest our readers. It would be exciting to uncover something juicy, but I doubt very few secrets of the Second World War, Korea, and even Vietnam remain untold. David thinks all we’ll hear will be exaggerated anecdotes, nothing of any substance. But that’s okay. Personal stories of everyday life in combat will still appeal to our readers.”
“You might have the makings of a real journo after all,” Johnson said, then sideglanced at David and caught the roll of his eyes. “You don’t agree, David?”
David’s lips curled into a half smile, and he shrugged. He glanced down at a DVD cover on the coffee table. “I see you’re a fan of John Wayne.” He said, changing the subject.
“You’ve heard of John Wayne?”
“My grandfather was a fan. I haven’t watched any of Wayne’s movies. I like modern. The old movies are too slow and corny for me.”
Sophie gave David a hostile glare that quickly changed to a smile when she turned back to her Grandfather. “Granddad has them all. I’ve been watching them with him since I was a child. Red River is our favourite, isn’t it, Granddad? Or at least I think it is. That’s the one we always watch.”
“John Wayne was a great man,” Andrew said.
“With all due respect Mr Johnson, an actor, hardly classifies as a great man.”
Andrew Johnson nodded. Thoughtful. He pointed to the bookcase.
“Sophie, pass me that scrapbook on the bottom shelf.”
David caught Sophie’s eye as she moved forward and gave her a ‘we’ve got to get the hell out of here’ look. Sophie retrieved the scrapbook, placed it on her grandfather’s lap, and sat beside him. He flicked through the yellowing newsprint cuttings taped to each leaf.
“Aha, here it is.”
He put his finger on the headline.
“Doctors have confined President Roosevelt to bed for one week,” Sophie read the headline out loud. “The President has flu. I’m sorry, Granddad, but what has this to do with John Wayne?” She paused and leaned closer, reading the date at the top of the page, “On April 27th 1942.”
“Because, my dear granddaughter,” Andrew Johnson said, a twinkle in his eye. “Roosevelt never had the flu. In fact, that week, he wasn’t even in the USA and nor was John Wayne.”
“In 1942, I was a major assigned to MacArthur’s staff in the Philippines. That’s General Douglas MacArthur of World War II fame. I’m picking even you two have heard of him.”
Sophie and David nodded.
“You’ve never mentioned the war before, Granddad.”
A smile from Johnson. “I had no desire to talk of those years, but now, why not? Anyway, Japanese forces surrounded our defences in Bataan,” he continued. “The supply lines cut, munitions running out, our troops faced a hopeless task. Can’t fight without bullets. The mood in HQ was grim: without a miracle, the army, thousands of men, would be lost to the enemy.
“The President ordered MacArthur to be evacuated. At first, McArthur refused but did move his headquarters and family to Corregidor Island. But the Japanese could not be stopped. In the end, the President was insistent and ordered a submarine be sent. MacArthur rejected that plan and decided to bust through the Japanese blockade in PT Boats. At sunset, his family and staff, including me, boarded the vessels. We crashed through the rough seas for two days until we reached Cagayan on Mindanao Island. From there, a B-17 Flying Fortress flew us to Australia. The decision to leave made all of us sick in the stomach. To leave men behind on the field of a battle is not what a military officer is trained to do. It stayed with me for the rest of my life. For MacArthur, it was the harshest decision of his career. The closest I had ever seen this tough, military man come to shedding a tear. But he had no choice. He was commander of the Allied Forces in Southeast Asia and one of the US’s leading commanders. He could not be captured by the Japanese.
“On the dock, as we boarded the evacuation craft, McArthur vowed to return, and of course, he did. Two days after arriving in Sydney, before I’d had time to wipe the Philippines' mud and sweat from the pores of my skin, MacArthur called me to his office. I was unfamiliar with the Aussie barracks and arrived a few minutes late. I tapped on the door and entered.
‘“General. You sent for me.’
“Mac Arthur, pissed off with life in general, was in no mood for tardy officers.
“I expected you half an hour ago, Andrew.’
“Yes, sir. My apologies,’ I said.
I did not offer an excuse. He needed a whipping boy, and I would have to live with it.
“Take a seat.”’ MacArthur pulled out his pipe and gestured for me to light up if I wished. I tapped a Kensington out of the crushed packet from my tunic pocket and lit up from the match offered. “I have orders for you. Not happy with them. No sir, not happy at all.’
I nodded and sucked in some nicotine.
“You’re to fly to the USA, Andrew. You leave in three hours. Select six men to take with you. This is a security duty. Select men who can look after themselves,’ he told me.
“May I ask the nature of the assignment?’
“You may, but I can’t tell you. All very hush, hush and even I, the man most responsible for stopping this bloody war, is not being let in on the secret. So no, I can’t tell you anything. You land in Los Angeles. You walk across the tarmac to a waiting plane and board it. That’s it,’ he said.
‘“Someone is flying seven soldiers from Australia to Los Angeles just to change planes,’ I asked, incredulous.
‘“That’s it, Andrew,’ he replied. ‘Now I suggest you get moving.’
“I stood and saluted, and by the time I had reached the door MacArthur was already reading another document.”
“The trip from Sydney to Los Angeles took thirty hours because we couldn’t fly direct. Japanese planes patrolled the Pacific and the range of the C-46 Commando was less than three hundred miles. A fifty-seater with little legroom. Not like modern planes. But with no other passengers I had room enough to stretch out and catch up on sleep.
“We bunny-hopped all the way. Brisbane, the Marshall Islands, Hawaii and onto Los Angeles. We arrived exhausted. I needed a shower and to collapse into a comfy bed. The welcoming committee standing on the tarmac had other ideas.
‘“Major Johnston, welcome to LA,’ the colonel waiting for us said.
“I shook the offered hand.
‘“Thank you, Colonel. We need to clean up,’ I said.
‘“Sorry, Major, there’s no time. You’re leaving right away.’
“‘What are my orders, Colonel?’ I asked.
‘“You get on that plane yonder. Where the plane is going, I can’t tell you. Pick up your kitbags and follow me.’
“My men did not attempt to stifle disgruntled sighs as we ambled to another C-46. I had lost track of the time, and it was dark and raining. We boarded in drenched clothing. An airman stowed our kitbags and handed out towels. A pulled curtain hid the rear of the cabin. The airman instructed that beyond the curtain was out of bounds, except for me. My orders were to proceed to the rear of the plane once I had dried myself off.
“I towelled my hair and flattened it down with my hand. A quick touch of my face told me I needed a shave. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. When I stood before the curtain, I hesitated. My appearance, shabby at best, would never pass muster. The military never accepted excuses for a poor turnout, even in wartime. I hoped whoever waited on the other side would cut me some slack.
“I took a deep breath and stepped through the curtains.
“Four sets of eyes fell upon me, and the faces shone with mild amusement at my open-mouthed astonishment. In a wheelchair at the rear sat President Theodore Roosevelt. Seats had been removed down either side of the centre aisle. Behind Roosevelt was a woman in her twenties dressed in a naval uniform. Seated in the first row was a four-star general, and behind him, a face I recognized immediately. I had seen enough of his movies.
“It was John Wayne.
‘“Come on in, son,’ Roosevelt said. ‘Make yourself comfortable. Mandy, mix the major a drink. You do drink, don’t you, Major?’ I nodded. ‘Make it whiskey, Mandy. The major looks as if he needs warming up.’
“Speechless, I sat. Roosevelt produced a cigar, clipped off the end, twirled it in his mouth, and then lit up. Mandy passed me a glass of whiskey and returned to her position behind the President.
‘“Let me introduce the team here,’ Roosevelt continued. ‘Mandy is my assistant. Gets me what I need most of the time but has the help of a doctor, a nurse and a couple of strapping marines who get to carry me everywhere. For the purposes of this get-together, I had to leave them behind. Your men get the pleasure of toting your President about. General Beazley, here, is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and I must say, on his behalf, he was anti my taking this trip. Last, a man I’m sure you recognize, Mr John Wayne. I will be forever grateful to Mr Wayne. His President called him to service, and he obliged.’
“Wayne nodded in my direction.
‘“You must be wondering why you’re here,’ said Roosevelt. ‘All I can tell you, for now, is that you and your men are to protect me, and we are headed for Argentina. Get me there and back alive, and you will have served your country well. Now, down your whiskey, Major, and buckle up. You’re about to take a flight into history.’
“Granddad, you’re pulling my leg!”
Sophie looked across at David as she poured tea for everyone. He no longer wrung his hands. A sure sign the story, for the moment, held his interest. She hoped it would last.
“Why have you never mentioned you met John Wayne?”
“Not at liberty to, Sophie. Official secrets and all that stuff.”
“What happened next, Mr Johnson?”
“A long flight David. Another long, long flight.”
“I had never been to Argentina, but in those days, Buenos Aries was the Paris of South America. A bustling metropolis inhabited by millions and filled with cafés, restaurants, theatres, movie houses and expensive shopping. Somewhere your grandmother would have loved to visit.
“When we landed, the C46 taxied toward a line of trucks and buses standing on the tarmac. In front of the vehicles, it appeared the entire Argentine Army had turned out. I smiled and shook my head. Security was not going to be an issue. My men and I would be no more than presidential nursemaids. When the plane came to a stop, I left my men to help offload Roosevelt and I disembarked.
“The Commander of the Argentine marines saluted and then introduced himself as Colonel Juan Peron.”
“No way!” David almost jumped out of his chair. “Juan Peron. The, Evita, Juan Peron?”
“One and the same, but of course, he wasn’t yet president, and he hadn’t met Eva.”
“You are shitting us, Mr Johnson. Sorry, messing with us.”
“I assure you everything I’m telling you is how it happened.”
Sophie caught David’s eye and saw the scepticism. She gave a slow shake of the head. A warning to David to keep his mouth shut. She loved her grandfather. Let him tell his story, and even if it was fantastical, what did it matter? David fell back into his seat. She touched her grandfather’s shoulder.
“Then what, Granddad?”
“The buses transported us to the Alvear Palace Hotel, the most beautiful hotel in all of Buenos Aries and, in fact, the world. On the outside, the architecture was grand and inside as majestic as any French palace. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and the walls were covered with gold leaf and paintings by famous artists. For soldiers who recently escaped from the horrors of the war in the Philippines and days in the air, the display of opulence overwhelmed us. When I peered into a lobby mirror and saw a tramp looking back, it made me uncomfortable and embarrassed.
“In the sanctuary of the hotel room, I threw off my uniform, showered and shaved. Freshened and snug in a hotel bathrobe, I pulled back the wooden shutters. A bottle of Champagne sat in a bucket of ice. I lit a cigarette, poured a glass of the sparkles, sank into a leather chair, and looked out across the city skyline to the docks in the distance. I must admit, for a few moments, the war slipped my mind as I experienced the life of the rich and famous. Then I gave thought to the mission. I had six men to protect the President of the United States? It would be an impossible task should anyone want to shoot at him.
“As arranged, I met with Colonel Peron for dinner in the hotel restaurant. John Wayne and Mandy joined us. The President sent his apologies. He wanted to retire early. Mandy had changed into a light blue satin evening gown that slid over her trim figure like a second skin. Dark hair framed an oval face. Her milky complexion only needed a touch of makeup to highlight her delicate features. Out of uniform, Mandy was an attractive woman, pretty enough to raise the eyebrows of Wayne and Peron. They sat her between them and fought each other to dominate the conversation. I sat at the end of the table. From time to time, Mandy glanced my way and offered a smile, and I must admit it raised my blood pressure a little.
“Then the restaurant lights dimmed. Applause broke out. I looked towards the entrance, and then she appeared. Her blonde hair swept back into a chignon that nestled into the nape of her neck. A face so perfect it might have been chiselled from alabaster by the most skilful of craftsman. Her figure was slender, and she moved with such elegance, the poise of a dancer. She exuded an undeniable presence as she made her way to the centre of the ballroom floor. She was the most beautiful, stunning young woman I had ever seen. She stood before the microphone and waited for the applause to die. And then, waited some more. Everyone held their breath. The silence was deafening.
“Colonel Peron leaned across and whispered that we were about to listen to a reading from the most famous actress in all of Argentina, Miss Eva Duarte.”
“Granddad,” Sophie began. “This Eva Duarte. Is this the Eva that became Eva Peron?”
“The one and only,” said Andrew.
“I watched a documentary on the Perons not so long ago,” David said, “I’m certain that Eva and Juan Peron did not meet until near the end of the war.”
“And now you know that wasn’t true. The story behind the story; isn’t that what journalism is all about?”
“I have an editor to convince, and he pays my wages,” David answered. Hesitant, uncertain as to what to believe anymore, but intrigued all the same.
“And what about Mandy?” Sophie asked.
“All in good time,” Andrew said.
“Eva spoke in Spanish. I listened but did not understand. When the performance ended, the rapturous applause continued long after Eva had gone.
“Peron filled our glasses with champagne: the real McCoy, I checked the label, and it came from France. We toasted her beauty and talent. A little while later, the hotel manager approached. Apparently, Eva Duarte had requested to join us. She wanted to meet the famous American actor John Wayne.
“We all stood when the manager brought her to our table.
‘“Good evening Ma-am,’ Wayne drawled.
“He was a big man and was a commanding presence when he stood. Not about to be left wanting when it came to chivalry, Peron showed he was the perfect gentleman and took her hand, bowing before kissing it. He sat her next to himself. Not to be outdone, Wayne moved Mandy aside and sat on Eva’s other side.
“I considered it my lucky night. I was never going to muscle - Wayne and Peron for Eva Duarte’s attention, but I sure as hell was happy to have Mandy all to myself.”
“Did Grandma know any of this?” Sophie teased.
“Darling, what went on between your grandmother and me is my business.”
Johnson returned to his story.
“Early next morning, the President sent for me. I was finally told why I had travelled the length of the globe. Wayne and General Beazley sat at the small dining table, and I sat in the empty chair. Wayne looked a little the worse for wear, as I must have done myself. Too much champagne and cognac had taken its toll. Still, neither Wayne nor Peron wished to leave the restaurant as long as Eva continued to enjoy their attentiveness. This was a damsel being pursued by two determined knights. Mandy and I had also stayed longer than we should have. However, this morning, unlike the rest of us, she looked fresh.
‘“Major Johnson, now is the time to tell you why you’re here?’ the President began. ‘Why I dragged you from more important duties, like planning the reinvasion of the Philippines with MacArthur.’
‘“I’m a soldier, sir,’ I replied. ‘I do as I’m told.’
‘“All the same, Major, you’re a soldier, not a nursemaid. We have spies in Washington, everywhere, in fact. It was important the American people never learn of this mission. That’s why you and your men came from Australia, and the pilots flew from England. No one in our great nation except for Mr Wayne, the General, his staff and Mandy knew my final destination. Someone leaked to the media that I have the flu. Nothing official. The government can’t lie to the people.’
‘“Now the why. A meeting will take place later today. Mr Wayne will chair this meeting. Why, Mr Wayne? Well, believe it or not, his movies have made him one of the world’s most trusted and known men. His attendance is a sign of goodwill. Others attending figure that if it all turns sour, the American people might not care if their President ever returns home, but Mr Wayne is a different matter. Some consider him a national treasure. He is insurance against our side partaking in dirty tricks. No one trusts us Americans. Some attending the meeting have promised to kill Mr Wayne if we try anything silly.’
I looked at Wayne and received a shrug and a smile.
‘“When the meeting starts, Major, you will sit at Mr Wayne’s side,’ President Roosevelt told me. ‘I will ask you to take notes of the discussions and later take photographs. You can write?”’
‘“Yes sir, I can write,’ I told him.”
‘“Good man,’ he said. ‘Whatever you see and whatever you hear comes under the secrecy act. When the meeting is finished, you will give the documents and photographs to the general. It can never be discussed. Not ever. Is that clear?”’
‘“Yes, sir,’ I answered. ‘May I ask who will be at the meeting?’
‘“No, you may not. You will report to Room 414 on the fourth floor at 1pm. Don’t be late.”’
“In the hallway outside room 414, Peron had men everywhere. I waited as one of his soldiers' checked my ID. Peron looked on but did not intervene. Security by the book. I liked Peron. A professional.
“Once I gained my security clearance, I entered the room.
“The men seated around the table were in deep discussion, not with each other but with aides seated behind them. A few looked my way and, on assessing my importance as zero, returned to their conversations. I sat next to John Wayne as instructed. On the table in front of me sat a camera and notepad.
“As I looked over the attendees, my first emotion was confusion, incredulity, and wonderment. I turned to Wayne. He had been watching me, waiting for my reaction. The grin that flashed across his face at my stunned-mullet response told me I had not disappointed him.
“They were all there, the leaders.
“Tojo sat in silence. Stiff-backed. He had the aloofness of a Shogun, and I had no doubt that his samurai army believed he was a god. Of course, he was no more a Shogun than I was, and his army of fanatical followers only resembled samurai warriors in that they would gladly lay down their life for their leader.
“De Gaulle made the most noise. Mussolini, Germany’s unreliable ally, matched him for bluster. It was accepted by Western military intelligence that the Italians led an army that preferred love, not war.
Hitler was all charm and geniality, the quintessential psychopath. He already had so much blood on his hands. He glanced my way on one occasion. He reminded me of an undertaker, and I felt those empty eyes were sizing me up for a body bag. Churchill sucked on a cigar, and FDR kept saying Goddam to everything. It was a circus. Then there was Stalin, the hardest to read. He had a wildness about him that was almost feral, a cornered lion with a thorn in its paw. The word ‘vicious’ came to mind. Of all the leaders in the room, the persona of Stalin was the most dangerous. Not a man I would ever turn my back on.
“I opened my pad and fiddled with pens. Wayne asked if I was ready. I held up a pen and nodded. He stood and banged the table with a small gavel. The meeting started.
“Churchill, Roosevelt, De Gaulle and Stalin were on one side of the table, and Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini on the other. Translators stood behind their leaders. Hitler made the opening speech, and his translator was careful to interpret Hitler’s words and give emphasis on syllables to match the rhythm of the German dictator’s oration. For a moment, I felt transposed to a Nazi rally in Germany and heard what the German people must have heard. I found it hard to concentrate on note-taking. I was still reeling from the enormity of the occasion, and then Hitler spoke to the meeting’s objectives. The reasons that had brought these world leaders together, and as I fully comprehended what was being said, my mouth fell open in horror. I turned to Wayne. The rhetoric had not disturbed him. He must have known the discussion topic beforehand, which could be why he had not collapsed into a dumbfounded stupor as I had.
“Hitler finished talking, and the arguing began in earnest.”
Andrew Johnson leaned back, his eyes closed, and he stayed silent. Sophie looked in David’s direction. David raised an eyebrow, then dropped his head to one side and tried to peer under Johnson’s closed lids. He looked back at Sophie, a concerned furrow on his brow.
“Granddad, are you okay,” Sophie asked as she rubbed his arm.
Johnson opened his eyes and smiled, then touched her hand. “I’m sorry. It was so long ago, but I suddenly recalled images so clearly that I could smell Churchill’s cigar. I hallucinate when I’m tired.”
“We should go.”
“No. I’ve kept this story bottled up for too long. I need to get it out of my system.”
David settled back. However, Sophie could read the signs. He was struggling with the credibility of the story. If she was honest, she wasn’t sure what to believe. But she knew her grandfather. He had never lied to her in all their conversations throughout her childhood. He had always treated her as an adult. A reason for her continued visits even through her teen years. With Granddad, she was a grown-up.
“What was it they were discussing?” David asked, still interested enough to be curious.
“The war had reached an impasse,” Andrew said. “Germany had failed to invade Britain and was struggling in Russia. Japan was taking more and more of Asia, but its forces and resources were stretched. Everyone in the room knew that the wealth and industry of America would tip the scales. But how long that would take was anyone’s guess. This was a world war. Thousands of men, women and children had been killed, and no end was in sight. The meeting was to discuss a truce and the carving up of the world along the existing lines of occupation.”
“Who called the meeting?” David asked.
“Hitler. He had achieved what he had set out to gain: oil fields and industrial might. Now he saw it as the time to crown himself King of Europe. With Japan as an able ally, he could negotiate from a position of strength.”
“Roosevelt and Churchill wouldn’t have agreed to that, would they?” Sophie asked.
“In the beginning, I did have my reservations, I must admit. Remember, Britain was vulnerable and just holding out. If Germany had tried to invade, it might have been successful. De Gaulle argued against the proposal from the beginning. But his position was weak, so no one paid him much heed. I never really understood why he was there.”
“And the Pacific?” David asked.
“This was tricky. The Japanese wanted New Zealand and Australia for obvious reasons. British forces were stretched, and the US was more interested in Southern America. They had already agreed that the Middle East and Africa would be carved up later.”
“Jesus,” David said. “And you recorded all this?”
“Not recorded. I took notes. But yes, I jotted down the gist of what was said and took photos. The camera, photos, and my notes would be confiscated before we returned to the US. Roosevelt wanted me to develop the film in my room later in the evening. Even today, all documents remain under the umbrella of the Official Secrets Act. Even now, if I tell all, I could lose my military pension.”
“Then why tell us, Granddad?”
“I'm an old man. All the main players are dead.”
David said, “And about the photographs? I can’t believe these men allowed themselves to be photographed.”
“Politicians were no different then than they are today. Stroke their feathers, and they will preen. Especially this group. A football stadium would not have been big enough to hold their egos.”
“That still doesn’t explain why John Wayne was there to chair the meeting?” Sophie asked.
Andrew Johnson smiled.
“Hitler was a fan of American movies. He had his own private cinema and would watch a movie most nights - movies denied to German citizens, so I’m told. Typical dictator. I can’t think of a dictator in history who led by example. Anyway, he was a huge John Wayne fan and insisted Roosevelt include Wayne and have him host the meeting. In my opinion, if ever there was a sign the man was insane, it was the moment he made that decision. There he was, slaughtering humans by the thousands, and he turned out to be a closet-adulating groupie. If Mickey Mouse had been real, he would have been there instead of Wayne. Hitler loved Mickey Mouse and, ironically, Jewish comedians. So anyway, that’s how Wayne came to be there.”
“And not Mickey Mouse,” Sophie laughed.
“Like boxers, they eyed each other. A touch of gloves. Then the sniping began in earnest. Stalin remained a non-participant, watching, seemingly relaxed and uninterested, but those beady eyes missed nothing. Churchill and Roosevelt nodded like puppets in a fairground. Then I noticed that although they were nodding, they were not in agreement with the comments by the axis leaders, just hollow gestures.
Then Stalin lifted himself up.
‘“Enough,’ he yelled, banging his fist on the table.
“I almost jumped out of my seat. The others stopped talking. All eyes were on Stalin. He jabbed his finger at Hitler and Mussolini. ‘I refuse to listen to these sons of pigs any longer.’
“Stalin glared at Hitler, and for a moment, I feared he was about to leap across the table and throttle the little Nazi shit. Hitler held Stalin’s glare, but the uncertainty was there, and he blinked first. Then the sort of tirade Hitler was famous for spat forth. It was Stalin’s turn to smile. I saw Roosevelt smirk and a quick flick of his eyes towards Churchill. Then everyone started screaming and yelling. Wayne let it continue for a few minutes, then banged his gavel and got to his feet. His size demanded attention, and, of course, he was an actor. He gave his best mean look, the one that had caused countless Hollywood baddies to tremble.
“The astonished leaders fell silent. Their interpreters and bodyguards were unsure how to react, so they did nothing. Stalin sat first, and then Wayne sank back in his chair. The tension eased. He had established himself as a chairman who would tolerate no nonsense. It was his finest performance if only movie cameras had been rolling.”
“From that moment, FDR and Churchill knew they would win the war. The alliance between Britain, Russia and the US was forged,” Johnson said.
“How so?” Sophie asked. “If they were about to agree to carve up the world a few minutes before, what changed that they could be certain they would win the war?”
“Because neither Roosevelt nor Churchill considered the truce a serious option. For them, their reason for attending the meeting was Stalin. Before the war, Stalin had signed a treaty with Hitler. Roosevelt and Churchill were unsure that with the German army surrounding Moscow and over-running Stalingrad, Stalin might grasp the offer of a truce to save his ass. His outburst said all they needed to hear. Stalin hated Hitler, and Russia would fight Germany to the bitter end. Hitler could never win fighting on so many fronts.”
“So you’re saying that you consider this meeting a turning point in the Second World War?” David asked.
“Yes. Before the Argentina meeting, the war had gone the way of the Axis powers. After Argentina, the German advance lost momentum, and the Japanese faltered. Like good boxers, the allied leaders had looked their opponents in the eye, seen weakness, and smelt victory.”
“And that was that,” Sophie said. “Did you go back to Australia?”
“It wasn’t over, Sophie. Not by a long shot. Later that day, John Wayne went missing.”
“The smoke clouds puffing from Roosevelt’s cigar reminded me of a steam locomotive. Something was up. Mandy stood behind him, her brow furrowed. The President’s spare hand slapped on the arm of his chair. He did not ask me to sit.
‘“Major Johnson,’ he said. ‘Mr Wayne has gone missing. I need you to find him asap. The plane leaves in three hours. I can’t go home and leave him behind, can I?’
‘“No, Mr President, you cannot,’ I replied.
“As I stood there, I flicked through a few scenarios in my head but had to concede that where Wayne might have run off to was beyond me. He had never been to Argentina before. He didn’t know anyone. I would need to speak to Juan Peron.
‘“I’ll go find him, sir,”’ I told the President.
‘“Mandy, go with him. Two sets of eyes and all that.’
“For the President’s benefit, I accepted the offer of Mandy’s help with the dignity the offer deserved. A few hours with Mandy was a pleasure I looked forward to. I could not take any of my men from his protection detail. Losing John Wayne would be bad enough, but losing the President is unthinkable.
“We met up with Colonel Peron in the foyer. I explained what had taken place.
‘“This is very serious. Mr Wayne should not wander the streets of Buenos Aries unprotected,’ Peron said.
‘“I can only think he’s gone to meet with Miss Duarte; he knows no one else,’ I said.
“Peron nodded. ‘Eva will be at the Radio theatre. She performs every afternoon around this time, and the nation tunes in. This she would never miss.’
“Peron bundled us into his military vehicle and instructed the driver where to go.
‘“John Wayne. He is a ladies’ man?’ Peron asked me.
‘“He is a film star, Colonel. I think ladies come with the territory.’
‘“He is married, isn’t he?’ Mandy asked.
“Peron smiled at me, and neither of us deigned to answer her. What could we say? That is not what we were thinking. Eva Duarte was a beautiful woman who would turn the head of the strongest men. Married or not.
“Peron worried that Wayne might have come to harm. The city was abuzz with Japanese and German agents. Neither lot would hesitate to kill someone of Wayne’s stature in a gesture to lower American morale. However, I dismissed the idea. Hitler had nothing to gain by embarrassing the President of the United States. At least, not before he had received an answer to his proposal. There was little doubt the American public would not understand Roosevelt’s reasons for attending the meeting. To be honest, it was a question I asked myself. To have Hitler and Hirohito that close and not put a bullet in their skulls would have been difficult to explain away.
“Peron left Mandy and me in the car when we reached the radio station. He returned after a few minutes.
‘“Neither your Mr Wayne nor Eva Duarte are at the station. We can conclude that wherever they might be, they are together.’
‘“Does Eva have an apartment?’ I asked.
‘“They would not go there. Miss Duarte is a woman of high standing. She would not take a man to her apartment. Even a man such as Mr Wayne.”’
‘“In Buenos Aries, if a man and a woman want to be alone, they might walk in the park. Or along the water’s edge. Many people use the park. They would be recognised, so I think the foreshore. There is plenty of it. They could find some private space easily enough.’
“Peron gave an instruction to his driver, and we found ourselves travelling through the shanty town that separated the central city from the docks. We drove along the front of the port until we could see the sandy coastline that stretched until it disappeared into a cloudy haze. After ten minutes, we pulled up beside a café. Wayne and Eva were standing beside the water’s edge. We decided not to interrupt the liaison. There was time to spare. Peron ordered coffees, and we sat and watched.”
“Were they cuddling?” Sophie asked.
“No, of course not,” Andrew Johnson said, pretending to scold Sophie. “By today’s standards, it was all perfectly innocent, but back then, a man and a woman alone, well… it just wasn’t done. Tongues would wag. Was Wayne besotted with Eva? I don’t know. That they enjoyed each other’s company, there was no doubt. He might have returned to Argentina if there had not been a war. The look she gave him when they parted left me in no doubt he would be welcome. But there was a war, and by the time it was over, Juan and Eva had married.
“So Wayne and Eva never saw each other again?”
“Not that I’m aware of. But I’m certain Wayne never forgot her. In 1953 he made a movie called Honcho. This was a year after Eva died and the first film he made after her death. In a scene near the end, his character looks across a landscape at the setting sun. He says, ‘the blood red sky is the same in Buenos Aries where sadly a light that shone so brightly for me has dimmed’. I believe this was Wayne’s tribute to Eva. It’s how Wayne would have done it. Actor to actor.”
Johnson sat back in his seat.
“And there you have it. A few days in Argentina that changed history in so many ways.”
“Interesting story, Mr Johnson,” David said.
“Aha,” Andrew said, a mischievous sparkle in his eye. “This is where a true journalist grasps the few threads of information and runs with it. Follows their gut instinct.”
“My instincts tell me it would be impossible to research,” David said. “Sophie and I would have nowhere to begin. You are the only living person who attended this meeting and can’t give us anything to back up your story. There is no trail. Even the John Wayne quote in the movie is meaningless unless the rest of the story can be corroborated.”
“I’m afraid I have to agree with David, Granddad,” Sophie added. “With the whole event archived to the American national security bin and most of the players now dead, all roads are closed.”
“And you two call yourselves journalists. I’ve given you one of the great war stories of the twentieth century. Your eyes should be filled with fire.”
“I’m sorry, Mr Johnson,” David said. “We have to work with facts. It’s a great story, but without evidence that the meeting took place, it is only fiction. Do you have a stamped passport? A copy of your orders from McArthur?”
“Nothing like that, David. In those days, no one had passports and orders for a secret mission were not written down. At least, not written down and handed out like a newsletter.”
David stood up. “I’m sorry, but for us to rewrite history, and this is rewriting history, we need supporting documents to show it took place. Great yarn Mr Johnston, I’ll give you that, and I enjoyed listening to it, but it is just a yarn, no more.” He looked at his watch. “Come on, Sophie, we need to get down to the RSA.”
Sophie stayed sitting and stroked her grandfather’s arm.
“Let’s put it off until next Friday. Granddad’s tired. I want to stay with him awhile. Get him to eat some dinner.”
David, uncomfortable, eyed Johnson, then flicked back to Sophie.
“No go, Sophie. It needs to be tonight. If I go it alone, you know it will be my project. The editor won’t be happy.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Sophie said.
David clenched his teeth.
“Right then. Your decision, but I’m off and won’t be back. You’ll need to find your own way home.”
When Sophie heard the door close and was certain David had left, she turned her attention back to her grandfather.
With a worried look, Johnson said, “You can spend the night here. I hope I haven’t got you into trouble.”
Sophie shrugged, then smiled, “Don’t worry, Granddad, I’m a big girl. You always said a good journalist needs instincts,” Sophie began. “My instincts tell me you have evidence of the meeting in Buenos Aries.”
Andrew Johnson smiled.
“Of course I do. In the scrapbook is a copy of the photos and notes I made before handing them over. I would have shown you earlier, but your friend never asked. He just told me I didn’t have anything. ”
Sophie hugged her grandfather.
“I’ll make us some dinner, then you can show me the secret stash.”