Victory in the Pacific - The Second World War was over.

Seventy-five years ago, on 15 August 1945, Emperor Hirohito publically announced Japan’s acceptance of the Allies’ terms and Japan’s surrender. Nazi Germany had surrendered to the Allies three months earlier. The Second World War was over. It had been the bloodiest conflict in human history.

While there were many contributors to Japan’s defeat – including battlefield defeats in many theatres, the Allied naval blockade and the bombing of home islands, and the Soviet Union’s declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria – the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 brought the conflict to a sudden end. “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” and the Allies had “begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb” the power of which is “incalculable” ”, Emperor Hirohito told his people on 15 August.

Although spared from much of the conflict’s destruction and displacement, Australia’s mobilisation for total war was unprecedented. Close to one in seven Australians served in the forces, over half of whom served overseas. Forty thousand Australian servicemen and servicewomen died in the conflict, and more than 30,000 suffered as prisoners of war, while 1,500 Australian civilians were interned by the Japanese in Asia and the Pacific. Tens of thousands of Australians were wounded or injured. Moral injuries were uncounted.

During the war, the Australian mainland was attacked nearly 100 times by enemy aircraft; areas of Australian administered territory in New Guinea and the islands were invaded and occupied by Japanese forces; and there were Axis attacks on Allied shipping in Australian waters from surface raiders, submarines, and sea mines.

Away from the battlefront, the Australian government, industry, agriculture and civilian population were mobilised. Food, coal, fuel and textiles were rationed. Hundreds of thousands of men and women were employed directly in war work, constructing roads, aerodromes, military camps, gun positions, and docks, and working in armament, munitions or aircraft factories. Australian industry rapidly modernised and expanded during the war, heralding a period of engineering and technical achievement.

During 1945, Australian forces were engaged in campaigns across the Pacific – in New Guinea, Bougainville, New Britain, Borneo, and in the Philippines – and Australian prisoners of the Japanese were spread throughout Asia. Most had expected the war against Japan to continue for many more months. After the atomic bombings, however, Japanese surrender was anticipated from about 11 August. On the morning of 15 August, people across the country listened to a broadcast from Prime Minister Ben Chifley:

“Fellow citizens, the war is over. The Japanese Government has accepted the terms of surrender imposed by the Allied Nations and hostilities will now cease.”

The 15 August was gazetted as VP Day: “Victory in the Pacific Day”. Spontaneous rejoicing broke out with joyous celebrations in cities across the nation. “Oh, it was wonderful”, recalled Lillian Harding, then a schoolgirl in Adelaide, “I think everyone went into the city and there was singing and dancing and it was just so exciting.” Lillian Malcolm, a war widow from Sydney, participated in the celebrations, but for her the day was also tinged with sadness. Her husband had been killed serving with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1942. “So many people’s husbands coming back, it was hard – but a wonderful thank you that it was all over,” she later reflected.  

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(Left to right): Betty Williams, Lois Anne Martin and possibly Carmel O’Connor, from the Kokoda factory, Abbotsford, celebrate VP Day in Melbourne. Martin knitted the vest in anticipation of the Allies’ victory and wore it on 15 August 1945. She never wore it again. The vest is on display in the permeant Second World War galleries. AWM P02018.226 

Street parties, marches of returned servicemen and servicewomen, dances, and church services were held across the country. An estimated million people crammed into the City of Sydney, gathering around Martin Place and the Domain to celebrate the end of the war. In Newcastle, peace celebrations stretched over two days and included a march of serving and returned members of the navy, army, air force, Volunteer Defence Corps, and other groups along King Street, with a fly-past of RAAF aircraft, a united thanksgiving religious service in King Edward Park, and two evenings of musical pageants at the Sports Ground.

Scenes of jubilation contrasted with somber reflection and thanksgiving as many experienced conflicting emotions: relief that the war was finally over, grief for those who were lost, and apprehension for the future.  

For those fighting and dying in New Guinea or Bougainville, the declaration was greeted somberly. They had paid little attention to the news of victory in Europe three months earlier. With Japan’s surrender, there was no wild celebration for those on the front lines. Peter Medcalf, then a 19-year-old lance corporal fighting on Bougainville, later wrote: “Strangely no one laughed or cheered. All afternoon we sat quietly and speculated. We found it hard to understand fully. Like countless others, he had seen too many mates killed or wounded. Sergeant Tom Hungerford, who was also serving on Bougainville in 1945, recalled:

Suddenly we were unemployed, and suddenly we had to begin thinking about returning to civvy life: and I don’t think there were many who had a very clear idea of what that meant. I know I didn’t.

Japan’s formal surrender took place on 2 September in Tokyo Bay, Japan, aboard the American battleship USS Missouri, followed by surrender ceremonies across Asia and the Pacific. In the weeks and months to come, liberated Australian prisoners of war were repatriated, followed by thousands of servicemen. It was a slow process. In mid-1945 there were almost 600,000 Australian men and women in uniform. While more than half were serving in Australia, 20,000 servicemen, mainly members of the RAAF, were serving in Britain and elsewhere; 224,000 were serving across the Pacific; and Australian prisoners of the Japanese were widely dispersed across south-east Asia.                                                                                 

Sergeant Don Moore, who had been captured when Singapore fell on 15 February 1942, had endured three and a half years as a prisoner of the Japanese, surviving the brutality of the Burma–Thailand railway and then camps in Japan. “We were going home, and it was just terrific”, he remembered during an interview in the 1980s. “Even now I think of that homecoming. It is like being born again.”                                                                               

The transition from soldier, airmen, nurse or prisoner of war to civilian was not always easy for returned service members and their families. “To settle back into civilian life was very tough for all of us,” observed Alan Lowe, who had served in the artillery from 1939 to 1945. His regiment had seen service in Britain, North Africa, Greece, northern Australia, and New Guinea, far from his family in Sydney. Civilian life presented new challenges, from securing peacetime employment and re-establishing personnel relationships to recovering from physical injuries or mental trauma.

In the years to come, Australia’s economy prospered and its society slowly diversified. The postwar years of the Cold War were to present their own fears and challenges. But for now, on 15 August 1945, Australians enjoyed what Prime Minister Chifley simply called “this glorious moment”.

Dr Karl James
Head, Military History
Australian War Memorial