"For there can be no doubt that 1942 was for Australia - as a nation and as a people - the most important single year of all those two hundred. It was the turning point in the making of modern Australia. In the fire of that tremendous crisis were forged all the elements which have shaped our national life and destiny, to this day."
The Hon. R.L.J. Hawke, AC, Prime Minister of Australia, on the occasion of Australia's Bicentenary, 1988
The Hon. R.L.J. Hawke, AC, Prime Minister of Australia, 1988
WHAT WAS THE BATTLE FOR AUSTRALIA?
In 1942 Japan launched a powerful military attack on Australia. Australian territories were invaded by Japanese troops in overwhelming numbers. Australian ships, both naval and merchant, were sunk. Captured Australian prisoners, including nurses, were subjected to harsh imprisonment, cruel punishments, and sometimes arbitrary execution. Australian cities and towns were bombed and shelled. This great battle for the survival of our country was fought across the northern approaches to Australia and the central Pacific between January 1942 and March 1943. The bloody struggle to repel that attack and expel Japanese troops from Australian territories now takes its place in our national history as the Battle for Australia.
THE ORIGIN OF THE CONCEPT OF A "BATTLE FOR AUSTRALIA COMMEMORATION"
Increasing national recognition of the Battle for Australia Commemoration makes it timely to document the origin of the concept. As a life-long student of history, it has always puzzled the writer that the awesome Japanese military attack on Australia in 1942, and the heroic struggle to repel that attack, failed to attract an enduring historical description such as "Battle for Australia".
Australias wartime Prime Minister, the Honourable 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 February 1942. His actual words can be found in the quotation that appears on the first page of this web-site. Individual momentous actions such as the Battle of the Coral Sea and the vital battles on the Kokoda Track (or Trail) were commemorated after World War II, but the full picture of Australia under threat of Japanese military invasion, and the repulsing 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.
In this web-site, reference will be made to the Kokoda Track rather than Kokoda Trail. Both usages are acceptable, but "Kokoda Track" appears to the writer to be a more acceptable usage to the veterans who actually fought the Japanese on the track in 1942.
Writing as Honorary Counsel to the RSL Victorian Branch, I first raised the concept of a Battle for Australia commemoration in a letter dated 24 July 1997 to Major General W. B. Digger James, AC, MBE, MC, who was then National President of the 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 proposal, and a copy of the book "Australias Perilous Year" written by Colonel John Buckley, OBE, ED, as a contribution to Australias 1988 Bicentenary. The words of a former Prime Minister, the Honourable R.L.J. Hawke, AC, which are drawn from the foreword to that book, and which introduce this part of the web-site, strongly reflect my rationale for proposing a national Battle for Australia commemoration.
DEFINING THE SCOPE OF THE BATTLE FOR AUSTRALIA
When I first set out to define the concept of a Battle for Australia, I proposed that its scope be limited to the Battle of the Coral Sea and three vital battles which took place in 1942-43 in what was then the Australian Territory of Papua, namely, the Kokoda Track , Milne Bay, and the Beachheads - Buna, Gona, and Sanananda. After discussion with a highly respected Australian military historian, Professor David Horner, I expanded the scope of the Battle for Australia to extend from the initial landing of Japanese troops at Rabaul in the Australian Territory of New Guinea on 23 January 1942 to the Battle of the Bismark Sea which occurred between 2 and 5 March 1943. My 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, and after its defeat in the Battle of the Bismark Sea, Japan was on the defensive.
An important issue for the writer was whether or not to include the Battle of Midway within the scope of the Battle for Australia. The defeat of a huge Japanese Navy invasion force at the Midway Islands in 1942 by a much smaller American naval force ultimately thwarted Japan's ambition to conquer and occupy the whole of the central and South-West Pacific regions, including Australia. Although no Australian warships were involved, the Battle of Midway was so vital to Australia's survival as a nation in 1942 that I have included it within the historical scope of the Battle for Australia.
SETTING THE BATTLE FOR AUSTRALIA IN ITS HISTORICAL CONTEXT
In creating this web-site, I felt that it was necessary to place the Battle for Australia in its historical context so that young Australians could appreciate how perilous the situation was for their country from January 1942 to March 1943.
I believe that it is particularly important for young Australians to appreciate that it was necessary for Australia to turn to the United States of America for help in 1942 when Britain was struggling to survive the combined military onslaughts of Germany, Japan and Italy. It was necessary for Australia to do so because Britain did not have the military capability to defend both India and Australia against invasion by the Japanese. Britain elected to give first priority to the defence of India, regarded by the British from the time of Queen Victoria as "The Jewel in the Crown". No British troops were going to be provided for the defence of Australia against a Japanese invasion in 1942. In fact, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, tried to prevent the return of Australian AIF soldiers from the Middle East and North Africa to defend their own country as Japanese invasion became ever more threatening. If Australia's great wartime Prime Minister, the Honourable John Curtin, had not defied Churchill, and demanded the return of two Australian divisions, there is a very real possibility that Japan would have invaded the Australian mainland in 1942.
For this reason, I have included in this web-site reference to relevant historical material which sets the Battle for Australia in the context of World War II, and briefly explains the roles of Germany and Japan in launching that war in Europe and the Pacific respectively. This historical material necessarily covers a broad canvas, and deals with Nazi Germany's path to World War II, from Adolf Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938 to the stage where Japan joins the Axis alliance of Germany and Italy in 1940. It also deals with Imperial Japan's military aggression in East Asia from the invasion of China's province of Manchuria in 1931 to its preparations for war with the United States and Great Britain which began in 1940.
The section immediately preceding the historical treatment of the Battle for Australia, under the title of "The gathering Pacific Storm 1941-42", deals with the developing threat to Australia in the western Pacific region, from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to the stage where Japanese troops have occupied the whole of South-East Asia and Australia faces the threat of invasion.
I believe that it is important for young Australians to learn about the courage, sacrifice and service of all members of the Australian armed services who resisted the Japanese advance towards, and attack upon Australia in 1942. Accordingly, I have included historical material dealing with: the Japanese air and naval attacks on mainland Australia and our adjacent seas; the loss of Australian warships pitted against Japan's powerful navy; and the loss to death and capture of units of the 8th Australian Infantry Division which were scattered across the northern approaches to Australia from Singapore to Rabaul.
As material becomes available, the important contributions made by the heroic Coastwatchers, our courageous Australian nurses, and the "Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels" of Papua and New Guinea, will be included in this history. This list is not intended to be exclusive.
For those who wish to consider the causes of World War II, the rise to power in Germany of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party is covered briefly in the historical section "The Lessons of History", which follows the material dealing with the Battle for Australia. This section also deals with the historical foundations of Japanese military aggression, and Japanese territorial expansion in East Asia between 1875 and 1930.
The development of the Commemoration of the Battle for Australia and its recognition by the Australian Government is also covered in a section of this web-site.
EMPHASIS ON THE KOKODA CAMPAIGN AND THE BATTLES OF CORAL SEA AND MIDWAY
It will become apparent to the viewer of this web-site that more space has been devoted to the Kokoda Campaign, the Battle of the Coral Sea, and the Battle of Midway than to other battles that form part of the Battle for Australia 1942-43. In the case of Midway, the writer believes that this extensive treatment is justified on the ground of its historical significance for Australia. If the United States had failed to defeat Japanese aggression at Midway in 1942, it is likely that Australia, Hawaii, and the chain of islands between them, would all have been absorbed into Japan's rapidly expanding Pacific empire.
In the case of the Battle of the Coral Sea, this was Japan's first attempt to isolate Australia from its powerful ally, the United States. If the Japanese had not been defeated by a joint American and Australian naval force in the Coral Sea in 1942, the Japanese would have captured Port Moresby. Once in control of Port Moresby, Japan would have been able to intensify its aerial bombardment of northern Australia, and our northern coastline would have been exposed to Japanese invasion.
In the case of the Kokoda Campaign, this was Japan's second attempt to isolate Australia from American support. Only the extraordinary courage and determination of militia troops of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion and AIF troops of the 21st Brigade, 7th Division stopped the powerful Japanese thrust across the Owen Stanley Range towards Port Moresby between 26 August and 26 September 1942.
If the Japanese had reached Port Moresby, then the consequences for Australia would have been as stated above. Until the Japanese reached Ioribaiwa, almost overlooking Port Moresby, the Australian troops were always outnumbered by at least five to one. For their part, the raw militia troops of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion had not even been adequately trained before they were pitted against the most formidable and best equipped jungle troops in the world. Conditions for the Australian troops on the Kokoda Track were appalling. The Australians were always heavily outnumbered; debilitated by almost constant rain and cold mountain nights; constantly denied adequate food, clothing, equipment, rest and reinforcements when they desperately needed them, and when they were fighting a fiercely determined enemy, who was always better armed, equipped and supplied than they were.
To add to their sense of neglect, perhaps even of abandonment, the Australian troops on the Kokoda Track also had to endure deliberate minimisation of the difficulties they faced, deliberate understatement of Japanese numbers, and unjustified denigration of their fighting spirit by senior commanders in Australia who felt obliged to find scapegoats for the consequences of their own neglect to foresee the Japanese overland attack on Port Moresby and prepare an adequate defence against it.
THE NEED TO TELL YOUNG AUSTRALIANS ABOUT THE BATTLE FOR AUSTRALIA
Owing to changes in the teaching of history after the 1960s, many younger Australians are either unaware, or only dimly aware, that Australia was attacked and Australian territory invaded by Japanese military forces in 1942, and that it was heroic resistance by Australians, aided by our American allies, which repulsed this invasion.
Young Australians deserve this knowledge so that each new generation can honour those who defended Australia from enemy attack in 1942, and make informed judgments concerning measures that may be necessary to reduce the risk of similar occurrences.
SOME JAPANESE WANT TOJUSTIFY JAPANESE MILITARY AGGRESSION AND ATROCITIES BETWEEN 1937 AND 1945
It was not initially the writer's intention to refer to the horrible atrocities committed by Japan's military forces during World War II, and following the unprovoked Japanese invasion of China in 1937 which lasted until 1945. However, I believe that there are two powerful justifications for me doing so.
Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were brutally put to death by Japanese troops in countries conquered by Japan. Captured Allied servicemen and women were often subjected to very cruel treatment, and sometimes, to summary execution. Since Japan's defeat in 1945, the Japanese Ministry of Education has waged a lengthy battle with courageous Japanese educators, such as Saburo Ienaga, to prevent Japanese schoolchildren learning the truth about the extent and nature of atrocities committed by the Japanese military during World War II and in China. In films such as "Merdeka", released in 2001, revisionist Japanese film-makers have now joined the dishonest campaign to deny the existence of these atrocities, and to claim that Japan's military aggression in China and South-East Asian countries was only designed to liberate them from Western colonialism.
The second justification is a push in Japan to rehabilitate the image of Japan's militarist wartime Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo who was hanged as a war criminal in 1948. Tojo was committed to a war of aggression when he became Prime Minister in 1941, and he ordered the treacherous "sneak attack" on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, which occurred without a prior declaration of war, and while Japanese diplomats were discussing peace in Washington. The recent Japanese film "Pride, the fateful Moment" (1998) exemplifies this push to exonerate Tojo for Japan's war crimes. He is depicted in the film as a loving family man, devoted to emperor and nation, who was forced to resort to war in response to unjust economic pressures exerted by the United States. After Japan's defeat, he is depicted as nobly sacrificing himself to satisfy America's lust for vengeance. The film has drawn large audiences in Japan and has been endorsed by some Japanese politicians as depicting a "correct" version of World War II. The "whitewash" of Tojo in this film has produced strong expressions of concern in China.
One of the writer's aims has been to expose the falseness of claims that Japan was forced by unjust economic pressures to attack the United States in 1942. The Americans imposed economic sanctions on Japan in 1938 only when the full extent of Japan's unprovoked and brutal war against China became apparent. Those economic sanctions were maintained because Japan refused to halt that war and expanded when Japan invaded French Indo-China in 1941.
The internet is a powerful tool for sharing knowledge that some countries would prefer to conceal or forget, and that is now one of the purposes of this web-site.
In writing this short history of the Battle for Australia, and the historical background to that terrible conflict between Australia and Japan, my purpose is not to condemn present-day Japan or its people, but to honour the courageous Australians who repulsed the Japanese military attack on our country in 1942, and to acknowledge the good sense of the warning from the distinguished Spanish-American philosopher Santayana who said:
"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it."
My purpose in placing this history of the Battle for Australia and its historical background on an internet web-site is to make it freely accessible to all who desire knowledge of Australia's great peril in 1942.
Two further aims of this web-site are to encourage friendship between young people of the countries involved in the Battle for Australia, and to foster understanding of the causes of war through the study of history.IN CONCLUSION
In dealing with the Kokoda Campaign and the Battle of the Philippines, I have expressed personal views concerning the military judgment of two very senior military commanders, Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey and General Douglas MacArthur, which some may view as being overly critical. However, I believe that objective assessment of those campaigns justifies my criticism. When soldiers are sacrificed to cruel death, harsh imprisonment or excessive hardships because of inexcusable failure by a commander to appreciate an obvious danger, and take swift and appropriate steps to meet that danger, then I believe that criticism is justified.
That is my personal view, but I trust that young Australians will form their own judgment of these two commanders.