COMMEMORATION OF THE BATTLE FOR AUSTRALIA
A Battle for Australia Commemoration in the first week of September of each year is supported by the Commonwealth Government and major national ex-service organisations. The focus of the commemoration is the Japanese military attack on Australia in 1942, and the bloody struggle to resist that attack and expel Japanese troops from Australian territory. This time of great peril for Australia now takes its place in our national history as the Battle for Australia.
The Victorian Branch of the RSL initiated the concept of a national Battle for Australia Commemoration
Australias wartime Prime Minister John Curtin first used the term "Battle for Australia" in reference to the struggle for survival facing Australia after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. His actual words can be found in the quotation that introduces this web-site. Individual momentous actions such as the Battle of the Coral Sea and the battles of the Kokoda Track were commemorated after World War II, but the full picture of the Australian mainland under threat of military invasion, and the repelling of that threat, was first recognised by the RSL National Executive in November 1997 as a subject worthy of commemoration as the Battle for Australia.
Commemoration of the Battle for Australia had its origin in correspondence between the author James Bowen (right) and then President of the National RSL, Major General W. B. Digger James, AC, MBE, MC in 1997.
The modern concept of a Battle for Australia owes its origin to a private letter dated 24 July 1997 that I wrote to the National President of the Returned & Services League of Australia (RSL), Major General W. B. Digger James, AC, MBE, MC. I was then Honorary Counsel and a State Executive member of the Victorian RSL. The relevant part of that letter was as follows:
"When I was researching education issues as chairman of the national education committee of the Australian Family Association, 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 enemys soldiers on Australian territory and forced them to retreat The enthusiasm shown by children during the year of "Australia Remembers" indicated that young Australians are keen to know about the sacrifices made on their behalf by Australians who fought in war.
I wish to propose for your consideration the involvement of the League and DVA* in a commemorative week in September whose specific purpose would be to enable children to appreciate and acknowledge the heroism and sacrifice of the Australians who held off the Japanese invaders in the Australian Territory of Papua, and forced their retreat in September 1942. International goodwill could be fostered if one aspect of the commemorative week was dedicated to acknowledging the assistance of the native people of (the former Territory of Papua) to the Australians fighting the Japanese invaders."
* Department of Veterans' Affairs.
Major General James responded with encouragement to pursue the concept of a Battle for Australia Commemoration.
Major General James and I chose to use the term "Battle for Australia" to describe the clash of strategic war aims that produced Coral Sea, Kokoda, and Guadalcanal. That descriptive term was also used in deference to Australias wartime Prime Minister, John Curtin, who first used the term "Battle for Australia" in reference to the expected struggle for survival facing Australia after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese on 15 February 1942.
As a graduate historian, with a special focus on Japanese history and the Pacific War, it fell to me to define the concept and scope of a Battle for Australia, and to write a paper that justified commemoration of a Battle for Australia in 1942. At private meetings during 1997, Major General James and I defined the concept of a Battle for Australia that placed the great battles of 1942, including Battle of the Coral Sea, the Kokoda Campaign, and the Guadalcanal Campaign, in the context of a bloody struggle to prevent the Japanese achieving their strategic aims of controlling Australia and preventing the United States aiding Australia and using Australia as a base for launching a counter-offensive against the Japanese military advance. We were aware that control of access to Australia was considered vital by both the Japanese and Americans in 1942, and that both were determined to prevent the enemy gaining that access.
We felt that a national commemoration in the first week of September of each year was desirable to honour the service and sacrifices of those who defended Australia at its time of greatest peril. We wanted the commemoration to include schoolchildren and the countries that aided the defence of Australia in 1942, and these features were incorporated in our proposal to commemorate a Battle for Australia. These features would also be incorporated into the Order of Service for the first commemoration of the Battle for Australia held at the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne in September 1999.
It was agreed that the Battle for Australia should cover the initial landing of Japanese invasion troops at Rabaul in the Australian Territory of New Guinea League Mandate on 23 January 1942 and end with the Battle of the Bismark Sea, 2-5 March 1943. The rationale for defining the scope of the Battle for Australia in this way was that Japan was on the offensive against Australia from 23 January 1942 until its defeat in the Battle of the Bismark Sea on 5 March 1943.
When I first set
out to define the concept of a Battle for Australia, I proposed to Major General
James that its scope be limited to a series of battles during 1942 when the
Japanese threat to Australia was at its greatest and Australia's fate hung in
the balance. I proposed including the Battle of the Coral Sea and the bloody
Kokoda Campaign that took place entirely on Australian soil in what was then
the Australian Territory of Papua.* After discussion with the internationally
respected Australian military historian, Professor David Horner, and acting
on his advice, we expanded the scope of the Battle for Australia to include
the Guadalcanal Campaign, the Battle of Wau, and the Battle of the Bismark Sea. Despite its crucial role in turning the tide of the Pacific War against the
Japanese, the Battle
of Midway was not included as part of the Battle for Australia because it was a
diversion from implementing the Japanese master plan for securing Australia's submission to Japan known as "Operation
FS". I have
explained in greater detail the rationale for commemorating a Battle for Australia
in the chapter "What
was the Battle for Australia 1942-43?"
* Britain transferred full ownership of Papua to Australia in 1906. Papua achieved independence from Australia in 1975, and combined with the former New Guinea League Mandate to form Papua New Guinea.
In early September 1997, the writer discussed with the President of the RSL Victorian Branch, Mr. B. C. Ruxton, AM, OBE a proposal for national commemoration of the Battle for Australia that would honour the achievements and sacrifices of those who defended Australia from Japanese military aggression in 1942, and include major educational and international goodwill themes. At this early stage, it was envisaged that commemoration of the Battle for Australia would be focussed on the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Kokoda Campaign which included the Battle of Milne Bay. The special significance of the Kokoda Campaign lay in the fact that it took place entirely on Australian soil in the Territory of Papua. Mr. Ruxton approved my pursuing and developing this concept, and liaising with the RAAF Association's Victorian Branch which was already commemorating the Battle of Milne Bay.
On 15 September 1997, the writer began researching and drafting a comprehensive proposal for a national Battle for Australia Commemoration that would comprise commemorative, educational and international goodwill themes.
Proposed scope and features of a Battle for Australia Commemoration
The proposal for a national Battle for Australia Commemoration argued that the Australians who defended their country against a military attack by the Japanese in 1942 had not received adequate recognition for their heroism, sacrifice and service. It also submitted that the Japanese attack on Australia and its Territories, and the bloody struggle to resist that attack and expel Japanese troops from Australian territory, deserved to be described as the Battle for Australia. This term for the struggle would accord with the description used by Prime Minister John Curtin in 1942 following the fall of Singapore.
It was proposed that a national Battle for Australia Commemoration should comprise the following three major features, namely:
1. according national honour and commemoration each year in the first week of the month of September to the Australians who courageously resisted and ultimately repulsed the Japanese attack on Australia in 1942 in what can fairly be described as the Battle for Australia;
2. the education of children to appreciate, honour, and learn from the heroism, sacrifice and service of those who fought between 1942-45 to defend Australia from invasion and to expel Japanese troops from Australian territory; and
3. to build goodwill between the people of Australia and the people of other countries, and in particular, the people of Papua New Guinea and the United States of America.
It was hoped that it would be quite clear from these distinctive features that the Battle for Australia Commemoration was not intended to compete with ANZAC Day, Remembrance Day, Australia Day or any other established commemoration.
In proposing to tell young Australians about their countrys great peril in 1942, it was not intended to condemn present-day Japan or its people but to honour the courageous Australians who defended their country from attack in 1942, and in particular, those who died in the defence of Australia.
Considerations that led to the proposal for the Battle for Australia Commemoration to be in the first week of September of each year included the fact that the anniversaries of the beginning and end of World War II occur in the first week of September; the chronological sequence of the two Australian victories in Papua in September 1942; and the fact that on 5 September 1942, for the first time in the Pacific War, a Japanese invasion beachhead was thrown back into the sea, and this victory provided an important boost to Allied morale by proving that the Japanese soldier was not invincible.
On 30 October 1997, this proposal was completed and submitted to Mr. Ruxton for his consideration. In late November 1997, Mr. Ruxton submitted the RSL proposal to the National Executive of the RSL, which resolved:
"That a week be set aside in the month of September each year to commemorate the Battle for Australia in 1942 and that the RSL support this proposal."
The full text of the RSL proposal for national commemoration of the Battle for Australia can be viewed on this web-site.
The RAAF Association's Milne Bay Commemoration Committee supports the RSL proposal and changes its name
With the approval of Mr Ruxton, I accepted an invitation from the Victorian RAAF Association's Milne Bay Commemoration Committee to place the RSL proposal for national commemoration of the Battle for Australia before that committeee for consideration. I attended that meeting of the Milne Bay Commemoration Committeee and confirmed that the RSL National Executive had approved commemoration of the Battle for Australia in September of each year. After considering that RSL decision and the terms of the RSL proposal , the Milne Bay Commemoration Committee resolved at this meeeting to change its name to the Battle for Australia Commemoration Committee and to support the RSL proposal for national commemoration of the Battle for Australia. I was invited to represent the Victorian Branch of the RSL on the renamed committee, and Mr Ruxton approved my membership of the renamed committee which would continue to meet at the RAAF Association Memorial Centre.
It was necessary for me to record here that the Victorian Branch of the RSL initiated the concept of a national Battle for Australia Commemoration because the siting of the initial Battle for Australia Commemoration Committee at the RAAF Association Memorial Centre has led to the mistaken assumption by some that the Battle for Australia Commemoration was initiated by the RAAF Association.
The RSL paper containing the proposal for this new national commemoration was forwarded to the Papua New Guinea High Commission in Canberra on 15 June 1998. By letter dated 16 October 1998, the High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr. Renagi Lohia, CBE, stated that his country supported the Battle for Australia Commemoration.
On 27 July 1998, the Minister for Veterans Affairs, the Honourable Bruce Scott, MP stated that the proposed main aims of the new commemoration, as set out in the RSL paper mentioned above, had his full support. The Minister declared his strong support for the proposal to combine school education, encouragement of history teaching, and building international goodwill with the Battle for Australia Commemoration.
On 5 September 1998, the Minister for Veterans Affairs issued a media release which included the following comments on the Battle for Australia Commemoration:
"Todays Battle for Australia commemorations are a reminder to the community of how the actions of a valiant group of Australian servicemen helped prevent a Japanese invasion during World War II......Many Australians, particularly young people, may not be aware how vulnerable Australia was during World War II, or how desperate and costly the battle for our security became."
The Prime Minister announces his government's support for the RSL proposal to commemorate the Battle for Australia
At the 1998 RSL National Congress in September 1998 the following resolution was passed:
"That the RSL supports a commemorative day for the Battle for Australia on the first Wednesday of September of each year."
Speaking at this same 1998 RSL National Congress, the Prime Minister, the Honourable John Howard, acknowledged the establishment of the Battle for Australia Commemoration in these words:
"..we support the efforts of the RSL and other ex-service organisations to establish a national profile for Battle for Australia commemorations to remember the perilous times of 1942 when Australia was under very real threat and when Australian troops landed the first decisive blow to Japans apparent invincibility."
The first commemoration of the Battle for Australia held at the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne in 1999
In September 1999, the first commemoration of the Battle for Australia was held at the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne and I wrote the Order of Service for that first commemoration. The Governor of Victoria, Sir James Gobbo and Lady Gobbo were present at the ceremony. Representatives of the governments of the United States and Papua New Guinea were invited by me to attend and they were present. Of an estimated attendance of 1,500, at least 800 were schoolchildren. The Order of Service for this first commemoration incorporated the three features mentioned under the sub-heading "Proposed scope and features of a Battle for Australia Commemoration" (above).