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History of WWII

Learn more about the war and the significance of Victory in the Pacific Day.

The Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, had a cold. On the evening of Tuesday, 14 August 1945, he was preparing for a national radio address the next day. It would be momentous international news that would provoke wild scenes of relief, joy and reflection across Australia. But he was struggling with a cold that made his voice a little scratchy. There was, however, no way around it – the news was too good to allow a small inconvenience prevent the Prime Minister delivering his message.

The war is over

Chifley was in his office early the next day and at 8:50am he received a single code word that confirmed the good news. He went straight to the 2CY radio studios and prepared to deliver the message. At 9:30am, Prime Minister Chifley declared in sombre tones: ‘Fellow citizens, the war is over’, and with that simple sentence five years, eleven months and eleven days of Australian hardship and sacrifice ended. Japan had surrendered, finally and decisively ending a war that claimed 39,000 Australian lives and injured or wounded thousands of service men and women.

Although they were not classed or treated as Australian citizens, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women also fought and died for Australia during World War II.

Prime Minister Chifley’s message that morning was not just about announcing the end of the war: it was also about paying tribute to all those Australians who had been part of the war effort, from the soldiers, airmen and sailors, to the nation’s primary producers, to the women working in factories, and those who had joined the WAAF, WRANS and Women working in intelligence services.

Recognising service and sacrifice

‘Let us remember those whose lives were given that we may enjoy this glorious moment and may look forward to the peace which they have won for us,’ Chifley told the nation. ‘Let us remember those whose thoughts, with proud sorrow, turn towards gallant loved ones who will not come back.’

Then he added: ‘And now our men and women will come home; our fighting men with battle honors thick upon them from every theatre of war…The Australians fought in battles of the air everywhere, and Australian seamen covered every ocean: Now they are coming home to the peace which has been won… Here in Australia there is much to be done.’

There was indeed much to be done, but the first step was to rejoice in the hard-won peace, and the expectation that thousands of Australian servicemen and women would be coming home, swapping their uniforms for overalls, suits and hats, and returning to a brave new civilian life.

Victory in the Pacific Day

There were wild scenes across the country. ‘[E]veryone was waving and laughing, it was just something else! And we all put flags out and redecorated the houses,’ Melbourne women Ngaere MacGregor recalled. Thousands went in to city streets, in Melbourne, in Sydney, in Brisbane, and country towns to celebrate what was called VP Day – Victory in the Pacific. It was a full-throated celebration of peace that was a marked difference to the more subdued response to Germany’s surrender, on 7 May 1945, and VE (Victory in Europe) Day.

Australians felt the Japanese threat had been so real that the war would only really be over when they surrendered. In Melbourne, the Chinese community made its own version of the celebration – VC Day (Victory in China). For the Chinese, the war’s end also finished 14 years of Japanese aggression. It was time for fireworks in Little Bourke Street.

Beneath the joy of peace was often sadness and grief. The Pacific War had condemned 30,000 Australians to the brutal fate of becoming Prisoners of War. The Japanese captured 22,000 Australians and only 14,000 survived to welcome Chifley’s announcement that it was all over. The scars of their debilitating deprivation never healed for many of those who made it home. But the peace was an important marker in the nation’s history, a culmination of a series of changes that shifted Australia’s focus and heralded the arrival of a different kind of country, with a growing sense of independence from the old Empire and an acknowledgement of the importance of the US alliance. Chifley’s plain words on that August morning hinted at what kind of future was on the other side of the peace.

Cementing the US Australia friendship

Just as Australia had diligently followed the British in to World War I, it did so again 25 years later. Australian airmen were an integral part of the Allied battle for dominance in the skies over Europe but thousands died in the campaign. Across the Middle East, Africa and the Mediterranean, Australian troops played significant roles in defying the might of the German military and its Italian allies. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, bringing the US in to the war, the old alliances started to shift. Prime Minister Robert Menzies’s government became the political casualty of the war and Labor’s John Curtin took over. When the Japanese took Singapore - Britain’s previously unassailable outpost in South-East Asia - Australia became vulnerable and Curtin famously declared that Australia looked to the US, rather than the Empire. In the months that followed, almost a million US servicemen came to Australia on their way to the Pacific corridor of the war, adding a new diversity to Australian cities. General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied war effort in the South West Pacific, was initially based in Melbourne, and then Brisbane, where he oversaw significant Allied naval victories in the Coral Sea and at Midway.

The threat to Australia intensified, with Japanese attacks on Darwin, the discovery of Japanese submarines in Sydney Harbour and the Japanese’s relentless march into New Guinea. For the first time, Australian troops were fighting a jungle war, with an oppressive heat, tropical deluges, mud, hills and rich cloaking vegetation. It was on the Kokoda Track, with the help of local Papuans, that Australian troops defied the Japanese advance and ensured that the growing anxiety back home about a Japanese invasion was finally extinguished.

Australia in peacetime

Curtin suffered on-going heart problems and died in office in July 1945, succeeded by a distraught but resolute Chifley who was determined to see the war to its conclusion. The decisive move, however, occurred on 6 and 9 August 1945 when the US dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively. The bombs’ widespread carnage and profound loss of life ended Japanese resolve and ensured their surrender. It meant that Chifley’s announcement was anticipated across the globe for several days before the Prime Minister made his broadcast. The extra few days gave Chifley time to contemplate what the nation’s priorities should be after peace was declared.

The day after his broadcast, Chifley laid out a blueprint for what Australia would look like in peacetime. Once again, it would be a matter of the nation pulling together. ‘Australia must again at short notice mobilise forces, but this time to achieve the primary objective of victory – a vigorous peacetime economy in which there will be jobs and rising living standards for all,’ Chifley explained. ‘The Government will devote all its energies to restoring and developing a peacetime economy and to re-establishing servicemen and war workers in useful jobs…Just as the Australian war effort was made possible by the courage and resourcefulness of the people as a whole, so will success in peacetime tasks depend on united efforts and goodwill. This is the opportunity for which the nation has been fighting. We are going to make the most of it.’

Getting started took time. Demobilisation was a drawn-out process because many of the ships that would bring Australian troops home had been redeployed during the war. By the time VP Day was announced, there were half a million Australians in uniform. It was a sizeable potential workforce, most of them just wanting to get a job, not to be bothered by sirens or tropical rain and to sleep soundly in comfortable beds. There was, though, no underestimating the spirit to embrace the peace and the plans to rebuild. As historian Stuart Macintyre observed: “Under the pressure of an unprecedented national emergency, there was a need to put the whole country on a war footing, to call up and direct the use of all its resources. The successful direction of national effort encouraged a belief that a similar resolution could be maintained after the war to bring lasting improvement.’’ Some of what became known as “reconstruction’’ was driven by the war’s capacity for innovation, that ranged across medicine, technology and transport. There were breakthroughs in the treatment of malaria and the widespread use of penicillin to treat infections. Technological advances led to the introduction of crop dusting, four-wheel drive vehicles and large earth moving equipment that helped deliver post-war gains across rural and regional Australia.

Long term impacts of the war

In a practical sense, the years immediately after the declaration of peace provided the hallmarks of what we came to recognise as a modern nation – the first Australian-made car, the Holden, rolled off the assembly line in 1948; the number of houses built doubled on the pre-war numbers; the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme was unveiled; exports of agricultural products skyrocketed and by 1949 there was full employment. In addition, the war had shifted Australian thinking about international friendships: the alliance with the US was stronger, although it posed no effective limitations on the continued relations with the UK. Almost 150,000 migrants arrived in Australia to boost the war-ravaged communities and begin to populate the growing suburban hinterlands after the establishment of the nation’s first Department of Immigration.

Melbourne, in particular, would be forever changed by the forces unleashed during the war. The immediate impact of peace was that many of the city’s privations and restrictions were lifted - the street lights that had been dimmed as a precaution against Japanese air raids came to life again, and the neon of the Skipping Girl Vinegar sign in Abbotsford blazed once more. War departments for munitions and home security instantly closed. Rations remained on a variety of goods. In time, building material shortages would end and new suburbs on the southern side of the bay and to the city’s north and north-west would become destinations for post-war families.

Many women, who had found work during the war in the city’s munitions operations, returned to a domestic life but the number of working women would never drop to its pre-war level.

The promise of the peace contained in Chifley’s message emerged in different ways in the years that followed VP Day but that moment’s significance remained a powerful symbol for those veterans who had made a lasting contribution to shaping Australia’s future.

Reviewed 06 August 2020

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