W.A. Governor's deep analysis at Curtin PM Library, Perth

"...the battle for australia is a gripping account of that perilous time in Australia's history." 

His Excellency Malcolm McCusker AC CVO QC Governor of Western Australia

Speech by His Excellency the Governor of Western Australia Malcolm McCusker, AC CVO QC, at the national launch of 'The Battle for Australia' at the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Curtin University, Perth, on 7 November 2013:

"The first Wednesday of September each year is Battle for Australia Day.  It commemorates all of the battles, great and small, fought against Japan by the United States and Australia, to repel Japanese aggression.

Bob Wurth’s book, The Battle for Australia, is a gripping account of that perilous time in Australia’s history.  As our Governor-General of Australia wrote in the Foreword, it fills an important gap in our knowledge of that critical period for, 70 years after the bombing of Darwin and the invasion of New Guinea, we are still learning about what happened and just how beleaguered Australia really was – to an extent which was certainly not fully disclosed at the time, for fear of causing panic. 

The sub-title to the book, “A nation and its leader under siege”, is very apt; for this book is not only a fascinating account of the military history of the war in the Pacific, when Australia truly was “under siege”; but it is also an insightful political biography of Australia’s war time Prime Minister John Curtin.  He too, was “under siege”, as Bob Wurth makes clear. 

The John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library is therefore a very fitting venue for the launch of this book, which not only points out Curtin’s achievements, but also his frailties, flaws and failings. 

"...hitherto unpublished material."

This is Bob Wurth’s fifth non-fiction book about the Asia Pacific region.  He was this library’s visiting Scholar in 2009, and in November that year he helped to create the Library web resource and travelling exhibition, called “Menzies Fadden Curtin and the Japanese Envoy”.  As might be expected from an author of his background and experience this, his latest book, is not only extremely well written, in a very readable style; it is also the result of deep research, carried out in Australia, Britain and Japan, which has produced a great deal of hitherto unpublished material.  The very full Notes at the end of the book bear witness to what his very thorough research uncovered. 

As Major General Gordon Maitland, a war historian, has observed “All Australians owe it to themselves to read (this book) which gives a full and balanced story of those war years, a story quite different from that foisted on Australia over the last 70 years”.Both before and during the war years, Curtin suffered from severe depression. 

Before October 1941, when he came to power, the cream of Australia’s armed forces had been sent overseas in the service of Great Britain in the war against Germany.  After Japan entered the war in 1941, it was only after a series of clashes of will between Curtin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that, ultimately, Australia’s experienced and seasoned soldiers of the AIF’s 7th Division were returned from overseas to help defend Australia against Japanese invasion, coming to the aid of young, almost untrained but brave young soldiers fighting to stem the Japanese advance towards Port Moresby over the Kokoda Track. 

Churchill strongly resisted the return of the 7th Division and contemptuously dismissed Curtin’s fear of Japanese invasion.  He said that the war against Japan was “a lesser war” and it was only in a private conversation with King George VI that he conceded that parts of Australia might fall into enemy hands; as he also told a secret session of British Parliament, in a statement which he directed should not be recorded in Hansard, and which he kept from Curtin. 

Curtin's depression & 'extraordinary conduct'

This clash of will was between two leaders who both suffered from depression, the “black dog”, as Churchill described it. Curtin’s depression, and the impact it had on him, is brought home starkly by his extraordinary conduct on the 21 January 1942.   The Australian mandated territory of Rabaul, where 1400 members of Australia’s inexperienced Lark Force were garrisoned, was about to the invaded by a large Japanese invasion force supported by aircraft carriers. 

Acting on doctor’s orders, and on the advice of senior Cabinet colleagues, Curtin left Defence Headquarters in Melbourne, and began a slow train journey across Australia to his family home at Cottesloe, Western Australia. As Rabaul fell to the Japanese two days later, and the Australian forces were being overwhelmed and in full retreat, Curtin was stranded on his train by a wash-away on the Nullarbor. One can only imagine his state of mind at that time, with severe depression, illness, and an overriding, understandable fear, that Australia would the next to be invaded by the Japanese relentless wave of conquest. 

The previous month, he had agreed with Australia’s armed forces chiefs that the inexperienced Lark Force should not be withdrawn from Rabaul (pictured), but remain to fight against the Japanese invasion.  Lark Force was overrun and many were killed or taken prison.  That decision, coupled with the imminent fall of Singapore, shattered his morale and led to a major decline in his health. Australia’s defences were shamefully weak at that time.  The only fighter plane it had, the Wirraway, was shot out of the sky over Rabaul.  It was no match for the Japanese Zeros.  It had no tanks and was short 7000 rifles, so many troops were training with broomsticks.  Most of Australia’s airmen were serving with the RAF in Europe.  The RAN was small and scattered. 

Curtin " inherited an Australia totally unprepared for war."

So in early 1942, Australia was virtually defenceless. A lesser man than Curtin might well have crumbled under the heavy burdens and responsibilities that he faced.  Depression was coupled with other health problems.  A deeply conscientious and patriotic Australia leader, he had inherited an Australia totally unprepared for war. 

That was soon demonstrated when the Japanese bombed Darwin, Broome, Wyndham and other towns on the Western Coast and north Queensland.  Indeed, those air strikes, and the apprehension of Japanese invasion, caused (as David Black would no doubt remember, like me) the construction of dugout air raid shelters in some of the Perth suburbs, and the evacuation by mothers with young children to the Darling Ranges – my first visit to Roleystone, as a 4 year old. 

Great Britain, on which Australia had always placed reliance, was not only failing to deliver any assistance, but was actively opposing the withdrawal of Australian forces from overseas to help defend Australia.  The “impregnable fortress” so called, of Singapore had fallen and the Japanese sweep of conquest across the Pacific seemed unstoppable. 

At home, there were strikes by wharf labourers and other unionists, disrupting production and the loading of essential material, which provoked some of the Armed Forces to label them traitors.  And he had a war cabinet which was far from united in policy. Curtin is shown in the book to have been a resolute leader of great courage, despite his infirmities and depression.  Realising that Britain could not be relied upon to defend Australia, given its focus on defeating Nazi Germany, and Churchill’s contemptuous reference to the war in the Pacific as a “lesser war”, he turned to United States for Australia’s defence and salvation. 

Blamey, MacArthur and Curtin.

The book depicts a close and co-operative relationship between Prime Minister Curtin and General Douglas MacArthur, the Allied Supreme Commander, to whom Curtin handed virtual control of Australia’s armed forces. Bringing the well trained and experienced AIF 7th Division back to Australia from overseas was a bold and important decision by Curtin. 

Churchill audaciously and high-handedly diverts the convoy

The book describes how he so agonised over it that he spent every night walking about the grounds of the Lodge in Canberra, unable to sleep until the safe return of the 7th Division in undefended troop ships across the Indian Ocean, where enemy submarines lurked.  He knew that he was taking a great risk, but an even greater risk would have been not to bring them back, and leave it to the small force of young, inexperienced troops – “Chocko’s” or “Chocolate Soldiers” as they were derisively called – to attempt to hold back the Japanese advance to Port Morseby, an attempt doomed to fail. 

When those troop ships set sail for Australia, Churchill audaciously and high-handedly diverted the convoy northwards towards Burma, in effect daring Curtin to demand they turn back.  Curtin took the “dare”.  He did turn them back.  

There can be no doubt that, as the book records, the entry of the United States of America in the war was indeed the salvation of Australia.  In particular, two great naval battles, the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway in 1942 were a turning point, the Midway success leading McArthur, when he met Curtin in Melbourne on 11 June 1942, to assert that the security of Australia was now assured – something of which Curtin was not yet convinced, at least publicly. 

USS Lexington explodes during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Curtin disclosed top secrets to journalists to dismay of Allies

One of the many revelations in this well researched book is the crucial and highly secret part played by the Allied code breakers in the Battle of the Coral Sea and later in the decisive Battle of Midway, in 1942.  But to the astonishment and dismay of the US allies, shortly after that battle, Curtin openly disclosed to some Australian journalists that it was an intercepted Japanese code message that had enabled the US fleet to be in the right place at the right time to engage the Japanese fleet. 

In his memoir, retired US Admiral Leyton was scathing of what he saw to be an act of recklessness, one which made the chief of the US fleet reluctant to continue to provide secret decoded information to the Australians thereafter, lest it be made public. 

Curtin in 1942.

However, the point strongly made by Bob Wurth in his book, The Battle for Australia, is that despite Curtin’s ongoing mental and physical problems, and despite the military and political mistakes made during his Prime Ministership, Curtin was a patriotic leader determined to put the needs and views of Australia above all else. 

Perhaps the most important of his achievements was in asserting Australia’s paramount right to defend Australia first, something which may seem unquestionably obvious today, and in forming a close relationship and alliance with the USA, an alliance which has continued, and indeed strengthened, over the ensuing 70 years.

 

I wholeheartedly commend this important book to you, and have great pleasure in officially launching it." #

Acting VC Prof Graeme Wright, His Excellency Malcolm McCusker AC CVO QC Governor of Western Australia, Ms Beverley Lane, US Consul General Ms Cynthia Griffin, Mr Bob Wurth and Emeritus Professor David Black.

Acting Vice Chancellor of Curtin University Prof Graeme Wright, His Excellency Malcolm McCusker AC CVO QC Governor of Western Australia, Ms Beverley Lane, US Consul General Ms Cynthia Griffin, Bob Wurth and Emeritus Professor David Black. Below, author Bob Wurth.

Mr Bob Wurth

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book reviews, CAPTURING ASIA:

sYDNEY MORNING HERALD: "this genuinely engrossing book..."

Capturing Asia, by Bob Wurth, book review, SMH, Spectrum, July 17-18, 2010:

 

It is the lot of the TV cameraman that they are largely ignored. At best they are a small credit at the end of a story. Yet, as this genuinely engrossing book demonstrates, they lead interesting lives, meet fascinating people and record "momentous events".

This is the story of Willie Phua, a Chinese-born cameraman who, as one ABC correspondent in Asia said, was "like a circuit judge... quickly moving around Asia from Singapore to New Delhi, Bangkok to Manila".

"What makes the book so interesting...."

What makes the book so interesting is that Wurth places Phua into the largest historic context of the events he reports on. Phua's early yerars as a cameraman coincide with the emergence of post-colonial Malaysia, the rise of Lee Kuan Yew and the aggressive independence of Indonesia under Sukarno.

The result is an exciting story of the ABC in Asia told through the eyes of one of its most gifted cameramen. - SMH.

Book review.

"Heart-warming story of Willie Phua" ...

The Straits Times, Singapore. Jul 14, 2010.

Cameraman and mentor extraordinaire

By John McBeth, Senior Writer

Willie Phua (above) and a South Vietnamese trooper just before coming under attack on the Saigon River in 1971. The book that tells Phua's story.

 

MANY foreign correspondents in South-east Asia would readily agree it would have taken them forever to get their feet on the ground if had not been for the invaluable help of their Asian assistants, fixers and professional colleagues.

But how many have actually kept up those relationships or publicly acknowledged the debt they owe to those they left behind when their assignments were over?

It is therefore pleasing to see a book come along that does just that, celebrating a bond that grew between an indomitable Hainan-born Singaporean cameraman and a platoon of Australian television and radio correspondents who have never quite forgotten Asia.

Bob Wurth's Capturing Asia tells the heart-warming story of Phua Tin Tua, better known as Willie, who went from filming weddings to covering wars in a career that spanned three decades and eventually earned him the Order of Australia.

Australian journalists, certainly during my halcyon days, were a hard-bitten, unruly mob. Competitive to a fault, jealous of our turf, some of us did stupid things. Alarmed that another reporter was on his patch, one old hack I know elected to swallow a stomach probe without an anaesthetic in a Darwin hospital in his mad haste to fly back to Jakarta.

Amazingly, in that pool of sharks, Willie not only survived, but also thrived. A brilliant, self-taught cameraman and master of improvisation, he also became the teacher for a generation of wide-eyed young Australians leaving their home shores for the first time.

Wurth was part of the passing parade that benefited from Willie's sage advice, honed during a tough boyhood in Japanese-occupied Singapore and in the years he spent criss-crossing Asia for the Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) and Visnews.

The Singaporean's camera had witnessed it all - from the Vietnam War, where he passed the ammunition to fight off an ambush on a Mekong Delta gunboat, to bloody ethnic riots in Pakistan and India, coups in Thailand, the 1985 uprising in the Philippines and conflict in Afghanistan. And everything in between.

Perhaps his most iconic footage, taken from the balcony of a Beijing hotel he refused to leave, is of the mystery Man with a Bag facing down a column of tanks in the aftermath of the carnage at Tiananmen Square. It is now the only film record of that event.

Willie was such an asset that Peter Hollinshead, the ABC's long-serving Asian manager, once told one of his young charges: 'Don't get Willie into any sort of trouble. Young blokes like you are a dime a dozen. But there's only one fat Chinaman and I can't afford to lose him.'

Willie wasn't fat and Hollinshead wasn't a racist, but it summed up the back-handed way Australians go about telling you they like you. With the affable Singaporean, now aged 82 and still full of life, it was that and much more.

Over the years, until a tiring climb up Mount Fuji convinced him to retire, Willie also trained a team of his own family members in the television news business, all of whom have gone on to become some of ABC's most trusted and reliable staff. Much of his nurturing time, however, was taken up with Australian rookies, who were lucky to have such a mentor.

'He blunted their sharp edges and demonstrated that the colour grey had many more shades than black and white,' says ex-ABC man Warwick Beutler. 'He taught them the value of smiling when there was nothing to smile about... He is the reason we fell in love with Asia.'

Friendships endure only if they are well tended. The fact that Willie's former colleagues have accompanied him on two trips to his Hainan birthplace in recent years is no better illustration of that or of the fond regard in which he is held.

A little 'watering' helps as well. Willie's affinity with the Aussies extends to his love for a cold beer, which since the late 1960s he has always referred to as a 'pork chop' because of what he perceives to be their shared nutritional value.

Still paying my own rent and getting around by taxi, I remember in those days feeling a certain envy at the legendary expense accounts enjoyed by correspondents working for large media organisations, who also had a house and a car as part of their package.

Looking at the slow decline of journalism today, I had to chuckle at Willie's reaction when he was found on his knees on the floor of ABC's Singapore office soldering together batteries. As he told bureau manager Ian Macintosh: 'We save the boss money and there will be more money for more work later.'

I must admit I never gave that much thought when a friendly American colleague, working for a now-failing news magazine, wrote off our Andaman Sea fishing trips as rental car repairs on assignment.

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Second edition.