Return from Southeast Asia

For the past four weeks I have been cruising the east coast of Australia, and the waters of Indonesia, en route to Singapore, and then to Qatar by air. A few comments about the trip may be of interest.

Our departure by ship from Sydney was spectacular, with the Sydney opera house dominating the harbor. It’s said that the Sydney opera house is the second most photographed building in the world.

Sydney Opera House, Photo by D. Dears
Sydney Opera House, Photo by D. Dears


It’s interesting to contemplate how the war in the Pacific must have been viewed by Australians. The perception today of the war in the South Pacific by Americans is largely seen through the prism of the musical South Pacific, a romantic view of tropical islands far, far away.

This is a fanciful, though delightful, view of the war in the South Pacific.

Long forgotten is the book, Guadalcanal Diary that described the brutal six-month campaign to wrest Guadalcanal from Japanese control.

For Australians, the menace of imminent invasion loomed large during 1942.

The battle of the Coral Sea, scene of the first significant naval engagement between the Japanese and United States navies, was, however, on Australia’s doorstep.

The battle was northeast of Brisbane, Townsville, Cairns and Cook town, our ports-of-call as we sailed along the edge of the Coral Sea.

The Japanese were swarming down the Dutch East Indies, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Java, now part of Indonesia, just north of Darwin, was the scene of a major Japanese victory over Australian, Dutch, U.S., and British naval forces in the battle of the Java Sea.

The threat to Australia was ominous as the seemingly unstoppable Japanese marched relentlessly toward Australia.

With the war only a few months old, American forces began to arrive in Australia and on the islands with strange sounding names, like Vanuatu and New Caledonia, several hundred miles east of Queensland, Australia. This initial effort was to keep the shipping lifeline open from the United States to Australia.

While Australia girded for invasion, the United States launched its first counter-offensive in August 1942, with the invasion of Guadalcanal.

A quick look at the map shows that the Japanese had occupied areas that formed an arc over Australia, from Java, through New Guinea and down the Solomon Islands.

The Australians must have watched this vicious battle on Guadalcanal with some concern, as a Japanese victory would have opened the way for continued Japanese advances toward Australia and New Zealand.

Names, such as The Slot, PT 109, Iron Bottom Bay and Henderson Field still resonate when speaking of the battle for Guadalcanal.

Large numbers of American and Australian troops were stationed in Queensland, near Townsville, Cairns and Cook Town. A submarine base was established near Townsville, and an air base was established west of Townsville, at Charters Towers.

The ammunition bunkers at Charters Towers are still clearly visible; as are the remains of the smoke stack that was knocked down to provide clear access for American and Australian planes landing at the air strip.

The first air raid on Australian territory was at Darwin, on February 19, 1942. It was carried out by the same aircraft carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7. The U.S. destroyer Peary was sunk during the air raid with 88 crew members killed. All told, the raid killed 235 people, including many civilians.

Painting of the February 19, 1942 raid on Darwin, with remnants of a Zero that was shot down. The Zero was piloted by Sergeant Toyoshima who was later captured. Photo by D. Dears.
Painting of the February 19, 1942 raid on Darwin, with remnants of a Zero that was shot down. The Zero was piloted by Sergeant Toyoshima who was later captured.
Photo by D. Dears.


At least 64 Australian cities were attacked by the Japanese, with the last raid in March 1943, as the Japanese retreated northward.

With the U.S. victory on Guadalcanal in March, 1943, the Japanese march toward New Zealand and Australia was stopped.

The allied invasion of New Guinea, and the push from Port Moresby across the mountainous jungle to New Guinea’s north coast, eliminated the threat of invasion.

Australians could begin to breathe easy.

The Japanese were in full retreat and no longer on Australia’s doorstep, as the American navy island hopped across the Pacific, and MacArthur’s troop’s secured New Guinea and prepared for the invasion of the Philippines at Leyte Gulf.

Much of this is receding into the mist of history, but the view by Australians during the early dark days of the war, with Japanese forces looming on their doorstep, was far more ominous than the view from a distant, far removed, safe America.


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