The Courier-Mail

An in­ner strength in the face of ad­ver­sity

- MIKE O’CON­NOR Townsville · Tokyo · Australia · Paddington

IT IS 75 years since Aus­tralians cel­e­brated their tri­umph over a threat more deadly than any virus.

Few will mark the an­niver­sary of Vic­tory in the Pa­cific against the in­vad­ing Ja­panese next Satur­day, trans­fixed as they are by the un­cer­tain­ties and bur­dens caused by COVID-19.

It is worth re­mem­ber­ing, how­ever, that the Aus­tralians who pre­vailed over this en­emy were sus­tained by their in­ner strength and the knowl­edge that de­feat was not an op­tion, set­ting an ex­am­ple in the face of ad­ver­sity that we would do well to fol­low as we fight our own bat­tle.

They are all but gone now, these warriors of yore, but I in­ter­viewed one of them a few years ago and if you are think­ing of com­plain­ing about so­cial dis­tanc­ing and toi­let pa­per short­ages, you might first read what this old Dig­ger told me.

“We went straight to Milne Bay (in New Guinea) from Townsville. That was be­fore the Japs landed. It was only a mat­ter of six weeks or so when we had an alert.

“Late that night, we got a call to take our ri­fles and am­mu­ni­tion and move up to a point on the beach.

“The Ja­panese landed and started to make their way to­wards us. They started to ad­vance through the jun­gle.

“At this time, it was rain­ing day and night and we moved up be­side the aero­drome.

“The Ja­panese were send­ing waves of troops across and they were just get­ting mown down. They hit us with ev­ery­thing they had.

“We just lay in the mud and fought. The fight­ing went on for about 10 days.

“It was our first action, the first for me and my mates. At one point, a mes­sage came along the line that no pris­on­ers were to be taken.

“Af­ter we’d pushed them back I took out a pa­trol to check on a lis­ten­ing post we had up near the Ja­panese lines.

“There were dead bod­ies ev­ery­where. They were so thick on the ground that you just walked across them. It was a sight I never want to see again.

“They were also hang­ing down from the co­conut trees. Our fighter planes were straf­ing the tops of the trees and shoot­ing the snipers. They were tied in and when they were hit they fell and just hung there.

“We never found the men at the lis­ten­ing post, so we pre­sumed that the Ja­panese got them.

“We pushed them back, but we had so many men sick with malaria and trop­i­cal ul­cers that if they’d landed an­other 2000 men, they would have over­run Milne Bay.

“Tokyo Rose would come on the ra­dio and we’d pick her up on our sets. She used to say: ‘You Milne Bay mur­der­ers. We’re go­ing to come back and we’re go­ing to nail you to co­conut trees.’

“That was a bit bloody scary be­cause they used to do that – cru­cify peo­ple on co­conut trees.

“Af­ter MiIne Bay, we were sent to Jack­ino Bay and I was there when peace was de­clared. I was 23 then and I’d been on ac­tive ser­vice for the best part of three years.

“If Milne Bay had gone, the Japs would be here now. There’s noth­ing surer. They were con­vinced they were go­ing to win. We were out to sur­vive. You just did your best.

“When peace was de­clared, we came back to Bris­bane. They put us in the Ex­hi­bi­tion show­grounds and I was put in a pig pen. The name of the pig was writ­ten over it – Pride of Erin – I’ve never for­got­ten that.

“So I thought ‘this is no good’, so I got a few of the other Bris­bane boys and said ‘Let’s break camp’.

“They tried to stop us at the gate, but we told them where to go and walked home to Padding­ton.

“I was like a skele­ton then. I knocked on the door at home and there was no answer.

“So I went around and knocked on the door at the side of the house and Dad came out and he just looked at me. He couldn’t be­lieve his eyes. He didn’t know I was back from New Guinea.”

His story is but one of many, but it res­onates with the qual­i­ties of en­durance, per­se­ver­ance, mate­ship and courage that saw Aus­tralia emerge vic­to­ri­ous from that con­flict.

I’d like to think that many of us still pos­sess these qual­i­ties – qual­i­ties that have hith­erto been un­tapped, but are now be­ing called upon to deal with this lat­est threat to our so­ci­ety. I hope I’m right.

There was noth­ing special about the Dig­ger to whom I spoke. He was one of the many and he’s now gone to his eter­nal re­ward, but I’ll spare him a thought next Satur­day.

His name was Bernie O’Con­nor of the 101st Aus­tralian Brigade. He was also my father. Lest we for­get.

If you are think­ing of com­plain­ing about so­cial dis­tanc­ing and toi­let pa­per short­ages, you might first read what this old Dig­ger told me

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