I drew the short straw and consequently gave the address at the VP Day commemoration at Kedron-Wavell RSL on 15th August 2015. Since we do not want to waste effort I thought I would post the text here for the ADSO subscribers. I have a perspective influenced by my service in the RAAF and my experience working in Indonesia for the past two decades after resigning from the Air Force.
Veterans of the War in the Pacific
Ladies & gentlemen, boys & girls.
I am honoured to stand here with you today to honour those who served in Australia’s hour of greatest need, 1942 to 1945. Australians have served in other wars and other campaigns, but the victory in the Pacific Theatre where Australians faced a direct threat of invasion from a powerful enemy is a special event in our history that must always be marked as outstanding alongside other great national experiences.
Over the last two decades I have lived and worked in Indonesia, and one memory always with me is attending the dawn service in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Jakarta year on year. Many Australians will never have an opportunity to visit the places where many of our forebears lie buried in graves maintained with due reverence as an eternal monument to their sacrifice. As Prime Minister Paul Keating said in a Victory in the Pacific Day speech here in Brisbane on this day 1995:
“No Australian can fail to be affected by these places” – the war cemeteries.
On this day in 1945 there was dancing in the streets as Australians celebrated victory and hence the end of the war that had threatened the very existence of the nation. Those who lie in the Commonwealth War Graves could not dance in the streets, but their sacrifice helped to bring about the victory after long years of struggle and hardship.
Those of us born in 1945 or later years have little understanding of the times that our parents and grandparents lived through when the Japanese were on the doorstep. Of course Australians had been at war for two years before the Pacific war expanded to our neighbourhood. I am not forgetting or diminishing the efforts and sacrifice of Australian troops in North Africa and the Mediterranean, or the RAAF men who flew in defence of Britain and in Bomber Command taking the war to continental Europe and the air and naval forces in the Battle of the Atlantic. As an airman I have a special empathy with the aircrews who flew with RAF Bomber Command to inflict grievous damage on Germany’s war effort. The casualties were staggering in terms of those who died in action, but also the psychological effects of the repeated flying into fierce defences in aircraft that were unimaginably freezing and uncomfortable. Nevertheless today we remember the victory won in the Pacific.
The victory in 1945 was won after many reversals and defeats in the early years of 1942 and 1943. Many of our troops were locked up and spent the remainder of the war as prisoners of the Japanese after the fall of Singapore. As well as Singapore our troops were captured in the Indonesian archipelago, then known as Netherlands East Indies, and they also suffered defeat in New Guinea. The bravery of our troops could not match the overwhelming Japanese forces. After the Netherlands East Indies was occupied along with the Malaya peninsula and the Americans had evacuated The Philippines, Australia faced imminent and overwhelming threat.
Japanese aircraft bombed targets in Northern Australia and naval forces – submarines – attacked shipping along the East Coast – in fact into Sydney Harbour on one occasion. At this stage of the struggle Australian and Allied land and air forces in New Guinea and Allied Naval forces in the Pacific began to turn the tide. Naval victories at Midway and Coral Sea at sea and along the Kokoda Trail, at Milne Bay and Buna on land saw hope begin to emerge.
1941 and 1942 for the first time saw Australia look to the alliance with the United States when Britain could do little to help because of its own threatened situation and remote location. The United States was closer, albeit at considerable distance across the Pacific, and possessed dominating economic power. Most significantly the United States had the mindset of a Pacific nation. It is said that Winston Churchill was relieved and optimistic of victory after the Japanese attacked US territory, and he insisted on a Europe first strategy to prosecute the war. Despite Churchill’s interest in acquiring the logistic and strike power of the Americans against Germany, the New World power had enough strength and resources to devote significant and decisive force to support the war in the Pacific theatre and so ensure the eventual defeat of Japan.
The world war of 1939 to 1945 was the most significant conflict in which all major participants employed air power to target civilian populations. Australia was fortunate in this respect that while towns in Northern Australia were bombed we did not suffer the destruction, terror and death that civilians in Britain, Germany and other European nations, Russia, Japan, China and other states were subjected to. In the Pacific China and Japan experienced horrendous aerial bombardment. The Chinese at the hands of the Japanese air forces before the US entered the war, and Japan suffered the all-out destructive power of strategic aerial bombardment by the US Army Air Corps. By the time US air forces were based within range of the Japanese mainland the modern B-29 bombers could operate at speeds and altitudes that made interception difficult and they could carry a weapons load that would cause great damage. In 1945 the US forces employed incendiary weapons that wreaked havoc on Japanese cities that were particularly susceptible to fire. Records of the number of Japanese who died in these fire bomb raids are unreliable, but half a million is a reasonable mid-range estimate. This destructive fire bombing campaign severely weakened Japanese industry and national morale. The controversial final blow was the double nuclear strikes, the first on Hiroshima on 6th August 1945 and the second on Nagasaki three days later.
The debate regarding the justification for the atomic attacks on the two Japanese cities continues to the present. Fortunately nuclear weapons have never been used against cities after 1945, but the threat of nuclear war hung over the world through the last half of the 20th Century. Many forget that fire bombing attacks on Japan killed more civilians than the nuclear strikes, but a week after the first atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima Japan surrendered unconditionally. Australians danced in the streets. There was not much sympathy for Japanese at the time, even though the horrors that had been inflicted on prisoners of war and citizens of occupied nations were only just being revealed.
My intention here today is not to enumerate the service of all the Australian forces that contributed to victory in the Pacific. The Army achieved victories throughout New Guinea and Borneo with well executed and powerful amphibious operations culminating in landings in Balikpapan and Tarakan. The RAN supported allied forces in operations at sea, and the RAAF flew sorties throughout Northern Australia, New Guinea and the Indonesian Archipelago. The squadron I flew with in Viet Nam, No 2 Squadron, flew from the Northern Territory attacking Japanese forces in the Indonesian archipelago after having been withdrawn from the East Indies when it fell to the Japanese in 1942. The unit was recognised by the US President with a Presidential Unit Citation for its operations in the Banda Sea flying Hudson aircraft. The Americans praised the Australians for operating outdated aircraft in the face of Japanese air forces superior in performance and numerically. The unit citation was not formally presented during the War, and therefore a ceremony was held in Phan Rang, Republic of Vietnam while I was there to present the award made in World War 2.
Returning to my theme of the memories I hold of the Dawn Services at Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Jakarta. It is a chilling feeling to walk among the grave markers to read the names and service of those who lie there. As an air force man I was drawn to read those inscriptions marked with the wedge tail eagle crest of the RAAF. However, in that particular cemetery the most noticeable Australian graves hold females. Nursing sisters of the Australian Army who had been captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore and the Dutch East Indies and lived and died in adversity for the duration of the three years of Japanese occupation. Women played important roles in the war effort, those who died overseas on service and those who served in the Australian mainland. The services all established women’s auxiliary forces in 1941 or 1942. Apart from the nurses who served overseas and died along with the men in prisoner of war camps, the women who served in Australia made a valuable contribution to victory when the nation had its back to the wall to defend the society.
Finally I would like to revisit the outcomes of victory in the Pacific that affect us to this day. We live in a very different world. It is interesting and informative to read of life and society in the first years of the 1940s. The hardships at home with all sorts of daily requisites rationed and the fear of the telegram boy coming to the street. Some people here today would remember those times, and we should all take the time to listen to them to understand how things were. Strategically the world changed as colonialism was wrapped up over following years. Australia played a significant role in formation of the United Nations particularly through its Minister for External Affairs of the time, Dr H.V. Evatt. At that time Australia was a champion of liberating people from colonial oppression under the Pacific orientated government – the same government that saw Australia through its most threatening days. Within our neighbourhood we saw the emergence of the independent nation of Indonesia to our north. Only two days after the Japanese surrendered Indonesian nationalists declared independence in Jakarta. Unfortunately the Dutch attempted to re-establish their colonial rule that had been ended by the Japanese, and four years of armed conflict ensued. During this period Australia supported the independent state of Indonesia and represented Indonesia in negotiations to end the fighting.
Australia today is a Pacific power with strong relationships with our neighbours in the South Pacific, including our ally New Zealand. Relationships with our Asian neighbours go through peaks and troughs. However, the Second World War and its outcome has seen the liberation of all colonies in our region, with the exception of those under French rule. If there is one thing that stands out for Australia’s strategic position in the world it must be that our physical security depends on a favourable situation in the territories to our north – Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
Victory in the Pacific was won at great expense in terms of citizens killed, physically wounded and psychologically damaged. We would all hope that such suffering would move mankind to relinquish armed force as a means of solving issues. However, since the Second World War Australia has sent forces to Korea, Malaya, Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as numerous peace keeping or peace making operations in campaigns including East Timor, the Sinai, Rwanda, Lebanon and many more. Our young people still suffer the effects of serving the nation in war like operations. In this regard service in the armed forces is unique and cannot be compared with civilian occupations, even those engaged in emergency and police services. None of the people in those occupations are tasked with going out to kill or maim the opponent without provocation and not in self-defence. As one who dropped more bombs on Vietnamese than I would care to count I share the outlook of all who come back from active service to reflect on the actions we carried out, but nevertheless look back with pride that we did the right thing to serve and protect our nation. This is the lot of the serviceman – to serve the nation and suppress personal feelings in the interests of that service.
I join with you in honouring those who brought our nation through the perils of the 1940s leading to victory in the Pacific. To those who served I salute you and give you my heartfelt thanks.
Lest we forget.