Kokoda: Meeting our founding fathers
In recent days commemorations have occurred for the 70th Anniversary of the Kokoda and Beachhead Battles. The key date of November 2 marks the 70th anniversary of the retaking of Kokoda village.
I had the great honour to meet a group of eight veterans of those campaigns who returned to Papua New Guinea for the commemorations.
In their late eighties and early nineties, these men sparkled with health. They had a demanding itinerary which took them in light aircraft to Kokoda village, Popondetta and back to Port Moresby. They told their stories with a clarity that defied the spans of time.
In Popondetta, the veterans met with some of the original Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels who were being presented with their commemorative medallions from the Australian Government. These local inhabitants of the Kokoda Track provided life-saving help for injured diggers as they were carried from the track and nursed back from the brink.
The old diggers and the old angels chatted and reminisced about a human bond that has lasted a life time. The emotions expressed in this gathering spoke not only to their relationship but to another unique relationship that binds our two countries. This is a bond that was shared from the very first moment of our becoming a nation.
It has become customary to regard 1 January 1901 as the birth of the Australian nation. Yet on that day no-one, at the multitude of celebrations around the continent, regarded this as an act of independence. It was the birth of an Australian polity, but in the form of a new British colony forged out of the amalgamation of six old British colonies. That sense of being a colony and a part of the British family persisted through to the Second World War.
In terms of international law, the critical moment probably occurred with the passage of the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 on 9 October 1942. This Act meant that the Parliament and Government of Australia were no longer legally subordinate to the Parliament and Government of Britain.
The legislation was passed in the aftermath of the fall of Singapore and during the Battle of Kokoda to make certain Australia’s full legal authority over the deployment of Australian troops. This authority had been tested when Curtin countermanded a decision of Churchill to divert to Burma Australia’s returning troops from the Middle East. The convoy stayed its course and these troops went on to play a decisive role in defending the Kokoda Track.
The argument between Curtin and Churchill was natural and appropriate, born of two countries with divergent interests. For Britain the priority at the time was understandably defeating Germany, while for Australia the priority was defending our nation against the threat of Japanese expansion.
Yet it was the act of pursuing an Australian national interest at the expense of the interests of our colonial parent that was Australia’s fundamental act of independence. And so the events of 1942 were not just the defence of Australia, they were the birth of the Australian nation.
Watching the Melbourne Cup at the Aviat Club in Port Moresby, I chatted to the veterans about their experiences 70 years ago: their battles with Rommel in the deserts of North Africa, their feelings as they made the dangerous journey across the Indian Ocean in a convoy that defined a country, the days after leaving Colombo when the clash of Prime Ministers determined their fate, and the struggles with the Japanese in the jungles of Papua New Guinea which saved Australia.
In talking to these men, I was not only touching history and meeting heroes, I was in the very presence of our founding fathers. In large measure Australians are who we are, and what we are, because of them.
Earlier on that same day all of us had attended a service at the Bomana War Cemetery for the rededication of three graves of members of the Z Special Unit who had finally been identified after 67 years. In a moving ceremony family members and one surviving commando, Henry Fawkes, laid wreaths and found closure as headstones finally bore the names of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.
These soldiers lie with 3,800 of their comrades in easily the largest Australian war grave in the world. These are the soldiers who died in the battles of 1942. And there is no more sacred place to the Australian nation than the Bomana War Cemetery.
That it lies on the soil of Papua New Guinea is another vivid reminder of our special relationship.
The 70th Anniversary of Kokoda and the events of 1942 are rightly being commemorated as seminal moments in Australian history. But it is now time that we also acknowledge them as the 70th Anniversary of the Australian nation itself.
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