Commemorative Address – Australian War Memorial, ACT

Source: Prime Minister of Australia

PRIME MINISTER: Today, in suburbs and towns across this land, the last of a great generation are remembering a different time.

A time when the joy of their youth was denied and forced to give way to the responsibility of nation, of adulthood.

A time of sacrifice and struggle.

Of ration books, blackouts, heartfelt farewells on shipping docks.

Penciled notes from battlefields, tear soaked telegrams.

And of a great victory that changed the course of human history.

During the Second World War, one million Australians wore our uniform and made the silent promise to give their lives for their country, if need be. Their tomorrows for our today.

The names of almost 40,000 Australians upon whom that sacrifice was called are inscribed here in their home at the Australian War Memorial. They are among 102,000 Australians who have given their lives for Australia in so many theatres.

This memorial, located on Ngunnawal land and in direct line of sight of the Parliament, is Australia’s most sacred place.

Here I am joined by three incredible Australians – themselves once part of a generation of young men and women who pledged their service to our country.

To defeat Hitler and the evils of Nazism.

To stop the aggression and conquest of militaristic Japan.

To defend our sovereignty, freedom and our way of life.

And to defend an attack on Australia.

Derek Holyoake, Lance Cooke, Les Cook thank you. Thank you. And thank you for joining us today.  We were also going to be joined today by Terri Lessels but she is unwell and is watching from home. 

Terri was part of the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service, we just heard of. She nursed men in traction, cared for emaciated Prisoners of War and tended to burn victims. Difficult work.

Derek was 16 when he joined the Navy. He pretended to be 17. He was on the HMAS Hobart when it was hit by a torpedo. 

Lance was a flight mechanic. He kept our Beaufighters in the air. He checked every spark plug to keep our pilots and navigators safe. And as he said “They were my mates”.

And Les, like Derek, tried to enlist at 16 – except the enlisting officer told him to “try the scouts!” 

Les wasn’t perturbed. He returned at 17 and his Dad signed up too. 

Why did Les join up? He put it simply…”it was the thing to do… you didn’t give it a second thought”

There was another reason too, he said: “to stop the bully”.

No truer words have been spoken.

For that’s what happened. That’s what they did.

A country of seven million Australians united and became one in a mighty national effort to defend human civilisation from the bullies who sought to destroy it.

Derek, Lance and Les – there you were.

Boys who helped free a world. And be great men.

You marched. You sailed. You flew in planes like the KittyHawk ‘’Polly’ behind me.

You peered through binoculars and pored over maps.

You washed the mud off your rifles in rivers and swotted mosquitos in jungles.

You said prayers on ships as the bodies of dead friends were committed to the deep.

You battled sun storms, snow-storms and torrential rain, while carrying the heavy load of your packs. 

This generation, you did all this with your nation behind you and always in your mind.

Everyone played their part. 

Living up to the call of the then Prime Minister Curtin who said ‘no one else can do your share’. True then. True today.

Australia wasn’t alone. We stood with our allies and our friends.

This was a global fight – all understood that if tyranny was not confronted together, eventually it would be confronted alone.

True then, true today.

Today we remember those we stood with.

The airmen of Bomber Command, Fighter Command and Coastal Command – the Brits, the Canadians, the South Africans, the Poles,  the Czechs, the Kiwis, the French and our many  other allies.

The Russians who withstood and turned back the Nazi war machine.

The Indians who stood alongside us in Tobruk, in Singapore and elsewhere.

The villagers and local people in Thailand, in Burma, in Borneo, and even Japan who defied the authorities and smuggled food to our PoWs.

The local Chinese communities in Singapore, Malaya and elsewhere who showed their own kindnesses.

And how can we ever forget, as I constantly relay to Prime Minister Marape of Papua New Guinea, the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels of New Guinea, the wonderful Solomon Islanders, and all of our Pacific Island family and friends.

The Dutch, the Kiwis, and the ally who led the fight to free the Pacific, our great friend the United States of America. 

Today we call to mind all who stood with us – and all we stand with.

The names, the places, the battles are part of our national story.

The Rats of Tobruk.

The HMAS Sydney.

Sir Roden Cutler, the campaign for Syria where Gunner Leslie Smith was also, my Grandfather.

Vivian Bullwinkel and the nurses of Banka Island.

Weary Dunlop and the Thai-Burma Railway.

Teddy Sheean and the HMAS Armidale.

The Aussie Rules flying ace Bluey Truscott and the defence of Milne Bay.

The stretcher bearer ‘Bull’ Allen and the wounded he carried to safety up Mount Tambu.

Nancy Wake, ‘the White Mouse’ who outwitted the Gestapo. 

Mebai Warusam, Awati Mau and the Torres Strait Islander Light Infantry Battalion.

The sailors of the Coral Sea, Midway, the Bismarck Sea and Guadalcanal.

The battles and campaigns: mainland Greece and Crete, El Alamein, Rabaul, Timor, Ambon, and Singapore – and so many more places where Australian blood was shed. 

All of which was part of one great national effort.

So Ben Chifley declared 75 years ago; Fellow citizens, the War is over.

On that day Australians spilled into the streets.

Laughter, dancing, and thanksgiving.

Joy overflowed our nation.

Derek was in Adelaide that day. He said everyone went mad with joy. Everyone was kissed: the police were kissed, the horses were kissed. He said everyone got kissed but him.

And from that victory, the most remarkable thing happened.

From the ruins of war, sworn enemies became our devoted friends. 

As I think of the peace that emerged – I think of Darwin today.

The walk from war to peace to friendship has taken many steps.

Small and big they have all mattered.

About fifteen years after the end of the war, a Japanese salvage company was given the contract to salvage the wreckages that lay in Darwin Harbour.

Amongst the metal salvaged was bronze from the Australian merchant vessel Zealandia.

The Zealandia had been sunk in February 1942.

After the salvage crew returned to Japan, they melted the bronze and made it into 77 Christian crosses.

The crosses were then given to a church in Darwin as a gift, that had been built on what was the site of a United States military headquarters. 

That headquarters had suffered a direct hit during a wartime bombing raid.

The crosses reflected the answer to a question asked in the gospels. How many times must I forgive? The answer: seventy seven times.

From war came peace.

From peace came rebuilding.

From rebuilding came reflection.

From reflection, forgiveness.

And eventually friendship.

One of the most moving experiences I’ve had as Prime Minister was to lay a wreath with my friend, and Australia’s friend, Prime Minister Abe of Japan at the Cenotaph in Darwin. A complete journey.

The Prime Minister of Australia and the Prime Minister of Japan standing side by side honouring Australia’s fallen in Darwin. Now true partners.

So Derek, Lance, and Les – and the veterans like Terri who are watching elsewhere that is the world you fought for, that is the world you created.

Now in your sunset we honour you.

We honour your generation, in my view Australia’s greatest, and we say: thank you.

You won a war, you secured the peace, and along with so many more, saved civilisation.

Your deeds will never be forgotten.

And we pledge this day to always be a country as good and always to be as courageous as you. 

Courage, mateship, endurance, sacrifice.

May God bless you and may God bless Australia.