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 choose to comment on social issues and write creatively on a variety of subjects - for a variety of audiences.