The Service and Sacrifice of our Pacific Family Must Never be Forgotten

Military history rightly possesses a powerful hold over Australians. We have been forever captured by the tragedy of Gallipoli, which sparked a legend and helped to forge our nation’s identity. But just as important to Australia’s destiny, our place in our region and understanding of who we are was victory in the Pacific. On the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific, we should ask how many of us truly understand how that titanic struggle for survival defined Australia’s destiny and our place within our Pacific family?

For it was that desperate and brutal struggle in the Second World War that bonded in blood Pacific countries, in a manner that can never be undone.

Cut off from the world and fighting for survival, the War in the Pacific again sparked legends which shaped the true spirit of Australia. As a Pacific region we shared the dreadful loss of life, loss of homes and loss of freedom and security following a brutal invasion. Australian troops fought bitterly across Papua New Guinea, in Bougainville, New Britain and elsewhere. Much of which we know and revere. But how many of us really understand what the people of Papua New Guinea did for our diggers and the sacrifices made by the Pacific? How well do we teach successive Australian generations about our wartime relationship with the Pacific?

Most of us do know that it was the Australian fighting withdrawal on the Kokoda Track that delayed and ultimately halted the Japanese advance on Port Moresby. But is enough taught about the role played by 18 year old diggers, wounded and dying, and evacuated on the backs of ‘fuzzy wuzzy angels’, in stopping the Japanese? How many 18 year olds today know that 8,000 Australians died during the Papua New Guinea campaign? Or that the fighting across the Owen Stanley Ranges has been aptly called the “Tobruk of the Pacific”?

75 years on, as Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, I have been struck by just how fresh the war remains in the minds of Pacific people, and how its lasting impacts are still being felt. In Vanuatu the remnants of the 40,000 personnel US base still stand and villagers continue a tradition of raising the American flag every year. In Solomon Islands there is a staggering volume of unexploded ordinance which can still shatter and maim the innocent today. Burnt-out Japanese tanks still litter Pohnpei where they are used as play-things by children, forming a constant reminder. And in Papua New Guinea the bloody bond that was forged with Australia on Kokoda lives on, almost spiritually, amongst young and old.

On this important anniversary, during an era short of legends, cultural inspiration and heroes to believe in, let us turn to our shared history with the Pacific as a source of inspiration. For Australian schools, the incredible stories and legends of this war on our doorstep, of its heroism and suffering just one generation ago, should already be a staple of the syllabus.

We remember the heroism and supreme sacrifice of our soldiers. We must also recall all who lost their lives, including those of our Pacific family who fought and suffered with us.

If Gallipoli was the birth of Australian nationhood, it was in the Pacific that we came of age and found our place. Such pivotal, region-shaping events must be given the prominence in our education system and culture that they deserve.