Category Archives: WWII
Today (August 5) marks the 75th anniversary of Australia’s largest prison escape: the Cowra breakout, in New South Wales, during the second world war. In fact, it is one of the largest prison escapes in world history, but unless you are a keen war historian you may have never heard about it.
A small farming community was forever changed in 1944, when the sound of a bugle cut through the crisp night air at the Cowra Prisoner of War camp.
Rushing through a hail of bullets fired by the Australian guards, hundreds of prisoners escaped into the countryside. In the following days, 334 prisoners were recaptured.
As the dust settled, many would question why the prisoners would attempt such a bold and ultimately lethal escape plan. How do we as a society make sense of such bloodshed?
From non-fiction to fiction
While there have been a number of non-fiction works written on this event by authors such as Hugh Clarke, Charlotte Carr-Gregg, and Harry Gordon, it is works of fiction that have sought to fill in the gaps of history. They give us a way of understanding the incomprehensible.
The first author to do so was Australian poet and novelist Kenneth Seaforth Mackenzie. Mackenzie was stationed at Cowra during WWII and was on duty the night of the breakout.
His novel Dead Men Rising was based on his experiences. Because of this, the book was initially halted from Australian release due to the publisher’s fears of libel claims.
The book was released in the UK and USA in 1951 but Australian readers had to wait until 1969, several years after Mackenzie’s death, to read his interpretation of the event.
Dead Men Rising is largely focused on camp life through the eyes of the guards in the lead up to the break out. There is little interaction with the Japanese inmates who are represented as “un-human”, “animal-like” and “unpredictable”.
Mackenzie depicts them as utterly foreign and incomprehensible to the Australian soldiers. This narrative likely reflects attitudes at the time with anti-Japanese sentiment still high in the early post-war years.
A Japanese perspective
Several years later, Japanese author and former military doctor Teruhiko Asada, wrote Hiroku Kaura no Bōdō a title that translates as “The Secret Record of the Cowra Riot” in 1967.
It was received eagerly by English speaking audiences when it was translated by former Australian soldier and interpreter Ray Cowan in 1970 under the sensationalist title The Night of a Thousand Suicides.
Presented as a first-person narrative, the story had an intimate feel lacking in previous accounts, which led to some claiming the book was more fact than fiction, no doubt reinforced by Cowan’s inclusion of photographs from the Australian War Memorial. But this attribution is problematic given Asada was never imprisoned at Cowra.
Alternating between an Australian and a Japanese perspective of the war, this novel highlights the unlikely similarities shared between the story’s two opposing protagonists, an ex-farmer from occupied New Guinea and an imprisoned Japanese Sergeant.
The coming of age novel depicts a young boy who seeks to help the “samurai” escape from the POW camp, amid a backdrop of familial trauma and the hardships of rural life.
The boy’s innocence highlights the inherent racism, bigotry and violence that permeate the town’s pleasant façade, disrupting the notion that the “enemies” are the ones behind the barbed wire fence.
In 1989 Thomas Keneally revised and republished his 1965 novel The Fear.
The 1965 edition drew upon his boyhood memories of the breakout with this work briefly depicting the camp and subsequent breakout in the latter half of the book.
With this fresh perspective, Keneally returned again to the breakout in 2013 with Shame and the Captives which is set in the town of Gawell, a fictionalised version of Cowra.
Keneally said in his introduction that now, rather than drawing on his faulty memories of childhood, he spent considerable time researching the historical event which informs his work.
By aiming to create a “a truth in this fiction” Keneally hoped to “interpret the phenomenon of Cowra”. His reimagining included explorations of Italian and Korean POWs who were also held at Cowra, but whose stories are often overlooked.
The most recent work which revisits the breakout is by Wiradjuri author Anita Heiss.
Issues of race, discrimination and loyalty take on a new sense of urgency in this wartime setting, yet also highlight that while much has changed in the last 75 years, so much has stayed the same.
Heiss echoed this view when she asserted there “are lessons still to be learned from the history of Cowra”, lamenting the regression in Australia’s treatment of detainees in centres such as Manus Island or Don Dale.
From this bloody chapter of history, the township of Cowra – today, a four hour drive inland from Sydney – has moved forward to promote itself as a beacon of peace, friendship, and understanding.
In a show of respect for the dead, the Cowra RSL Sub-branch cared for the Japanese burial ground informally until eventually the graves were relocated to what is now the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery, which opened in 1964.
The gardens and the cemetery were symbolically linked by an avenue of cherry blossoms in 1988, and in 1992 Cowra was awarded further recognition to its peace efforts with The Australian World Peace Bell.
July 1 marked the 80th anniversary of Australia’s iron ore embargo against Japan. The official reason was resource conservation, but the ban was really driven by a fear of Japan – which had been buying up assets like iron ore and scrap metal – gaining a stronghold in Australia that threatened our sovereignty and security.
Despite the passing of 80 years, Australia is having the same discussions we had back in 1938, only this time about China.
China’s growing commercial influence in Australia and other Asia-Pacific countries has sparked concerns about its political ambitions. Responding to these concerns with economic sanctions is likely only to pander to US desires to curb Chinese influence, placing Australia’s economic future and regional security at risk.
The economic sanctions Japan faced in the 1930s and early 1940s contributed in large part to the outbreak of the Pacific War.
With the recent tit-for-tat US and Chinese trade restrictions, is the world heading down a similar path?
What can we do differently this time around?
Australia must recast its foreign policy with a view to the role it wishes to play in its immediate region. This needs to be a little more adventurous than the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.
The Australia of the 1930s faced a region in flux. There were territorial disputes, the waning power of Britain – Australia’s primary ally and protector – and the growing military and commercial weight of regional power Japan, whose intentions remained unclear. Sound familiar?
In early 1937, fears emerged of a world steel shortage. While iron ore restrictions were being introduced elsewhere, the Australian government maintained that it was not a lack of resources that had created a shortage but an inadequate output.
It came as quite a surprise then, in May 1938, when the Australian government announced an embargo on iron ore exports, effective July 1 1938. The government cited a (then) recent and very brief report, compiled by the Commonwealth government geological adviser, which concluded iron ore deposits were much smaller than had been estimated and perhaps would not meet domestic needs.
The embargo included existing agreements with foreign investors, such as the Japanese lease at the Yampi Sound mines in Western Australia, where preparations for the first iron ore extraction were well under way.
The government stressed that the embargo was not due to anti-Japanese sentiment. Nevertheless, this was the conclusion the Japanese government drew as it tried and failed to secure access to the Yampi Sound project.
The size of Australia’s current iron ore exports calls into question the logic of this report and the export ban it led to.
A foreign foothold in Australian territory
Throughout the 1930s, Japan pursued a policy of southward expansion, both territorial and economic in nature. At the centre of this policy was the need for resources to cater for Japan’s rapidly growing population. This involved the “economic penetration” of Far Eastern nations, investing Japanese capital to secure essential goods.
Australia, still recovering from the Great Depression, welcomed these investments.
Japan’s visions for territorial expansions became clear in July 1937. Japan – as Australia had long feared – proved itself an aggressor when its army invaded China, signalling the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Australia opted for a diplomatic response to this conflict, remaining impartial and encouraging “cooperation and conciliation” as the solution.
However, Japanese economic investments were being viewed with increasing caution.
Australia’s trade commissioner in Tokyo, Eric E. Longfield Lloyd, reported that Japan’s territorial expansion into China had been aided by a seemingly innocent system of economic penetration throughout the 1920s and ’30s. He feared that allowing the Yampi Sound project to continue, operated as it was by Japanese staff, would result in a “foreign foothold” in Australian territory.
Longfield Lloyd pressed for the project’s cancellation “by any means whatsoever”. One proposal was was an export embargo “by declaration of insufficiency”.
Here was the origin of the 1938 iron ore embargo.
Much like in 1938, today’s fears about Chinese investments hinge on the question of political influence and security implications.
Further afield, China’s vast infrastructure program, the Belt and Road Initiative, has sparked speculation that the nation is using chequebook diplomacy – and perhaps debt-book diplomacy – to secure economic leverage and gain greater influence in regional and global affairs.
This is of particular concern in Australia’s immediate sphere of influence, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.
Most recently, the Australian government sought to protect its diplomatic and security interests when it outbid the Chinese telecom giant Huawei for the rights to construct a network of internet cables linking the Solomon Islands to Sydney.
Time for a long-range view of Australia and its foreign policy
The economic pressure exerted on Japan in the 1930s and early 1940s – in which Australia was by no means alone, with the US and Britain leading the charge – deprived the nation of its means of survival. This hastened the campaign of aggressive regional conquest in pursuit of raw materials that eventually led to Pacific War.
To be sure, China’s current economic position makes it unlikely that trade sanctions will lead to armed conflict. But throw in territorial disputes, erratic leadership, the US-China struggle for Pacific dominance, and the future seems a lot less certain.
With all this in mind, the 1938 iron ore embargo does serve as a warning against over-reliance and a blinkered outlook that sees only potential dangers in our immediate region.
Now is the time for Australian to broaden its foreign relations, avoiding the potential downfall of over-reliance on the Chinese market and the US alliance, while building new diplomatic ties.
There is such an opportunity in Australia’s neighbourhood, “that part of the world”, as shadow defence minister Richard Marles recently argued, “in which our influence matters the greatest. What we say and do in the Pacific carries enormous weight.”
Australia must take the initiative in its immediate region to develop varied and mutually beneficial economic, diplomatic and strategic relationships.
In this way, Australia can strengthen its own economy, the economies nearby and its role as a regional leader and collaborator.
Five thousand Australian nurses served during the second world war. The most famous of these, Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel, survived a massacre on Bangka Island, and Japanese “hell camps” in Sumatra.
For many other nurses, life in WWII was by turns tedious, perilous and adventurous. Dorothy Janet Campbell was one of the vast majority who survived without capture, imprisonment or fatal illness. Her experiences are caught in her extensive diaries and photographs shared here by her niece Janet Scarfe.
South Australian Dorothy Campbell (known throughout her life to all as “Puss”) served in the Australian Army Nursing Service from 1940 to 1946, in England during the Blitz, in the Western Desert during the siege of Tobruk, in Papua New Guinea, and in Queensland and South Australia.
She spent many nights in air raid shelters and nursing in a tin hat but she was never directly bombed on land or sea.
Campbell’s diaries and photos record the nurses’ day to day lives, mostly away from the wards. She and her friends took full advantage of their split shifts and days off. There were sherry parties, tennis and golf, and sightseeing.
For all that, Campbell’s “real work” was “looking after our boys”. Long periods of inactivity, such as waiting for hospitals to be set up or weeks at sea became tedious, despite the games and socialising.
Campbell nursed in several hospitals that were state of the art, including the Australian Hospital in Surrey and in the Greek hospital in Alexandria. She also worked in freezing tents in Queensland and grass huts in Buna in Papua New Guinea.
She was devoted to her patients – provided they were genuine. She deplored the “B Class” men she nursed in England in 1940. Deemed unfit for service and awaiting repatriation to Australia, they made difficult patients, malingering, drunk and dismissive of the nurses’ orders. By contrast, the sick and wounded evacuated straight from Tobruk received her complete attention:
How I love to be able to help them, and to listen to their great stories they tell … it makes one feel and realise what a dreadful thing war is …
Occasionally she described cases as “very interesting” or “difficult” but mostly her comments relating to work were “busy”, “very busy” or “dog-tired”. Comparisons between her diary entries and the hospital daily war diary show what an expert in understatement she was.
Campbell was never too tired to sight see. She loved England and Scotland. In Alexandria, she sponged her patients very early one Saturday morning, rushed off duty and caught the train to Cairo with several nurses and officers. They shopped, dined and danced till late, saw the sphinx and pyramids, rode camels and donkeys, had their fortunes told (“damn lot of rot”) then caught a small plane back to Alexandria on Sunday afternoon.
She and the other nurses had a rich social life. In Alexandria, there were sea bathing and sailing, occasional dinners with colonels yearning for some female company, mosques to visit, and customs to marvel at.
The American base near Buna guaranteed a rich social life. She learned to drive a jeep, spent time off socialising with American officers and fell for one who was charming but duplicitous.
Campbell’s diary entries change over the years. Exhaustion and monotony set in as the war ground on. England, Egypt and Papua New Guinea were highlights.
Queensland in 1942-43 and 1945 was dull and she never liked dull. Entries from Townsville in 1945 were brief and largely confined to golf games (nine holes most days between shifts) and the narrow-minded matron. There were few photos. Her exaltation at the news of peace was personal, professional and patriotic. Here are her diary entries for 15th and 16th August 1945:
Very exciting day PEACE. Every body very excited – Party arranged in Red + Hut for all Hosp. (pts and staff.) – had few drinks in our Mess first, then… went to Sgts Mess – and then to dance, and then on to Officers Mess and spent very bright evening happiest night ever spent in army – felt rather ill and went out for walk…
Thursday Aug 16th [Townsville].
Terriffic [sic] headache., after a few hrs felt better and got busy and arranged party in our Mess – Off [duty] 1–6 – had a little rest and helped to prepare supper… Went off duty 8pm to party, it was one of the best we have had and it kept on until 1 am. every body thoroughly enjoying themselves.
The diaries end abruptly the night before she boarded the train home to Adelaide on 28 November 1945. Her great adventure was over.
She had nursed men with battle wounds and serious illnesses. She knew the anxiety of air raids and long sea voyages. But she also relished all the opportunities that came her way, particularly the friendships, the sightseeing and new experiences.
Campbell remained in the Citizens Military Forces until 1958 and was decorated for her work with the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps.
After her demobilisation, Campbell worked as a radiotherapy technician, one of the first women in South Australia to do so. She remained single, explaining to a small boy in an Anzac Day school talk that she “had loved them all and married none”.
She spoke of her time in the war to her family only in the broadest terms (“When we were away …”). She kept her diaries to herself to the end of her life. But kept them on her bookshelves for easy discovery.
Seventy years ago, on September 5, 1945, Wilfred Burchett’s report on the aftermath of the Hiroshima atomic bombing was published in London’s Daily Express. Burchett was the first Western journalist to enter Hiroshima after the bombing and was shocked by the devastation.
Under the banner “I write this as a warning to the world”, Burchett described a city reduced to “reddish rubble” and people dying from an unknown “atomic plague”.
Burchett’s report has been dubbed the “scoop of the century”. At the time it was ignored by most Western newspapers and dismissed as pro-Japanese propaganda. The story is now considered his finest. In October 2014, it earned him a place in the Victorian Media Hall of Fame, but the decision was not universally applauded.
Groundbreaking reporting on Korea
Though Burchett cut his journalistic teeth with the Express, he built his reputation covering the Korean and Vietnam wars from behind the communist lines. For this, Burchett was dismissed as a communist propagandist and traitor, though few know the real story.
In Korea, Burchett accused the American-led United Nations’ forces of prison camp atrocities and waging bacteriological warfare. The latter was Burchett’s most controversial story and has since been supported by a 2010 al-Jazeera report. But it sullied Burchett’s reputation in the West and angered the US military establishment.
Burchett had seen remnants of germ warfare attacks. He had interviewed captured American fliers who had confessed to Chinese interrogators to conducting germ warfare raids. He had also assisted the World Peace Council’s International Scientific Commission’s investigation, which backed the North Korean and Chinese allegations.
Attempting to “kill” the story, the US military’s Far Eastern Command (FEC) asked the Menzies government in Australia for permission to “exfiltrate” Burchett from North Korea in September 1953. The government refused, fearing an electoral backlash if Burchett suddenly appeared on Australia’s doorstep. FEC persisted with a US$100,000 enticement, but Burchett was not for sale.
Meanwhile, the Australian government investigated the possibility of charging Burchett with treason. ASIO agents were despatched to Japan and Korea to collect evidence, but their investigations uncovered little. In early 1954, the government conceded there was no hope of prosecuting Burchett.
To deter him from returning to Australia, the government publicly kept open the prospect of prosecution while privately acknowledging it had little chance of success. It found a willing ally in FEC. Concerned about Burchett’s reports from Indochina, FEC asked the Menzies government for permission to discredit the journalist.
Consequently, Burchett was subjected to government-backed smear campaigns and barred from Australia. Repeated requests for the restoration of his Australian passport were refused. According to the then-immigration minister, Harold Holt, Burchett had “severed all connection with Australia” because of his “activities” abroad.
The Vietnam War altered Western views of Burchett.
Burchett had access to the North Vietnamese leadership and the South’s National Liberation Front. On requests from the British and US, he attempted to persuade Hanoi to release captured American airmen. His 1967 interview with the North Vietnamese foreign minister, Nguyen Duy Trinh, was considered one of the “scoops” of the war. It was the first inkling that Hanoi was willing to entertain peace talks.
When talks commenced in Paris in mid-1968, Burchett was courted by the US delegation’s chief negotiator, Averell Harriman. For his assistance, he was granted entry to Britain and the US. He even breakfasted with the US national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, at the White House.
But Burchett was still unwelcome in Australia. Fearing he might return, the Liberal prime minister, John Gorton, warned ministers against criticising the journalist outside the parliament. Recognising the flimsy nature of the case against Burchett, the government wanted to avoid being sued for defamation.
Burchett finally returned in early 1970 on a privately chartered light plane. The Gorton government had threatened airlines with steep penalties for flying Burchett into the country.
With the Whitlam Labor government’s election in December 1972, Burchett’s passport was restored. As Whitlam explained, there was no evidence to justify its continued denial.
Defamed and exiled
Rumours persisted that Burchett was on numerous communist governments’ payrolls. The most damaging came from the Soviet defector, Yuri Krotkov. He and Burchett had met in Berlin after the war. They renewed acquaintances when Burchett moved to Moscow in 1957.
Krotkov defected to Britain in the early 1960s claiming to be a KGB agent. In reality, he was a minnow attached to a KGB prostitution ring, specialising in diplomatic honey-traps. MI5 dismissively off-loaded him to the Americans, and in 1967 he appeared before the McCarthy-ridden US Senate Sub-committee on Internal Security where he alleged Burchett was a KGB agent and on China’s payroll during the Korean War.
An account of Krotkov’s testimony was published in the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) pamphlet, Focus, in November 1971 and tabled in the Australian Senate. In February 1973 Burchett issued a writ for defamation against Focus’ publisher, DLP senator Jack Kane.
The case was heard in the NSW Supreme Court in October 1974. Though strapped for funds, Kane’s case was well supported. The chairman of the Herald & Weekly Times, Sir Philip Jones, lent his backing, as did Menzies. ASIO assisted with the names of Australian POWs whom Burchett had met in Korea, while Australia’s military chiefs-of-staff took the stand on Kane’s behalf.
Even Kissinger kept an eye on the case. He and the American ambassador to Australia, Marshall Green, feared the trial could re-ignite allegations that the US had deployed germ warfare in Korea.
For two weeks Burchett’s reputation was butchered in the box and mainstream press. Despite this, the court found he had been defamed. As the article had been tabled in the Senate, it was protected by parliamentary privilege. Burchett won the case but costs were awarded against him, forcing him into financial exile.
Debates over legacy persist
Though he died in 1983, Burchett remains a controversial figure. Rumours persist of Burchett’s alleged KGB recruitment. In 2013, academic Robert Manne claimed to have proof of Burchett’s KGB links. Drawing on a document uncovered by Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, Manne asserted that Burchett was put on the KGB payroll in July 1957.
No evidence was produced to show Burchett pocketed KGB money. If he did, the KGB got short-changed. By the early 1960s Burchett had wearied of Soviet communism and sided with the Chinese during Sino-Soviet split. He even worried that Soviet authorities were tampering with his Moscow mail.
Rumours of Burchett’s alleged treacheries still persist. They are part of Australian Cold War folklore and seem to have influenced the Hall of Fame’s decision to support Burchett’s inclusion principally on his Hiroshima story.
Burchett wrote stories that the Australian and US governments preferred not to be told and paid the price. He covered wars in which Australians fought on the other side. He was not “a my country right or wrong” barracker, but reported the facts as he saw them, and for the most part got them right. His career should be judged on all his achievements and not reduced to a solitary story.