Tag Archives: WWII
Recent research presented at a maritime archaeology conference has revealed at least 48 shipwrecks – including WWII ships and some post-war vessels – have been illicitly salvaged in Southeast Asia. This figure is an astonishing escalation from the handful of wrecks already known to have been damaged or destroyed.
However, sources close to the issue suggest that the figure may be much higher still, with one Chinese company claiming to have salvaged over 1,000 wrecks in the South China Sea.
It is now a race against time to protect these wrecks and preserve the histories they embody. Museums can play a key role. For instance, exhibitions such as the Australian National Maritime Museum’s current Guardians of Sunda Strait testify to the continuing resonance of these ships’ stories even as the sites themselves are destroyed.
This exhibition, which looks at the WWII loss of HMAS Perth and USS Houston, is made more poignant by the fact that HMAS Perth, in particular, has been heavily salvaged in recent years.
The emotional echo of the stories of courage and sacrifice told here – such as that of HMAS Perth veteran Arthur Bancroft, who was shipwrecked not once but twice, and USS Houston’s Chaplain Rentz, who insisted a young signalman take his lifejacket after the ship sank – is amplified, not diminished, by the accompanying contemporary tragedy.
Some countries, such as the US, have enacted legislation to protect their sunken military craft, regardless of where they rest.
At an international level, the 1982 UN Law of the Sea states that, unless explicitly abandoned, a flag state (the country where the vessel is registered) is entitled to exclusive jurisdiction over shipwrecks. This is also irrespective of whether the vessel sank in foreign waters or not.
For ships that have not been completely destroyed, there is a strong case to be made for the recovery of “touchstone objects” such as the ship’s bell on naval vessels – an item with which every officer and sailor, irrespective of rank, would be familiar.
In 2002, in response to concerns about the illicit salvaging of British wrecks in Malaysian waters, a team of Royal Navy divers oversaw the recovery of the bell from HMS Prince of Wales. This vessel was part of British naval squadron Force Z, established to protect Britain’s colonial interests in Southeast Asia. The force was destroyed in 1941 by Japanese aircraft. Reports indicate that the illicit salvage of HMS Prince of Wales, as well as nearby HMS Repulse, is ongoing.
Such strategic recovery initiatives must be the prerogative of the flag state, and strict conditions would need to apply. In many countries, this would require legislative changes. In instances where sunken war vessels are known to be underwater graves, the recovery of objects would also need to be conducted in consultation with survivors and descendants.
Snapping the past
Although we now know that many wrecks have been damaged, there are still some that remain untouched and even unlocated. For instance, the whereabouts of Australia’s first submarine, AE1, remains a mystery.
Meanwhile, near Savo Island in the Solomon Islands, HMAS Canberra rests upright and intact at the bottom of “Ironbottom Sound”. Scuttled after a damaging encounter with the Japanese in August 1942, the wreck was located in 1992 by Robert Ballard (better known for his discovery of RMS Titanic).
There is also a mystery hanging over the ship: with some suggesting the possibility that it was the victim of friendly fire. It is not known whether HMAS Canberra is at risk from salvagers, but there is no question that the ship will eventually succumb to natural degradation.
Well-preserved wrecks such as HMAS Canberra are prime candidates for one of the most exciting developments in maritime archaeology: digital preservation through photogrammetry. This involves a diver or a remote-operated vehicle taking thousands of photographs of a wreck and its debris field. These images are then digitally “stitched together” to create 3D visualisations, reconstructions and even replicas.
There is significant potential for such technology in a museum environment, not least of all because it enables new audiences to virtually access wreck sites while eliminating the challenges of depth, currents and poor visibility. Photogrammetry also surmounts legal barriers to access.
Curtin University’s HIVE facility is using big data, sophisticated algorithms and the processing power of a supercomputer to digitally preserve the wrecks of HMAS Sydney, lost in 1941 with all on board, and the German ship that sank her, HSK Kormoran. These wrecks are protected sites under Australian legislation, and are not accessible by the general public.
Nor is photogrammetry limited to those with access to a supercomputer. Maritime archaeologist Matt Carter is currently developing a 3D model of the Japanese mini-submarine M-24, located off Sydney’s Bungan Head, using little more than high-resolution cameras, off-the-shelf software, and a lot of patience.
Gone, but not forgotten
The responsibilities of museums become more acute the more that heritage is threatened – not just by thieves and pirates, but by climate change, rising sea temperatures, the impact of both coastal and deep-sea development, and natural degradation. And, as with many terrestrial sites, underwater heritage is now increasingly threatened by the effects of tourism.
Heritage objects and sites are not ends in themselves. The real value of these things and places is in how they can be used to make meaning, to reflect on the past, and to translate and interpret it anew for future generations.
For me, the destruction of these 48 ships does not preclude their stories from being told. Illicit salvaging of underwater heritage, particularly the unauthorised disturbance of human remains, warrants strong condemnation.
But our ability to derive meaning from these wrecks is not diminished by their absence. Some scholars even go so far as to propose that the destruction of heritage, as distressing as it is, provides an incentive for more active and conscious forms of remembrance.
Guardians of Sunda Strait will be on at the Australian National Maritime Museum until November 19.
The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in May 1940 from Dunkirk by a flotilla of small ships has entered British folklore. Dunkirk, a new action film by director Christopher Nolan, depicts the events from land, sea and air and has revived awe for the plucky courage of those involved.
But the story of the French army after Dunkirk is altogether less glorious, and perhaps because of that, less widely remembered. Of the 340,000 allied soldiers evacuated by boat from Dunkirk, 123,000 were French – but thousands more were not rescued and were taken prisoner by the Germans.
French media coverage of the premiere of Nolan’s film has presented the events as a British story in which French soldiers were involved, not a shared wartime narrative.
Operation Dynamo (the code name for the Dunkirk evacuation) took place between May 26 and June 4, 1940. The Germans entered Paris on June 14, but fighting continued in the east of France until June 24. General Charles De Gaulle made his now famous radio broadcast, calling on the French public not to accept defeat, on the BBC on June 18 from London, but very few of his compatriots are likely to have heard it on that date.
It is estimated that between 50,000 and 90,000 soldiers of the French army were killed in the fighting of May and June 1940. In addition to the casualties, 1.8m French soldiers, from metropolitan France and across the French empire, were captured during the Battle of France and made prisoners of war (POWs).
That early summer of 1940 in France was also marked by a mass exodus. At least six million civilians took to the roads to escape the advancing German troops, with frightening World War I stereotypes of German brutality at the forefront of their minds. They moved south and west through France, although most returned home following the June 22 armistice with Nazi Germany.
Such mass population movement both helped and hindered the French army. It made moving men and equipment much more difficult on crowded roads and railways. However, for the ordinary soldier who could procure civilian clothes, it allowed them to slip away from their units and rejoin their families.
Colonial troops massacred
The French army of 1940 included soldiers from across its empire in north, west and central Africa, the French West Indies and Indochina. These troops found it more difficult to disappear into the crowds. There were numerous massacres of west and central African troops in eastern France by the German army, who after separating them from their white officers, shot them.
There were 120,000 colonial prisoners of war captured during the Battle of France. They were housed in different camps from their white, metropolitan French counterparts, all on French soil and French run, because of Nazi racial fears of them mixing with German civilians.
French POWs were sent to camps in Germany where they were quickly set to work on farms, in industry, mines and on the railways, to replace German men away fighting. The POWs lived and worked alongside the German population, leading to both tensions and friendships. The fate of these POWs became central to the propaganda of the French collaborationist government, based in Vichy.
Numerous government programmes tried to encourage young French men and women to sign up for work in Germany in exchange for the return of a POW to France. But, most prisoners – about one million – only returned to France following the end of the war in May 1945. They were often greeted by widespread indifference, even sometimes hostility because of their supposed links and sympathies to the Vichy regime. In reality, they were no more pro-Vichy than many other parts of French society.
A difficult history for France
The very swift German victory in May and June 1940 and the humiliating armistice that followed, meant that post-war French society and the state sought to minimise and forget the defeat, preferring to concentrate on more glorious stories of the Resistance and the Free French. There was an unsuccessful campaign in the French press in 2015 for a state commemorative event and memorial to honour the war dead from France and its then empire, who the campaign labelled as “the first Resistance fighters”. Former French president, François Hollande, increased the number of state commemorative events for key moments from France’s 20th century history, but still ignored the events of 1940.
Despite official silences, the fighting of the summer of 1940 has been the subject of French novels and films ever since. Robert Merle’s 1949 novel Weekend at Dunkirk was adapted into a successful feature film, with an audience of three million on its release in 1964. The protagonist, Julien, is a French soldier desperate to make it onto one of the boats of the British evacuation in a town shattered by bombing. Claude Simon’s 1960 novel, The Flanders Road, painted a picture of an outdated French army, ground down by months of a phoney war, fighting against a much better equipped, more modern German enemy.
For French POWs, Dunkirk and those battles of May and June 1940 marked the beginning of five years of humiliation and hardship, before many returned to a country that wanted to forget them and their fighting experiences.
Private Rawson’s mother first contacted the Red Cross in early April 1942, six weeks after her son was captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore. For her, and thousands of other Australian mothers, fathers, wives, sisters and brothers, this began three and half years of longing and fear, and above all, silence.
For the duration of the war, Mrs Rawson’s only news of her son’s fate were the snippets received and sent on to her by the Red Cross Bureau for Wounded, Missing and Prisoners of War.
In the Spring Street premises, lent to the Red Cross by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, volunteers received Mrs Rawson’s enquiry, made a file for her son and added a card to a rapidly growing system:
Rank: PTE. [Private]
Reg No. VX43216
Unit: 2/29th. Btn. H.Q. COY.
9/4/42 Enq. From Vic. – Unof. Msg. [unofficially missing] MALAYA
Over the next 18 months they retrieved and updated the card as numbered lists of missing and captured servicemen reached the Red Cross:
19-8-42: Cas.[casualty] List V.319 rep. [reported] Missing.
27-5-43: List AC 494 adv.[advice] Tokio cables interned Malai Camp.
21-6-43: Cas list V467 prev. rept. [previously reported] Missing now rpt.[reported] P.O.W.[prisoner of war]
10-9-43: List WC 13 adv. Card rec. Washington POW [prisoner of war] Jap.[Japanese] Hands.
28-10-43: List JB. 213 adv. Singapore Radio Allege POW.
Then the reports cease. Nothing more, for two years.
Private Rawson’s card is now the first one in box 45 of the archival records series “Missing, Wounded and Prisoner of War Enquiry Cards”. This series was transferred to the University of Melbourne Archives in 2016 as part of the Red Cross’s Gift to the Nation – the records of its first 100 years in Australia. Digitised copies of cards from the second world war are now available to researchers online.
In an era before vision statements and key performance indicators, the Red Cross Enquiry Bureau expressed its ethos as a “Golden Rule”:
No definite information that would be of solace to relatives should be allowed to remain in the office over-night.
The Red Cross saw this work as a “humane and intimate administration”. Speed and accuracy were the essence of the service, which during WWII helped over 58,000 Australian families to learn the fate of loved ones displaced by the war. The vast majority of these enquiries concerned personnel in the Australian Imperial Force.
Typically families first received missing, wounded, killed or captured notification from the armed services. They then turned to the Red Cross to learn more about their loved one’s fate. However the Red Cross also attempted to trace the whereabouts of civilians – both Australian and foreign citizens – living overseas who were caught up in the war in Europe or the Pacific.
The index cards were the administrative cornerstone of the bureau’s enquiry service. For such a harrowing and solemn business, the cards are a marvel of clerical efficiency and precision. Entries are heavily abbreviated and the volunteer typists rarely missed a capital letter or full stop.
There are no back-stories, no narrative, in most cases not even first names, just the barest facts about a missing person’s fate, ultimately summarised in one word at the top of each card; “repatriated”, “safe”, “recovered”, “liberated”, “located”, “missing”, “POW” (prisoner of war), “deceased”.
Yet the staccato shorthand belies both the complexity and compassion of this wartime service. Most of the bureau volunteers were themselves next-of-kin of POWs. They somehow managed to channel their anxiety into the myriad of clerical tasks that enabled information to flow between state, national and overseas Red Cross bureaus, searchers in military hospitals and the armed services. Cards, files, lists, letters and cables in the face of fearful waiting.
Bureaucracy and heartbreak often make for peculiar companions in the Red Cross archive. Within the Red Cross’s administrative file titled Bureau 1943 we find a few stray copies of letters to family members, laden with sympathy and sadness:
Dear Mrs Bould
We have, as you know, been making enquiries to try and obtain news of your son…and we have now had an unofficial report from a member of the Battalion who has returned to Australia.
His account of what happened when the Japanese attacked Kokoda toward the end of July is a sad one… According to our witness, [Private] Bould was busy on a job, ahead of the Unit’s defence position, when he was hit by a bullet which killed him instantly. The witness spoke as though he had known your son well… and added: “He was a particularly well-liked chap and a game soldier”. This is a tribute of which any soldier might be very proud, and we trust that it may bring you some slight comfort in your distress.
Please believe that our heartfelt sympathy goes out to you and that we will continue to do our utmost to find further witnesses who may be able to confirm or deny what we have so far learned.
Good relations with the Australian armed services were crucial to the bureau’s information gathering work, but the relationship was often strained. A few pages away from the bureau’s gentle letter to Mrs Bould we find the army threatening to withdraw cooperation because, in its opinion, the bureau was too hasty in providing information to next of kin. From the army:
It is not the policy of this Department to declare the death of a soldier as the result of hearsay information …
The sheer volume of these cards is hard to fathom; 59 archive boxes each containing around 1,000 cards, each card bearing witness to a family’s trauma and tragedy. They are uniform, ordered and monochrome. The lack of colour suits them. Emotions are suppressed beneath precision and procedure.
There is no nuance or commentary, just the cold, hard, abbreviated facts of war. Seventy years on, the sombre silence of these cards is a testament to the lives of those who went to war, and those who waited at home, longing for their return.
For Mrs Rawson, the silence about her son ended in October 1945 after the Red Cross volunteers updated her son’s card one more time:
Army Cas. 5231 adv. a/n [above named] died of disease whilst POW Siam Dysentry 31-10-43.
University of Melbourne Archives Series 2016.0049: Missing, Wounded and Prisoner of War Enquiry Cards will be available online to researchers from May 2017. Further information, and a name-based search option is available from the University of Melbourne Archives digitised items catalogue. Private Rawson’s card is item 2016.0049.44698. Read more about the Enquiry Cards.
Seventy five years ago this month, Australia, the UK, US and the Netherlands suffered a series of disastrous naval defeats against Japan in the narrow straits and seas around Indonesia. The warship wrecks in the Java Sea and the Sunda Strait are the final resting place for thousands of Allied sailors.
The sites are considered war graves by survivors and their descendants, following a long maritime tradition of respecting human remains on shipwrecks.
So it was with shock and deep disappointment that an international team surveying the Java Sea wrecks in November 2016 found that at least four Dutch and British shipwrecks – and one American submarine whose entire crew was captured alive – had simply vanished from the seabed some 70 metres below.
The ships were enormous – the HMS Exeter, for example, was a 175-metre heavy cruiser, longer than three Olympic-sized swimming pools. Other Allied ships in Indonesian waters have also been damaged.
The evidence suggests that the missing ships were stolen, or salvaged, for the valuable metal now sitting on the sea floor.
The recent desecration of the Java Sea naval wrecks was unsurprising to those familiar with the state of underwater cultural heritage in Indonesia. Last year, Inside Indonesia reported on measures being taken to mitigate damage to two other Allied wrecks in Indonesia: HMAS Perth and USS Houston in the Sunda Strait, west of Jakarta. These naval ships were attacked by a Japanese fleet in the early hours of March 1 1942, sinking with over a thousand lives lost between them.
In 2013, reports emerged of salvage barges removing scrap metal from the sites. Although Indonesian authorities were not identified as participating in the salvage operations, they were criticised for not doing more to protect the wrecks.
Well-meaning recreational divers have also been implicated. Commenting on the removal of a trumpet from USS Houston, the Executive Director of the USS Houston Survivors’ Association said:
We have no idea of the untold number of other divers who have pilfered our ship […] and have kept relics retrieved for their own personal use, “stealing” that which truly belong [sic] to the lasting memory of the bravery and dedication of the men who served on these warships.
Advocacy groups in Australia have long called on authorities to protect HMAS Perth. While a recent sonar scan confirmed that USS Houston was largely intact, results for HMAS Perth were inconclusive. Australian and Indonesian divers are due to return to HMAS Perth next month. Despite these efforts, some feel that it is already too late to protect HMAS Perth.
Why steal a ship?
Naval shipwrecks mean huge amounts of scrap metal, with huge potential re-sale value. The sheer quantity of scrap metal on a naval ship means that a single wreck can be worth up to A$1 million. The bronze propellers alone are worth tens of thousands of dollars each.
It is unlikely that the salvage was conducted in complete secrecy. The Java Sea wrecks lay close to one of Indonesia’s largest naval bases, and suspicious activity – not to mention visible environmental impacts such as oil spills – is unlikely to have gone unnoticed by passing marine craft.
Removing a shipwreck from the seabed requires time, know-how, and money. Salvage operations in southeast Asia appear to have become increasingly sophisticated.
Boats disguised as fishing vessels have been used elsewhere in the region. But my conversations with people close to the issue suggest that the Java Sea wrecks were likely removed using a major surface platform known as a claw barge. This reduces the need to rely on large numbers of divers, and, if operated together with specialist imaging equipment such as a sonar scanner, would maximise the efficiency of the salvage. It is also believed that the crew were armed.
The salvagers gave little-to-no consideration to objects of historical or archaeological significance.
The removal of propellers and trumpets is one thing. But the desecration of submerged war graves is undoubtedly the most troubling aspect of this story.
The presence of human remains on the wrecks does not deter illicit salvagers from their nefarious activities. However, the legal status of underwater war graves is ambiguous.
There is no international consensus on military human remains on sunken warships, and the onus is on states to make appropriate provisions for war grave recognition. Under Indonesian legislation, objects older than 50 years can be considered as cultural heritage. However, none of the wrecks mentioned in this article have been officially recognised – in fact, not a single underwater site has been heritage listed.
The international community has condemned the disappearance of the Java Sea wrecks, with the Dutch launching an immediate investigation. The UK Ministry of Defence also expressed serious concern about “unauthorised disturbance of any wreck containing human remains”, and requested that Indonesian authorities take “appropriate action”.
When the news broke that the ships had vanished, the head of Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (National Archaeological Centre of Indonesia), Bambang Budi Utomo, was quoted as saying:
The Dutch government cannot blame the Indonesian government because they never asked us to protect those ships. As there was no agreement or announcement, when the ships go missing, it is not our responsibility.
Chief of Indonesia’s Navy Information Office, Colonel Gig Jonias Mozes Sipasulta, confirmed Indonesia’s view that the Dutch, British and US governments should have done more to protect the wrecks:
The Indonesian navy cannot monitor all areas all the time. If they ask why the ships are missing, I’m going to ask them back, why didn’t they guard the ships?
Although Indonesia quickly committed to investigating the mystery of the missing wrecks, these initial messages undoubtedly caused further damage to Indonesia’s already-problematic reputation in conserving underwater heritage.
Rather than trading diplomatic blows, Indonesia and the nations that the ships belong to must work together.
Indonesian researchers have been working on the HMAS Perth since 2015, assessing its condition and vulnerability.
The results confirm that the wreck has been damaged by salvagers. There are other threats too, including overly-enthusiastic recreational divers, sea sand mining operations, shipping traffic, and marine pollution from coastal development in nearby Banten Bay.
Last year, researchers conducted local sessions to raise awareness of the sites, which they believe is key to reducing damage to the site. The project team is also considering introducing a maritime conservation area around the HMAS Perth site. Other suggestions include public display signs and expanding commemoration activities to include coastal communities.
There are also efforts being made to increase awareness within the broader population. In Jakarta, the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries’ new Marine Heritage Gallery will bring underwater objects to both government officials and the general public.
In Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s busiest maritime trading destinations, there are plans to open a Regional Training Centre for Underwater Cultural Heritage inside Makassar’s historic Fort Rotterdam.
Internationally, the United Nations’ Ocean Conference will convene in New York in June with the aim of reversing the decline in the health of the world’s oceans. So far underwater cultural heritage is not on the agenda. It is up to UN members to ensure that these issues, and not just marine life, get their time in the spotlight.
Sunken warships have both historical and emotional significance. They must be valued for more than the sale of their parts.
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.
The link below is to an article (with photos) that takes a look at the war weaponry surplus at the conclusion of WWII.
For more visit: