A medal they didn’t get – thank God

Central Leader - - News -

As 2nd NZEF vet­er­ans who fought in Italy, now well into their 80s, pol­ish their medals for the Gal­lipoli an­niver­sary on An­zac Day, I won­der how many know about the bat­tle hon­our they missed out on – and were saved from.

It would have marked the worst, blood­i­est land­ing bat­tle in our his­tory.

Un­known to them, as they re­laxed in Italy in 1945 at the end of their great cam­paigns, mil­i­tary men and politi­cians were ready­ing them be­hind their backs for the car­nage of an in­va­sion of Ja­pan, plans only scrapped af­ter Hiroshima and Na­gasaki.

Fight-to-the-death, sui­cide de­fences of Iwo Jima, Saipan and Ok­i­nawa in the last stages of the Pa­cific war un­der­lined the cer­tainty of hor­ren­dous ca­su­al­ties. One photo in my files shows a Kure naval dock­yard crammed with 70 minia­ture sub­marines. And that was just one base. Thou­sands of kamikaze pi­lots were in train­ing.

Ja­panese leaders boasted that 2.5 mil­lion de­fend­ing troops – plus a pop­u­la­tion they quoted as 100 mil­lion – were steeled to die in de­fence of their home­land.

Top US ad­vis­ers pre­dicted – per­haps ex­trav­a­gantly – 395,000 ca­su­al­ties in the first 120-day cam­paign, maybe ris­ing to a mil­lion by mid1946. Half a mil­lion Pur­ple Heart medals, to be awarded to dead and wounded, had al­ready been or­dered. All this for what could have been the big­gest mil­i­tary dis­as­ter in New Zealand his­tory – worse by far than Gal­lipoli where 2721 New Zealan­ders died in the dis­as­trous eight­month cam­paign.

Then the hor­ror of Pass­chen­daele: 1653 ca­su­al­ties in two days in a first at­tack. Worse still, in four hours of a sec­ond as­sault there on Oc­to­ber 12, 1917, 2700 young New Zealan­ders were killed or wounded.

Plan­ners put th­ese fig­ures be­hind them in Hon­shu plans spelt out in the ex­change of what were then top se­cret mes­sages, later pub­lished as war his­tory which I re­cently bought on that mecca of pub­lic avail­abil­ity, Trademe.

Per­haps I am sim­ply the last per­son to know but it was news to me – more than 60 years later – and I won­dered how many of those New Zealan­ders in Italy, hop­ing to re­turn to their fam­i­lies, knew what could lit­er­ally have been their fi­nal fate, whether men who will an­swer the An­zac Day bu­gle on Satur­day have ever known just what his­tory held in store for them.

The of­fi­cial records make it very clear. Re­mem­ber, th­ese are not the ramblings of some aca­demic an­a­lyst. Th­ese are ac­tual texts.

The process was well un­der way when Win­ston Churchill put the arm on New Zealand in 1945. His se­cret mes­sage to New Zealand Prime Min­is­ter Peter Fraser, dated July 5 that year: “We have not hith­erto planned to pro­vide land forces to take part in op­er­a­tions against the Ja­panese main is­lands, but with the early cap­ture of Ran­goon ... it has been pos­si­ble to re­con­sider the whole prob­lem.”

Churchill back­grounded a first all-Amer­i­can in­va­sion of Kyushu, the south­ern­most is­land, in Oc­to­ber. He spelt out a plan for a Com­mon­wealth force of three to five di­vi­sions to then join in the sec­ond phase, a bit­ter­ly­fought as­sault on main­land Ja­pan, un­der US com­mand, land­ing on Hon­shu in March 1946 in the op­er­a­tion co­de­named Coronet.

“I am well aware that the New Zealand gov­ern­ment wish to take part in op­er­a­tions against Ja­pan and there­fore I pro­pose, with your agree­ment, that the head­quar­ters and two in­fantry brigades of the New Zealand divi­sion now in Italy should join this force ... of Bri­tish, Aus­tralian, New Zealand, Bri­tish-In­dian and pos­si­bly Cana­dian di­vi­sions, it would form a strik­ing demon­stra­tion of Com­mon­wealth sol­i­dar­ity.”

And then the fi­nal piece of psy­cho­log­i­cal and tac­ti­cal pres­sure: “It is im­por- tant that we share with the Amer­i­cans the bur­den of the as­sault on Ja­pan. If you con­cur, I will ap­proach the pres­i­dent to ob­tain agree­ment in prin­ci­ple.”

That mes­sage didn’t get the re­cep­tion Churchill had hoped for. Not by a long way. Peter Fraser didn’t quite put it like this but there were prob­lems back at the ranch. While Churchill was cam­paign­ing in a gen­eral elec­tion, New Zealand was in the grip of two by­elec­tions and the Na­tional Op­po­si­tion was dig­ging its toes in over send­ing more men to do more. And face more risks.

Fraser ob­vi­ously took time to weigh up his op­tions, then wrote to Churchill on July 14 about prob­lems and pub­lic opin­ion.

“You will, I know, fully ap­pre­ci­ate the im­per­a­tive need for com­plete na­tional unity be­fore em­bark­ing on fresh mil­i­tary un­der­tak­ings in what will be for us, as for you, the sev­enth year of an ar­du­ous war.”

Sounds like: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Nei­ther man had any in­sight into the way na­tional dis­unity would un­ex­pect­edly re­veal it­self within three weeks of this ex­change.

War hero Churchill was sur­pris­ingly tipped out of of­fice in that Bri­tish gen­eral elec­tion of July 26, 1945.

But the is­sue of the Ja­panese in­va­sion didn’t go away. The next nudge from the Bri­tish prime min­is­ter on Au­gust 4 pushed the same propo­si­tion but car­ried a dif­fer­ent sig­na­ture, the name of Clem Atlee, new Labour prime min­is­ter. Just back from the Pots­dam con­fer­ence of Al­lied leaders, he, un­der­stand­ably, was feel­ing the first flush of power. He once again out­lined the Hon­shu land­ing plan and New Zealand in­volve­ment.

“I would be very grate­ful if I might have your gen­eral views as soon as pos­si­ble.”

By now, the Ki­wis-to-Hon­shu plan had taken on a life of its own. Fraser had some­how pla­cated Op­po­si­tion leader Sid Hol­land. Par­lia­ment se­cretly ap­proved the strat­egy and, in Lon­don, revered NZEF com­man­der Gen­eral Bernard Frey­berg had a great head of steam on. He said the Hon­shu ex­pe­di­tion “had much to com­mend it”. He’d al­ready fore­seen some role for the divi­sion in Asia.

A few months ear­lier, his sig­nals to Welling­ton had talked about pos­si­ble New Zealand in­volve­ment, that its bat­tle ex­pe­ri­ence seemed suited for “main and decisive bat­tles for the de­feat of Ja­pan which would prob­a­bly be in China and Manchuria as well as Ja­pan it­self”.

He cer­tainly rated Hon­shu ahead of Burma, and the pos­si­bil­ity of his men go­ing there for jun­gle fight­ing they were to­tally un­fa­mil­iar with and in a killing en­vi­ron­ment where 282,000 Bri­tish and other troops had been hit by ter­ri­ble ill­ness, along with 40,000 killed, wounded or miss­ing in the 1944 cam­paign alone.

So as the divi­sion en­joyed its days in the Ital­ian sun, Hon­shu was all on. On Au­gust 7 – the day af­ter the Hiroshima bomb – a Frey­berg brief­ing to Cab­i­net listed the nuts and bolts of Op­er­a­tion Coronet, how his troops in Italy would take leave in Bri­tain, hand over their Bri­tish equip­ment and move to the US for re­fit­ting with Amer­i­can weapons and train­ing, be­ing ed­u­cated about a new, strange and danger­ous en­emy. There was al­most an air of en­thu­si­asm in the Frey­berg as­sess­ment. But at that event­ful stage of a long war a day – much less a week – was a long time. On Au­gust 11, two days af­ter the Na­gasaki bombs on Au­gust 9, his mes­sage to Peter Fraser was that pro­vi­sional plan­ning on Coronet was com­plete. But Ja­panese sur­ren­der ap­proaches af­ter those A-bombs had changed ev­ery­thing. The end of the war was only days away.

That’s how thou­sands of New Zealan­ders were saved from car­nage on the beaches and in the streets of Ja­pan. It was as close as that.

To con­tact Pat Booth email off­pat@snl.co.nz or write care of this news­pa­per. All replies are open for pub­li­ca­tion un­less marked.

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