Australia in 1942 as Described to Wartime USA

Nearly four score years ago thousands of Australian soldiers were captured in the fall of Singapore. Most of the remaining soldiers were fighting in North Africa. The total occupation of New Guinea had been halted, but only just, by the Battle of The Kokoda Track. The towns of the northern coast were being bombed* and invasion of Australian shores looked imminent. Britain was fully stretched fighting Germany and Italy. The Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, turned to President Roosevelt of the USA for help.

General Douglas (‘I will return’) MacArthur retreated from the Phillipines and set up headquarters in Brisbane. Thousands of American army and navy personal were despatched to the ‘sunburnt country’, a land most of them knew little about.

The booklet shown below was No. 23 in a series rushed off the presses to inform Americans about their new allies, in this case Australia. The foreword says the booklet ’emphasises the importance of Australia’s position not only for the Southwest Pacific, but also in the grand strategy of the United Nations.’

1942book 034

There are all kinds of things in here that both Australians and Americans will find of interest, I think, even though much has changed. The author reminds his American readers that the Australian colonies came into existence because of the American Declaration of Independence. The loss of the colonies, where the British often dumped their convicts, motivated the British to attempt a new colony in an unexplored country on the far side of the globe. Of the 1400 members of the First Fleet, half were convicts**. Eventually 160,000 convicts were shipped to the new colony. Many were only petty criminals or ‘political agitators’ who the Brits wanted to get rid of, especially ‘Fenians’ from Ireland. Nowadays some 40% of Australians can trace their heritage back to Ireland including your correspondent, an O’Dwyer by name.

Another connection with the USA that Americans in 1942, and now, may not have known about was the gold rushes. Many hopeful men headed from Australia to California in 1849 including, apparently, my own great-great grandfather. When gold was found in Victoria in the 1850’s, disappointed miners, including thousands of Americans, flooded to the Great Southern Land. The largest rebellion against arbitrary authority in Australia was by angry gold miners (‘diggers’) at the ‘Euraka Stockade’. Among them were some Americans.

A big connection, by the way (strangely omitted by Timperley), is that in 1918 Americans fought with Australians at Chuignes, Mont St Quentin, Perrone and Hargicourt under the overall command of Australian general Monash.***

The booklet’s author, Timperley, blandly sets down the racist and patronising views of 1942, and at these you want to weep. Concerning the Australian Aborigines we read (gulp), ‘Although their intellectual capacities are distinctly limited, they are said to make quite good mechanics and handy men.‘Authorities have set aside native reserve where these remnants of a dying race may end their days in peace.’ Yes, it’s all true. The ‘natives’ were supposed to quietly go away and die. These were also the ghastly days of the White Australia immigration policy, the excuse of which was to keep out feared hordes of ‘coloured labourers’.

On the other hand, pre-1942 Australia got a lot right. As the author notes, the Labor Party stimulated political reforms such as votes for women in 1902, free and compulsory education, pensions for invalids and veterans, and ‘a great body of social legislation which has made Australia one of the most liberal of world democracies’. Prime Ministers had by then included a former miner, an itinerant labourer, a storekeeper, a school teacher, and the great war time leader John Curtin who left school at age 13. Timperley contrasts this with the unlikelihood of such things happening in the USA.

Timperly could not know then of course that the alliance being forged as he wrote would continue after the war in the Pacific, and it remains bi-partisan Australian national policy to this day.

My thanks go to Lisa C. who stumbled on this treasure in a ‘pre-loved bookshop’ and generously sent it on to me.

*The movie ‘Australia’ depicts the first day of the months-long bombing of Darwin.

**Many an Australian now trawls the genealogical websites hoping to discover that their forebears were convicts, especially one from the First Fleet.

***Monash had 208,000 men under his command, including 50,000 Americans.

Mark is guardian and blundering typist for Mawson, one of this bright world’s few published bears.

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