How the Journey Started

The whole experience seems like a dream. I still find it hard to believe that any of it happened. I was 20 and back then Australia and its outback, a land full of exotic creatures and mystical aboriginal people fascinated me. I wanted to explore Australia, but I couldn’t afford to do so. To make it possible, I had this idea that I would move to Australia and work for a summer and finance my travels by working there.  During the summer of my junior year in college a million miles away from Australia in the University of Minnesota Duluth, I managed to obtain a work visa in Australia. At the time in 1997 it was very difficult for Americans to work in Australia, and only a 100 or so Australia work visas were issued to Americans. After completing a lot of research, paperwork, working with professors to obtain letters of recommendations, I somehow obtained a work visa. With this I could work in Australia for up to 1 year. After working odd jobs at home to pay for the airfare I set off with only a few hundred dollars to my name, a backpack, and a tent. I chose to fly to Cairns, in Northern Queensland because it had two things that really appealed to me:  rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. I had no contacts and no plan for my arrival. I would arrive in Cairns and wing it. I was young, carefree and the world was full of possibilities.

Where I Lived When Working on the Thin Red Line

In Cairns, I rented a room in a suburban house owned by an Aussie woman whose husband was off working on a commercial prawn boat. I wasn’t having any luck finding work and even McDonalds wouldn’t hire me. An attorney named Oliver who represented aboriginals with land dispute and environmental issues befriended me and helped me job search while also showing me around the Outback-Atherton Tablelands, where I participated in a cricket game with a group of locals dressed up in 1800s era pioneer clothing. Then one day Oliver informed me a friend of his in the movie casting business agreed to meet me in Port Douglas, 100 miles north of Cairns to potentially cast me as an extra in a movie. After a short interview, and some photos including of me with my shirt off, I ended up being casted in the movie, which I would later realize was the Hollywood blockbuster, “The Thin Red Line”.  I was told by the casting office that I would receive a phone call when it was time for me to report to work. The problem is no one knew when this would happen. So, I booked a campsite at a beach campground in Port Douglas and waited. I waited for weeks and still nothing.

Location of Port Douglas

Life in Port Douglas

I quickly realized that there were worse places to be waiting than Port Douglas. It was a beautiful, relaxed tropical resort town tucked away between the mountainous rainforests of the Daintree and the Great Barrier Reef. I used my time well, exploring the reef, and exploring every square foot of Port Douglas the 4- mile- long beach that I camped next to. I became part of the backpacking community and there was never a dull moment, even though I rationed my money to about 10$/day. 

Our shared campsite. Posing in this photo is the self-proclaimed exiled Croatian Prince-Joe

From the left my friend Dan, me, Joe and an Aussie guy named Mick

After a few weeks I lost hope with the Thin Red Line and I set off hitchhiking to Cape Tribulation/Dain Tree World Heritage area, where I camped in a wild stretch of beach bordered by wild jungle, crocodiles and coral reef. I remember walking miles down the beach without seeing another person. Cape Tribulation was where Captain Cook ran aground in his ship and had to spend some time repairing his ship before setting off again. 

After camping for a few days in Cape Tribulation, I continued hitchhiking along a dirt track through the Daintree. I decided to go as far north as I could get.  I ended up getting all the way to Cooktown a few hundred miles away via rides from a few different people I met along the way; one motorcyclist and another guy in a jeep. I loved the raw, grittiness of Cooktown, a rough and tumble frontier town with Aussie cowboys and aborigines and I wanted to stay there. But after a pay phone call to the Thin Red Line casting office in Port Douglas, I found out that they needed me to report to work in a few days. So I hitch hiked all the way back to Port Douglas and returned to my life in the campground there ready to start working on the movie.  

Cape Tribulation/Daintree Wilderness

My 1st Day on the Movie and My Big Kissing Scene

For my first day I was given directions to the movie set some 20 miles away from Port Douglas in a private ranch located in some obscure remote location. I need to report to this location by 6am so I set off hitchhiking from Port Douglas on the side of the road at 5am. I really wasn’t sure if I would even make it to the movie set. Luckily there were other guys in town working on the movie set and they picked me up and agreed to drive me regularly.

 

Me in my movie uniform on Day 1

When we arrived on set, there were numerous trailers parked in a dirt parking lot, tents, and a hundred or so extras-background artists and miscellaneous film crew, make-up artists, and directors. I was sent to the extras tent, dressed up in a World War II US Army uniform, given my props-a M1 rifle, water canteen, grenade, helmet and a dog tag. The dog tag had the name John W Tottle, which every extra was named. Once in uniform, the make up crew transformed us into looking like we were living in a jungle battlefield with mud on our faces and hair. To maintain our boyish looks, we were given a dash of lipstick. 

I found out that the movie was based on the World War II battle between the US Army and Japanese Imperial Forces in the South Pacific jungle clad island of Guadalcanal located in the present day country of the Solomon Islands.  I would be one of the US Army soldiers and ironically because it was so difficult for Americans to obtain a work visa for Australia, I was one of the only Americans that worked as an extra. Aside from the main actors, who were mostly American, the extras were all Irish, British, Aussie and Kiwi.

 

Me and the other extras marching to a set location

Afterwards US Marine drill sergeants appeared and divide all of the extras into separate companies. The drill sergeants were real retired Marine drill sergeants who were hired for this task. In order to help make a realistic war movie, these marines were there to help make us young men look and act like real soldiers. The drill Seargent’s did not mess around and on one occasion cussed my group out and ordered us to do push ups in the dirt because we failed to follow instructions properly.

Rules on the set were strict. Photos were banned and being caught with a camera meant being instantly fired and the camera being seized. This didn’t stop me however from snapping a few photos with the disposable camera I kept hidden in my pocket.

After we were marched to the filming area, we stood waiting for what seemed like an eternity with no instructions. Then one of the drill sergeants approached me and proclaimed to me that it was my lucky day, I would be in a kissing scene. When he said this, I instantly became excited thinking that I would be in some kind of kissing scene with a pretty girl. I became suspicious when some of the set crew including the sergeant started to snicker and smile. There was also one other problem, there simply weren’t any females on the set.  Nonetheless, I was voluntold to be in a so called kissing scene and even though i was apprehensive of what awaited,  I felt special for being singled out to be in it. Finally, I was pulled aside and taken to an exclusive area in the middle of this huge grassy expanse, where I stood by as the directors deliberated on how to set the scene up. 

Beside me stood a man who I thought was a stunt double but later on I figured out he was one of the main actors in the movie and the actor who would go on to play Jesus in the passion of Christ, Jim Cavezial. 

My big scene in the movie

The make-up crew placed a fake bullet wound on my chest to make it look like I had a gaping bloody chest wound.  One of the directors instructed me to lie down on the ground and lay my head on the lap of an actor from Australia. I was told that I was playing a dying soldier and that the Aussie actor was my best friend, and I would die in his lap. I would hear later on that the Aussie actor was pretty famous but I never did figure out who he was.

In my dying scene, I never actually spoke any words. Instead my eyes were closed and I was told not to breathe while the Aussie actor held me as he sobbed. As he sobbed, he begged me not to die. Then the scene would end with him kissing me on the forehead as a final farewell gesture. This was my big kissing scene and now I knew why the others guys laughed earlier.  We re-shot the scene maybe a dozen times before the director was happy with the outcome. In one scene, the director scolded me because my boxers were showing from my pants. The more scenes we shot, the more drenched my forehead became with saliva courtesy of the forehead kiss I received from the Aussie actor. In one scene he improvised and he cursed me out telling me not to *****die and in his anguish he kissed my forehead too hard and accidentally cut his teeth into my forehead. The scene no matter how un-comfortable it was at the time of making did go on to make the final cut and although it was severely edited to only about 5 seconds long, it is the only time you can see me in the movie. 

More set photos

Even though I died on my first day, I went on to work as an extra for another few weeks spread out over the course of a month. The pay was good and amounted to about 200USD/day, which I badly needed to sustain my travels. 

Most of the scenes I participated in were battle scenes. At times we were having the time of our lives playing GI Joe and being kids again but with Hollywood special effects, props and a real jungle setting. With our guns drawn, shooting blanks, we charged hills with Japanese actors on top while fake bombs were exploding, and WWII era planes were flying overhead.   Then during other times, the scenes were dull, and I was just part of the background next to a foxhole or a camp for hours at a time.

Movie set burned out forest 

Movie set

During our downtime, there was so much nature to explore since the set bordered the jungles of the Daintree. We snuck off one time to swim in Mossman Gorge, and we played a lot of Hackey sack. But for much of the time we just hid in a fox hole and took a nap waiting for instructions.  Sometimes, we would be waiting around in a battle scene that involved violent fighting with the Japanese. While we waited in between shoots, we would talk, or play hacky sack with the same Japanese actors were were just pretending to kill. The Japanese actors didn’t speak a lot of english but they tried.  One one occasion, I disappeared and explored an abandoned area of tents that were used by the big actors and directors. 

Exploring the nature around th set

The tents were stocked full of high grade alcohol and good quality food. When I was there one of the pilots intercepted me and we did shot of whiskey together. Some of the guys smoked pot-automatic dismissal if caught. I remember when marching in one scene, a marijuana cigarette fell to the ground from one extra’s pocket. An aborigine man behind us who was playing the role of a Melanesian man from Guadalcanal, politely picked it up and returned it to the soldier that dropped it. One of the drill seargents obsrved this and fired the soldier on the spot.

Me posing with Japanese actors

Big Name Actors

I was star struck by the number of big name actors that I worked with on the set. Since I was an extra, I didn’t interact with them and I knew that I was better off staying out of their way. Many actors were famous at the the time of the film while many others rose to prominence later in their careers. Some of the big names were John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Sean Penn, George Clooney, Nick Nolte, John Travolta……..

John Cusack and I

I was in scenes with some of the big actors, however I didn’t interact with them.  In one scene I sat with Dash Mihok with a cigarette in my mouth while he played guitar. In the background John Cusack and Nick Nolte walked by.

Not all of the actors were nice to the extras. John Cusack was a nice guy. I have been a fan of John Cusack ever since his 80’s era highschool movies so I decided to ask him for a photo, which he graciously allowed. Later I bumped into him one night at a beach bonfire while he was fighting with his girlfriend and after she took off in a fit of anger, he stayed back to chat with me about the movie and we shared a beer together.  Woody Harrelson was known for playing catch with the extras and smoking marijuana with them. Sean Penn wasn’t as nice however and he threatened to have his bodyguard punch me out if I took his photo when I met him at a bar in Port Douglas. 

Nick Nolte speaking with Director, Terrence Malick 

After working on the movie set for over a month, I was asked by one of the directors if I was interested in more extra work for the movie near the city of Brisbane, and in a new war movie in Thailand. I briefly had illusions of becoming an actor and maybe becoming famous but all of that came to an end when my good friend from the USA came out to join me in Australia and despite me pulling a few strings to get him hired on the movie, well we celebrated too much on the night he arrived-a work night and before what would have been his first day on the movie, we both were fired for being no shows. This was the end of my movie career. After my brief stint with Hollywood, my friend and I went on to backpack Australia and learn how to surf.

Visiting the Real Guadalcanal Battlefields in the Solomon Islands

After being a part of the Thin Red Line and acting as a soldier that died in the battle of the Guadalcanal, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the real battle and there is no better way to learn then to visit and see the Guadalcanal with my own eyes. So 10 years after working on the movie, I decided to travel to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. 

Location of Guadalcanal

The Solomon Islands is a tropical island paradise with thick primary rainforests still covering the mountainous interior. There are no resorts or big cities to be found on the island. In many villages it seems as if World War II could have happened yesterday because, so little has changed in the village life since. WWII battlefields and relics of war such as munitions, grenades, and even some human remains still dot the landscape. Many are concealed in caves and jungles others are easily found just by walking over a grassy hill. I hired a 4wd vehicle, driver/guide to explore some of these battlefields and to learn about the sacrifices that were made by the many American and Japanese soldiers that gave their lives fighting for their countries. I discovered that the land and its people were just as beautiful as the movie the Thin Red Line depicted them to be. 

Village Girl

Typical beach scene

I hiked to a Kastom village where the people live and speak in accordance with the old customs and I camped a night with them. Along the way we crossed the same river American soldiers faced bonzai charges and were terrorized by Japanese forces. I doubt that the area had changed much since WWII steamy, malaria infested jungles, lack of electricity and thatched roof huts.  One of the elders of the village in their 90s spoke to me of the horrors of what it was like to live through the war.

Village Elder Who Lived through WWII

Village children with blond hair

Despite the idyllic atmosphere, the land is tarnished with blood. In villages, children took me into the jungles and grasslands to show me where they uncovered buried grenades, many still capable of exploding and in the Solomon Islands villagers are still killed every year by unexploded ordinances. In some villages, WWII artifacts found are then sold to foreigners as souvenirs such as helmets, dog tags, bullets and even Japanese swords. In one cave in the jungle, we found remnants of skeletons from Japanese soldiers that had met their grizzly end there likely by flame thrower. 

Camping next to a WWII Japanese shipwreck that provided incredible snorkeling during the day

Village WWII Artifact Market

Battlefields where WWII artifacts are littered about

In the peace and tranquility of the battlefields, it was hard to imagine the kind of human suffering that took place some 70 years ago.  I sat on top of the hill by myself and listened to the wind while the sun set and tried to gain an understanding, but I just couldn’t relate. There was no way I could understand what the war was like. I knew If I would ever have any inlking of an understanding, I needed to find a veteran of this war and speak to them and hear from their firsthand accounts and this is what I decided to do.

village kid showing me WWII grenades he unburied. 

Meeting the WWII Veterans of the Guadalcanal

When I returned home from the Solomon Islands, I found a 70-year reunion of WWII veterans of the Guadalcanal. I knew I had to attend even if it meant I might feel a little out of place. To say that the reunion was inspiring is a severe understatement. The old vets consisting of Marines, Army and Navy guys and they were excited that I was interested in them. They were happy to share their stories and they did so with vivid detail and charged emotions. It was an honor to sit and listen to them has they exchanged stories with one another and it was sombering to realize that soon these men at that time many in their 90s would not be around to tell their tales for much longer and only the history books and documentaries would remain as their testaments.

Chester Thomason next his portrait that his late wife gave him-photo by my friend Daniel Gustafson

I became friends with one of the veterans I met at the reunion who lived in San Diego-Chester Thomason.  He was on the Navy destroyer-USS Monssen that was involved in one of the greatest Navy defeats in US history off of the Guadalcanal Islands. The Monssen was sunk in the battle by Japanese warships and most of its sailors were killed. Some survived but were left in the middle of the ocean at night to tread water while fending off shark attacks while the USS Monssen burned and sank to the ocean floor.

WWII Memorial Honoring Chester Thomason Located on the Top of Mount Soledad, San Diego 

Chester was one of the few survivors from the Monssen and he was rescued by Marines only to be given a gun and sent directly to the front lines to help reinforce the badly batterred Marine divisions in the fight against the Japanese. Chester’s stories were fascinating and even though I only knew him for a few years before he died, he became like a grandpa to me. Although I will never be able to relate to the experience of fighting in Guadalcanal, it was an honor to have been an audience to his incredible stories and I have gained an appreciation for all of those that have fought there.

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