Our mission for this new millenium
It was 87 years ago this Anzac Day that our gallant forces landed on Gallipoli. Although our Federation of States was created by becoming the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, many believe our European nation was born on the cliffs of Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Our nation was united by a collective spirit for our forces in their heroic and treacherous landing at Gallipoli.
We recently experienced a similar pride of unity when our military forces served with distinction in their peacekeeping role in East Timor, where they carried out a deep debt that we owed to the gallant Timorese for their unselfish sacrifices in support of our Australian forces in World War Two.
It is time that we looked back at the last century to the great loss Australia suffered by being involved in wars that were solely in the interest of the British Empire - the two most significant being the Boer War and World War One. I am not depreciating in any way, the great service and sacrifice our armed forces made in those conflicts, but I question the wisdom of Australia's political leadership in our involvement in a war so far away.
There are some journalists today who have not known or experienced the horror of war, but who crusade about the importance of Australia's involvement in the First World War. In France, in the battle of the Somme, at Fromelles and Pozieres, we lost thousands of our young people. The casualties in seven weeks on the western front were over 23,000, three times the number at Gallipoli.
I've never been to Gallipoli, but I've walked through the military cemeteries in France and Belgium; and it angers me that the British General, Lord Haigh, who butchered not only Australian Troops but also the British forces in those cruel years, is immortalised by a statue in Westminster. Sixty thousand of our young Australian men and women perished during active service in the First World War. Australia in that period had a population of only five million. Can you imagine what that huge loss of life meant to our nation?
We lost the cream of our young people. Apart from the heartbreak, our young nation had to combat the loss of skills and productivity - not to mention the enormous cost to federal revenue of pension payments - hospitalisation and medical costs to service our veterans, many of whom were gassed and broken for the rest of their lives.
Of all the wars of the twentieth century, it is my belief that World War Two was a just war in the interests of world freedom and liberty, particularly for the Australian people and their future.
I want to speak personally about some of my experiences in that conflict. I joined the Royal Australian Artillery in October 1939 and transferred to the AIF in 1941. My overseas service was in West Timor, where I was taken a Prisoner-of-War by the Japanese in February 1942. Later, as a POW, I served in Java, Singapore, on the Burma-Thai railway, back to Singapore, and then I spent the last years of the war in Japan. I was in Omula, about 80 kilometres as the crow flies from Nagasaki, and saw the discolouration of the sky when the atomic bomb exploded over that city on 9 August 1945.
During World War Two, 550,000 Australians saw active service, but no division or group of people suffered such casualities or sadistic treatment as the men and women of the 8th Division and its Corp troops. The 22,000 members of our force were spread out in the defence of the Malayian Peninsular, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Rabaul in the East. We were a token force and our resources were inadequate to defend our positions, as Australia's major fighting forces were in the Middle East and Britain. Prime Minister John Curtin said in a letter to his wife in January 1942 that the British military authorities never thought Japan would attack Malaya and Singapore.
Our 8th Division represented 4 per cent of all Australians who saw active service, but we represented 30 per cent of all Australians who died during active service. Our people's dying and suffering didn't stop there. Because of the barbaric conditions and sadistic treatment of our captors, our people continued to perish at four times the rate of other veterans from 1945 to 1959, and from then until now they continue to die at a 20 per cent higher rate. Only about 2,500 out of 22,000 of our comrades are still living. Only governments and politicians can send young Australians to theatres of war. Therefore, governments and politicians should meet their responsibilities, and grant those who suffer from war experience just compensation.
Even though it was a cruel period of our history, they were gallant years. It was a time when we needed each other to survive and there was a real 'digger' comradeship. On the Burma Thai Railway, I served under Lt Col Edward 'Weary' Dunlop from 26 January 1943. Fifty-eight years ago I marched into Konyu Camp on the Railway, and remained under Weary's leadership until June 1945. I was then sent to Singapore, and from there to Japan.
Most of the time on the Railway was spent at Hintock Mountain (Road) Camp. The Japanese paid us a small wage as a sham to meet the conditions of the Geneva Convention. In our camp, under Weary's guidance and leadership, the officers and medical orderlies paid the greater proportion of their allowance into a central fund. The men who worked did likewise. We were living by the principle of the fit looking after the sick, the young loking after the old, and the rich looking after the poor.
Our doctors, Major Arthur Moon and Ewen Collette, who teamed with Weary, were quite remarkable people, combining medical ingenuity with leadership and comradeship. For example, Weary would send our people out into the jungle to trade on the 'black' market with Thai and Chinese traders to get medical supplies, drugs and special food for our sick and weak. We worked as a team and lived by this collective spirit, which was fundamental to our survival.
After the first two and a half years as a Japanese POW, I would have exterminated the Japanese race, but during the last year of the war I saw how the ordinary Japanese suffered and I grew as a human being. I found it was not the Japanese I hated, but militarism and fascism. My belief is there is no progress in hate. It is negative and more destructive to the hater than to the hated.
The Australian people have a right to feel secure, but I do not believe that, in the 21st century, Australia should be in a forward defence role, or that we should again be involved in answering the call of so-called powerful friends.
I have lived too many years to know any person or nation that can be completely independent, but on war and peace Australia should not be a 'camp-follower'. Our military forces should not be fighting in Afghanistan. We should not be drawn in support of America's "crusade" against Iraq. War is not a solution to international conflicts and world events - it only creates more violence. National and international courts should be used to bring terrorists to justice.
We should be a voice of reason and a builder of bridges between peoples and nations of the world. We should reach out and help the needy wherever they may be. This should be our mission for this new millennium.
The Hon Tom Uren, AO, is a former President and Life Member of the Evatt Foundation. This speech was delivered at Darlington Public School on 11 April 2002. Image courtesy of the Office of Australian War Graves.
Uren, Tom, 'ANZAC Day', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4, June 2002.<https://evatt.org.au/post/anzac-day>