Battle for Australia - commemorative address

8 mins read
The Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO
BAE Theatre

Minister, Vice Chief of Defence, Excellencies, Veterans, families who love and support you and students who are here, welcome to the Australian War Memorial.

To the young people who are here I say you don’t realise what you’re learning when you’re learning it. It’s often in random moments of quiet revelation that the most significant things that will shape and influence your thinking and attitudes will come, when you least expect them.

Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.

We will sing it shortly, we sing it often, we hear it sung often, the first line of our National Anthem.

But less often do we pause to reflect on what it means.

We are young. And we are free. And we are free in no small way for the events that bring us here today, to commemorate what is broadly known as the Battle for Australia.

If 1788 is the most important year in this nation’s history -  the British First Fleet arriving and all of the devastation that bring would for millennia of rich Indigenous custodianship, culture and history, and from it the origins of the Australia we would become and the people we now are – the next most important year was 1942.

The Second World War was no mere extension of the First. This was not about emerging national identity or Australia’s place in the world. Our vital interests were at stake. The Japanese landed on the Malaya Peninsula on the same day they attacked the US Fleet at Pearl Harbour.

We were, when the war had been declared in September 1939, seven million people. One million Australians mobilised, including 70,000 women who did much, much more than the important task of nursing.

We would, over those six years that would ensue, send half a million Australians overseas. Thirty thousand would be prisoners of war. Eight thousand would die in captivity, in the most brutal and most unimaginable of circumstances.

And we would emerge from the war victorious, uncertain of our future and inconsolably mourning our forty thousand dead, living with the one hundred thousand physically wounded and an indeterminate number, as is the case today, of those bearing psychological traumas.

Once the Japanese had landed in December 1941 they rapidly advanced through South East Asia. Nine hundred and twenty five Australians died in the defence of what the British called ‘Fortress Singapore’. And then twenty two thousand young Australians of the 8th Division, fit, young, healthy volunteer Australians went into captivity.

On the following day, the 16th of February 1942, our then great wartime Prime Minister John Curtin described this as ‘our nation’s gravest hour’. He addressed the nation on that day and he said,

“The fall of Singapore can only be described as Australia's Dunkirk for in it lies not only the future of the Commonwealth of Australia but the frontier of the United States of America, indeed of all the Americas, and the peoples of the British speaking world.“

He said,

“The protection of this country would no longer rely of that to a contribution to a world at war, but rather resistance to an enemy threatening to invade our shores.”

Only three days after that speech two hundred and fifty two Australians, military and civilians, and some Americans, were killed in the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese, the first of 63 attacks on the Australian mainland in 1942. There would then be a series of critical events and battles that would occur through that momentous year, 75 years ago.

The strategic defeat of the Japanese by the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Navy in early May at the Battle of the Coral Sea which was the origins of the alliance between Australia and the United States which endures today and the bedrock of security in the Western Pacific ever since.

And then the defeat of the Japanese at Midway the following month that forced the Japanese to get to Port Moresby, having planned it to be a seaborne assault, across the hinterland to the north.

And hence the gripping struggle at Kokoda, at Isurava in late August, the pivotal battle at Milne Bay – the first defeat inflicted on the Japanese Imperial militarist army on land.

What the Americans did, supported by us and others, at Guadalcanal.

Three Japanese midget submarines in Sydney Harbour in late May, but there were five mothership submarines just 80km off the coast of the headlands of Sydney Harbour.

There was every reason for Australians to believe that Japan was coming and that this nation, as it’s Prime Minister had said to them, was now resisting an enemy threatening to invade our shores.

It is very tempting, human beings that we are, to settle for headlines, settle for some of those broad brushstrokes I just outlined, popular imagery and mythology of our history. Our comfortable lives, 75 years on, breed easy indifference to these individual sacrifices that have been made in our name, devotion to duty and to our country.

Many of you, much younger than me, would not know of some of these events but just before the fall of Singapore a ship, SS Vyner Brooke, embarked a range of civilians including 65 nurses to get them out of Singapore before it fell. It was strafed from the air by Japanese fighters on 14 February 1942.

Of the 65 nurses on-board 25 managed to get to Bangka Island. And then, on a place called Radji Beach, with machine guns pointes at them the 25 nurses walked into the water. Only one, Vivian Bullwinkle, would survive.

Her uniform and medals are proudly displayed here at the Australian War Memorial. She spent three and a half years in captivity. And she recorded Matron Irene Drummond as these young nurses walked into that water before being machine gunned from the back.

Matron Irene Drummond said,

“Chins up, girls. I’m proud of you…. I love you all”.

There was a small Royal Australian Navy ship; HMAS Perth had already been lost in the Sunda Strait, a ship called HMAS Yarra. It’s a sloop, for those of you unfamiliar with the navy it’s a smaller version of a fighting ship.

It was escorting a small merchant convoy back to Australia, after the fall of Singapore, from Java and the young commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Robert Rankin, encountered five Japanese warships. Three heavy cruisers, two destroyers.

He made the decision to disperse the convoy, put out a smokescreen and turned that little Australian ship headfirst into those five Japanese warships. Having taken multiple hits he gave the order to abandon ship and he and those on the bridge were hit moments later when a salvo hit it on the 4th March 1942.

Leading Seaman ‘Tubby’ Taylor went back to his gun and kept it firing until the ship went down.

The captured British merchant seaman, Joseph F Murphy, was witness to it from the Japanese Cruiser, Maier and he said,

“Silently we stood and watched the little sloop, white ensign flying and guns blazing against the hopeless odds….hers was a gallant death and one of which Australia should be proud.”

We of a younger generation hear the word Kokoda often. And often it’s regarded as a place where one goes to find strength and inspiration. Perhaps at times to deal with all sorts of traumas in our lives.

But in 1942 on the stepping stones of courage and despair a small group of Australians, young Australians, defended our country and stopped the enemy from getting to Port Moresby.

One of them who did survive, a member of what was called the 39th Militia Battalion - these were members of the militia, there were either conscripts or too young to get into the professional army and they were what stood between us and the Japanese – and one of them, Sergeant Jack Simms, he’d been a shop assistant from Ballarat, said to us in the year 2000, clearly struggling with his own psychological traumas,

"Some prayed, some swore with fear, but you wouldn’t show it in front of your mates. One of the boys got shot fair between the eyes, right alongside me. It was a perfect shot. Terrible to be afraid, but it’s the brave ones afraid that still kept going, that’s what they did you know. Scared bloody stiff and they still kept going."

In Anzac Hall here you will see now, just in front of the Lancaster bomber, a small tank. It weighs just eight tons. It’s a Japanese Ha-Go 95 tank.

The Japanese landed 2,800 Marines and those two tanks at a place called Milne Bay on the south east corner of New Guinea in late August 1942 in an attempt to get to the airstrips and then provide air support for their attack along Kokoda to Port Moresby. On the 27th August a 27 year Australian pilot of 76 Squadron, Squadron Leader Peter St George Turnbull, was killed flying at treetop height strafing that tank.

There are four words up there in New Guinea, at Isurava, enshrined into granite. Four words of values that were seen in these young Australians.


Nothing of value in life is achieved without taking a risk.


You never give up.


In order to achieve the objectives that we’ve set for ourselves we have to make sacrifice, we have to give things up and often with immense physical and or emotional pain.

And mateship.

That in the end what we need most is one another.

There are a small number of veterans here today, I say to young people, who fought in these campaigns that I’m referring too, and they’re old. But once they were young. They were young like you.

And today, and for the rest of your lives, when you sing our National Anthem, just think of them, because that are why we are free.

They are the best generation this country has ever produced.

They were born in the aftermath of the First World War.

They grew up through what is called the Great Depression, and may God grant never you ever experience one. 

They then came to their teenage years under the shadows of a war that was coming. 

They mobilised to defend our freedoms and vital interests.

They then set about the economic and social reconstruction of our country, Australia, and gave us the prosperity that too often we have taken for granted.

So always remember them.

They put principle above position, values ahead of value, they regarded their responsibilities to one another and our nation and its future as transcending and defining their rights.

We will always remember them.

We remember them here every day, for we are young and we are free.

Thank you.

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