Tuesday 15 November 2011 by Emma Campbell. 5 comments

On 7 December 1941, the Japanese attacked the United States’ Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, destroying dozens of ships and planes, and killing thousands of American servicemen. Japan and the United States were at war.

Australians were already fighting in Europe and the Middle East, but Prime Minister John Curtin quickly expanded Australia’s Second World War commitments, declaring that we, too, were at war with Japan because of its “unprovoked attack on British and United States territory”.

In the first year of the war in the south-west Pacific, Australians and Americans would fight the Japanese in Malaya and Singapore; in Ambon, Java and Timor; the Philippines; Papua, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Borneo. Not often, however, did they come together on the ground, and so some of the best known land campaigns fought by Australians – on the Kokoda Trail, and at Milne Bay – are unknown to Americans. Australians, meanwhile, play down the importance of the concurrent US campaign at Guadalcanal and the naval battle at Midway Island.

In December, on the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an international conference of experts and veterans from America, Australia and Japan will meet in New Orleans to discuss the first-year battles of the Pacific war, and to share the experiences of each of the nations involved, as well as some of the misconceptions that exist. Among the speakers are two of the Australian War Memorial’s senior historians, Dr Steve Bullard and Dr Karl James.

Bullard, a Japanese-speaker, has translated extracts from the Senshi sōsho (War history series), the official account of the Japanese experience of the Second World War. His talk on “Japanese operations in New Guinea: a prelude to invasion of Australia?” will introduce an American audience to Australia’s wartime fears of Japanese invasion , and our continuing misconceptions of Japanese intentions.

In the early part of the Pacific war – January, February and March of 1942 – the Japanese were discussing a partial invasion of Australia, but this idea was quickly rejected, Bullard says. Japan’s main motivation for going to war was to secure natural resources, such as oil, rubber and tin, in south-east Asia and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Occupation of bases in Papua and New Guinea, and attacks on the Australian mainland, were designed to protect the supply of these resources.

“There is a common misconception that they [the Japanese] were coming south and they weren’t going to stop until they had captured Australia; and that our boys in Papua stopped them. But in actual fact the Japanese had clear objectives ... and it never involved them continuing on to take Australia,” Bullard says.

James will deliver a talk on “The Kokoda Trail” that takes in the Australian actions along that well known track in Papua, as well as the fighting at Milne Bay.

“Kokoda and Milne Bay were among the best known Australian campaigns in the Second World War, but an American audience will probably have never heard of them,” he says. “A conference like this helps give the global perspective to the first year of the Pacific War, and remind an American audience that Australians were heavily involved in the south-west Pacific.”

The Japanese suffered their first defeat in the Papuan campaign at Milne Bay. The Japanese saw the Allied airstrips in the area as a stepping stone on their way to Port Moresby. On the night of 25 August 1942, they landed by sea at Milne Bay. Two Australian brigades (about 4,500 men), some American engineers, and two RAAF squadrons were awaiting them. A savage battle raged along the shore, but the Japanese never took the airstrips. They were evacuated by sea on 4 September.

The Kokoda campaign, fought between July and November 1942, saw some of the most desperate and vicious fighting encountered by Australian troops in the Second World War. The Australians were ultimately successful in stopping the Japanese from capturing the Papuan capital of Port Moresby.

Both Kokoda and Milne Bay were part of a larger campaign fought in Papua that – after the bloody beachhead battles of Buna, Gona, and Sanananda at the end of the year, from November 1942 to January 1943 – cleared the Japanese from Papua.

James says Australia’s victory in the Kokoda campaign is linked to the US victory at Guadalcanal: severe losses suffered by the Japanese in the Solomon Islands resulted in their South Seas Detachment on Kokoda being ordered to withdraw, which was the beginning of the end for their campaign in the Owen Stanley Range.

James says being able to share the Kokoda story with American historians – and, in turn, to learn more about what happened at Guadalcanal – will “help to put the Australian story into context, which makes it more meaningful”.

The conference, from 7 to 9 December, is the first of a series of five on the Second World War that will be convened by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.



Gwen McNeill

An excellent clear and concise explanation of japanese motivations and of Australian actions in a wider context. It is very good to see the involvement of AWM historians in an important conference of this type

Martin Hadlow

Readers with an interest in South-West Pacific Area (SWPA) operations during WWII, such as the Battle for Guadalcanal in 1942/43, might be interested to learn of the following recent event. COASTWATCHING MEMORIAL UNVEILED A monument to commemorate the bravery and loyalty of indigenous Coastwatchers and Scouts during World War Two has been dedicated in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara. It was officially opened by Solomon Islands Governor-General, Sir Frank Kabui, in conjunction with the 69th anniversary of the landings made on Guadalcanal and Tulagi by US Marines on the 7th August, 1942. While the new memorial particularly recognises those who undertook Coastwatching roles on Guadalcanal, New Georgia and elsewhere in Solomon Islands, the dedication ceremony also recognised the entire South-West Pacific network of Coastwatchers, including those who operated from Bougainville and other locations. The intelligence provided to US and other Allied forces by the Coastwatchers and Scouts was crucial to victory. Wartime South Pacific Area commander, Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey, remarked that “The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.” Speaking at the unveiling on the 7th August, former Solomon Islands Prime Minister and Chairman of the Trust which constructed the statue, Sir Peter Kenilorea, noted that many of the major battles fought in the (then) British Solomon Islands Protectorate during the Second World War were virtually unknown to the present generation of Solomon Islanders. He also pointed out that the bravery of Solomon Islands Scouts had not been adequately recognised. However, with the opening of the memorial, he said that names and places such as the Battle of Savo Island, Iron Bottom Sound, Mount Austen and Bloody Ridge would become better known to a new generation, which could be proud of the courageous and vital role played by Solomon Islands Scouts and Coastwatchers. Royal Australian Navy Defence Advisor, Commander Geoff Turner, outlined the history of the network of teleradio operations, code-named Ferdinand, established in the 1930s by Commander Eric Feldt of the RAN. He mentioned the importance of the role played by the administration officers, planters, missionaries and others who reported from behind enemy lines as Japanese Imperial forces swept south in 1942 from their base in occupied Rabaul. Without the help and protection of local people, Commander Turner noted that the mainly expatriate Coastwatchers would not have been able to survive. The new monument, located near the Point Cruz wharves in Honiara, was designed and constructed locally. Three surviving Solomon Islands Scouts who fought in the campaigns were present at the ceremony, while the US Marine Corps was represented by Colonel Robert D. Loynd based in the northern Pacific and a military band from US Marine Corps Base Hawaii. The opening of the monument was preceded by a service at the official US Memorial overlooking the Matanikau River, scene of heavy wartime fighting during the Battle for Guadalcanal. Photos and story by Martin Hadlow

Martin Hadlow

Moderator: have photos to accompany the story...and can e-mail if you provide an address. Thanks. Martin

John Austin

It is also the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Malaya. Maybe the Americans should know of this event that occurred at the same time the Philippines (and Pearl Harbor) were attacked. Malaya would have to be Australian starting point for the Pacific War and should be commemorated as such.

Patrick O'Callaghan

The first paragraph contains no reference to the invasion of Malaya, which leads to the inference from para. 2 that Curtin's declaration of war against Japan was in response to the attack on Pearl Harbour. I would have thought, given Australia's Anglo-orientation at the time, that it might have been primarily a response to the attack on Malaya. In other words, would the attack on the US, with which Australia had no traditional cultural bond, and, perhaps (I'm not sure), no formal military ties, have been cause for us to declare war on Japan?