I am a pacifist, so why did I visit a war memorial?
That I can’t answer but something drew me in.
On August 6 this year it will be 70 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. For Australia this marked the end of the Second World War.
(The official signing of the surrender took place on September 2, 1945).
It was a war that cost Australians an estimated 74 billion dollars - and many, many lives.
As this 70th anniversary approaches it is perhaps timely to remember Australia’s – and especially Australia’s Northern Territory’s - part in the conflict.
We may think of World War 2 in terms of British and German involvement. We may also think of Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima. Not many people instantly 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.
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.
A few years ago, I visited the War Memorial at Adelaide River in the Northern Territory. I’m not usually one to visit war memorials, but this one ‘called to me’ when I was holidaying up north. Once walking through the graves, I was not prepared for the wave of grief that swept over me. I found it hard not to fall on my knees and sob as I read the words on the plaques.
The inscription on one memorial headstone told of a young soldier called John who was 21 when he died. He was 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?
On the little plaque, under John’s name and army details, are the simple words, “In loving memory of my darling son John.”
How did his mother cope? Why is his father not mentioned? Did he have sisters and brothers? What about grandparents? A sweetheart?
How they would have missed him and grieved.
How did John die?
I later searched the Internet for details and found the word “accidental” as the cause of his death. Whatever happened to make his death “accidental”? He 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!
Was John one of the many caught up in the panic and un-preparedness of the Australian military? Did he overturn an army vehicle in his haste to reach a position of defence? A place of refuge? Did part of one of the many bombed buildings collapse upon him?
It is now suggested that many more were killed in Darwin than those reported. John was just one, but he was still someone’s son.
If John had lived, he would be over 90 years old now. Would he have lived that long - maybe a great-grandfather?.
But he had no chance for anything like that.
His 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.
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 attack 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?
John died in a war that reached Australia 70 years ago. And still people kill others by the hundreds in “just” wars all over the world.
Will we never learn?
John and the 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. But John’s small bronze plaque affected me almost more than any other anti-war message.
Will we ever 'give peace a chance'?