World War II was the greatest national effort in Australia’s history. Out of a population of seven million people, one million Australians put on our uniform and made the silent promise to give their lives for their country if need be. Almost 40,000 gave their lives.
Their mission was clear: to defeat Hitler and the evils of Nazism; stop the aggression and conquest of militaristic Japan; defend our sovereignty, freedom and our way of life; and to prevent an attack on Australia.
Everyone had a role to play. As wartime prime minister John Curtin said, “No one else can do your share.” It was a call Australians embraced. It was clear what was at stake.
As Nancy Wake, the “white mouse” who outwitted the Gestapo, put it: “Freedom is the only thing worth living for … without freedom there is no point in living”.
Faith Bandler, best known for her work supporting the 1967 referendum, first expressed her willingness to live out her beliefs by joining the Australian Women’s Land Army. She said of her service, “I was determined that I should do something. Something in a very positive way, because it was a war against fascism.”
Faith’s brother Edward Mussing also signed up. He was part of 2/26th Australian Infantry Battalion and died on the notorious Thai-Burma Railway. In total, 5000 Indigenous Australians served during World War II.
At home, the war effort was bolstered by the 200,000 women who joined the workforce. Thousands more joined the services. All understood that if tyranny was not confronted together, eventually it would be confronted alone.
In the Pacific, we fought alongside friends and allies in pursuit of that goal. The bonds we forged made us more than neighbours; they made us family.
It wasn’t just the armed forces who played a role; we remember the resistance fighters and the local people in so many places who risked their own lives in the defence of freedom.
This week we were reminded of the courage of those times with the decision to award the Victoria Cross for Australia to Ordinary Seaman Edward “Teddy” Sheean.
Sheean was the youngest on HMAS Armidale. He was just 18. On December 1, 1942, the Armidale was attacked by Japanese bombers and incurred significant damage. After the order was given for the crew to abandon ship, Japanese aircraft strafed the Australian sailors who were overboard. Sheean then turned back, made for the gun, strapped himself in and returned fire to the Japanese. He fought to the very end.
The story of World War II is the story of a generation standing up and giving all.
It is the story of “Bull” Allen carrying the wounded to safety; Roden Cutler and the campaign for Syria; Vivian Bullwinkel and the nurses of Banka Island; Bluey Truscott and the defence of Milne Bay; and every battle in the air, on land and at sea where Australian blood was shed.
All of which was part of one great national effort.
From that wonderful victory, the most remarkable thing happened — sworn enemies became our devoted friends.
As I think of the peace won 75 years ago today, I think of Darwin, which suffered the overwhelming bulk of the attacks on mainland Australia. In 2018, I had the honour of spending time in Darwin with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It was an incredibly moving experience.
So from war came peace; from peace came rebuilding; from rebuilding came reflection; from reflection, forgiveness; and eventually friendship.
That is the world the generation of the second world war created.
Today, only a fraction of that generation remains. Today we say thank you to them. They helped win a war, secure the peace and, along with so many more, saved humanity.
Their deeds will not be forgotten. In our time, with our own struggles, we will draw strength from their example.
Lest we forget.