Shifting Tides: Australia and the Pacific in the Second World War

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This introduces students to significant campaigns in the Allies' war against Japan in Asia and the Pacific, as well as the effects on Australia. The content aligns with the Australian Curriculum and includes focus questions to help direct students' further study. The stories and events provide students with a glimpse into the experiences of those who served overseas, as well as those who remained on the home front.

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In September 1939, after a series of crises and episodes of aggression, a German invasion of Poland led to declarations of war by Britain and France and their dominions. In Asia, Japan had been at war in Manchuria and China for almost a decade. In December 1941 Japan launched a war against the western Allies with attacks on the United States and the Malay Peninsula. For almost six years, tens of millions of civilians and military personnel from countries around the globe were involved in the deadliest conflict the world has ever seen. By the time of Japan's surrender in August 1945, several months after Germany's defeat, at least 50 million men, women and children, had lost their lives.

Australia joined the war following Germany's invasion of Poland and while it started on the other side of the world, by the end of 1941 fighting had reached Australia's doorstep. Personnel from the Royal Australian Navy, the Royal Australian Air Force and the Australian Imperial Force took part in campaigns in Europe, the Atlantic, North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Pacific, where the militia also fought. Mainland Australia came under attack as Japanese aircraft bombed towns and other areas in the north from Western Australia to Queensland. The Imperial Japanese Navy attacked shipping in Australian waters, including a midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour.

The size and complexity of the Second World War was of a scale that cannot be summarised in one publication. Shifting Tides: Australia and the Pacific in the Second World War is designed to introduce students to significant campaigns in the war against Japan in Asia and the Pacific, as well as the impact on Australia. The content of this book aligns with the Australian Curriculum and includes focus questions to help direct students' further study. The stories and events provide students with a glimpse into the experiences of those who served overseas as well as those who remained on the home front.

A member of the Royal Australian Navy shows school children one of the Japanese midget submarines that took part in the attack on Sydney Harbour. AWM P00455.016

Chapter 1: The gravest hour of our history

'One thing remains, and on it depends our very lives. That thing is the cooperation, the strength, and the willpower of you, the people of the Commonwealth. Without it, we are indeed lost. Men and women of Australia: The call is to you, for your courage; your physical and mental ability; your inflexible determination that we, as a nation of free people, shall survive. My appeal to you is in the name of Australia, for Australia is the stake in this conflict. The thread of peace has snapped – only the valour of our fighting forces, backed by the very uttermost of which we are capable in factory and workshop, can knit that thread again into security. Let there be no idle hand. The road of service is ahead. Let us all tread it firmly, victoriously.'

Prime Minister John Curtin's speech to announce the war with Japan, 8 December 1941.

The interwar years

The First World War ended in 1918 with the signing of an armistice which stopped all fighting at 11.00 am on 11 November that year. The following year a Peace Conference was held in Paris to negotiate the terms of peace for Europe and the world. As a result of this conference the Treaty of Versailles was drafted which officially ended war between Germany and the Allied countries. Unfortunately the peace that many hoped for did not last. In 1933 Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and his Nazi party, which had been established in 1920, began to seize power. Hitler wanted to expand his military, economic and political power, which went against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. He sent his troops into the Rhineland in March 1936 and later that year formed an Axis with Italy. In March 1938 Hitler annexed Austria and in March 1939 German troops marched into Czechoslovakia.

On the other side of the world, Japan had similar ideas for dominating Asia. European nations such as Britain, France and the Netherlands had ruled colonies in Asia and the Pacific, sometimes for centuries. Japan wanted to establish an Asian empire and take control of countries with valuable natural resources like oil and rubber. In 1931 Japan began its campaign for dominance in the region when it invaded Manchuria. In 1937 Japanese forces invaded China. The Chinese fought the Japanese in China and Manchuria, with support from the United States of America (US) and the Soviet Union, in a war that lasted until the Japanese surrendered at the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945.

On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, and as a consequence Britain and France declared war on Germany. This signalled the beginning of the Second World War. Although the war was on the other side of the world, Australia sent troops to support Britain. Thousands of men and women volunteered to fight and enlisted in the army, navy or air force. Many were sent to England, but the majority experienced the war in and around the Mediterranean Sea and later in the Pacific. They fought alongside British troops and personnel from other Allied countries in faraway places like Egypt, Libya, Greece and Syria. As the fighting continued in Europe and the Mediterranean, Japan was quietly developing its own plans to enter the war.

Over the years Australia had been closely monitoring the Japanese campaigns in Manchuria and China and the expansion into Indo-China. In the event of an attack near its shores, Australia's defence plan relied on the support of the British, particularly the British naval base in Singapore.

As the war in Europe grew more widespread it became obvious that Britain would be less able to defend her colonies in Asia and the Pacific. Though Australians didn't know it yet, they were soon to experience war in their own region.

With so many British and Australian troops committed to the fighting in Europe and the Mediterranean, the Asia-Pacific region was left vulnerable. In December 1941 Japan made its move with surprise attacks on the Malayan peninsula and Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. On 8 December 1941, as families sat around listening to the wireless at home, Australia's Prime Minister John Curtin announced that Australia was at war with Japan with the words, "… this is the gravest hour of our history". In the years that followed, Australian and other Allied forces fought fierce battles with the Japanese for control of Asia and the Pacific. The first four months of the war in the Pacific became some of the most devastating in Australia's wartime history.

Learning activity 1

Read or listen to the Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, declare that Australia is at war with Japan. Other than announcing the war in the Pacific, what would have been the objective of the rest of the speech? Would it be as effective today as it was in 1941? If you were Prime Minister today and a war was declared, what points would be important in your speech?

The transcript of the Prime Minister's speech is at the back of this book, or you can listen to the speech at the National Film and Sound Archive website.

Malaya 8 December 1941

  • At the time of the Second World War, Malaya was under British control.
  • Malaya had large quantities of natural resources, such as tin and rubber.
  • Malaya became Malaysia on 16 September 1946.

Members of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) were the first Australians be sent to Southeast Asia in 1940. Australian service men and women joined British and Indian troops in Malaya, and at one of the largest naval bases in the world, in Singapore. The tropical conditions were challenging for the Australian troops who were not used to working in stifling heat and constant rain. By February 1941 the Army and RAAF began making their way north through Malaya, preparing to defend the Malayan peninsula.

'Our text books, our tactical methods, our equipment, our clothing, had been designed for a European war. Recent desert fighting had modified methods to suit the desert. Jungle conditions were such that, while textbook principles were sound, the methods had to be varied fundamentally.'

Lieutenant General H Gordon Bennett, as quoted in A Bitter Fate, p.16.

The Australians battled tropical diseases and infections as they encountered the tough Malayan jungle. Danger was everywhere, from crocodiles and snakes to falling coconuts and unclean water. As the Australians trained and became familiar with this new foreign environment they speculated if and when the fighting might begin in Asia.

The first sighting of Japanese warships preparing to invade the Malayan peninsula was in the middle of the night in December 1941 off the coast of Kota Bharu. The Allies quickly sent six bomber planes to try to stop the ships from landing in the bay. During the mission a plane was shot down, killing all the crew except Flying Officer Donald Dowie, who was picked up by a Japanese warship and became the first Australian prisoner of war (POW) in the Pacific.

Sister Simons recalled:

'We were rather glad that the suspense was over, but nobody dreamed how fast things were going to happen from then on.'

As quoted in A Bitter Fate, p.36.

Members of the AIF covering a Malayan road through the jungle during tactical exercises, May 1941. AMW 007173

Despite some damage to the warships, the Japanese made it ashore in southern Thailand and Malaya. In Malaya they met British and Indian defenders and the fierce campaign for the Malayan peninsula began. The Japanese were ready with prepared and well-equipped troops who were able to gain momentum against the disorganised Allied forces. After intense fighting the Japanese slowly pushed British and Indian forces, and later the Australians, south towards Singapore.

'It rains 'fair dinkum' here. I often think if you only had one tenth of it out your way what a great time the sheep and cattle would have. We very seldom go a day without rain. The heat here is terrific. We have been doing a lot of jungle work and got tangled up in some creepers and spent an hour after we knocked off pulling out thorns. My legs look as if I got into a fight with half a dozen cats. There are plenty of wild animals in the jungle such as tigers, leopards, panthers, elephants, pigs, monkeys, crocodiles and snakes. Our worst enemy at present is the Malaria mosquito. All drinking water has to be purified before we can drink it. The "Yellow Man" will get the shock of his life if he tries anything here.'

Extract of a letter from Sig. Harold George Elliott, Australian Army, that appeared in the Western Herald, Bourke NSW. ON ACTIVE SERVICE (1941, November 21). Western Herald (Bourke, NSW : 1887–1970), p. 2.

Pearl Harbor 7 December 1941 (8 December Australian time)

  • Pearl Harbor is located on the island of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands, which is the 50th state of the United States of America.
  • Pearl Harbor is approx. 3,200 km from the US mainland and 6,400 km from Japan.
HMAS Ballarat was the last Australian ship to leave Singapore before the surrender, February 1942. AWM 101157

During the 1930s, relations between Japan and the United States of America began to decline. The United States, along with Britain, Australia and the Netherlands, was opposed to Japan's invasion of China and in an effort to pressure the Japanese, refused to sell oil to Japan. The Japanese Government viewed this as an act of aggression. Understanding that they would need to find an alternative source of oil in Southeast Asia, they started preparing for war. The United States, like other Allied countries, increased its military preparations. Unfortunately they all underestimated the size and capabilities of the Japanese armed forces.

On the morning of 7 December 1941, the Japanese surprised the United States with an attack on Pearl Harbor, the largest US naval base in the Pacific and home to the United States Pacific Fleet. The planes came first, dropping bombs on the airfields and the naval base. Japanese midget submarines followed. They intended to fire their torpedoes at the ships in the harbour, but none succeeded. During the attack the Japanese bomber planes damaged or sank twenty-one ships of the US Pacific Fleet. In the end more than 300 US planes were destroyed and more than 2,400 people lost their lives, including almost seventy civilians. This attack was the reason the United States entered the Second World War when it did. The attack on Pearl Harbor was meant to prevent the United States from interfering with Japan's plans for the Pacific, however it would not be long before the US faced the Japanese in another battle with a different outcome.

Learning activity 2

Had Japan chosen not to target America, do you think the course of the war in the Pacific would have been different? Would current relations between countries be the same?

Battle for Singapore 8 February 1942

  • Singapore is a small island off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.
  • It was a British Colony until 1963.
  • It is separated from Malaysia by a narrow strait of water.
  • It had the largest dry dock navy base in the world.
AIF nurses and patients at a military hospital in Singapore after an air raid, January-February 1942. AWM 012451

After fierce battles in Malaya, exhausted Allied troops retreated to Singapore. Unfortunately the island would not be the sanctuary the soldiers were hoping for. On the morning of 8 February 1942, Singapore awoke to the sounds of bombs falling. By that evening the Japanese had landed in the north and started their advance towards the town of Singapore, on the south of the island. In just seven days Japanese armed forces took control of the town.

By 15 February 1942 it was clear that the Japanese, who were better organised, more highly trained and more experienced than the Allied troops, were poised to seize the island. The hospitals were overflowing with the wounded and the heavy bombing and fighting was constant. With no relief in sight the decision was made, and Singapore surrendered to the Japanese. More than 100,000 Allied troops and civilians were captured, including some 15,000 Australians. The troops became prisoners of war, and began an experience more horrific than they could have imagined. Prisoners were soon moved to Changi prison. From there many would later be sent to work on the Burma–Thailand Railway and to other parts of the Japanese Empire.

Two working men, Jack Chalker, 1942, Pen and black ink, brush and wash on paper, 13.9 x 8.1cm. AWM ART91811

Evacuating Singapore

Knowing the danger that was coming, sixty-five nurses were evacuated just days before the surrender. The nurses travelled with civilians and service men on the ship the Vyner Brooke. Two days after they departed Singapore the ship was attacked and it sank in the Banka Strait. Those who survived swam to shore. Food, water and shelter were difficult to find, so the survivors decided to surrender to the Japanese. Unfortunately becoming a prisoner did not provide the safety they had hoped for.

Among the prisoners was South Australian born nurse, Vivian Bullwinkel. The Japanese rounded up the troops and nurses who were in a group on Radji Beach and executed them. The nurses were ordered into the sea, and as they waded out the Japanese opened fire. Despite being shot herself, Vivian Bullwinkel became the only survivor of this massacre. She floated in the water and pretended to be dead.

When the Japanese had left, Vivian made her way back to shore. Once on dry land, she found a wounded British soldier, the only survivor of the massacre on the beach. They hid for twelve days before surrendering to the Japanese. As a prisoner of the Japanese, Vivian was reunited with some other nurses from the Vyner Brooke, although they never spoke of another massacre to avoid the Japanese realising that a witness had survived. As a prisoner of war Vivian endured three more years in captivity before the war ended in 1945.

Learning activity 3

How do you think the Allied soldiers might have reacted to the surrender? Consider different perspectives, depending on their health, time in Singapore, experience and rank.

Burma–Thailand Railway "A life for every sleeper"

  • After three Anglo-Burmese wars from 1824 to 1885 the British East India Company claimed control of Burma.
  • The social, cultural, economic and administrative changes under British rule were not welcomed by the Burmese and the country experienced unrest.
  • In 1937 Burma became a separate colony of Great Britain.
  • On 4th January 1948 Burma was granted independence and became the democratic nation Union of Burma.
  • In 1962 the military replaced the government.
  • In 1989 the military changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar.

In March 1942, after months of fighting, the Japanese gained control of Rangoon in Burma. From Burma the plan was to move on to British ruled India, but the Japanese armed forces needed supplies. With so many Allied naval vessels in the area, the oceans were a risky option, so the next choice was a railway from Burma to Thailand. Both British and Japanese surveyors had examined the possible route of a railway and determined that it was not practical to proceed with construction. Only when the Japanese had a virtually unlimited supply of labour did they decide to build the railway. They ordered more than 60,000 prisoners of war (including 13,000 Australians), and engaged and later compelled some 200,000 Asian labourers, to build the railway. The journeys to the railway camps were treacherous for the prisoners as they were packed into ships or on trains with no room to move. They arrived in Thailand or Burma sick from lack of food, clean water or toilets before enduring a long hike to the camps.

The 415km-long railway route passed over rivers and across mountains. The prisoners were forced to clear the jungle, lay the railway sleepers and build more than 600 bridges almost all by hand. The steam engines needed tracks that were not too steep and with gentle climbs. Passes needed to be dug through the mountains. Prisoners and Asian labourers were forced to remove rock and soil to create cuttings for the trains to pass through. The most well-known of these was Hellfire Pass, named for the way the flaming torches in the cutting lit up the night as prisoners laboured almost around the clock. The prisoners worked long hours, sometimes up to 16 hours a day with only a tiny amount of watery rice and very little protein to sustain them. Anyone who tried to take a rest break or slowed down could be beaten severely. After an exhausting day in the heat and often also the rain they walked back to the camps.

The railway camps were basic shelters of a palm leaf roof, often with no walls and a mud floor. The prisoners slept on bamboo racks with only a thin blanket for warmth. Despite the best efforts of the Allied doctors in the camps, many prisoners and Asian labourers suffered from horrible diseases such as malaria, cholera and dysentery. Starvation and a lack of clean water or medicine lead to these diseases becoming the main cause of death during the railway construction. cemeteries with bamboo crosses were created near each camp along the line, an indication of how many had not survived the extreme conditions.

The railway took about 16 months to construct and was finished in October 1943. During that time more than 12,000 prisoners, some 2,800 of them Australian, and an estimated 75,000 labourers lost their lives. Those who survived were either sent to Thailand or, if they were already there, were ordered to remain to carry out maintenance work on the line.

Every man who worked on the railway, in whichever section, would have an automatic passport to Heaven. They have all done the requisite stretch in Hell.

Private Max McGee, 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion as quoted in Australians on the Burma-Thailand Railway 1942-43, p.108.

Learning activity 4

Research stories from survivors of the building of the Burma-Thailand Railway. How are their stories reflective of what we associate with the Anzac legend?

Stepping Stones

In just 70 days Japanese armed forces took control of much of the Asia-Pacific region. The Japanese were strong in morale and in numbers, with their military well prepared and well equipped for war. With low supplies of fresh water, food, medicine and ammunition the Australian and other Allied forces were unable to match their enemy. Australian troops fought bravely to defend several small islands that were seen as the stepping stones to Australia. Thousands of Australians lost their lives in the early fighting against the Japanese, and more than 22,000 men and women became prisoners of war or civilian internees. Many did not survive. Denied contact and information, families were left wondering and hoping that their loved ones were still alive. For many, their fate would not be revealed until the end of the war in 1945.

Learning activity 5

December 1941 to March 1942:

  • 8 December 1941 - Malaya Peninsula
  • 16 December 1941 - Borneo
  • 4 January 1942 - Rabaul, New Guinea
  • 6 January 1942 - Ambon, Dutch East Indies
  • 8 February 1942 - Singapore
  • 19-20 February 1942 - Dutch Timor and Portuguese Timor
  • 1 March 1942 - Java, Dutch East Indies

These islands were significant as more than 'stepping stones'. Why were each of these islands considered valuable in the fight for the Pacific?

Chapter 2: Shifting tides

During the first four months in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, Allied countries and territories suffered significant losses. Japan had gained the upper hand in the region, capturing large amounts of territory, occupying countries and taking many thousands of prisoners of war (POWs). The next step in the Japanese campaign was to capture Port Moresby in Papua. The Japanese plan was to gain control of the islands to Australia's north, and limit or block completely the communication lines between Australia and the United States. From early in the war Allied forces had access to decoded Japanese communications and were able to use this secret information to respond to Japanese plans.

Australian troops of 2/7th Cavalry Regiment advance through mud and slush at Buna. AWM 013971

New Guinea

  • In the late 1800s, the country was divided into German New Guinea in the north and British New Guinea in the south.
  • In 1905, the British transferred responsibility for their territory to Australia and renamed it Papua although it still remained under British ownership.
  • Following the First World War, the League of Nations authorised Australia to administer the north of the island as a League of Nations mandated territory.
  • Even though both territories were monitored by Australia, they were legally two separate territories: New Guinea in the north and Papua in the south.

Why was Port Moresby important during the Second World War?

Port Moresby was important to both the Japanese and Allied forces' strategic plans. Both sides needed airstrips for their short-range fighter planes, as well as a base camp for the troops and a port for the ships to deliver supplies and reinforcements. For the Japanese, Port Moresby could be used as a base for attacks on Australia, while for the Allies the town was an important base for operations against the Japanese and for keeping lines of communication between Australia and the United States open.

Officers study a map in a forward area along the Mubo track, New Guinea, July 1943. AWM 015243

The Battle of the Coral Sea

In early May 1942 the Japanese sent a fleet of ships south from Rabaul, on the island of New Britain, to invade Port Moresby and a carrier fleet to the Coral Sea to protect their invasion fleet. In the meantime, Australia sent several ships and the United States sent a fleet that included aircraft carriers to the Coral Sea to intercept the Japanese ships. When both sides were within striking range, the planes were launched, and the Battle of the Coral Sea began.

The ships never came within firing range of each other, and the battle was fought by aircraft from each side attacking the other's fleet. Both sides suffered losses in ships and men. After four days of air and sea combat in the Coral Sea both sides were exhausted and withdrew their ships. The Japanese were unable to reach Port Moresby and abandoned their plan to attack the town from the sea. This was the first time in the Second World War that a Japanese invasion fleet had been turned back.

Battle of Midway

  • Midway Atoll is in the northern part the Hawaiian archipelago.
  • Midway Atoll is halfway between North America and Asia (5200km from San Francisco and 4100km from Tokyo).
  • Approximately 100 to 200 people live on the atoll, including staff of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

During the 1930's Midway Atoll was a stopping point for Pan American Airways operating passenger flights across the Pacific. With the looming threat of a war in the region, the United States expanded its facilities on the island and by August 1941 had built a naval air base. Following the battle of the Coral Sea, Japan had also turned their attention to the Midway Islands. Their plan was to draw US aircraft carriers into battle, destroy them, and remove the United States Navy from the war in the Pacific.

The United States Navy again had access to decoded Japanese plans in time to develop a response. The Midway Islands were too far from Pearl Harbor for Allied aircraft to reach, so the Americans, like the Japanese, relied on aircraft carriers to move planes into the area. The Battle of Midway began in June 1942, a month after the Battle of the Coral Sea. It lasted several days. The Japanese lost four aircraft carriers in the battle, and with them went almost 250 aircraft and some 3,000 pilots and sailors. The US lost the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, which had been damaged in the Coral Sea and repaired at Pearl Harbor before sailing for Midway. The Battle of Midway was a major victory for the Allied forces. The loss of key Japanese ships, particularly aircraft carriers, affected their ability to defend the territory they already occupied or to start new campaigns.


Following the Battle of Midway, the Japanese again turned their attention to Papua, hoping to capture Port Moresby. Their unsuccessful naval approach through the Coral Sea led the Japanese leaders to attempt their next advance overland. On 21 July 1942, Japanese forces landed at the coastal town of Gona, on the north of the island, and proceeded towards Port Moresby across the Owen Stanley Range, via the Kokoda Track. On the Track between Kokoda and Gona, small numbers of Australian militiamen and Papuan troops awaited the Japanese advance. For almost the first month the militia and Papuans were the only force resisting the Japanese. They were slowly pushed back towards Kokoda Village, where they were able to make some progress before again being forced to withdraw to more defensive positions.

Fighting along the Kokoda Track and over the Owen Stanley Range was some of the most difficult in the South West Pacific theatre. The dense jungle, steep terrain, low light and narrow tracks forced both sides to adopt a very different style of combat to that which they had previously experienced. The thick vegetation meant that soldiers on both sides were often unable to see each other until they were just metres apart, if at all. Other than the challenge of the jungle itself, the biggest issues for the soldiers were illness and supplies. Malaria and dysentery were the most widespread diseases, and men too sick to continue had to be evacuated. As the fighting continued the troops needed food, ammunition and medicine and relied on either planes to drop them in the right spot, or Papuans to carry them up the track.

Initially the Japanese gained significant ground over the Owen Stanley Range, including Kokoda Village. As they drew closer to Port Moresby and further away from their base on the coast, a lack of supplies and reinforcements hampered their fighting abilities. When Japanese attention turned to the campaign on the nearby island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, the troops who had fought their way to within 40 kilometres of Port Moresby were ordered to withdraw. As they withdrew, Australian troops followed them, fighting their way back along the Kokoda Track. The retaking of Kokoda Village and, importantly, the airstrip on 2 November 1942 was a significant step in the Allied campaign. As the fighting moved away from Port Moresby and towards the coast, it became more difficult to evacuate the injured Australian soldiers and bring in supplies. Kokoda Village and the nearby airstrip were key in ensuring the Allied troops could continue their advance. When Australian soldiers arrived at Kokoda, they found that the Japanese had continued their retreat. Once the airstrip was repaired and the Australian defense strengthened with supplies and reinforcements, the Allied forces focused on capturing other Japanese bases in Papua, at the beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda.

Private Verner Hogan, of Fullerton, who was with an AIF infantry battalion in New Guinea, sent the following account of his experiences in combat with the Japanese on the Kokoda Track:

Pte. Verner Hogan, of Fullerton, who is with an A.I.F. infantry battalion in New Guinea, sends the following account of his experiences in combat with the Japanese on the Kokoda Track…

At last, after weeks of this unpleasant travel, we eventually caught up on the Japs. Early one morning we launched our first attack. It was carried out very successfully. We gave them all we had and succeeded in pushing them back. It took us, two days to catch up again with them. The Japs, made their stand on the side of a mountain across a river and our position was on the other side of the stream.

There wasn't much activity till next morning, when we made our attack at dawn. It was then that I got wounded while our forward troops were attacking. The Japs, opened fire on our rear with a mountain gun and seemed to have us ranged, for the shells were bursting all around us, killing some and wounding others.

I was expecting to get hit as there didn't seem any way of escaping, and at last it came! I heard the shell being fired and crouched down in a hole and tensed my body awaiting the result. Then I heard the shell whistling through the air and it came to land right next to me. There was a terrific explosion and I felt the impact as the shrapnel entered my body. I was covered with leaves and fragments off the trees. Struggling out of the debris, I made my way under fire from the Japs'; gun to an aid post.

From there I was sent to hospital, where I am at present, but now feeling more like myself. Our boys have succeeded in pushing the enemy back again and are still on the winning side.

Letters From Overseas (1942, December 9). Crookwell Gazette (NSW: 1885–1954), p. 4. Retrieved 29 April, 2020, from 1942.

Learning activity 6

Private Verner Hogan's letter home describes his experiences in the jungle along the Kokoda Track. Research and explore 6 other primary and secondary sources that give information about the experience of the Kokoda Campaign. Analyse the similarities and differences, then write your own description of what the troops faced as they crossed the Owen Stanley Range. Hint: Consider sources such as photos, letters, artwork, text, Google Maps and the experiences of those who have walked the track in more recent times.

'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels'

Many a mother in Australia when the busy day is done
Sends a prayer to the Almighty for the keeping of her son
Asking that an angel guide him and bring him safely back
Now we see those prayers are answered on the Owen Stanley Track

For they haven't any halos only holes slashed in their ears
And their faces worked by tattoos with scratch pins in their hair
Bringing back the badly wounded just as steady as a horse
Using leaves to keep the rain off and as gentle as a nurse

Slow and careful in the bad places on the awful mountain track
The look upon their faces would make you think christ was black
Not a move to hurt the wounded as they treat him like a saint
It's a picture worth recording that an artist's yet to paint

Many a lad will see his mother and husbands see their wives
Just because the fuzzy wuzzy carried them to save their lives
From mortar bombs and machine gun fire or chance surprise attacks
To the safety and the care of doctors at the bottom of the track

May the mothers of Australia when they offer up a prayer
Mention those impromptu angels with their fuzzy wuzzy hair.

Sapper Bert Beros

The 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels' was the name given to the local Papuan villagers during the Kokoda Campaign. They carried much-needed supplies through the jungle to the troops and carried out the very sick and injured. Their care, compassion and dedication earned them the respect and appreciation of the Australian soldiers.

Learning activity 7

This poem was written during the Second World War. As a primary source is it historically significant? What other sources can you find that support or refute the poem's description?

The Battle of the Beachheads

The Allied victories at Milne Bay and on the Kokoda Track may have ruined Japan's plans to invade Port Moresby but Japan still held the beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda on Papua's northern coast. Battle weary after months of fighting in the dense Papuan jungles, both sides were weakened by wounds, diseases and the rain and heat of the wet season. The Battle of the Beachheads began in November 1942 with attacks on Buna and Gona by Australian and American troops.

RAAF Kittyhawk Squadron at Milne Bay, August-September 1942, William Dargie, 1969, oil on canvas, 154 x 275.3cm. AWM ART27628

Milne Bay

In July 1942, under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, Australian and American troops started work on airfields at Milne Bay in Papua to help defend the eastern area of the Pacific region. In late August the Japanese landed with the intention of seizing the base for their own air attacks on the Kokoda Track. After heavy fighting along the coast the Allied forces successfully forced the Japanese to withdraw.

The Battle of Milne Bay is often described as the first critical defeat of Japanese land soldiers. The battle for the Japanese beachheads continued into late January 1943, when Allied forces had gained control of all three bases. The final fighting in Papua ended with the Allied capture of Sanananda. Both sides suffered heavy losses, with thousands dying and many more evacuated due to wounds or illness in the campaign for Papua. More Australians lost their lives in fighting to keep the Japanese from occupying Papua than in any other campaign in the Pacific theatre.

Australians troops rest after defeating the Japanese at the Battle at Gona. AWM 013845

Learning activity 8

Many battles in the South West Pacific during the Second World War focused on the occupation of air fields. Why were these battles so important for both the Japanese and Allied Forces' strategic plans?

Damien Parer (1 August 1912 – 17 September 1944)

Damien Parer was an Australian photographer and cinematographer employed to document the Second World War, first in the Middle East and then in the Pacific. During the second half of 1942 Damien accompanied troops on the Kokoda Track. Here he filmed the documentary Kokoda Front Line! which was directed by Ken G Hall and won Australia's first Oscar award. Damien was shot and killed by the Japanese while filming United States Marines on the island of Peleliu in the Pacific.

Chapter 3: Defending Australia

During the first half of 1942, the Japanese advanced through Asia and the central and western Pacific at an alarming rate. With the fall of Rabaul, Ambon, Timor and Java, the Japanese gained control of airfields and ports, placing them within reach of Australia. As the war in Europe continued to intensify, it became apparent that Australia could not rely on Britain for her defence should the Japanese choose to attack. Australia's leaders now had to decide the best way to defend this vast country.

Darwin, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Newcastle were identified as key areas for defence due to their population, industry, location and military bases. Darwin was a key military port and airfield, given its proximity to the Japanese-held territories to Australia's north, while Brisbane was the site of General MacArthur's headquarters in Australia. In 1942, Australians feared an invasion by the Japanese and the loss of the large British naval base in Singapore only strengthened these fears.


  • Population in September 1940: 7,050,084.
  • Land size: 7,692,024 km2.
  • The world's smallest continent and sixth-largest country.

Bombing of Darwin 19 February 1942

Darwin was an important Australian port town and the site of a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base. Later Darwin became host to a United States Army Air Force base, the operations of which were essential to the defence of northern Australia, and home to numerous military camps during the Second World War. When the war came to Asia and the Pacific, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and RAAF relied on Darwin for refuelling, repairs and restocking of supplies and equipment. Knowing that the Japanese regarded Darwin as an attractive target, the Australian government evacuated more than 2000 civilians to southern states.

On 19 February 1942, planes from Japanese aircraft carriers in the Arafura Sea launched the first of two devastating attacks on Darwin that morning. Despite early warnings from observers on Bathurst and Melville Islands (approximately 80 km north of Darwin) the alarm was not sounded until just before the Japanese aircraft were over the town. The first attack lasted less than an hour and was followed shortly by a second wave from Ambon. Areas of Darwin's town, the post office, the police station, the RAAF base and many aircraft, along with numerous ships in the harbour were either damaged or destroyed in the air raids.

More than 240 civilians and military personnel lost their lives that day. Members of the United States Navy and the United States Army Air Force lost their lives along with Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen. One of the damaged vessels in the harbour was the hospital ship AHS Manunda, clearly marked with the Red cross. Twelve of the ship's crew and hospital staff were killed and more than 50 others were wounded. Amidst the carnage, the surviving medical personnel treated the wounded from other ships in the harbour.

The surprise air raid on Darwin caused people to fear that a Japanese invasion was imminent. To prevent the spread of panic the severity of the attack was minimised by the Government. Work quickly began to rebuild Darwin and strengthen military capabilities in the north. The attack in February 1942 signalled the beginning of a Japanese aerial campaign over northern Australia. Japanese bombers raided Darwin 63 more times until the final attack in November 1943. Other targets in northern Australia were also attacked.

The ruins of the post office after the first Japanese raid, Darwin, February 1942. AWM 044607

Bombing of Broome 3 March 1942

At the beginning of 1942, the small port of Broome in the north of Western Australia, known for its pearling industry, was an important transit port for military personnel and refugees from the nearby Netherlands East Indies (now known as Indonesia). The evacuees were flown in Netherlander, American and Australian military aircraft as well as Qantas flying boats. On the morning of 3 March 1942, Japanese bombers struck the airstrip and the flying boats refuelling in the bay. Many of the flying boats were carrying women and children, civilian refugees from the Netherlands East Indies who had just arrived in Broome. With so many evacuees in the town, it is unknown exactly how many people lost their lives that day.

Americans in Australia

After the Japanese took control of the American- held Philippines in early 1942, General MacArthur, a five-star general in the United States Army, arrived in Australia as commander-In-chief in the South West Pacific. Australian Prime Minister John Curtin established the Prime Minister's War Cabinet to connect the United States and Australian military operations. The United States military personnel strengthened Australian defences, both at home and in the Pacific. The arrival of the extra troops boosted the economic, tourist and rural industries but was not without cultural controversies.

Learning activity 9

What was the impact of American military personnel in Australia during the Second World War? For Australia, the alliance with the United States was important in the war against Japan. How did this affect Australia's relationship with Britain?

Attack on Sydney Harbour 31 May 1942

On 31 May 1942 three Japanese I-class submarines entered Australian waters off the coast of New South Wales. That evening they each launched a type-A midget submarine, headed for Sydney Harbour. The first of the two-man midget submarines became entangled in the anti-torpedo boom net that was partially across the harbour. The alarms were sounded and a Royal Australian Naval patrol boat was sent to investigate. After repeated attempts to break free of the net, and with the patrol boat approaching, the Japanese crew of the midget submarine triggered an explosion which destroyed the vessel and took their lives.

After 11 pm that evening, sailors on board USS Chicago and HMAS Geelong, both anchored in Sydney Harbour, spotted another Japanese midget submarine and opened fire. The second midget submarine fired two torpedos at Chicago, with the first torpedo missing and remaining unexploded. The second torpedo passed under Chicago and hit the harbour bed under HMAS Kuttabul. The force of the explosion killed 19 Australian and 2 British sailors, wounded 10 others and sank the Kuttabul. Underwater indicators suggest that the second submarine left the harbour after the attack, although its fate was not known until its wreck was discovered in 2006 in the waters off Sydney's northern beaches.

After the sinking of HMAS Kuttabul Allied warships and vessels began an extensive search for any remaining submarines. A third midget submarine was located in Taylors Bay, near the entrance to the Harbour, and attacked with depth charges. To avoid capture the crew took their own lives. When the midget submarines failed to return, the ‘mother' submarines departed the area. The first and third midget submarines were recovered soon after and their crews were cremated in Sydney with full naval honours. Although Rear Admiral Muirhead-Gould was criticised for these actions he hoped that the show of respect would help the many Australian prisoners of war being held by the Japanese at that time.

Japanese submarines later carried out bombardments of Sydney and Newcastle, firing shells into the cities in an attempt to cause panic. Although they were considered high risk targets, Brisbane and Melbourne were ultimately never attacked.

Australia under attack

Throughout 1942, the people of Australia became increasingly concerned about further attacks on Australian soil, particularly coastal towns and cities. Following the attack on Sydney Harbour the Japanese launched a submarine campaign along Australia's east coast. By June 1943, the Japanese Navy had attacked 21 ships and sunk 11. The air raids continued across northern Australia from Exmouth in Western Australia to Townsville in Queensland. Barbed wire obstacles were strung along beaches should the Japanese attempt a landing and blackout safety measures were implemented across the country.

The sinking of Australian Hospital Ship Centaur had a significant impact on Australia. The attack on a clearly marked hospital ship came to symbolise the brutality of the Japanese and prompted the development of posters calling Australians to donate funds or volunteer to serve. The sinking of the Centaur was the biggest loss of life from a Japanese torpedo in Australian waters.

A group of men removing an unexploded armament.

Australian Army bomb disposal experts recover an unexploded Japanese aerial bomb, Darwin, February 1942. AWM 012703

Avenge the nurses

Work, save, fight and so avenge the nurses, photolithograph, 50.2 x 63cm. A propaganda poster which depicts AHS Centaur being attacked off the coast of Queensland. AWM ARTV09088

On 12 May 1943 the Australian Hospital Ship AHS Centaur departed Sydney for Port Moresby. On board were the crew, medical staff, 12 nurses and 150 field ambulance men headed to support the campaign in New Guinea. The seas off the coast of Australia had become a dangerous battle ground during the war so the Centaur travelled brightly lit and clearly marked as an internationally registered Red Cross hospital ship. Under international conventions, this should have guaranteed its safety.

In the early hours of 14 May 1943 the Centaur was hit by a Japanese torpedo and quickly sank, taking 268 lives. The 64 survivors spent the next day and a half clinging to life rafts with no food, water or medical supplies to treat their burns and wounds. Sister Ellen Savage escaped the sinking ship in her pyjamas, but suffered a broken nose, jaw, ribs and bruising as the ship went down. Despite her own injuries, Sister Savage, the only nurse to survive, treated the wounded and did her best to boost morale until they were rescued by USS Mugford. Sister Savage was awarded the George Medal for her courage.

Sister Ellen Savage, being interviewed after her rescue from AHS Centaur, Brisbane, 1943. AWM 044428

Learning activity 10

Read through the Department of Veteran's Affairs Australian Women in War: Service, Courage and Care publication. Carefully consider the changing role of women in Australia's wartime history. Examine how these changes have influenced the role of women in the work place/society today.

Women in Service

Prior to the Second World War women served in the armed forces only in nursing roles. From 1941 women were recruited into the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF), the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS) and the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS). Many of the roles within these auxiliary services were associated with some of the few traditional female civilian occupations: typists and clerks. But for many, the work was new, having previously been done mainly by men. Female service personnel became mechanics, drivers and electricians, among other things. Throughout the Second World War approximately 35,000 women served in the AWAS, 27,000 women in the WAAAF and 1,500 in the WRANS. In July 1942 the Australian Women's Land Army (AWLA) was formed as a non-military organisation to support the agricultural industry. Expanding the roles of women during the Second World War allowed eligible men to serve in the forward areas both in Europe and the Pacific.

An armourer of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) "bombing up" a Wirraway aircraft of the RAAF, June 1943. AWM 139164
Women motor cycle messengers of the National Emergency Service. These women messengers supplied their own uniforms and motor cycles. AWM 006669

Nora Heysen

Born in Adelaide in 1911, Nora Heysen became the first woman to win the esteemed Archibald Prize in 1938. Like many Australians Nora wanted to do what she could to help the war effort. In October 1943 she was appointed as the first female Official War Artist. Initially tasked with painting women in the services in Australia, she was soon sent to New Guinea to depict the lives of Australian nurses.

Although Nora was unable to go to the front like the male Official War Artists her paintings depicted nurses and soldiers undertaking routine tasks, as well as the New Guinean people. Nora completed over 170 works during her time as a war artist. Her art is found in many galleries and collections today, including that of the Australian War Memorial.

Transport Driver, Nora Heysen, 1945, oil on canvas, 66.2 x 81.1cm Nora Heysen chose Aircraftwoman Florence Ethel Miles as the subject for this painting. Miles enlisted in the WAAAF in 1942, aged 21. Before the war she had worked as a sales assistant for a shoe company in Melbourne. AWM ART24393

Learning activity 11

Historians use images and text to better understand photography, television and the internet, art was used to capture big events as well as everyday life. If you were a historian, how is art a valid historic source? What are the benefits and limitations of using sketches, paintings or sculptures as historical evidence?

Chapter 4: Australians – all in!

On 3 September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany and the Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, announced that Australia was also at war. With those words, the lives of just over 7 million Australians changed forever. While the government prepared for war in Europe initially, and later in the Pacific, everyday Australians began to make economic and social sacrifices to support the war effort. The attack on Darwin in February 1942 increased the fear and apprehension of an invasion by Japan and united the people of this vast country.

A house-to-house collection for scrap rubber organised by the boy scouts association Perth, Western Australia, July 1942. AWM 042773

Home front

The government called on the Australian people to make significant changes to their way of living, including giving up all luxury items. It was understood that all available money and resources would be needed to fight the war overseas as well as the possibility of a war on Australian soil. Rationing was introduced in June 1942, which strictly limited the availability of certain items. Although the rationing was not as severe as that experienced in Britain, families in Australia could only purchase items like petrol, clothing, meat, sugar, tea and butter using coupons from their ration books. To make the coupons last a full 12 months, Australians became very resourceful. Many families grew their own vegetables, modified recipes, sewed their own clothes and recycled where possible. Materials such as rubber, paper, aluminium and scrap metal were collected for the production of military equipment, clothing and weapons. Factories which manufactured items that the government considered a luxury, like children's toys, were converted to meet the demands of the war.

With the war in the Pacific so close to Australia, the government called for every household to be prepared for an attack. Blackout restrictions were introduced across the country and families moved to cover their windows and reduce any light that could be spotted by enemy pilots. The streetlights were dimmed and radio stations ceased their nightly entertainment. Air raid shelters and slit trenches were dug in public locations as well as schools and private homes, and sandbags were stacked outside public buildings. children were taught what to do in the case of a bomb or gas attack and regularly underwent air raid drills to the sound of a loud siren.

Volunteers spent many hours as 'observers', scouring the skies and the coastline for enemy planes or ships. Above all, those at home in Australia thought of their friends or loved ones serving overseas, wishing them home safe and well.

Learning activity 12

Australian households experienced changes to all aspects of their lives including transport, communications, employment, rationing and family life. Imagine you were a student during the Second World War. How would you have felt about these changes? How might they have impacted your life?

Women in wartime

Women's labour during World War II had a huge impact on the war effort in Australia. Before the war, job opportunities for women were extremely limited. Middle-class women were restricted mainly to training as nurses or teachers and were obliged to cease paid work after marriage. Workingclass women found employment in domestic service, factories or sales work and continued their jobs when they married, as they could not afford to do otherwise.

Extract from The Peace Generation, Courier Mail, 2020.

During the Second World War the role of women changed significantly. Over 60,000 women served in auxiliary arms of the Australian army, navy and air force and many women joined voluntary organisations like the Red Cross and worked in hospitals or on hospital ships. As more and more men were sent overseas, women took on jobs previously done by men to ensure the demands of the wartime economy were met. Other women left home and joined the Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) to keep farms running and ensure that the agricultural sector could supply food for those in Australia, the men and women serving overseas and Australia’s allies. Women unable to work contributed to the war through fundraising and organisations like the Country Women’s Association and the Australian Women’s National League. As the war concluded, women were often expected to relinquish their jobs to the returning men and resume their roles in the home.

Mine-watchers and members of the Womens National Emergency Legion (WNEL), at their post on the bank of the Brisbane river, November 1942. AWM P01554.002

Learning activity 13

Research the roles of women in Australia during the 1930s and 1940s. How have the roles and lives of women changed? Have these changes been positive or negative? Give reasons for your conclusions.

Indigenous Service

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people contributed in a variety of ways to Australia’s defence during the Second World War, playing an important role in both the military and on the home front. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was the first to accept Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, due to a critical shortage of eligible men. Other branches of the armed forces soon followed, and in June 1941 the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion was formed, which included Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal men from Cape York.

In August 1941, the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit was formed to patrol Arnhem Land, as this remote area was seen as a potential landing area for the Japanese. Their knowledge and understanding of the coastlines and the land were an asset to Australia's defence. concerns about disharmony between Indigenous Australians and those of European heritage serving in military units were generally unfounded. Most service men felt connected by their common experiences in fighting the same enemy.


  • Indigenous Australians were not recognised as Australian citizens until 1967.

Leonard Victor Waters (1924-1993)

Leonard (Len) Waters was born in northern New South Wales near the border with Queensland. He left school at the age of 13 to become a shearer. In August 1942 Len followed his dream and joined the Royal Australian Air Force as an aircraft mechanic. The following year he applied for the pilot's course and, graduating among the top 5 in the group, became Australia's first and only Aboriginal fighter pilot during the Second World War. Len flew during campaigns in Noemfoor and Morotai in the Netherlands East Indies and Tarakan in Borneo before his discharge in 1946. After Len left the Air Force he married his fiancée and returned to shearing, never to fly again.

Reginald Walter Saunders, MBE (1920-1990)

Captain Reginald (Reg) Saunders was one of the first Aboriginal people commissioned in the Australian Army. Following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, who both served in the First World War, Reg and his brother Harry enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1940. After serving in North Africa, Greece and Crete, Reg was sent to New Guinea as a Sergeant. In 1944 he attended officer training and was commissioned a Lieutenant with the 2/7th Infantry Battalion. Although Reg left the military at the end of the Second World War he re-enlisted when the Korean War began in 1950. A respected soldier, Reg left the army in 1954 and after a few different careers became one of the first Aboriginal Liaison Officers for the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. In 1971, Reg was made Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE).

Lieutenant R. W. Saunders, receives his stars during the graduation ceremony of officers' cadet training, May 1945. AWM 083164

Prisoners in Australia

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Australia detained prisoners of war (POWs), as well as civilian internees. Italian and German POWs were brought to Australia from the Middle East, and later Japanese prisoners from the war in the Pacific arrived. Civilian families of German, Italian or Japanese heritage were removed from their homes and interned in camps across Australia. The camps were run by the military and varied from state to state, although some became small communities with schools, sports, entertainment and their own form of currency. Many POWs, particularly Italians and civilian internees, were sent to local farms as labourers to help keep the agricultural industry running. At the end of the war, POWs and internees were either repatriated to their country of origin or allowed to return to their Australian homes.

Cowra – 1944

Just before 2 am on 5 August 1944, the sound of a bugle rang out over the Cowra Prisoner of War camp in western New South Wales. Hajime Toyoshima, a Japanese fighter pilot and the first Japanese POW captured on Australian soil, had signalled the beginning of a mass outbreak to more than 1000 Japanese POWs housed at the camp. The prisoners rushed from the buildings with knives or improvised weapons.

Guards opened fire but over 500 prisoners managed to break through the wire fences, while those who remained set fire to the camp. Over the next 9 days, the escapees were recaptured, with many choosing to take their own life rather than remain as prisoners. More than 230 Japanese lost their lives. Four Australian guards were killed in the Cowra outbreak, including privates Ben Hardy and Ralph Jones who manned a machine gun in the compound until they were overwhelmed by the prisoners. Both men were posthumously awarded the George Cross for their actions.

Chapter 5: The road home

… all were thrilled to see British Commonwealth ex-prisoners of war leaving Japan on an aircraft carrier.

They were all lined up in orderly fashion on the flight deck dressed in various types of clothing & the Aussie slouch hat was evident amongst them. The carrier steamed amongst all the British ships at anchor in the Bay & all the ships companies lined up & gave them a terrific welcome.

On board here we kicked up a h_l of a row, singing Waltzing Matilda, waving Aussie flags, cheering & ringing the ship's bell & for our size we made a considerable noise.

The x-POWs responded with cheering… it was a soul stirring sight to see these lads on their way home & we did our best to give them a cheery welcome.

As quoted in Victory in the Pacific 1945: Australians in the Pacific War Series, page 17.

Token of surrender – a Japanese official hands over the keys of the Yokosuka Naval Base to the Commander of the British Landing Forces, Captain H. J. Buchanan RAN. Tokyo, Japan, August 1945. AWM 019422

New Guinea

Following intense battles on the Kokoda Track, at Milne Bay and the beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda, Allied troops began a campaign to regain the Huon Peninsula in New Guinea.

Japanese forces had taken control of this part of New Guinea in March 1942 after defeating Australian forces in Malaya and Singapore. The Japanese established bases along the coast of the Huon Peninsula, against which Australian and American aircraft conducted regular air raids, but the Allies were not yet in a position to invade. During this time the Japanese also made progress over the rugged mountains towards the inland town of Wau. Before the war, Wau was a gold mining town where Australian, European and New Guinean civilians worked in the mines or in industries supporting the area like farming, banking and transport. Wau was also a key town along the track from central New Guinea to the coastal towns.

In early 1943, the 17th Infantry Brigade, comprising almost 2,000 Australian troops, was flown into Wau. Transporting the troops took longer than planned due to bad weather high over the mountain ranges. Already in the area was a special guerrilla unit of Australians and New Guineans known as Kanga Force.

Since their arrival in the area, Kanga Force had faced the challenges of limited food rations and disease caused by poor diet, and constantly wet clothing and shoes. Men on the front line were unable to light fires to cook their field rations or keep warm for fear of alerting the enemy to their position.

The 17th Brigade and Kanga Force experienced weeks of heavy fighting to protect the important Allied airfield at Wau. Eventually, the Japanese withdrew to the settlement at Mubo towards the coast. Japanese forces were determined to hold their new position at Mubo but by July 1943 the area was under Allied control. Many Japanese escaped into the jungle as the Australians pushed on towards the coast and the goal of reclaiming the town of Salamaua. The Australian campaign was strengthened by the arrival of an American Infantry Regiment at Nassau Bay, which then progressed north along the coast to Salamaua. With additional support from the Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Air Force, Allied forces successfully took control of Salamaua on 11 September 1943.

Sergeant Rowe (left) and Corporal Heartwell salvaged this machine gun from an American plane and used it as a light anti-aircraft weapon at Wau, April 1943. AWM 014611

With Salamaua in Allied hands, General MacArthur ordered Australian forces to continue north on the Huon Peninsula. capturing the Japanese bases in the area was an important step in the Allied plans towards the bigger goals of Rabaul, New Britain and the Philippines. The 9th Australian Division was tasked with reclaiming Lae and the coastal area of the Huon Peninsula. The 9th Division had already experienced battles in North Africa, having played a key role in the Siege of Tobruk in 1941 and at the Battle of El Alamein in 1942. They were joined on the Huon Peninsula by the 7th Division and the Australians successfully took control of Lae in September 1943. Less than a month after the success at Lae, the Militia's 22nd Infantry Battalion seized the base at Finschhafen with the 9th Division.

In 1944 the Allied campaign continued moving north along the coast to take further bases at Sattelberg and Sio. At the same time the 9th Division moved inland through the Markham and Ramu Valleys to take the strategic position of Shaggy Ridge in the Finisterre Ranges. By Anzac Day 1944 Australian forces had successfully reached Madang in the north of New Guinea, but the campaign was not without heavy losses. Hundreds of men lost their lives and the difficult terrain complicated the evacuation of the sick and wounded. Like the majority of those who served in the Pacific, troops experienced tropical diseases like malaria, which depleted the force as surely as the wounds inflicted by the enemy.

Wau-Mubo area of New Guinea. AWM 015154

Solomon Islands

  • In the south-east of the Pacific region.
  • Is an archipelago of more than 6 main islands and 900 smaller islands.
  • Capital is Honiara, located on Guadalcanal Island.
  • Bougainville is the largest of the Solomon Islands.

Japanese forces invaded the Solomon Islands in the south-east Pacific in early 1942. The few Australian troops that had been on Bougainville and Buka islands at the beginning of the war were evacuated shortly before the Japanese arrived. A few Royal Australian Navy coast watchers remained to provide Allied forces with information about Japanese movements in the area.

Following the Battle of Midway in June 1942, American forces landed on the islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Florida in the southern part of the Solomon Islands. The aim was to gain control of the area to establish an air base for future Allied advances through the Pacific. Japanese troops attempted to recapture the islands and in particular the airfields, but were unsuccessful. They eventually abandoned their efforts and evacuated their remaining troops by February 1943. Many of the Japanese troops were relocated to nearby Bougainville Island, New Guinea and the Philippines.

In November 1943 American forces landed on the western side of Bougainville Island, north of Guadalcanal. The Japanese had occupied eastern areas of the island since early 1942. With New Zealand and Fijian support the Americans secured the base at Torokina and restricted Japanese access to supplies and reinforcements. The Japanese made random attacks on the Allied base over the following months. In the middle of 1944 American troops began handing over the area to the Australians to manage. Under the direction of Lieutenant General Stanley Savige, Australian forces attacked the Japanese positions up and down the coast and across the mountains. Australian troops, with air support from the Royal New Zealand Air Force, engaged the Japanese in fighting that would continue until the end of the war. More than 500 Australian troops lost their lives on Bougainville, with three times as many returning home wounded.

Line up of Australian built Boomerang Aircraft, Bougainville Island, Solomon Islands, January 1945. AWM OG2064

New Britain

  • Rabaul, located on the island of New Britain, was the capital of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea.
  • More than 1200 Australian, European and Chinese civilians lived on New Britain before the war.
  • New Britain is the largest island in the Bismarck Archipelago and is 520 km long and 146 km wide.

Rabaul, on the island of New Britain, was identified as a strategic location by both the Japanese and the Allies very early in the Pacific war. The 1,400 Australian troops in Rabaul at the beginning of the war, members of Lark Force, were no match for the Japanese invasion fleet which arrived in the Harbour on 23 January 1942. While some managed to escape, the Australian troops and local civilians who were captured were either killed in the Tol Plantation massacre or became prisoners of war. The majority of prisoners captured during the fighting in 1942 were destined to be shipped to Japanese occupied Hainan Island off the coast of China. On 1 July 1942 their transport ship Montevideo Maru was hit by an American Torpedo and sunk off the Philippines. The American submarine captain was unaware that the ship he torpedoed was carrying over 1,000 military and civilian POWs.

For the duration of the war, Rabaul was one of the most heavily bombed places in the South Pacific. As General MacArthur planned the advance through the Pacific, having control of Rabaul's deep harbour and airstrips would have been tempting. Ultimately the decision was made to avoid significant fighting at the heavily manned Japanese base at Rabaul. Allied troops instead landed on the south-west of New Britain in late December 1943 to establish a number of bases there. American leaders decided to leave the majority of the island to the Japanese to focus on operations in other parts of Asia and the Pacific. In the meantime Australian troops on the island went on the offensive, working their way north to encourage locals to side with the Allies.

Private H.J. Adams and Lieutenant A.G. Mawson await evacuation at Wide Bay, New Britain, March 1945. AWM 079861

Tol Plantation Massacre

After the Japanese invaded Rabaul, it became apparent that Allied forces were desperately outnumbered. Following the order from colonel Scanlan 'every man for himself', many members of Lark Force escaped into the mountains. The men soon surrendered or were captured due to a lack of food, water and medicine. The Japanese took more than 150 prisoners to Tol Plantation, and from there in small groups, they were marched into the jungle and bayonetted or shot. Only a few men survived the massacre to later tell their story.

Island Hopping

While Australian troops were engaged in operations on New Guinea, General MacArthur and American naval commanders implemented a strategy known as ‘Island Hopping’. The Island Hopping operations involved US Marines and other branches of the US navy, army and army air force seizing one island after another from the central Pacific to Japan. Each island was then used as a base from which to capture the next island or to conduct aerial operations in the area.

These islands were the scenes of intense fighting as the determined Japanese defenders pledged to die at their posts. The Island Hopping approach used submarines and air attacks to isolate and block Japanese bases from receiving reinforcements or supplies. As a result of the Island Hopping campaign, General MacArthur was able to reclaim the Philippines as he had promised to do when he was forced to evacuate in 1942.


  • At the outbreak of the war in the Pacific, Borneo was governed by the Netherlands East Indies in the south and the British in the north.
  • Borneo is the third-largest island in the world.
  • Borneo's jungle is more than 140 million years old and is home to the endangered orangutans.
Members of the Australian Army Nursing Service at the local airstrip. Labuan Island, Borneo, June 1945. AWM 110691

Japanese troops invaded Borneo in January 1942, wanting to seize the island’s oil reserves. The oil was a valuable resource and needed for Japan’s war in China. The Japanese established two main POW camps on the island, at Kuching in the west and Sandakan in the north. The majority of the prisoners were captured after the fall of Singapore and sent to Borneo as free labour for the Japanese. More than 2,500 Australian and British POWs suffered increasingly from disease, neglect, brutality and poor conditions in the camps as the war progressed. Beginning in January 1945 the Japanese selected almost 1,000 of the ‘fittest’ men to trek across the mountains from Sandakan to Ranau in several marches which became known as the ‘Sandakan Death Marches’. Men too weak or sick to attempt the march were executed or left to die. Those who fell behind or collapsed on the marches were killed. Of those who were forced to march only six – all Australians – escaped to survive the war.

From late 1943, Allied Special Forces teams who were mostly Australian, landed by sea or air across the island to encourage locals to engage in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. The small secret missions provided important information to the Allies and helped prepare the way for the much larger ‘Oboe’ Operations. Oboe proved to be one of the final campaigns of the Second World War, involving the Australian army, navy and air force across three separate operations.

The first operation launched in May 1945 was code-named Oboe 1. The troops were tasked with capturing the island of Tarakan, off the east coast of Borneo. Tarakan was chosen for its airfields but once taken, they were badly damaged and difficult to repair because of the swampy conditions and land mines left by the Japanese. The second operation was Oboe 6, with the mission of claiming Brunei Bay on the north-west coast for the Allies. From here the Australians could establish a naval base and protect the local oil and rubber resources. The third operation, Oboe 2, focused on the oil port of Balikpapan in South East Borneo. This was the largest of the three operations. More than 500 Australian military lives were lost in the final battles for Borneo and fighting on the island continued until the Japanese surrendered on 15 August 1945.

Final acts of destruction

On 8 May 1945 Germany signed the German Instrument of Surrender, and Victory in Europe was declared. Allied leaders now focused on the Pacific theatre of war. They demanded that Japan surrender. Britain, America and China outlined the terms for surrender in the Potsdam Declaration on 26 July 1945. The declaration required Japan to comply or face ‘prompt and utter destruction’. When Japan did not surrender by 6 August 1945 an American bomber dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima.

Three days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, south of Hiroshima. More than 100,000 people, mainly civilians, died instantly when the bombs detonated and tens of thousands more died over the following months from injuries, burns and radiation sickness. The atomic bombs were devastating on a level never before caused by a single weapon.

The mushroom cloud rising after the first Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, 1945. AWM 043863

Victory in Europe

As the Allies in Europe closed in on Germany the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, took his own life. On 8 May 1945 his successor Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz authorized Germany’s surrender and ended the war in Europe. More than 13,000 British POWs were released and people across the world celebrated in the streets. The Soviet Union (Russia) played a major role in the war in Europe. Tens of millions of people lost their lives in the largest battles and longest campaigns. The festivities across Europe were overshadowed by the knowledge that the war in the Pacific was not over yet.

Learning activity 14

The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was one of the most controversial events of the Second World War. Historians have debated their necessity as well as other possible options to bring the war to an end. Do your own research, then consider: do you think the war might have ended with more peaceful negotiations?

Victory in the Pacific

After the atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Russia also declared war on Japan. The United States had been conducting air raids on Japan since late 1944. Japan, faced with the threat of invasion and further nuclear attacks, surrendered on 15 August 1945. "Fellow citizens, the war is over" – with these words, Australian Prime Minister Ben Chifley announced the end of the Second World War. After almost six long years of fighting across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and the Pacific, people in Australia and around the world rejoiced. The signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945 officially ended the Second World War.

As news of Japan's surrender spread across the Pacific, Allied troops were able to move into Japanese occupied areas. They liberated thousands of men and women from the POW and internment camps across the Pacific. The Repatriation of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees (RAPWI) organisation worked with all branches of the Australian Armed Forces to care for the prisoners. They established lists with the names and information of survivors so that their anxious families could be informed. Most of the almost 15,000 POWs were suffering from disease, malnutrition or injuries. They were sent to RAPWI camps to be treated and fed before their journey back to Australia. As the Australian prisoners were brought home, so too were the men and women serving in the Pacific. Some personnel continued serving in the Pacific and in the Australian-led British commonwealth Occupation Force (BcOF) in Japan. From early 1946, approximately 16,000 Australians worked with other Allied personnel to demilitarise Japan and assist in the rebuilding of Japanese society.

'Thank God dear, all our worries are over and now it only remains for us to get together again and then our dreams will be dreams no longer but real live facts. I am as well as can be expected dear in this God forsaken place. I have nearly been taken from you a couple of times with Beri Beri and Dysentry but I wouldn't let my spirit slip and now I am in reasonable condition although I am only 116lbs (52.6kg)'

Corporal Athol 'Tom' Pledger, 2/12th, Field Ambulance 1945 as quoted in Victory in the Pacific: Australians in the Pacific War series, p.15.

For the former prisoners and the service men and women returning home, a lot had changed since they had left. They returned to family and friends who in some cases had not seen them for more than four years. The country too had changed as it adapted to the demands of the war. Almost one million Australians had served in uniform during the Second World War and approximately 40,000 had lost their lives. The end of the war brought heartache for many families when, after years of waiting for news of the missing, they were told that their loved ones were not coming home. For so many Australians, too much had happened, too many lives had been lost and too many families were changed for life to ever go back to ‘normal’.

Crew members of HMAS Napier, Able Seaman Les Coad, and Able Seaman Kevin Sorrenson, watch Petty Officer Allan Mole, chalk a sign that reads 'under new management.' on a Japanese midget submarine. Azuma Peninsula, Tokyo Bay, September 1945. AWM 019164

Allied Leaders


John Curtin became Prime Minister of Australia on 7 October 1941, just 2 months before the war in the Pacific began. He died on 5 July 1945 from heart problems just 6 weeks before the end of the Second World War. Frank Forde was then Prime Minister for a week before he lost a leadership vote. Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley was his successor.

United States of America

Franklin D. Roosevelt was President of the United States of America from 1933 until his death on 12 April 1945. He was succeeded by Harry S Truman.

Great Britain

Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of Britain from 1940 to 1945 and then again from 1951 to 1955.

Captain C. B. W. 'Cappy' Radford, Salvation Army Representative celebrating Victory Pacific (VP) Day outside the Salvation Army hut at HQ 7th Australian Division. AWM 113724

United Nations

The United Nations (UN) was established after the Second World War with the aim of preventing future wars. Representatives from 51 countries met in San Francisco in 1945 to sign the agreement which established it. The purpose of the UN is to maintain international peace and security, protect human rights, deliver humanitarian aid, promote sustainable development and uphold international law. There are currently 193 member states in the UN.

A large crowd of civilians wait as HMS Formidable (out of sight) docked with 1,300 members of the Eighth Division returning from Manila. AWM 122106

Learning activity 15

The United Nations (UN) has five key objectives. Research each of these and explore what the UN is doing and the challenges it faces. How can you contribute to the work of the UN?

Bibliography 2020. The Peace Generation. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 June 2020].

Johnston, M (2006). Australia's Home Defence 1939—1945: Australians in the Pacific War Series. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

Johnston, M (2007). The Japanese Advance 1941—1942: Australians in the Pacific War Series. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

Johnston, M (2008). The Huon Peninsula 1943—1944: Australians in the Pacfic War Series. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

Moremon, J (2003). Australians on the Burma-Thailand Railway 1942-43. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

Moremon, J (2003). Wau-Salamaua 1942—1943: Australians in the Pacific War Series. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

Moremon, J (2007). Battle of the Beachheads 1942—1943: Australians in the Pacific War Series. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

Moremon, J (2008). New Britain 1941—1945: Australians in the Pacific War Series. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

Moremon, J (2008). Victory in the Pacific 1945: Australians in the Pacific War Series. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

Moremon, J, & Reid, R (2002). A Bitter Fate: Australians in Malaya & Singapore, December 1941-February1942. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

Nelson, H (2006). Australian Prisoners of War 1941—1945: Australians in the Pacific War Series. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

Reid, R (2002). Darwin and the Northern Territory 1942—1945: Australia Under Attack Series. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

Reid, R (2007). Sydney and the Midget Submarines 1942: Australia Under Attack Series. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

Stanley, P (2005). Borneo 1942—1945: Australians in the Pacific War Series. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

Staunton, A (2008). Bougainville 1942—1945: Australians in the Pacific War Series. Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra.

Appendix A: Prime Minister John Curtin's speech to announce the war with Japan, 8 December 1941

Announcer: It is our privilege tonight to introduce the Prime Minister, the Honourable John Curtin. Ladies and gentlemen, the Prime Minister.

John Curtin: Men and women of Australia, we are at war with Japan. That has happened because, in the first instance, Japanese naval and air forces launched an unprovoked attack on British and United States territory; because our vital interests are imperilled and because the rights of free people in the whole Pacific are assailed. As a result, the Australian Government this afternoon took the necessary steps which will mean that a state of war exists between Australia and Japan. Tomorrow, in common with the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the Netherlands East Indies Governments, the Australian Government will formally and solemnly declare the state of war it has striven so sincerely and strenuously to avoid.

Throughout the whole affair, and despite discouragement, the Australian Government and its representatives abroad struggled hard to prevent a breakdown of discussions. Australia encouraged the United States to retain the diplomatic initiative on behalf of the democratic powers. We did not want war in the Pacific. The Australian Government has repeatedly made it clear — as have the Governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and the Netherlands East Indies — that if war came to the Pacific it would be of Japan's making. Japan has now made war.

I point out that the hands of the democracies are clean. The discussions and negotiations which have taken place between Japan and the democracies were not merely empty bandying of words on the democracies' part. Since last February it has been the constant aim and endeavour of the democracies to keep peace in the Pacific. It has been a problem fraught with grave difficulties but, in the view of the democracies, it was a problem that was capable of being overcome. Accordingly, the best brains of the democracies were brought to bear on the problem. It will stand on record that the President of the United States himself, the American Secretary of State, Mr Cordell Hull, the British and the Dominion Governments, worked untiringly and unceasingly. Yet, when the

President of the United States had decided to communicate direct to the Japanese Emperor a personal appeal for Imperial intervention on the side of peace, the War Government of Japan struck. That War Government, set on aggression and lusting for power in the same fashion as its Axis partners, anticipated the undoubted weight of the President's plea and shattered the century-old friendship between the two countries.

For the first time in the history of the Pacific, armed conflict stalks abroad. No other country but Japan desired war in the Pacific. The guilt for plunging this hemisphere into actual warfare is therefore upon Japan. The recapitulation of events I have given you is necessary so that we in Australia may correctly assess the issues involved. The stern truth is that war has been forced upon us, not because of stubborn resistance on the part of the democracies to every demand that Japan made, but because Japan chose the method of armed might to settle differences which every other country involved was ready and willing to settle by negotiation and arbitration. By so doing, Japan chose the Hitler method. While its diplomatic representatives were actually at the White House, while all the democratic powers regarded the conversations as continuing, Japan ignored the convention of a formal declaration of war and struck like an assassin in the night.

For, as the dawn broke this morning, at places as far apart as Honolulu, Nauru, Ocean Island, Guam, Singapore and British Malaya, guns from Japanese warships, bombs from Japanese aircraft, shots from Japanese military forces, struck death to United States citizens and members of its defence forces; to the peaceful subjects of Great Britain and to her men on ships and on the land. The Pacific Ocean was reddened with the blood of Japanese victims. These wanton killings will be followed by attacks on the Netherlands East Indies, on the commonwealth of Australia, on the Dominion of New Zealand, if Japan can get its brutal way.

Australia, therefore, being a nation that believes in a way of life which has freedom and liberty as its cornerstones, goes to the battle stations in defence of the free way of living. Our course is clear, our cause is just – as has been the case ever since September 1939, when we stood in the path of Hitlerism and declared that we would stand out to the end against ruthless and wanton aggression. I say, then, to the people of Australia: Give of your best in the service of this nation. There is a place and part for all of us. Each must take his or her place in the service of the nation, for the nation itself is in peril. This is our darkest hour. Let that be fully realised. Our efforts in the past two years must be as nothing compared with the efforts we must now put forward.

I can give you the assurance that the Australian Government is fully prepared. It has been in readiness for whatever eventuality that might arise, and last Friday the initial steps were taken and fully carried out. From early this morning the Service Ministers of the Cabinet and the chiefs of the fighting services have done everything that has to be done by them. The War Cabinet met and put into effect the plan devised for our protection. This afternoon the full Cabinet met, and I am able to announce to you, prompt decisions on a wide variety of matters – all of them vital to the new war organisation that confronts us.

All leave for members of the fighting forces has been cancelled. An extension of the present partial mobilisation of navy, army and air forces is being prepared. The Minister for Home Security will tomorrow confer with army authorities on air raid precautions. Regulations will be issued to prohibit the consumption of petrol for purposes of pleasure. A conference will be held by the Minister for Supply with oil companies on the storage of fuel and the security of that storage. Arrangements will be made for all work on services that are essential nationally to be continued on public holidays in future, while, in this connection, all transport services will be concentrated upon necessary purposes. The Minister for Labour will leave for Darwin immediately to organise the labour supply there. An examination will be made to ascertain what retail establishments should continue to trade after 6 pm so that we may conserve light, coal, transport services.

These are some of the things decided upon quickly, but in no atmosphere of panic. There are other things that the government has done. These, by their nature, are secret. But, in total, what has been done today adds up to complete provision for the safety of the nation.

Tomorrow, the War Cabinet will meet again, as will the Australian Advisory War council, when the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues will be fully appraised of every phase of the position. The Parliament of the commonwealth will assemble on Tuesday of next week.

One thing remains, and on it depends our very lives. That thing is the cooperation, the strength, and the willpower of you, the people of the commonwealth. Without it, we are indeed lost. Men and women of Australia: The call is to you, for your courage; your physical and mental ability; your inflexible determination that we, as a nation of free people, shall survive. My appeal to you is in the name of Australia, for Australia is the stake in this conflict. The thread of peace has snapped – only the valour of our fighting forces, backed by the very uttermost of which we are capable in factory and workshop, can knit that thread again into security. Let there be no idle hand. The road of service is ahead. Let us all tread it firmly, victoriously.

We here, in this spacious land, where, for more than 150 years, peace and security have prevailed, are now called upon to meet the external aggressor. The enemy presses from without. I have said that our forces are at their battle stations. They are not alone. It is true also that Japan is not alone. But, as I speak to you tonight, the United States, Great Britain and her colonies and dominions, which include the commonwealth of Australia and the Dominion of New Zealand, the great federation of Russian republics, the Netherlands East Indies and china are associated in the common cause of preserving for free men and free women not only their inheritance, but every hope they have of decency and dignity and liberty.

We Australians have imperishable traditions. We shall maintain them. We shall vindicate them. We shall hold this country and keep it as a citadel for the British-speaking race and as a place where civilisation will persist.

Men and women of the Commonwealth of Australia, it is my solemn duty tonight to sound a tocsin! I proclaim a call unto you. I do it in the words of Swinburne:

Come forth, be born and live,
Thou that hast help to give
And light to make man's day of manhood fair:
With flight outflying the sphered sun,
Hasten thine hour and halt not, till thy work be done.

God bless you all.

Announcer: You have been listening to a message to the people of Australia by the Prime Minister, the Honourable John Curtin.


Department of Veterans' Affairs 2020

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