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.’

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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.

The Girl Under The Olive Tree, and Anzac Fury: Two stories of the Battle of Crete

I read three books concerning Crete this month. First, Swallows Dance by Wendy Orr, set in the Bronze Age. Then I read in tandem both a novel and a history on what happened from 1941 to 1945 to the Cretan population, and to others caught up in the invasion and occupation, including soldiers and resistance fighters of Crete, Greece, Italy, Germany, Britain, Australia and New Zealand (ANZACS).

An innocuous title, thought I, as I selected The Girl Under the Olive Tree, by Leah Flemming for a holiday read. Well, it starts quietly enough with young Penelope George in Scotland mainly concerned to avoid being married off by her status conscious mother. But in her search to find her own identity in life, she takes up nursing training, then accepts a chance to join her sister in Athens.

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An idyllic time follows for Penelope but as Italian and then German forces invade Greece, she is caught up in a malestrom of war. As she turns 21 she makes hard choices, the courage and cost of which not one male in the story seems to appreciate.

Through this fictional story of her endurance and trials, and those of her friend, Yolanda, and of her love for the infuriating Bruce Jardin, we are taken through the horrors endured by this island. But what, thought I, as I read on, totally engrossed, of this olive tree? All becomes clear eventually.

The Girl Under the Olive Tree, by Leah Flemming, published by Simon and Schuster 2013, was inspired in part by Johanna Stavridi, a nurse honoured by the Hellenic Red Cross for her courage and work.

Anzac Fury: The Bloody Battle of Crete 1941, by Peter Thompson, published by William Heinemann 2010, concerns, as you’d expect from the title, the fighting itself during the invasion, particularly that of the ANZACS*. But so we can make sense of it all, Thompson takes in the wider scenario beginning with the fighting in North Africa and the whole Mediterrean.

He describes ordinary fighting men and the astonishing things they did (through use of surviving diaries and letters), and he goes into the personalities and motivations of the commanders and politicians, whose decisions cost so many so much.

*Note for non-Australasian readers:
The term ANZAC was coined in 1915 to denote the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps that fought in the disaster known as Gallipoli, a campaign conceived by Mr Winston Churchill. Turkish, French and British troops died there too in huge numbers, yet the event has a special place in the histories of Australia and New Zealand. Both were small countries that had only been self governing for 13 or 14 years. They suffered losses  that shook their national psyches. The day the troops landed, 25 April, is a day of Remembrance.

When, 26 years later, the troops of these nations were shipped to the hopeless cause of defending Greece, again due to the decisions of Mr Churchill, they were highly conscious that illfated Gallipoli was not far away.

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

Tales From A Mountain City, A Vietnam War Memoir, by Quyhn Dao

Quyhn Dao was a ‘boat person’ who arrived in Australia as a refugee in 1979. In her book, she does not describe the politics and military aspects of the war that was waged against the entire Vietnamese people by Ho Chi Minh’s regime from 1945 until long after the fall of Saigon in 1975. She shares instead her girlhood memories: her mother’s garden, her love of books, the antics of her brothers, the love story of how her parents met. But these are impossible to relate without also recording the impact of the conflict, even in her quiet mountain city of Dalat. The war permeated homelife, family connections, schooling, books, clothing, music, food – everything.

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Confiscations, sackings, compulsory labour, imprisonment, torture, people forced to speak against their friends in order to survive, books burned, the value of money ruined, millions plunged into poverty by stupid policies – the pervasive horror mounts and mounts. Yet Dao principally focuses on the quiet small things of her ordinary life. She writes in a clear calm voice and only occassionally shoots out stinging lines.

Uncle Ho, the self sacrificing, self denying, self effacing living saint wrote a book to extol his own virtues. (Ch. 11, about the Chairman’s appalling ‘poetry’.)

I had a strong reaction to this book. I frequently paused in anger and surprise that there was so much I had not known. I was a boy when Australia was sending soldiers to Vietnam. There was antipathy to the war. As my 18th birthday approached I hoped my name would not be drawn in the ballot for National Service in Vietnam. But the Australian troops were withdrawn before then. After reading Quynh Dao’s memoir I now feel, 40 years too late, that most of what I thought I knew about Vietnam was badly misinformed.

The Foreword is by Malcolm Fraser, the Prime Minister of Australia who welcomed in refugees who had taken the enormous risk of fleeing the disaster.

Hundreds of thousand of Boat People never reached friendly shores. They died by drowning, of hunger, thirst or rape. Thousands of young women and girls were kidnapped by pirates, never to be seen again. (Ch. 13).

Malcolm Fraser reminds us that, ‘Australia is a much better country for having opened its door to refugees and asylum seekers from all around the world.’

I highly recommend reading Tales from a Mountain City by Quynh Dao. It was shortlisted for The Asher Literary Award and Wlliam Saroyan International Prize for Writers.

It is published by Odyssey Books and available through online retailers, including Book Depository and Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

You can read more about the author here . She has also written The Beauty That Remains about her journey to freedom.

You are in the blog of Mark O’Dwyer. As well as being a bibliophile, I am guardian and photographer for Mawson Bear, one of this bright world’s very few Writer-Bears. Mawson wrote It’s A Bright world To Feel Lost In.