Peace at Last – 75 Years On. By Owen Zupp.
As we mark 75 years since the end of World War Two with the end of hostilities in the Pacific and the Japanese surrender, I reflect on two very different recollections of that day.
At the time, my father was on active service in the Wewak region of New Guinea as a commando with the 2/10 Cavalry Commando Squadron. The patrols remained potentially deadly and three of his mates had been killed in recent weeks, however, the fighting had become sporadic. The Japanese troops were starving and limited their contact to the occasional sniper or nightly attack on the Australian camp.
The rest of the world seemed very distant, with even the news of the atomic bombs’ destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki being little more than a rumour that the Americans had dropped a “big one”. However, news of the war’s end was received more quickly by the Australians, although telling the Japanese in the jungles of New Guinea of the surrender was another matter as they remained in the jungle, isolated and out of communication.
Well aware of this, General Blamey’s ‘Order of the Day’ on August 15th reminded the troops that “no order has been received to cease fire” and “the enemy will be killed wherever he is found unless bearing the white flag of surrender.” They were sobering words, but a poignant reminder that until the other side knew the war was over, they were still in the business of engaging the Australians. It was a very restless and potentially dangerous peace.
In the small dark hours of one morning after the war was apparently over, Dad and his good mate, Bill, were on guard in a slit trench, silently reviewing the day’s events. It was a hot, clear evening and the two young soldiers sat there in unlaced boots and no socks, attempting to stay cool as the sweat ran down their backs. The sounds of the jungle were isolated, as Bill looked out with his grenades at the ready, while Dad manned the Bren gun. Then there was an uncharacteristic rustle from beyond the perimeter and in an instant, they were under attack with shots emerging from the dense jungle ahead. The unmistakable ‘cracking’ of small arms fire was pouring out of the jungle as the bullets skimmed and thudded around the two young Aussies.
Bill began to throw the grenades as Dad brought the Bren to life firing measured bursts toward where the erupting jungle. Seconds later Dad yelled in agony but continued to fire the Bren. Between the curses, Dad continued to send bullets spiralling towards the enemy in rapid succession, while Bill readied to change the Bren’s magazine. As he slammed the new batch of ammunition into Dad’s weapon, he paused for a moment to check that his mate was alright, sure that he’d been hit by enemy fire. Then Dad yelled again, “I’m OK, I’ve just got a boot full of bloody hot shells!” In this case, Dad had been ‘wounded’ by his own Bren gun ejecting its steaming used shells onto his bare leg. When the danger had passed, the two sat back in the slit trench and laughed until they were nearly in tears. It was the last action Dad would see in New Guinea.
By comparison, my mum was in her hometown of Kempsey. An Air Force radar operator, she had recently returned home to help care for her mother, who was ill at the time. Unlike the jungles of New Guinea, here communication was far more efficient and when the news of “Peace” was announced, the cheers rose up from every home and every street. Except for my mum’s.
There were knocks at the door and invitations to come and celebrate. After the first well-wishers had left, she ceased answering the door and when the sun set on the country town, she dimmed the lights so that the house looked uninhabited. History would record the day with imagery of servicemen kissing girls in the street, ticker tape falling from windows and men dancing their way through the crowds. But not my mum.
When her mother had settled for the evening and the house had fallen silent, she retired to her room. There she sat alone and cried. The man she was to marry had died less than six months before when his bomber erupted in flames over the target in New Guinea.
Less than six months before the war ended.
And less than six weeks before her wedding.
75 years ago. Two very different days. Lest We Forget.
Flight Lieutenant Francis Owen Smith.
Killed in Action. 13th March 1945. Aged 23.