World War II generation fading quietly away

World War ll helped shape the Australia of today, but few of those fought in it remain to share their experiences.

The men and women who fought to defeat Hitler, Mussolini and Japanese militarism are quickly and quietly passing away. In fact, most are already gone. Nearly a million Australian men and women enlisted in the military during World War ll. As we prepare to mark Victory in the Pacific Day and 70th anniversary of the end of World War ll on August 15, 2015, fewer than 30,000 Australian veterans of the war remain with us today.

Rather than establishing a new static monument or holding a reflective ceremony, a more engaging tribute might be one of commemoration through understanding.

crowds

Crowds of people celebrated in the streets of Australia when the Japanese surrendered and World War II was finally over. Photo: Argus Collection, Fairfax

 

 

But it was World War II – the bloodiest conflict in history – that defined the 20th century. Western liberal democracies were faced with their greatest risk from fascism and expansionist militarism. In eastern Europe, the war between the German Wehrmacht and the Soviet Red Army was one of brutal extermination. Between 1941 and 1945, more people died on the Eastern Front than live in Australia today; this comparison alone is enough to convey the calamity of the conflict.

The consequences and legacies of World War II still resonate in many parts of the world. In Britain, the Battle of Britain and “spirit of the Blitz” have become nostalgic celebrations of British character, whereas in eastern Europe, the national memories of the war are being vigorously renewed and reinvented. Just a few days ago, books written by renowned British historians Antony Beevor and the late Sir John Keegan were effectively banned from schools and universities in parts of Russia for discussing material considered defamatory to Red Army soldiers. Parallels can easily be drawn between the post-1945 Soviet occupation of eastern Europe and the assertiveness of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia now.

The brutality of Japan’s war in China likewise remains a source of contention between those two countries. In the United States, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, has framed much of the discussion of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For many European and Asian countries, World War II was a defining pivotal event that forged postwar national identities.

Australia is unusual in that its national identity was formed during World War I rather than World War II. Beyond some notions of Australianness, however, World War II helped shape the Australia we recognise today. The war afforded new opportunities for women; an expansion of Australian science and industry; the development of new relationships with the US and Britain; and a new awareness of our place in the region and the world.

The war would become Australia’s largest-ever military commitment. From 1939 to 1945, about 990,900 Australian men and women enlisted in the forces and half a million served overseas; 30,500 became prisoners of war, more than 8000 died in captivity of the total of almost 40,000 who died in the war. Tens of thousands more were wounded or injured. The Japanese also interned about 1500 Australian civilians in different parts of Asia and the Pacific.

Australians served all over the world, from the deserts of North Africa to the Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union; from the skies over occupied Europe to the jungles of Malaya and New Guinea. Australian war correspondents similarly bore witness to some of the world’s defining cataclysmic moments, from the misery of Stalingrad in 1942-43 to the Allied invasion of Europe on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and the liberation of the German concentration camps in 1945.

While the darkest moments and turning points of 1942 are more familiar in the Australian memory of the war – among them the fall of Singapore, the bombing of Darwin, the Japanese attacks on Sydney Harbour and Newcastle, and the fighting along the Kokoda Trail – it was in 1945 that Australian forces were more heavily engaged than at any other time. In addition to the nearly 13,000 Australian airmen serving in Britain, the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force contributed to the liberation of the Philippines, while the Australian army fought multiple campaigns in New Guinea and Bougainville, and on Borneo in the Netherlands East Indies.

Criticised as unnecessary “mopping-up” campaigns, these final operations in New Guinea and Bougainville were slow, grinding affairs fought through swamps, along jungle tracks, and atop mountain spurs. Lieutenant Colin Salmon, an armoured corps officer, later described Bougainville as “one long bloody hard slog”.

Finally, on August 15, 1945, Japan announced its surrender. In cities around Australia, spontaneous rejoicing broke out with wild scenes of celebration. One Sydney resident remembered: “We joined the deliriously happy throng celebrating in the city streets, particularly in Martin Place, which was awash with torn paper, streamers and unrolled toilet paper rolls.”

However, for the men doing the fighting in the islands, the declaration was greeted more sombrely. They had paid little attention to the news, three months earlier, of Germany’s collapse. Now, with Japan’s surrender, there still was no wild celebration among frontline soldiers. Too many had seen friends killed or wounded. Nineteen-year-old Lance Corporal Peter Medcalf, a rifleman serving in an infantry battalion on Bougainville, later remembered: “Strangely, no one laughed or cheered. All afternoon we sat quietly and speculated. We found it hard to understand fully.”

How many of the men and women who helped fight and win the war are alive today? The youngest veterans of the 1945 campaigns are 88 years old. Veterans of earlier actions, such as the Rats of Tobruk, Bomber Command airmen, or survivors of the Burma-Thailand Railway, are now well into their nineties.

From the more than 990,000 who enlisted during the war, figures from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs as of late March 2015 estimated only 28,800 veterans remained. How many of those who survive were combat veterans? It is difficult to know definitively, but from the 8500 prisoners of war of the Germans, for example, just over 140 remain. The comparative figure for prisoners of the Japanese is just as stark. Of the 22,000 Australians captured in 1942, little more than 210 are still alive. How many veterans will be with us in another five or 10 years?

Rather than establishing a new static monument or holding a reflective ceremony, a more engaging tribute might be one of commemoration through understanding. It is almost too late for the surviving veterans to tell their own stories in their own words. Now, then, is the time to begin a new conversation on Australia’s involvement in the war and to consider the war’s legacies for Australia. If not, the World War II generation might vanish before anyone notices.