Brendan Nelson commemorates the End of the Second World War in the Pacific

Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial, 15 August 2015, marking VP Day

BRENDAN + wAR MEM

Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free…….The first line of our national anthem – we sing it often, but how often do we really ponder its meaning? Life’s paradox is that what is most important to us, too often we are tempted to take for granted – families that love us and give meaning to our lives; political, economic and religious freedoms; being an Australian and carrying an Australian passport. We are free in no small way as a consequence of the events that bring us here today to commemorate the end of the Second World War in the Pacific and all that had preceded it.

Spanning six years, this cataclysm is the most destructive conflict in human history. The defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial, Militarist Japan – claimed 60 million lives; 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. A life was extinguished every three seconds.

Mankind moved from one age to another. The world would never be the same again.

Seventy years ago today, Prime Minister Ben Chifley addressed the nation: “Fellow citizens, the war is over. The Japanese government has accepted the terms of surrender imposed by the allied nations”.

Hundreds of thousands of jubilant Australians spilled into the streets of the nation’s cities, swept up in celebratory pandemonium. No one that day needed reminding of the value of freedom – or the price that had been paid for it.

But for the men fighting in the jungles of New Guinea, Borneo and Bougainville – their reaction to the declaration was sombre. It was one of conflicting emotions.

There was relief that the war was finally over, but apprehension about the future. They had been witness to events beyond comprehension and seen too many friends wounded, maimed and killed.

Lance Corporal Peter Medcalf was an infantry rifleman serving on Bougainville. He was 19 years old. Reflecting on the day, he said: “Strangely, no one laughed or cheered….All afternoon we sat quietly and speculated. We found it hard to understand fully.”

We were a nation of 7 million people on the 3rd of September 1939, when Prime Minister Robert Menzies performed his ‘melancholy duty’ to tell Australians they were at war: “We are therefore, as a great family of nations involved in a struggle we must win at all costs”.

Australia’s mobilisation for “total war” was unprecedented. One million Australians mobilised, amongst them almost 70,000 women. Half a million served across the world: from the deserts of North Africa to the Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union; from the skies over occupied Europe to the jungles of Malaya and New Guinea.

The ‘cost’ foreshadowed by Menzies six years earlier, included 40,000 dead, more than 100,000 wounded and 30,000 prisoners of war, most of whom endured brutal, inhumane treatment beyond civilised imagination.

The most important year in this nation’s history is 1788. The First Fleet arrived with its devastating impact on millennia of rich indigenous culture and custodianship, but from it and the pioneers who would join them through the 19th century, the origins of the Australia we now have.

The next most important year was 1942. Prime Minister John Curtin described it as “the gravest hour in our history”. Singapore had been Britain’s Asian fortress. Immediately after its fall, Prime Minister John Curtin addressed the nation on the 16th of February: “The fall of Singapore can only be described as Australia’s Dunkirk….On its issue depends not merely the fate of the Commonwealth, but the frontier of the United States of America, indeed all the Americas, and therefore in large measure the fate of the British speaking world. The protection of this country is no longer that of a contribution to a world at war, but the resistance to an enemy threatening to invade our shore”.

Bombs fell on Darwin four days later, the first of 63 raids on the northern city and of 100 attacks on the Australian mainland. Battles of epic proportions were fought at Midway, the Coral Sea and Guadalcanal. There was the gripping struggle at Kokoda, extraordinary heroism at Isuarva and the repulsion of the Japanese at Milne Bay. Three Japanese midget submarines launched an attack in Sydney Harbour.

The Second World War was no mere extension of the First World War. Australia’s vital interests were at stake.

A nation reveals itself in certain subtle, yet powerful ways.

The power is in the story.

Private Ray Colenso and his three brothers served in the 2/18th Battalion. He wrote to his mother as he left for overseas service:

Weep not my Mother darling
Drive away those tears
You think I’m still a baby
But I’m older than my years.

Now that I’ve joined the colours
I must go away … I must do my duty
As you would wish me to
Although I know it hurts you
To see your son depart.

Ray Colenso was killed in the defence of Singapore on 9th February 1942. He was 22 years old. His brother Bill was killed two days later. Edward and Frank would survive their captivity, but would never be the same again.

On the 12th of February 1942, just before the fall of Singapore, 65 nurses embarked on SS Vyner Brook. Matron Vivien Bullwinkel was one of them. Two days later the ship sustained a Japanese air attack in which 12 nurses were killed. Vivien Bullwinkel was one of 22 nurses on Radji Beach at Banka Island ordered at gun point by Japanese soldiers to wade into the sea. They were then machine gunned from behind. All except Bullwinkel were dead. Wounded in the heavily bloodstained water – a bullet having passed right through her body, she survived by feigning death. She would endure three and a half years in captivity and go on to commit her life to leadership of the nursing profession and the memory of those brave nurses who gave their all for others.

Sergeant Jack Sim of the 39th Battalion, a former shop assistant from Ballarat, described the conditions along the Kokoda Track:

Oh it was murderous.
It was that hard.
You know what was our worst enemy – the terrain.  You perspired all day.
At 4 o’clock in the afternoon it would rain so you were continually wet.
And it was cold at night.
It was so cold at night and boiling hot in the day time.
Some prayed, some swore, with fear – but you couldn’t show it in front of your mates.
One of the boys got shot fair between the eyes right alongside of me.
It was a perfect shot.
Buggers.
They used to attack us by screaming out.
Terrible to be afraid.
Yet it’s the brave ones that are afraid and still keep going.
That’s what they did you know.
Scared bloody stiff and still kept going.
They were so young.
They were so young.
I loved them all.
Nobody went to that war, or any other I suppose, that didn’t get wounded mentally if not physically.
It wasn’t possible.

On the 10th of January 1943, Salvation Army Chaplain R. Smith, from the 2nd 9th Australian General Hospital, wrote home from New Guinea:

Although I find this work a great strain I am grateful for the opportunity of serving these men.

I do not believe there has ever been a campaign when men have suffered hardship, privation and incredible difficulties as in this one.

To see these men arrive here wounded and ill from terrible tropical diseases, absolutely exhausted, clothes in tatters and filthy, long matted hair and beards … no description of their incredible suffering could possibly be an exaggeration…

I have seen so much suffering and sorrow here that more than ever I have realised the tragedy of war and the heroism of our men.

This was not about the forging of our nation’s ‘story’ or defining our place in the world. Upon the bedrock of despair and courage, these men gave Japan its first land defeat.

Prisoner of War Stan Arneil, of the 2nd 30th Battalion, described the return to Changi, from toiling on the Burma–Thai Railway:

It was a moonlight night and Changi with the tropical waters round the island was so beautiful.  I can still hear the squeal of the brakes as the trucks lined up.

The people from Changi knew we were coming, and they came over to see us, to look for old friends, and see how we were.

We got out of the trucks, a couple were dead and we laid them on the ground, and we lined up on the road.  We were not ashamed because we were soldiers, and we wanted to look like soldiers.

The people from Changi stood back and uttered not a word. It was really quite strange.

We lined up on the road as best we could and stood up as straight as we could.

Those who couldn’t stand up straight were on sticks.  And those who couldn’t stop shaking with malaria were held by their friends.

We thought this was what we should do as soldiers to say that we were not beaten.

The sergeant major dressed us off and we stood in a straight line as he went over and reported to Major Johnston.

Johnston went over to “Black” Jack Galleghan and he said, “Your 2/30th all present and correct sir.”

And Galleghan said, “Where are the rest?”

The major said, “They’re all here, sir”.

And we were.

Black Jack Galleghan, the iron man, broke down and cried.  It was an incredible scene. 

We wanted to show them we were soldiers.

On the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour, listed beneath HMAS Yarra are the names of 138 Australians. None is identified by rank or military honours. All are equal in death.  

On the 4th of March 1942, HMAS Yarra was escorting a small merchant convoy to Freemantle off Singapore in the Indian Ocean. She encountered three Japanese Cruisers and two Destroyers. Lt Commander Robert Rankin turned the ship to engage the five warships and as the convoy dispersed. She had been hit many times and was sinking fast when Rankin ordered to abandon ship. He was killed minutes later by a salvo to the bridge.

Leading Seaman Taylor kept firing the last remaining gun until he was killed just as the ship went under. Able Seaman John F Murphy was witness to it from the Japanese Cruiser, Maier where he was captive:

Silently we stood and watched the little sloop, white ensign flying and guns blazing against the hopeless odds….hers was a gallant death and one of which Australia should be proud”.

Bill Newton was posted to No. 22 Squadron in 1942, flying Boston light bombers from Port Moresby. He flew 52 operational sorties during his career, most were “against difficult targets under intense tropical weather conditions and enemy fire”. He was known as a “well-balanced” man with a “cheerful, natural and infectious personality”. He also possessed extraordinary courage. On at least three occasions he dived through intense anti-aircraft fire to bomb his target. On the 16th of March 1943, his Boston bomber was leading an attack on Salamaua through intense shell-fire. Though hit repeatedly by enemy fire with major tears to its fuselage and wings, a holed petrol tank, badly damaged engines and one burst tyre, Newton continued the attack. He then nursed the plane 200 miles back to base, landing it with a flat tyre.

Two days later he attacked the same location. Hit by flak, the aircraft burst into flames. Newton flew along the shore and brought the plane down on the water. Sergeant Basil Eastwood was killed in the crash, but Newton and Sergeant John Lyon escaped, swimming to shore.

Newton and Lyon were captured by the Japanese and taken to Lae, where Lyon was executed by bayonet. Newton was taken back to Salamaua on the 29th of March 1943 and beheaded by the Japanese. He was 23 years old.

On his last home leave, he had told his mother that he didn’t think she would see him again: “If you hear – when you hear – there’s a bottle of sherry on the mantelpiece. Have a drink for me….don’t make a fuss.”  William Newton’s body was later recovered and now lies in the Lae Cemetery. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

The Second World War had major consequences for Australia. We were transformed. Unconditional victory infused us with confidence, achievement and pride tempered with grief and fear of an unknown future before us.

After the fall of Singapore, we knew we could no longer rely on Britain for security. Instead we looked across the Pacific to the United States. Not a day should go by in this country where we do not publicly or privately give thanks for American sacrifice in the Pacific from 1942 to the end of the war – 103,000 dead; half those Americans have no known grave. The Australia-US Alliance would be formalised in 1951 – the bedrock for our security. American presence in the western Pacific would be the basis for stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.

The era of European colonialism ended. Conditions now lent themselves to an emergent Asia and for Australia to become a respected player in it. We had experienced our first ‘mass engagement’ with Asia – not all of it bad. Many veterans such as surgeon ‘Weary’ Dunlop advocated and built deep links into the region.

It would also herald a generational struggle between democracy and communism. The ensuing long and bitter Cold War would shape Australia’s view of the world and engagement with it.

Post-war migration from Britain and war-torn Europe, forever diversified Australia’s population and society. Women entered the workforce in large numbers, the war having changed their place in society and attitude to it. The rapid expansion of Australian industry and science equipped the nation for its productive boom. Ideals, perspectives, frameworks for belief and accepted norms of attitudes and behaviour – all changed.

Serving in New Guinea, the Official War artist, Eric Thake summed it up: “I am seeing so much every day that is new and strange. I am seeing in minutes and hours and days more than I ever expected to see in my lifetime.”

From the safe distance and comfort of this century, it is tempting to settle for the broad brushstrokes of our history. It is easy – human beings that we are, to settle for headlines, popular imagery and mythology; to forget individual sacrifices made in our name, devotion to duty and to Australia.

This generation of Australians now leaving us, whose sacrifices we honour today, is the greatest generation this nation has produced. Born in the aftermath of the war that was, growing up through the Great Depression and coming to adulthood under the shadows of the war that was coming, they mobilised to defend our nation, its values and vital interests.

They would then undertake the economic and social reconstruction of Australia, laying the foundations for the prosperity enjoyed by subsequent generations.

In 1998 I was the member for Bradfield, representing the people of Sydney’s upper north shore in the federal parliament. Three men of advancing years came to see me. Each was a veteran and member of the 2/30th Battalion Association and survived the brutality of imprisonment described by Stan Arneil. They came with concern for the difficulties faced by young Australians. These men had learned much in their lives and wanted to pass their reflections and wisdom on to the next generation. I agreed to help them apply for a small amount of funding from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to produce a publication.

A year later, a booklet by the 2nd/30th Battalion Association arrived in my office entitled, Getting On With It.

Two reflections stood out: “You might want to hate the Japanese for what they did.
You might never be able to forget. But I can’t hate another human being, I can’t.
I need to forgive and it is the hardest test of all – but it’s worth it because I believe in myself and I value others”.

Another: “I suppose compassion means being prepared to listen to other people’s point of view and respecting those”.

Their Australia is one to which we should recommit ourselves – an Australia that enshrines principle above position and values before value; one in which our responsibilities to one another, our nation and its future, transcend and define our rights.

We will be at our best in facing different, threatening horizons, if we triumph as they did – over fear. Fear not only of an enemy in war, but in peace – prejudicial fear of the unfamiliar and the unknown.

The second paradox is that the most fragile yet powerful of human emotions is – hope. It is the belief in a better future – for ourselves, our families and our nation. It is helping – and being helped in shaping that future, as individuals and as a people that most inspires and sustains hope. Men and women reaching out in selfless support of one another in the face of unimaginable adversity is why we pause here today.

Let us inspire the next generation to embrace the world as confident, compassionate people, imbued with this legacy. It is one of endurance, courage and understanding that in facing new and emerging horizons, what they will need most is – one another.

For we are young and we are free.

Lest we forget.

Brendan Nelson

Date: Saturday 15 August 2015

Speaker: Dr Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial

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Filed under atrocities, Australian culture, australian media, cultural transmission, Fascism, historical interpretation, law of armed conflict, life stories, military strategy, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, self-reflexivity, the imaginary and the real, war crimes, war reportage, world events & processes

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