“Tyranny was pushed back at Turnbull Field”
70th Anniversary of the Battle of Milne Bay Memorial Service
Turnbull Field, Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea
Sunday 26 August 2012
There are few events in our history as important, but as little known, as those that took place here in this place, seventy years ago.
More and more Australians know the story of Kokoda.
Very few know the story of this place, Turnbull Field.
They should. Because this is the place, this is the field, where the Japanese land forces charge across Pacific was first stopped and pushed back.
Seventy years ago as a battle raged across the Owen Stanley Range another battle raged here – just as ferocious.
The stakes were just as high. The conditions were just as terrible. And the heroes were just as real.
Some of those heroes are here with us today.
And their stories help us reach across the void and grasp what happened here seventy years ago.
When Bill Hansen arrived here – he thought it was the worst place in the world.
The rain that wouldn’t stop, the endemic malaria, the dysentery.
But it was also the place he met a friend he would have for the rest of his life.
His name was Cliff.
Cliff got malaria and was shipped home.
But their friendship didn’t end here.
Cliff was placed in a convalescence camp not far from Bill’s house and he would visit Bill’s mum for dinner and write letters to Bill about the meal.
I am not sure if Cliff was there for the food though. A few years later he married Bill’s sister.
In January this year Cliff passed away. Cliff and Bill were mates for seventy years and brothers-in-law for sixty-one.
Mateships were forged here that would last a lifetime.
But mates were also lost.
Ed Jones was the son of a Great War veteran. He and his best mate signed up to serve on the same day.
Ed’s unit was ordered to attack from a creek bed – straight into Japanese fire.
He was shot in the arm – he said it was like being hit with a metal bar. He crawled back to the creek – fumbling with his good arm to try and stop the bleeding.
Then out of the jungle came an Australian soldier. He bandaged him up and then disappeared back into the jungle without saying a word.
Ed says it changed his outlook on life forever.
Ed’s best mate wasn’t so lucky. He survived Milne Bay, but he was killed months later at Buna.
Ted told me this morning the story of a Japanese bomb landing in front of him.
It slammed into the mud – and didn’t explode.
The line between life and death here was blurry and unpredictable.
Courage was the only constant.
That courage was in the air as well as on the ground.
This battle wasn’t just won by diggers.
This was the first battle where the Royal Australian Air Force directly supported Australian diggers.
And their courage was crucial.
John Pettet from 75 Squadron said it was “like taking off from the Sydney Cricket Ground and strafing at Darlinghurst…just a few kilometres at first before you were firing”.
Nat Gould, Edgar McCulloch and Joe McGrath would have known all about that – they were in 75 Squadron too – and Gregor McGregor was in 76 Squadron.
Their work here was decisive.
Attacking Goodenough Island on August 25 prevented hundreds of Japanese troops from joining the battle.
The constant Kittyhawks in the sky stopped the Japanese moving during the day.
They harassed and attacked with ferocity. In the five days to September second 75 Squadron fired 91,000 rounds – so much shooting that it widened the bores of their machine guns.
These are the stories of heroes here today.
But there were many others.
The pilots who crash landed when they couldn’t find the runways. The men shot down, blown up or struck down by disease.
Men like John French – a hairdresser from Queensland who became a hero. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for charging ahead of his men to silence three Japanese machine gun pits. It saved the lives of his men and cost him his own.
After hearing of his death his fiancée said “we don’t know the worth of our quiet boys until they are called on to do something big”
In 1942 thousands of Australians served here.
One of them was my grandfather.
He was part of the 55th Battalion who arrived here in July 1942 as the American engineers were building the first airstrip.
Within weeks he and many in the battalion were struck down by malaria, and evacuated back to Port Moresby.
In December they were sent to Sanananda. It’s there, I have recently learned, he was hit by shrapnel from a Japanese mortar. He survived and so did the shrapnel.
My grandmother kept it in a steel cigarette tin for the rest of her life. And it is still there today – tended to by the family.
My grandfather’s story is similar to Murray Willing’s who is here with us today. He fought here and then was seriously wounded in action at Buna – not far from Sanananda.
Today is also a day to honour the people of Papua New Guinea and the sacrifices they made.
This battle happened here, amongst your villages and your homes.
The actions of the people of Milne Bay saved the lives of the wounded soldiers and airmen. They carries them on makeshift stretches, hid them in the jungle and nursed them back to health.
The price paid was high – more than 1,400 Papua New Guineans were killed or wounded.
It’s forged a bond between Australians and the people of Papua New Guinea that lasts until this day.
What happened here seventy years ago was one part of a much bigger battle – Kokoda, Buna, Gona, Sanananda, Guadalcanal, the Coral Sea and Midway.
The story of all these battles are intertwined – each affected the other.
But it is true to say that the myth of the invincibility of Japanese land forces was first broken here.
On this sodden, sacred ground, by these men – and their mates.
That’s why we are here so many years later. To honour them, and to thank them.
Australia is a lucky country. We didn’t have to fight for our independence, but we had to fight to keep it.
And fight we did.
In the early hours of the 31st of August 1942 the Japanese concentrated their force here, to attempt to storm this airfield.
One Japanese soldier yelled across airstrip to the diggers waiting – “it’s no use…we’re coming across”.
The reply from the Australian RSM was: “pig’s arse you are”.
The Japanese marines never made it across this field.
This is as far south as they ever advanced.
And for that we thank the men who stopped them.
Men like Bill, Ed, Ted, Nat, Gregor, Murray, Edgar and Joe.
And the thousands of others who fought here.
Tyranny was turned back here at Turnbull Field.
Lest we forget.