Next Thursday, August 6, it will be 75 years since the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days after that day, on August 9, 1945, a bomb landed on Nagasaki, leading to the Japanese surrender on August 15.
(The official signing of the surrender took place on September 2, 1945).
It was a war that cost Australians an estimated $74 billion— and many lives.
It is perhaps timely to remember this war and the part Australia played.
We may think of World War 2 in terms of British and German involvement. Some of us also think of Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima. Not many people instinctively think of the Northern Territory when the subject of the war is broached, and yet there are at least 800 war sites: air strips, ammunition depots and soldier tent sites, in the N.T..
And, no, this was not WW1, Gallipoli, where thousands lost their lives, it was WW2, in Darwin, our Australia.
Troops numbering approximately 250,000 were stationed in the Northern Territory at some stage during the war years. Many lives were lost; many young men were permanently scarred.
Not so long ago, on a visit to the War Memorial at Adelaide River in the Northern Territory, in amongst hundreds of graves, I found a headstone with the date of a young soldier’s death matching the exact date of my birth. I felt unsettled and, ultimately, somehow attached to him.
I have written that soldier a letter:
To: Sapper J.D.Gyton, N202639, 23 Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers.
You’ve been gone for over 70 years now. We never had the chance to meet because you died on the very day I was born. I don’t even know where you lived.
Just a name and number are on the brass plaque that I discovered in the Northern Territory’s Adelaide River War Memorial Cemetery.
I’m not usually one to visit war memorials, but this one time I did, and I was not prepared for the wave of grief that swept over me. As I read the words on the plaques, I felt something like a punch to my gut and found it hard to swallow the sobs that threatened to erupt.
You were 21 when you died, John. It was World War 2 and you were just a boy. But there were graves of others with ages listed as 18 and 19. There was even a grave for a seaman of just 16 years.
What a truly awful war. But then, has any war ever been less than awful?
My father, though slightly older than you, was also in the Australian army during World War 2. And in the Northern Territory too.
At the end of the war, he came home to us and I, as a three-year-old, didn’t know who he was.
But, lucky us! We were fortunate that he had been in Katherine when you were in Darwin. ‘Though Katherine was also on the receiving end of bombs.
Dear John, I think of when my own boy was 21 - a few years back now, and I wonder how I would have dealt with the fact of his death at that age.
On the little plaque, under your name and army details, are the simple words, “In loving memory of my darling son John.”
How did your mother cope? Why is your father not mentioned? Were you your mother’s only child? Did you have sisters and brothers? What about grandparents?
How they would have missed you and grieved.
How did you die, John?
I searched the Internet for details and found the word “accidental” as the cause of your death. Whatever happened to make your death “accidental”? You died in the May of 1942, right in the middle of hundreds of Japanese bombing raids on Darwin.
Conservative estimates of the numbers killed during that time put the servicemen tally at 432 and the number of civilian “casualties” at 63. That’s almost 500 people. Five hundred!
Were you one of the many caught up in the panic and un-preparedness of the Australian military? Did you overturn an army vehicle in your haste to reach a position of defence? A place of refuge? Did part of one of the many bombed buildings collapse upon you?
It is now supposed that many more were killed in Darwin than those reported. You were just one, but you were still someone’s son.
If you had lived, you would be over 90 years old now. Would you have lived that long— maybe a great grandfather.?
But you had no chance for anything like that.
Your life was severed at the tender age of 21. To use the word “waste” is too much of a cliché as well as an understatement.
To see my date of birth on a cemetery plaque indicating your date of death shocked me. It made me ask more questions about what happened in Darwin in 1942. The information I gathered shocked me even more. I discovered that the government of the day fudged the figures so that people wouldn’t be alarmed. “Don’t worry”, they said, after the first two raids by the Japanese, “only 17 people were killed”. In fact, 243 lives were lost in those initial raids. And between 300 and 400 wounded.
The air attacks on Darwin continued for nearly two years and the city was bombed 64 times. Was the government still saying, “don’t worry”?
And why are we still making wars?
You died in a war on the day I was born and now I’m an old grey-haired grandmother, and still people kill others by the hundreds in “just” wars.
Will we never learn?
I have never believed in such things as reincarnation, but have sometimes wondered if people’s souls, adrift in the ether, are able to influence other souls as they pass “in transition”, so to speak.
As I entered this world as a baby, could a whisper from your departing spirit have made its way into the new life that was mine?
And, if it did, I hope I have lived my life as you would have wished. Perhaps that whisper for the soul helped me along the way. Perhaps that is why I am a pacifist.
Dear John, you, and those other (at least) 494 people who were killed in the attacks on Darwin, paid the unthinkable and ultimate price all those years ago.
Was it worth it?
I have always been outspoken against war. As a young woman, I marched in moratoriums against the war in Vietnam. But your small bronze plaque has affected me more than any other anti-war message.
Dear Sapper John Gyton, I’m so sorry that you had to die, but now you have become a part of me. I will never forget your name.
I am measuring and cutting pieces of fabric, while following instructions on YouTube. On one hand, I cannot believe what I am doing, on the other hand, it is strangely interesting - and almost a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
I am making face masks for the off chance (or inevitability?) that COVID19 will reach the area where I live.
I am in Queensland, a place almost unaffected by the onslaught of the horror virus infecting and killing others in the country where I live. And all over the world.
Members of my family, in the state of Victoria, are ‘in lock-down’ - and petrified. They are staying at home, staying indoors, becoming bored and depressed.
All they can do is be extremely patient, stay away from other people and, occasionally, when their food supplies run low, make a cautious and hurried trip to the nearest (sometimes smallest) supermarket.
Their current situation is far from ideal, but the alternative is risky and horrifying.
I am hoping that our turn will not come, but I will sew some masks – just in case.
BE PREPARED! As they say.
How many species of animal life have been obliterated by mankind?
How many species are now extinct?
It’s many, many more than the Tasmanian Tiger.
According to John Woinarski of Charles Darwin University, “Over the last two hundred years at least 34 Australian mammal species and 29 birds have become extinct," (Pacific Conservation Biology – 2018).
A 2014 study claimed Australia's mammal extinction rate was the world's highest, with more than 10 percent of species wiped out since Europeans settled the country two centuries ago.
The main causes of species decline that have been identified include habitat loss, such as through land clearing and other development — and feral cats and foxes.
This did not mention the horrific loss of wildlife in the recent bushfire disaster.
It’s not just Australia, of course: “one eighth of the world’s species – more than a million – are threatened with extinction”. (The Conversation)
And here’s something horrible: from a report in today’s Guardian: The bacteria in humans that has grown resistant to antibiotics has more than likely made its way into wildlife? (that means our sewage has leached into oceans and elsewhere! Erk!)
Imagine how that is affecting marine life.
Or - plants, trees, whole forests, wetlands, we could go on….
Humans have done this!
Now, take time to research the loss of habitat, resulting in the loss of animal life that has occurred since, say, 1950. It’s inestimable.
Sure, we have also killed a lot of humans on the past 100 or so years, using war as an excuse.
Or starvation – often connected to war – or disease.
The popular theory is that man is the superior being here on our planet.
Human Beings are generally thought of as the most important entity in the universe. (Sometimes referred to as humanocentrism).
But then…Hello, COVID19!
Is COVID19 telling us that it’s now OUR turn to feel the heat of possible extinction?
We have exterminated animal species willy nilly over centuries, culminating in tremendous losses over more recent years.
Even our beloved koala has been threatened by extinction. Now, that made some people sit up and take notice. The koala is cute to look at, cuddly to imagine and engenders lots of tourist dollars, so we value it above less attractive or photogenic species.
But they all matter.
Apart from mosquitos, human beings are the biggest cause of death to other human beings.
Yes, forget the Orca, the Great White Shark, Polar Bear, Saltwater Crocodile, Tiger, and others who are Apex predators, but are not (often!) after humans.
We, as a species do a lot of harm to ourselves as well as the rest of the planet.
BUT then along comes something that is perhaps a bigger and smarter top predator – COVID19.
Have we met our match?
How does it feel to be in danger of being obliterated? Just as we have done to all the hundreds of other life forms, animals, plants, insects.
We have far more at our disposal to fight off this stalker, this attacker.
Most threatened animal species have little other than nature and a few concerned individuals to try and protect them. We have everything the world can muster to help us.
But still, how does it feel to be ‘hunted’? To have an enemy that defies our current logic.
Let’s hope it will be ‘farewell, COVID19’ soon.
Put your face mask on!
I choose to comment on social issues and write creatively on a variety of subjects - for a variety of audiences.