HON. WAYNE SWAN MP
FEDERAL MEMBER FOR LILLEY
STATEMENTS ON INDULGENCE (WORLD WAR 2)
FEDERATION CHAMBER, CANBERRA
MONDAY, 7 SEPTEMBER 2015
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The 70th anniversary of VP Day is a very important event. It is apiece with the Centenary of Anzac and a number of commemorations around the country for the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Milne Bay. Three weeks ago I went to the official opening of the 9th Battalion Association's First Ashore display at the Kedron-Wavell RSL; and two weeks ago I went to a VP Day service, once again at the Kedron-Wavell RSL; and a week or so ago I was at the Nundah-Northgate RSL for the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Milne Bay. All of these events are of course directly linked.
The First Ashore display at Kedron-Wavell in the Milne Bay Centre is a moving and poignant tribute to Queensland's 9th Battalion. It was the first battalion recruited in Queensland for the Great War. It was the first ashore at Gallipoli and it remained there until the evacuation in December 1915. It then served on the Western Front, fought at Ypres, the Somme and the Hindenburg line and participated in the great allied offensive in 1918 at Amiens. The 9th lost 1,128 men, of the 60,000 who died in World War I. In those Western Front battles, the 9th fought alongside the 41st Battalion, my grandfather's battalion. He received serious shrapnel wounds at Ypres and was gassed for the second time at Morlancourt in the Somme Valley. He was one of the 156,000 who were wounded in the Great War. He came home a very sick man.
The 9th Battalion today is based at Gallipoli Barracks at Enoggera, just outside the electorate of Lilley, but was recruited on the north side of Brisbane, particularly in the areas around Chermside. Of course, when it was recruited, within weeks of the beginning of the war, the locals turned out in big numbers and more followed. By November 1916 there were 6,400 men training in a camp at Chermside alone. So it is fitting that this display at the Kedron-Wavell RSL is located in the old Sandgate drill hall—brought from Sandgate to Chermside. The Sandgate drill hall was moved—and this is the important link with the 70th anniversary of VP Day—to its site at the Kedron-Wavell RSL as part of the 1995 Australia Remembers commemoration. That was a very important event. It was really the first time as a country we took seriously the task of communicating to younger generations the importance of the service of servicemen right from the very beginning of the formation of our nation. I believe that that 50-year anniversary commemoration has set the scene for the success of this year's 100 year centenary of Gallipoli commemoration.
A lot of work has gone on in the last 20 years since that 50th anniversary back in 1995. Many energetic volunteers and RSL members have become very much involved in moving into our local communities, particularly to our schools, to talk about the importance of service and the values that underpin it. This display located now in the Milne Bay Memorial Hall at Kedron-Wavell RSL is one more tribute to the resilience, the courage, the resolve and the loyalty of those who risked and lost their lives for their mates that they served beside and the home that they loved. It teaches a story of people who found the courage to do the truly extraordinary—to use the phrase that was used by Paul Keating some years ago. It is fitting that it is there at Chermside in the Milne Bay Memorial Hall.
In the Second World War, it was the 9th Battalion formed back in Chermside in 1914 that was again at the centre of an epic battle, the Battle of Milne Bay. It was a critical moment that prevented the Japanese invasion of Australia. It was the first defeat of the Japanese on land—in fact it is said the first defeat of the Japanese in a thousand years. So the Milne Bay centre was a very important part of that 50th commemoration and a very important part of the 70th commemoration.
The Battle of Milne Bay is also one that is quite close to me in that 73 years on my Uncle Charlie Stacey—who still lives at Bli Bli just on the Sunshine Coast—is one of the few veterans now left from that epic battle. It was one of those moments in the Second World War when the fate of millions literally did hang in the balance and the tide was turned in critical ways.
There were enormous events going on across the world—battles taking place at El Alamein, Guadalcanal and over the skies of Germany. The Battle of Milne Bay was not necessarily a large battle in terms of the number of soldiers on the ground; it was incredibly significant not just in strategic terms but, as I said before, because it was the first defeat of the Japanese in the Pacific.
I will just go back and talk about it: August 1942—an attachment of Japanese marines with naval and air support tried to outflank our position on the Kokoda Track. Their target was the strategically important harbour and air base of Milne Bay. Had they succeeded, they would have put a bayonet in the back of the thin khaki line that was preventing the fall of Port Moresby. But they were stopped by a rapidly assembled force of Australian militia troops—7th Division veterans from Tobruk, ack-ack gunners, airfield engineering units, Kittyhawk fighters from 75th and 76th squadrons and Boston bombers from No. 6 squadron. As I said before, this battle punctured the myth that the Japanese were invincible.
After Milne Bay, the Australians and Americans were always on the offensive. So this was a turning point in the Pacific that helped the victory of the allies. It was also a brutal, murderous and muddy encounter, as tough as war gets. On that sweltering bay, there were massacres of troops and civilians—later the subject of war crime investigations. There were no rear lines or support troops. Everyone there was under constant fire and constant attack. Construction workers fought with rifles. Men attacked tanks not with long-range guns but by crawling up to them to attach sticky mines to their hulls.
It was a place where the tropical wetlands bred malaria, and many soldiers were infected. One of the them was my Uncle Charlie, who fought in B Company stationed in Milne Bay when the Japanese arrived on August 25. He was sent home to Brisbane but went back to fight in Bougainville after his recovery. He returned once more just a few years ago with my three older brothers. He went to find some of the locals who had helped them, and they actually managed to locate a family that had helped him when he was there. These are incredible stories, and it is because of people like Uncle Charlie and all of those who served to whom we pay tribute.
Of course in this war my father was also in the Pacific. He was not in Milne Bay; he was in the RAAF at Tarakan and Balikpapan—roughly 5,000 kilometres from home and 3,000 miles from Milne Bay. He came home a different person. He went back to normal life and dedicated his life to working in the RSL. It certainly shaped my experiences of war. That is not to say that many of these men, including my father and my Uncle Charlie, were constantly talking about it; they were not. They did not talk about it.
One of the great successes of the Australian Remembers program 50 years ago was that many of these men did for the very first time start talking: first of all, to their families and then, more broadly, to the community. That event alone changed our country in many significant ways put together, as it were, by Prime Minister Keating, veteran's affairs minister Con Sciacca and in close collaboration with the RSL's ride around the country—which I believe was one of the most spectacularly successful community education programs that we will see in the life of our country. I believe it is now bearing fruit in the way in which the Centenary of Federation program is working.
It was very important in our nation's life that that conversation to bridge the gap between the generations started to happen conclusively as it did 20 years ago. Because many people of my age did not necessarily have—and certainly my children and their children would not have—the direct experience with war veterans that my generation had. So these sorts of commemoration programs are very important so that all of our community continues to honour and respect the service of our veterans but, more importantly, the values that underpin the service of our veterans. That goes to the very core of what type of country we aspire to be—a country where we respect our friends; where there is equality of outcomes; where mateship is seen as a valuable virtue; and where we will stand up and defend the principles of equality and democracy. These are the values that underpin the service and the sacrifice that has come before us. Of course, it is now honoured continuously in the work of our RSLs and a whole host of other affiliated organisations that have come forward to work with a new group of veterans of conflicts, particularly in the Middle East—Afghanistan, Iraq and many others. In fact, the number of troops on rotation in recent years is such that we have a much bigger group of people coming through who will need the same help that people like my father and my uncle Charlie needed when they came back from the war.
These are all of the reasons why we commemorate these important dates to remind ourselves once again of the importance and the purpose of service, the defence of democracy and the maintenance of a society which is not only prosperous but free and dedicated to the principle of equality.