MEMORANDUM for:

THE PRESIDENT

VICTORIAN BRANCH OF THE RSL

A PROPOSAL TO HONOUR THE COURAGE, SACRIFICE AND SERVICE OF
THE AUSTRALIANS WHO DEFENDED AUSTRALIA FROM INVASION IN 1942

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.

George Santayana, 1863-1952


INTRODUCTION

The enthusiastic involvement of young Australians in the commemorations associated with "Australia Remembers" in 1995 suggests that we have passed as a nation the pervasive negativism of the 1970s and 1980s, and can now communicate meaningfully with a new generation about the great peril faced by Australia in 1942, and the courage, sacrifice and service of the Australians who repulsed a Japanese military invasion on Australian soil. In proposing that young Australians be told about our nation’s great peril in 1942, my purpose is not to condemn Japan, but to honour those who halted the Japanese invasion of Australia and to acknowledge the good sense of the warning from the distinguished Spanish philosopher Santayana, whose words are quoted above.

MAIN FEATURES OF THE PROPOSAL

The purpose of this submission is to propose the dedication by the Australian Government of a week in the month of September of each year for the purposes of:

1. commemorating and honouring the courage, sacrifice and service of the Australians who repulsed the Japanese invasion of Australia in 1942;

2. educating young Australians to appreciate that courage, sacrifice, and service, and to learn from it;

3. encouraging young Australians (in the lead-up to the Centenary of Federation) to continue the important work of preserving the memories of war veterans and relevant memorabilia in local communities;

4. fostering closer links between RSL Sub-Branches and local schools with a view to encouraging young Australians to appreciate and support the legacy and work of the RSL;

5. fostering the teaching of Australian history in Australian schools; and

6. building good will between the people of Australia and the people of Papua New Guinea.

THE CASE FOR COMMEMORATION OF THE DEFENCE OF AUSTRALIA IN 1942

During the year of "Australia Remembers" in 1995, Australian children demonstrated that they welcomed knowledge of the courage and sacrifices of those who had fought and died for freedom and to keep Australia safe from conquest. During several years that I spent examining Australian education as chairman of the Education Committee of the Australian Family Association, I discovered that many teenagers were unaware that Australia had stood in grave peril of invasion in 1942. I believe that we owe Australian children this knowledge so that each new generation can honour those who halted the invasion of Australian and make informed judgments concerning measures that may be necessary to reduce the risk of similar occurrences.

The first step in this process should be the according of national honour and commemoration each year to the Australians who repulsed the Japanese invasion of Australia in September 1942 in what can be fairly described as the battle for Australia. In case some may regard the term "battle for Australia" as being too emotive in this age of politically correct terminology, I will briefly deal with the factual background that in my view justifies the term. It is appreciated that many people with backgrounds in the armed services and with special knowledge of World War 2 will already be familiar with the events leading up to the Japanese invasion of Australia in 1942. For those who may not have that historical knowledge, I have summarised these events at Annexure 1 and included a brief description of the formidable characteristics of the Japanese fighting man in 1942.

In order to support the breadth of this proposal, I believe that it is necessary to outline here important aspects of the Japanese invasion of Australian territory in 1942 and the heroic resistance by Australians that turned back that invasion.

To appreciate that Australia was physically invaded in 1942 by Japanese troops, it is necessary to make the point that Papua was transferred by Britain to Australia in 1906, and that New Guinea became an Australian League of Nations Mandate after World War 1. Both territories achieved independence from Australia in 1975.

The Invasion of Australia in 1942

At the end of March 1942 the advance of Japanese military forces across South East Asia and the western Pacific appeared unstoppable. The surrender of the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) on 8 March 1942 brought the Japanese to our doorstep and exposed Australia to a Japanese attack. Fortunately for Australia, on 14 February 1942 the United States had committed itself to the defence of Australia by despatching troops to Sydney. The Japanese high command correctly perceived that Australia’s survival was vital to the United States, and the Japanese navy pressed for an invasion of Australia to deny the Americans the use of Australia as a base for a counteroffensive. In pursuance of this plan, and with the aim of severing communications between Australia and the United States, in late January 1942, Japanese troops under the command of Major-General Horii stormed ashore at Rabaul in the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea and overwhelmed the small Australian garrison. On 19 February 1942 the northern Australian port of Darwin was bombed by aircraft from Admiral Nagumo’s carriers en route from Pearl Harbour to attack the British naval base at Colombo in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). On 8 March 1942 three thousand Japanese troops landed unopposed at Lae on the mainland of New Guinea. The small Australian garrison had already begun to withdraw to Wau in the New Guinea highlands.

The Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway

In May 1942, a Japanese invasion convoy set out to attack and capture Port Moresby in the Australian Territory of Papua. The Japanese invasion convoy and supporting fleet aircraft carriers were intercepted by a joint American and Australian naval force, and in the ensuing Battle of the Coral Sea on 7-8 May 1942 aircraft carriers were sunk and damaged on both sides. With only one fleet aircraft carrier left to cover the invasion of Port Moresby, the Japanese decided to withdraw their invasion convoy to Rabaul and postpone the capture of Port Moresby.

A raid on Tokyo by Lt Colonel Doolittle’s carrier launched bombers altered Japan’s priorities, and a decision was made to challenge the American aircraft carriers to battle at Midway Island. In the resulting naval engagement at Midway on 4 June 1942 the American carriers won a remarkable victory over a numerically superior Japanese carrier force. The loss of four fleet carriers by Japan at Midway marked a turning point in the Pacific War. If those large carriers had been available to support Japan’s invasion of Australia, the fate of Australia may have been sealed in 1942.

The Japanese decide to capture Port Moresby by Land

Despite the loss of naval superiority at Midway, the Japanese decided to press on with the invasion of Australia. With the ultimate purpose of taking Port Moresby by land, a Japanese invasion force landed near Buna on the north coast of the Australian Territory of Papua on 22 July 1942 and pushed inland towards Port Moresby. With the advantage of overwhelming numbers, the Japanese drove the Australian militia units back along the jungle track which ascended the rugged foothills of the Owen Stanley Ranges to Kokoda. From Kokoda, the track wound through thick jungle and across mountain ridges to Port Moresby. In August 1942 General Douglas MacArthur rushed seasoned Australian troops to Papua to oppose the Japanese advance on Port Moresby. Fighting under appalling jungle conditions, the Australians were forced back along the Kokoda Track by the weight of numbers and the fanatical determination of the Japanese to take Port Moresby. Some idea of the dreadful nature of the fighting on the Kokoda Track can be gained from the attached brief article by Senator Julian McGauran. See Annexure 2. While the Australians were struggling to halt the Japanese advance on the Kokoda Track, on the night of 25-26 August 1942, the second stage of the Japanese offensive against Port Moresby was launched when troops were landed at Milne Bay on the eastern tip of Papua.

The Japanese Landing at Milne Bay

At Milne Bay the Australians and Americans had been developing a forward airbase since June 1942, and the garrison included two RAAF Fighter Squadrons (Nos. 75 and 76), and roughly 7,500 Australian infantry and artillery men and 1,300 Americans in engineer and artillery units. After fierce fighting, the Australian and American defenders repulsed the elite Japanese seaborne invasion force and inflicted upon Japan its first significant military defeat on land. The defeat of the Japanese invaders on Australian soil at Milne Bay had enormous psychological significance for the Allied forces because it proved to the world for the first time that the Japanese soldier was not invincible.

The Australian Victory on the Kokoda Track

On the Kokoda Track the heavily outnumbered Australians were fighting disease and appalling jungle conditions as well as a ruthless and determined enemy. The Japanese troops were suffering equally from the terrible conditions of warfare on the Kokoda Track and their supply lines were in chaos. Within sight of Port Moresby, General Horii was ordered to withdraw on 26 September 1942. During the Japanese retreat, the Australians witnessed evidence of Japanese brutality towards Australian prisoners and Papuan natives. Kokoda was retaken by the Australians on 2 November 1942.

Buna, Gona and Sanananda

In the belief that General Horii’s troops were beaten, General MacArthur ordered an assault by Australian and American troops on the Japanese at Buna and the neighbouring villages of Gona and Sanananda. However, the Japanese had turned the three villages into a strongly defended enclave and poured in fresh troops. With the sea on one side, and protected by swamp and jungle on the landward side, the Japanese took a heavy toll on the Australians and Americans over the three months of savage fighting in appalling conditions that were necessary to capture the Japanese stronghold.

The subsequent lengthy struggle to oust the Japanese completely from Australian territory is as worthy of honour and commemoration as the defence of Port Moresby.

I urge that the League support the according of national honour and commemoration each year to the Australians who repulsed the Japanese invasion of Australia in September 1942 in what can be fairly described as the battle for Australia.

THE NEED TO TELL YOUNG AUSTRALIANS ABOUT THE DEFENCE OF AUSTRALIA IN 1942 AND FOR TEACHING HISTORY IN OUR SCHOOLS

During my chairmanship of the Education Committee of the Australian Family Association, I became aware from contact with educationists, teachers and children that there were great gaps in the knowledge of many children educated after 1970. I was astonished to discover that many young people were unaware that Australia stood in peril of Japanese invasion in 1942, and that Australians had halted the enemy’s soldiers on Australian territory and forced them to retreat. Following upon the introduction and spread of UNESCO sponsored social studies in Australian schools after 1967, the systematic study of history and geography declined dramatically in many Australian schools. Many children educated during the decades following UNESCO’s involvement in Australian education have little or no knowledge of important aspects of Australian history and the implications of Australia’s physical location and remoteness from countries that share its cultural roots. The distinguished American educationist, Professor E. D. Hirsch, described this condition in children of the Western world as cultural illiteracy. A disturbing feature of the denial of knowledge of history to our children, and in particular, knowledge of Australia’s grave peril in 1942, is that they are likely to fail to appreciate the need for an adequate Defence Force to protect Australia. Santayana’s famous aphorism, quoted at the beginning of this paper, captures for us the risk we take as a nation when we deny children knowledge of our history.

For this reason, I urge League support for teaching Australian history in our schools.

The enthusiastic support from children for the commemorations associated with "Australia Remembers" indicates that they welcome knowledge of the courage, sacrifice and service of those who fought and died for freedom and to keep Australia safe from conquest. Important aspects of Australia’s involvement in World War 2, including the defence of Australia, have already been superbly encapsulated for educational purposes on a compact disk entitled Voices from a War by the Melbourne firm Ryebuck Media. That excellent disk has been demonstrated at our 1997 National Congress at Adelaide and to members of the Victorian State Executive. An equally superb educational video and printed resource kit created by Ryebuck Media, and entitled The Defence of Australia, appears to be an ideal starting point for telling young Australians about the courage and sacrifice of those who defended Australia from invasion in 1942, and I have attached this kit for your consideration. I believe that many schools have already received copies of this kit, and all schools should have it.

I also believe that the compact disk Voices from a War will be sent to all schools without charge early in 1998, but I have been informed that there are at present no funds available from the Federal Government to produce the accompanying printed educational materials needed to explain the contents of the compact disk to the children and to make this resource a powerful teaching and learning tool.

I believe that it is in the interests of Australia for the League to support the furnishing of both The Defence of Australia and Voices from a War, together with explanatory printed material, and without charge, to all Australian schools.

BUILDING INTERNATIONAL GOODWILL BETWEEN AUSTRALIA AND PAPUA NEW GUINEA

The Australians were not fighting alone in their battle with the Japanese on the Kokoda Track in 1942. Papuan natives - the famous "Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels" - assisted the Australians to convey their wounded back down the track and shared the appalling conditions with the Australians. Senator Julian McGauran has rightly called for greater acknowledgment of this important contribution. See Annexure 2 . Elsewhere in the then Australian Territories of Papua and New Guinea, the local native people risked their lives, their health, and the safety of their families to help the Australians. Many native people were executed by the Japanese for assisting the Australian soldiers and Coastwatchers. Australians owe a great debt of gratitude to the native people of their own Territories who aided them to resist the Japanese invasion in 1942. A commemorative week in September could provide a great opportunity to build goodwill between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

THE NAME AND FEATURES OF THE PROPOSED COMMEMORATIVE WEEK

The Battle for Australia Week

I believe that the successive defeats of Japanese invasion forces on land by Australians in the Australian Territory of Papua in September 1942 comprise important aspects of the battle for Australia, and that it would be appropriate to name the commemorative week "The Battle for Australia Week" and place it in the month of September of each year.

An important initiative has already been taken in Melbourne to commemorate on 5 September of each year the repulse of the Japanese invasion force at Milne Bay. The RAAF Association (Victorian Division), led by its President, Wing Commander Reg Yardley, took the initiative in establishing this commemoration in 1995, and it now includes army, air force and navy participation as well as service organisations. As Victorian RSL President, you have supported this initiative, and have appointed me the RSL representative to liaise with those who have established the Milne Bay commemoration in Victoria. The defeat of the Japanese invasion task force at Milne Bay has great significance for Australia. It was the first major defeat for the Japanese on land in World War 2, and the Japanese were defeated on Australian territory. I believe that the defeat of the Japanese at Milne Bay deserves to be commemorated not only in Victoria but across Australia, and that the date of 5 September should be the initial focus of the week of commemoration.

Whilst Milne Bay and 5 September provide an appropriate initial focus for a week of commemoration, I feel that the week of commemoration would appear to exclude the heroic resistance by other Australians to the invasion of Australian territories unless it was given the encompassing name "The Battle for Australia Week".

I recommend that the League should give its full support to this proposal for a commemorative week in September of each year to be called "The Battle for Australia Week".

A Battle for Australia Commemoration Council

Members of the units which fought in the Papuan and New Guinea campaigns, armed service organisations, the relatives and descendants of those who fought in those campaigns, and representatives of the Defence Force, should be invited to be involved in the commemorative activities. Participants in those campaigns, their relatives and descendants, and others with a special interest in the Papua and New Guinea campaigns, should be encouraged to form associations. The units, service organisations, Defence Force and civilian associations could all be accommodated under the umbrella of a national council.

I propose for that council the name Battle for Australia Commemoration Council.

Involvement of Young Australians in the Commemorative Activities

I believe that the commitment of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to commemorative activities, and to involvement of young Australians in those activities, provides a great opportunity for the League to establish an enduring rapport between the League and young Australians as our membership ages.

Accordingly, I urge support by the League for significant involvement of schoolchildren in this commemorative proposal.

Important aspects of the commemorative week could include wreath-laying ceremonies in Australian cities and towns, which should include representatives from schools, followed by a visit by a small group of selected Year 10 (average age 16) schoolchildren to significant areas in the former Australian Territory of Papua, such as the Bomana War Cemetery at Port Moresby, Milne Bay, Kokoda, and Buna. The children should be given an opportunity to meet surviving "Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels" and talk with schoolchildren of Papua New Guinea about the events of 1942. The purpose of involving children in such visits should be primarily directed to enhancement of international goodwill and understanding, and at the same time providing them with an important educational experience. International goodwill would also be fostered if one aspect of the commemorative week could be dedicated to material acknowledgment of the assistance given by the native people in the areas where the Australians fought the Japanese invaders. That material acknowledgment could take the form of establishing and maintaining memorials, including small hospitals, medical stations and schools in those areas, and providing funds for the training of teachers from those areas.

Schoolchildren in Australia could also be involved in the building of international goodwill by development of a sister school programme which would link Australian and Pacific island schools. Schools could work together and cooperate to raise funds to establish and maintain memorials that would commemorate the historical bonds between our nations.

Support of the Federal Government

Obviously, the support of the Federal Government for this proposal would be vital. Since the proposal involves commemorative activities at national level, a national education initiative, and cooperation with the Government of Papua New Guinea, I feel that an approach needs to be made initially to the Prime Minister for his approval.

I would be grateful to have your support for this proposal to be referred to National Headquarters.

 

JAMES BOWEN

Honorary Counsel to the Victorian Branch of the RSL

30 October 1997

 

ANNEXURE 1

THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND TO THE INVASION OF AUSTRALIA IN 1942

Towards the end of 1941, having acquired Korea, Manchuria, and most of eastern China by conquest, the military-dominated Japanese government determined to seize the Philippines, Malaya, Burma, and the resource-rich Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia). The powerful United States Pacific fleet based at Hawaii posed the only significant risk to Japan’s aggressive territorial ambitions. To eliminate this risk, and without a formal declaration of war, the Japanese launched the infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. The eight American battleships in Pearl Harbour were all destroyed or severely damaged. Fortunately for the United States and Australia, the American aircraft carriers were at sea when the sneak Japanese attack occurred and escaped damage. Within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbour, Japanese bombers attacked the Clark Field airbase in the Philippines and effectively destroyed American air power in the western Pacific. On 8 December 1941 a Japanese invasion force landed in northern Malaya, and on 10 December 1941 the Japanese achieved naval superiority in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans by sinking the British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse. Without naval support, and despite heroic resistance, British and Australian troops were unable to halt the advance of Japanese troops down the Malayan peninsula towards Singapore. Thailand surrendered to the Japanese in December 1941, and the Japanese were able to launch an invasion of Burma through Thailand. The Japanese invaded British Borneo on 15 December 1941 to gain access to rich oil supplies. The Japanese began their invasion of the Netherlands East Indies at Tarakan in Borneo on 10 January 1942. Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. On 8 March 1942 the Dutch surrendered the whole of their East Indies colony, providing the Japanese with the vast resources of oil, rubber, minerals and food which were one of the main reasons for Japan’s aggression. The Dutch surrender left Australia as the last effective bastion against the Japanese in the western Pacific and exposed to a Japanese attack.

The Character of the Japanese fighting Man

Before attacking Pearl Harbour, the Japanese had been practising their war skills against the Chinese since 1937. As a consequence, when the Japanese onslaught on Australia began in 1942, the defenders of Australian were facing a fearsome and battle-hardened opponent. To understand fully the courage and determination of those Australians who halted and turned back the Japanese invasion of Australia in 1942, it is necessary to appreciate that the Japanese military followed the warrior code of the samurai known as bushido. In practice, this meant dedication of one’s life to the Emperor; defeat was viewed as shameful; compassion for defeated enemies, male or female, was weakness; surrender was a disgraceful act; and those who surrendered were worthy only of contempt. It is necessary to appreciate this to begin to understand the brutality practised by the Japanese on the men and women they captured, and their brutal treatment of the native people of Papua and New Guinea who aided the Australian defenders.

RETURN TO: Commemoration of the Battle for Australia