Australian War Memorial - AJRP Essays

Home | About | Database | Research | Maps | Sitemap | Search | Links | Thanks | Translations | What's New | View this site in Japanese

Research essay
Australia and Japan at war, 1941-1946: Selected images from the photograph collection of the Australian War Memorial
Dr Richard Reid

On or about 9 December 1942, George Silk, an Australian photographer working for the Department of Information, stood with Salvation Army Chaplain Major Albert Moore on the beach at Gona on the north coast of Papua (013757). Since 18 November, Australian soldiers had encountered stiff opposition from Japanese forces dug into strong bunker positions at Gona village, but by 9 December, the Japanese main positions at Gona village were in Australian hands. As Silk and Moore chatted, surrounded by exhausted Australian soldiers and Japanese dead, Moore saw an Australian coming down the beach:

On his back was a wounded Japanese soldier. I could not describe the condition of the man the Digger carried. He had been wounded for some time, his wounds were infected, and the stench from them as well as the man himself was far from pleasant. Owing to the lack of medical assistance under the prevailing conditions among the enemy at this place, this soldier had been wounded and probably lay in a hole for many days, without attention, until picked up by his enemy, the Australian Digger. George Silk dropped his coconut, picked up his camera and said I must get this, this is good propaganda, and off he went and photographed the Digger with the Jap on his back.
[From text of a radio talk given by Major Moore, Salvation Army, on Radio 6KY, Perth, 7 May 1945, MSS0742, AWM.]

Doubtless, Silk wanted the shot because it emphasised for an Australian audience what had happened at Gona – the Japanese in Papua had been defeated, and the danger of a Japanese invasion of the Australian mainland, considered a possibility in 1942, was passing.

Silk’s photographs at Gona and other nearby battle locations are among the first Australian photographs of the war to include significant numbers of Australia’s Japanese enemy. Most of these photographs, but not all, are of Japanese soldiers killed by Australians in the desperate resistance put up by units of the Japanese Army and Navy on the north coast of Papua at Buna, Gona and Sanananda in late 1942 and early 1943. Silk’s photographs are in the collections of the Australian War Memorial. What is revealed of Australia’s war with Japan from this collection?

Broadly speaking the majority of the thousands of photographs which deal with this topic fall into five main categories:
  • battle action featuring Australian service personnel in which the enemy is only rarely visible;
  • battle situations in which Japanese soldiers are seen – these are almost invariably photographs taken in the immediate aftermath of action, showing dead or wounded Japanese or Japanese prisoners of war;
  • post-August 1945 surrender where Australian forces were responsible for surrender ceremonies, disarming the Japanese forces, caring for Japanese troops before their repatriation to Japan, etc.;
  • material relating to Australians as prisoners of war of the Japanese, both during their time of captivity and in the period immediately following their liberation;
  • miscellaneous photographs dealing with many topics, for example, Japanese prisoners of war and internees in Australia, and civilian internees of the Japanese.

    To illustrate these topics, 222 photographs have been selected from the collection and organised with a brief historical introduction under the headings listed below. The headings follow chronologically, where possible, the course of the Pacific war and its immediate aftermath, from December 1941 to late 1945:
  • War for the Empire: Malaya and Singapore, December 1941–February 1942
  • Japanese advance: Papua New Guinea, December 1941–January 1943
  • Australia under attack: 1942–1943
  • Japanese retreat: New Guinea, Borneo and the south-west Pacific, January 1943–August 1945
  • In captivity: Australian prisoners of war of the Japanese, February 1942–August 1945
  • In captivity: Japanese prisoners of war and civilian internees in Australia, 1943–1946
  • Allied victory and Japanese defeat: August 1945–September 1946.

    How have the photographs been selected from the many thousands available in the Second World War collections of the Australian War Memorial? Before turning to that question, the viewer should be aware of some key points concerning the nature of the Australian War Memorial’s Pacific war collection.

    Australians took the vast majority of the photographs, and they reflect, not surprisingly, an Australian view of the Pacific war. Moreover, the photographers themselves were in most instances working for either the Commonwealth Department of Information or the Australian Military History and Information Section. This, not surprisingly, produces an official feel to what has been focused upon and recorded through the camera’s lens. That said, researchers can come across much privately donated material which can offer perspectives not available in the official collection. A small number of photographs obtained in the course of the war, or subsequently from Japanese military or civilian personnel, also make one very aware that there is another side to the photographic story of the war in the Pacific.

    Many of the photographs have been chosen because they show or indicate, sometimes in dramatic fashion, the interaction in battle between Australians and their Japanese enemies. The enemy, naturally, cannot be seen by the cameraman. He is in a bomb or shell explosion, or at the end of a stream of bullets. Here, one can sometimes forget the presence of war because of the drama of the natural surroundings. Thus, an Australian artillery officer is snapped at the front training his binoculars on the distant shell-bursts of his guns on Shaggy Ridge, New Guinea. Death may be the business of artillery, but the photographer leads the eye to the dramatic scenery of the Markham Valley that fills nine-tenths of the photograph (060259). The presence of the enemy can be more clearly imagined in other situations. On Borneo, Australian machine gunners blaze away towards the Japanese, and an Australian tank sends a stream of flame towards a Japanese position holding up an advance (109536:111060). The advance continued, so presumably the Japanese soldiers in that position were “rendered inactive”. Sandwiched between a vast, cloud-filled sky and an expanse of ocean, a Japanese gunboat explodes after being hit by a bomb from an Australian plane (127654). Doubtless, thousands of similar photographs were taken by the Japanese and printed in their newspapers to show the success of Japanese military capability.

    Other photographs illustrate the tenacity and bravery of the Australian soldier – the inheritor of the Anzac tradition – in battle against the Japanese enemy. Some of these photographs undoubtedly featured in Australian newspapers to bolster home support for the fighting troops. So, we see an Australian soldier helping his wounded mate across a raging stream in New Guinea (127971). A battalion parade in Papua depicts tired but unbroken soldiers after intense fighting on the Kokoda Track (013289). An Australian officer, who has lain out for days near the Japanese lines, has his wounds treated (013814).

    In official Australian photographs, individual Japanese emerge most clearly in those scenes showing their defeat on the battlefield and subsequent surrender. There are plenty of photographs of dead Japanese soldiers, Japanese graves and abandoned Japanese equipment (013937:013609:026631). Japanese prisoners were another favoured image of the photographer (110987). This is not surprising as such men often exhibited a cowed and beaten look much favoured by the image-makers on either side (071539). And once the war ended, the Australian photographers were quick to see the symbolism of Allied victory and defeat in such shots as those of a Japanese soldier carrying a billboard advertising Australian War Loans, or pulling a grass roller in front of Australian soldiers practising for a surrender ceremony (097447:117044).

    Many years ago, the English First World War poet Captain Wilfred Owen, MC (Military Cross), wrote the following as the preface to his war poems:
    Above all I am not concerned with Poetry,
    My subject is War, and the pity of War.
    The Poetry is in the pity.

    Many of the most striking photographs of the Japanese in the Australian War Memorial collection reflect Owen’s sense of the pity of war. In Nagasaki, a mother suckles her child in the aftermath of the atomic bomb blast (044330). An Australian soldier awaits execution on a beach in New Guinea (101099). The bodies of dead Japanese soldiers are thrown into a mass grave on Bougainville (090380). Three sick, emaciated and exhausted Australian prisoners of war wait to go out to labour on the Burma–Thailand railway (P02569.192). A Japanese woman and child walk past the bombed-out ruins of Yokohama (OG3444). Australian soldiers tag and try to identify the remaining belongings of Australian prisoners of war who died in Japanese hands during the final months of the war (121783). A Japanese soldier weeps as he listens to the Emperor of Japan announcing his country’s surrender (P044/214/098). In a hospital at Palembang, Sumatra, a Dutch girl interned under dreadful conditions by the Japanese waits to die (P02344.001). An unidentified Japanese toddler runs happily towards whoever is taking her photograph (P0043/21/19). An Australian soldier holds up the head of a wounded Japanese soldier as he helps him to drink from a water-bottle (013880). A sick, crippled and emaciated Japanese soldier stares at the official Australian cameraman after the surrender on Bougainville (097019).

    One cannot approach these images dispassionately – nor surely did the cameraman expect us to. Conscious as many Australians are of the dreadful atrocities committed by the Japanese against those they conquered in Asia and the Pacific – Australian servicemen, servicewomen and civilians among them – there still abides in these particular photographs a sense of shared affliction and suffering in war. The photographs reveal that shared suffering more clearly than the more conventional images of battle, victory and defeat. One is reminded of the thoughts of an ex-Australian prisoner of war, Tom Uren, who served on the Burma–Thailand railway and after the war eventually became a minister in the Australian Parliament. Uren recalls that his experience on the railway made him want to put the whole Japanese race to death. Then he was taken to Japan where he worked alongside elderly Japanese men and women. Sharing with them the everyday burdens of living and surviving, he transcended his hatred and became aware of his common humanity with his captors.

    The photographs in the Australian War Memorial collections depicting Australian–Japanese relations during the Pacific war remain important and significant on many levels. For Australians, they record some of the experiences of their servicemen and servicewomen in action against the most dangerous enemy Australia has ever faced. For the historian, they are an essential adjunct to the study of the Pacific war in all its aspects – diplomatic, military, economic, social and political. But essentially they bring into focus, not in words but in stark images, those human emotions, both noble and base, which have always been clearly visible in the barbarity and futility of war.

    War for the Empire: Malaya and Singapore
    December 1941–February 1942

    In early 1941, Japan’s ally, Germany, began to urge a Japanese attack on British possessions in south-east Asia. As the threat from Japan became clearer, Australian troops were sent north, for the first time in Australian history, to help defend a vital part of Britain’s Empire in the east – the colony of Malaya and the island of Singapore, with its huge naval base.

    On 8 December 1941, shortly after their surprise attack on the Americans at Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces landed in Malaya. Elements of the Royal Australian Air Force were quickly set in action against the invasion, but a British naval task force sent to attack the Japanese ships was severely defeated on 10 December. By late January 1942, the Japanese had driven the defenders of Malaya back to Singapore island. The island itself was invaded on 8 and 9 February, and fell to the Japanese on 15 February. This was one of the greatest disasters in British and Australian military history. Over 15,000 Australians were taken prisoner, along with approximately 115,000 other British Empire troops.

    Japanese advance: Papua New Guinea
    December 1941–January 1943

    As the Japanese struck south in late 1941, the Australian authorities began evacuating European settlers from their territories in New Guinea and Papua. In early 1942, once the Japanese perceived their campaign in Malaya to be going well, they launched a series of other smaller invasions of Australian and Dutch territory directly to Australia’s north. On 24 January, a Japanese force from Truk successfully landed at Rabaul, New Britain, and defeated its Australian defenders, “Lark Force”. Subsequent landings followed on the New Guinea mainland and on the Dutch-controlled islands of Timor and Ambon which were also defended by Australian forces. By the end of March 1942, the Japanese controlled virtually all the islands to Australia’s north and were preparing to push further into Papua and down south-east through the Solomon Islands, with a view to cutting the sea link across the Pacific between Australia and America.

    In early May, a Japanese carrier force, aiming to bring the Americans to battle, penetrated into the Coral Sea. Over two days, during the battle of the Coral Sea, American planes sunk one Japanese carrier and damaged another, with the loss of an American carrier. In the Jombard Passage in eastern Papua, an Australian and American task force withstood a Japanese air attack and turned back a Japanese invasion fleet heading for Port Moresby.

    After their failure to take Port Moresby by sea, in July the Japanese landed near Gona on the north coast of Papua. From there they struck out across the Owen Stanley Range along a little-known track – the Kokoda Track – intending to take Port Moresby by land and directly threaten the Australian mainland. In a hard campaign, fought in difficult climatic and physical conditions, the Australians turned the Japanese back within sight of Port Moresby. The Japanese retreated over the Kokoda Track to well-prepared positions on the north Papuan coast at Buna, Gona and Sanananda. Here they resisted determined Australian and American attacks until the end of January 1943, when their last base in Papua – Sanananda – fell. Throughout these campaigns, the Australians relied on the Papua New Guinean carriers – the so-called Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels – to carry provisions and munitions to their forward troops and to bring out the wounded.

    In 1942, the Japanese made one other attempt to advance in Papua towards Port Moresby. In early September, as Japanese soldiers pushed over the Kokoda Track, Japanese marines landed on the northern shoreline of Milne Bay in eastern Papua. At Milne Bay, the Allies had constructed three vital forward airfields, and it was the Japanese intention to capture these. This force was defeated by a successful Australian counter-attack in which ground–air cooperation played a vital role. Milne Bay was the first time in which Japanese ground forces were defeated by Allied soldiers. It was also the most southerly point reached by Japanese forces in the Pacific war.

    Australia under attack

    On 19 February 1942, the first ever enemy attack on the soil of the Commonwealth of Australia occurred with the Japanese bombing of Darwin in the Northern Territory. This was the first of many raids throughout 1942 and 1943, and into 1944. Australian and American pilots flew from bases near Darwin against the Japanese fighters and bombers. Other Japanese air raids were made against Broome and Derby in Western Australia, and Townsville in Queensland.

    During 1942 and 1943, shipping along the east coast of Australia was subjected to Japanese submarine attack. Probably the best known incident in this submarine war was the penetration of the defences of Sydney Harbour in June 1942 by Japanese midget submarines. In May 1943, Australians were greatly angered by the sinking of the Australian hospital ship Centaur by a Japanese submarine off the south Queensland coast.

    In the expectation of Japanese air attack, even invasion, the Australian population throughout the country was drilled in air aid precautions. Shelters were prepared and teams of men and women put together to quell fires and look after the injured. The planes never arrived. The closest most Australians came to the enemy in the war was the study of models and charts of Japanese aircraft.

    Japanese retreat, New Guinea, Borneo and the South-West Pacific
    January 1943–August 1945

    From January 1943, Japanese forces along their huge perimeter stretching from the western Solomons to Java and through the central Pacific came under increasing Allied attack. Australian battle contact with the Japanese in this period was mainly in New Guinea where, with the Americans, they conducted a series of campaigns in 1943, 1944 and 1945. In each of these campaigns, the Japanese were pushed back, although at war’s end, significant Japanese forces remained opposing the Australians in the field in New Britain, Bougainville, and on the New Guinea mainland north of Wewak. As in Papua in 1942, the people of Papua New Guinea played an essential support role in these campaigns.

    The war for the Australian armed services against the Japanese in the Pacific was primarily an infantryman’s war. However, the Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Air Force played a prominent role in their support of ground forces. In 1944 and 1945, ships of the Royal Australian Navy were involved in the American drive north towards the Philippines and Japan itself.

    Towards the end of hostilities, Australians mounted one last great series of attacks on the Japanese in the south Pacific area. In May, June and July, men of the 7th and 9th Divisions, Second Australian Imperial Force, some of whom had fought right through the war, landed at three locations on the island of Borneo – Tarakan Island, Brunei Bay and Balikpapan. They were still engaging the Japanese in Borneo when on 15 August 1945 Emperor Hirohito of Japan accepted Allied surrender terms.

    In captivity: Australian prisoners of war of the Japanese
    February 1942–August 1945

    When in late 1941 and early 1942 the Japanese armies swept through south Asia and the islands north of Australia, they captured thousands of military and civilian prisoners – Australian, Dutch, British, American and members of other European nationalities. Over 22,000 members of the Australian armed services and more than 500 Australian civilians spent over three and a half years in Japanese prisoner-of-war or internment camps in locations throughout Japanese-controlled Asia and the East Indies.

    The best known of the Australian prisoner-of-war stories is that of the building of the Burma–Thailand railway for the Japanese from Thanbyuzayat in Burma to Ban Pong in Thailand, a distance of approximately 420 kilometres through rugged jungle country. An estimated 2,615 Australian prisoners of war out of 13,000 – 22 per cent – died from overwork, malnutrition and disease during the construction of the railway, or shortly thereafter.

    In all, some 13,872 Australian prisoners of war were recovered from Japanese captivity at the end of the war. Of those taken prisoner in 1941 and 1942, approximately 7,777 died in captivity – 35 per cent. As the Australian official history notes, this represented nearly three times the number killed in battle in, for example, the 9th Australian Division during its four campaigns. The prisoner-of-war deaths represented half of all those Australians who died in the war against Japan. By comparison, 7,116 Australians became prisoners of the Germans or Italians, of whom 582 – eight per cent – died in captivity.

    In captivity: Japanese prisoners of war and civilian internees in Australia

    By comparison with the number of Australians taken prisoner by the Japanese, relatively few Japanese soldiers became prisoners of war of the Australians or were interned as enemy aliens in Australia. In all, approximately 5,127 Japanese military prisoners of war were in Australian prisoner-of-war camps by 1945, and of these, 3,779 had been captured by the Americans. Also interned by the Australians were 546 Japanese merchant seamen and [???] civilians.

    The Australian official war historian, Gavin Long, writes that with the exception of “one unfortunate incident”, all prisoners of war in Australian hands were “treated strictly in accordance with the Geneva Convention at a time when it was known that many prisoners held by the Japanese, Germans and Italians were being badly treated.” The “unfortunate incident” was the break-out on the morning of 5 August 1944 of 1,100 Japanese prisoners of war, armed with knives, clubs and other improvised weapons, from the POW camp at Cowra, New South Wales. Four Australians and 234 Japanese died in this incident. Some of the Japanese dead had committed suicide.

    Victory and defeat
    August 1945–September 1946

    The Americans dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945. At noon Japanese time on 15 August, Emperor Hirohito broadcast to his people that he had accepted Allied surrender terms and declared that the war had “developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.” As they listened to Hirohito’s pre-recorded message, many Japanese wept. Wherever they found themselves throughout the world, Australians celebrated.

    The official surrender ceremony took place on 2 September 1945 in Tokyo Bay aboard the American battleship USS Missouri. General Thomas Blamey signed the surrender document on behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia. There followed a series of surrenders in the field by Japanese armies throughout south-east Asia and the Pacific. Many of these surrenders were made to Australian forces in Borneo, New Guinea, Bougainville and New Britain. It took nearly a year to disarm and repatriate all Japanese military personnel overseas.

    Between 1945 and 1951, Australian war crimes tribunals indicted 924 Japanese members of the armed services and civilians with B and C class war crimes. Trials were held at Darwin, Singapore, Hong Kong, Manus Island, Wewak in New Guinea, Labuan in Borneo and at Rabaul in New Britain. After 23 trials, 280 Japanese were found not guilty and 496 were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. Of the 148 sentenced to death, 137 were executed either by hanging or firing-squad.

    Until 1951, Japan was occupied by Allied troops. Australian service personnel went to Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. Part of their duties involved the repatriation of the Japanese Army, overseeing the destruction of Japanese war materials, and ceremonial duties such as the mounting of a guard at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine dedicated to the souls of Japanese warriors who died overseas fighting for Japan.

    Printer version

  • The AJRP has wound up its activities at the Memorial for the moment.
    Please contact the relevant officer of the Australian War Memorial for assistance.
    Internet implementation by Fulton Technology and AJRP staff .
    Visit the Australian War Memorial home page.
    Visit the award-winning web-site of the Australian War Memorial