The Eastern Chapters in Australia's World War 2 Story
Australian cultural leadership is dominated by a European orientation, which at times can result in the suppression of the Australian story and an ignorance of Australia’s place in the world. A classic example is the telling of World War 2. Not only are Australian history books biased to the European perspective, but as a result of that bias, they ignore Australia's role in the world’s path to war as well as its effect on Australia's post-war identity.
Arguably, the path to war began at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 when Australia opposed Japan’s proposal for a racial equality clause to be included in the Covenant of the League of Nations. The clause proposed:
"The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord as soon as possible to all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality."
In justifying Australia’s opposition, Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes stated:
"ninety-five out of one hundred Australians rejected the very idea of equality."
It has been argued that the real opposition to the clause came from the English, who saw it as a threat to their imperial interests but didn’t want to accept the racist tag that Hughes was willing to publicly accept. With Australian opposition so public, the British delegation stated that it could not support the clause because it lacked the support of its dominions (Australia).
Despite the British delegation refusing to register a vote, a majority of delegations voted in favour of Japan’s proposal. It was overturned; however, because chairman, US President Woodrow Wilson, stated that support had to be unanimous. (It has been argued that Wilson was concerned about its implications for race relations in the Southern US as well as US attempts to restrict Japanese migration to Califonia.)
The Japanese were highly offended that a weak nation such as Australia could publicly advocate that the Japanese occupy a position of inferiority. As the Japanese delegation publicly stated at a press conference:
"We are not too proud to fight but we are too proud to accept a place of admitted inferiority in dealing with one or more of the associated nations."
Privately, they were probably unimpressed with the British excuse about needing to support Australia and the American decision to overturn the majority vote. Reflecting that fact, Japanese nationalists used the clause's rejection to silence the liberal Japanese forces favouring western engagement. By 1923, Japan had terminated the Anglo-Japanese alliance and developed plans to push westerners out of Asia and replace them with an Empire ruled from Japan.
To create its empire, Japan needed resources and saw China as their best place to get them. In what was officially defined as an “incident”, in 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria (northern China) and established a puppet state. More incidents esculated into an official war by 1937. Considering the number of people involved, this could be defined as the start of World War 2 and from a Japanese and Chinese perspective it was (although the war goes by different names in both Japan and China.)
The actions of the Japanese in China did not go unnoticed in Australia. In 1938, Australian Unions in Port Kembla (South of Sydney) refused to load pig iron bound for Japan because they defined Japan as an aggressor to China and a predicted enemy of Australia.
From a European perspective, World War 2 officially began in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. Due to Britain's declaration of war on Germany, it also marked the beginning of Australia's involvement; however, it was not until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that the two theatres of war were combined and America became involved. In that regard, America's entry in 1941 could also be defined as the start of World War 2.
Once hostilities against the western powers commenced, Japan quickly showed that, even though Britain and America would not define them as equals, on the battlefield they were a force to be feared. In Malaysia, the Japanese were outnumbered by British allied forces yet still overran them in less than a month. At Singapore in February 1942, British allied forces had dug in with 85,000 men. A Japanese force half the size defeated them in less than a week.
With Britain being unwilling and unable to provide adequate defence, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin turned to America for help but it too seemed powerless against the Japanese. On December 8 1941, Japan attacked the Philippines, then part of the American Commonwealth. Despite being outnumbered by a ratio of 2 to 3, the Japanese took less than three months to defeat the American resistance.
With the Asian military strongholds of both Britain and America defeated, the Japanese turned to Australia, which had become the United States new base of operations. In May 1942, submarine attacks on naval vessels in Sydney harbour complemented bombing raids of Northern Australia that had been underway since February. Ironically, the attacks on Australia led to some displays of respect that had been publicly absent at the 1919 Peace Conference. Specifically, the bodies of deceased Japanese submariners were recovered, ensigns draped over the coffins and volleys were fired into the air by a naval saluting party. The bodies were then cremated and sent to Japan. A survivor of the mission, Teiiji Yamaki, would later say,
"I am extremely grateful for what the Australians did. It would have been unthinkable in Japan at the time to do that for an enemy country."
It is debateable as to what the display of respect aimed to achieved. Perhaps it was a genuine display of respect in response to the courage shown by the Japanese submariners. Perhaps it was intended to persuade the Japanese to treat Australian POWs with the dignity of fallen soldiers. Perhaps it was a display of respect that hoped to persuade the Japanese to show mercy if they eventually defeated Australia. Whatever the case, the Japanese advance continued as did ill treatment of Australian POWs.
In August 1942, a force of 13,500 Japanese men landed in the Gona area of Papua New Guinea, which was then Australian territory. The intention was to attack the capital Port Moresby, which could then stepping stone to the Australian mainland. On the 29th August, the Japanese broke through the Australian lines, forcing the Australian Battalions to withdraw. As word of the withdrawals reached military high command, it was expected the Japanese to soon claim victory. American General Douglas MacArthur even announced that:
"the Australians have proven themselves unable to match the enemy in jungle fighting. Aggressive leadership is lacking."
But back in Papua New Guinea, the Diggers, despite being down for the count, had refused to surrender. They had endured two months of retreats up and down ridges that were knee deep in mud, they had starved, they had suffered jungle sickness, they had suffered constant attack and still they had fought on.
In many respects, it was a battle to survive as the Japanese used those who surrendered for bayonet practice. The Australian survival strategy was to concentrate Japanese forces by holding positions as long as possible. Minor counter attacks then destroyed or delay them, thus giving the retreating soldiers time to set up another position to do the same thing again and again.
After two months, the Japanese began to weaken and withdraw themselves. Village after village was recaptured until finally, on the October 29th, Australian troops moved out of the dank rain-forest to halt and gaze at the distant sun-warmed village of Kokoda. A final push to retake the beachheads at Buna and Gona saw the Japanese not so much defeated, but annihilated. It has been estimated that of their total force of 13,500 men only about 700 survived the fighting, disease and starvation.
The defeat of the Japanese in Papua New Guinea was extremely significant in that it was the first time the Japanese had been defeated on land and thus it broke the spell of invincibility that had been cast over the allied powers. Ultimately though, it was American navy power and two nuclear weapons that broke the Japanese war machine.
In September 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allies and thus brought the hostilities of World War 2 to a close. It then adopted a constitution written by the United States. Among other things, the constitution stipulated that Japan would be a democracy with equal rights for men and women and freedom of expression. The United States then financed the reconstruction of Japan. Perhaps heeding the lessons of the past, a racial equality bill was included in the United Nations Charter of 1945.
Just as the war forced Britain and America to reconsider some of their beliefs, it also forced Australia. Under a slogan of “populate or perish”, the Labor Government of John Curtin launched a massive migration program aimed at Europeans. The Liberal party of Robert Menzies extended that openness to identity change by dismantling the White Australia Policy. By 1966, almost all conditions blocking entry of people of non-European stock had been removed and there were 101,387 Asian-born migrants in Australia. Furthermore, Japan had become Australia's largest trading partner – a position it maintained for 40 years.
In regards to myth making, numerous chapters have been selected and interpreted in ways that serve contemporary causes.
The insertion of a racial equality clause UN charter is usually explained as a response to Nazi Germany’s and Imperial Japan’s racially motivated war crimes; however, it could also be argued that the insertion stemmed from an awareness that Japan had been transformed from a strong ally to an enemy largely because the Anglo nations refused to extend them equality. In other words, a private acknowledgement that it wasn’t only Japan and Germany that had been racist.
The refusal of unions to load pig iron on ships destined for Japan is often celebrated by contemporary unions as the first time that a union strike became about social justice and human rights rather than just wages and conditions. While the myth represents contemporary values, considering that unions of the time were all for the white Australia policy, perhaps their concern for the Chinese was not as strong as contemporary unions like to promote. Instead, the strike may have been more of a reflection of fear of the “yellow peril” that justified the white Australia policy. Then again, perhaps the concern for the Chinese was genuine. In which case, the racist motivations of the white Australia policy have been over stated by historians.
Walking the Kokoda track has become a way of paying respect to the soldiers that fought the first battle in the defence of Australia. Former Labor prime minister Paul Keating publicly advocated ceasing to celebrate the Gallipoli myth and replacing it with Kokoda celebrations. According to Keating, Gallipoli was for British interests and we lost while Kokoda was for Australian interests and we won and therefore more worthy of celebration.
The Japanese ill treatment of Australian POWs is widely known but doesn’t have the same emotional outrage that the Chinese and Koreans reserve for the Japanese ill treatment of their citizens. Perhaps this is because Caucasian Australians have become very sensitive about being accused of racism thus would be fearful that denouncing another races treatment of Caucasian Australians could be racist. Alternatively, it may just reflect a wider cultural trait of Australians to leave things in the past and look to the future.
Curtin's request to Chruchill have Australian soldiers destined for Burma redirected to Australia has often been distorted. In short, myth makers propose that Churchill advocated abandoning Australia and wanted all resources directed to the defence of England while Curtin turned his back on the British identity to put Australia first.
Comparison of Australian soldiers to the Japanese
In the aftermarth of the battle, the soldiers gave honest opinions on their enemy. On the Australian side, it seems that after overcoming their initial shock, they had some respect for the fighting abilities of the Japanese, but contempt for their treatment of prisoners of war.
Jack Manol, Pte 39th Militia:
"I struck this, this Japanese officer and uh, well he rode through the kunai, we were face-to-face with each other and I think he was just as bloody scared as I was, and I was just lucky that I could bloody pull the trigger first. Anyway, uh, that was an experience that uh, I wouldn't like to uh...ever handle again, because that haunted me for years. When I went through this bloke's equipment and that, part of my job, I found he had photographs of himself and his wife and three little kids."
Jack Manol, Pte 39th Militia:
"They were savages. But, you know, they were still good bloody soldiers. But they were savages, there's no doubt about that."
Lindsay Bear, Lt 2/14th AIF:
"I'm not sure they expected any difference from us. I'm not sure."
Jim Moir, Pte 2/16th AIF:
"We heard all this screaming and yelling going on, which I often wonder whether they did this to boost their own spirits or to frighten hell out of the blokes that they're going to have a go at.
Bu, um, one of our blokes responded with a Tarzan call. It was even funny at the time. As he did, they opened fire and they cleaned the lot of them up."
Jim Moir, Pte 2/16th AIF:
"I mean, we know what they did to a lot of the others -- they beheaded them or tied them up to a tree and used them for bayonet practice."
On the Japanese side, there was respect for the fighting abilities of the Australians, but also some bemusement about Australia's informal behaviour, such as fighting without a shirt.
Pt Shigenoi Doi, Pte 144th Regiment:
"On the day we attacked, we had advanced and there was less than 200 metres between us and a young Australian soldier. He was naked on top wearing only his shorts, holding a grenade, ran towards us and threw the grenade. Even the Japanese army would not have the courage to commit such an act."
Lieutenant-General Tsutomu Yoshihara, chief of staff of Japan's South Seas army:
"In the Kokoda battle their qualities of adaptability and individual initiative enabled them to show tremendous ability as fighting men in the jungle. They were superb."