Speech - 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Milne Bay








There were many moments in the Second World War when the fate of millions hung in the balance, and when the tide turned in crucial ways.

The Battle of Milne Bay, fought seventy years ago, was one of those moments. 

By the scale of the events taking place in El Alamein, or Guadalcanal, or over the skies of Germany, it was not a large battle in terms of the number of soldiers on the ground.  

But it was incredibly significant, not just in strategic terms but also because it was the first defeat of the Japanese in the Pacific.

August, 1942. A detachment of Japanese marines with naval and air support tried to outflank our position on the Kokoda Track. Their target: the strategically important harbour and airbase of Milne Bay.

Had they succeeded, they would have put a bayonet in the back of the thin khaki line that was preventing the fall of Port Moresby.

But they were stopped by a rapidly assembled force of Australian militia troops, 7th Division veterans from Tobruk, ack-ack gunners, airfield engineering units, Kittyhawk fighters from 75 and 76 squadron, and Boston bombers from number 6 squadron.

The battle of Milne Bay punctured the myth that the Japanese were invincible, and also saved Port Moresby and the Australian mainland from further assault.

After Milne Bay, the Australians and the Americans were almost always on the offensive, and the short-lived Japanese co-prosperity sphere began to contract.

So it was a turning point in the Pacific that helped on the victory of the Allies.

It was also a brutal, murderous, and muddy encounter, as tough as war gets.

On that sweltering bay, there were massacres of troops and civilians – later the subject of war crimes investigations.

There were no rear lines or support troops – everyone everywhere was under constant fire and air attack.

Construction workers fought with rifles; men attacked tanks not with long-range guns but by crawling up to them to attach sticky mines to their hulls.

It was also a place where the tropical wetlands bred malaria. Many soldiers were infected.

One of them was my Uncle Charlie, who fought in B Company, stationed in Milne Bay when the Japanese arrived on August 25th.

He was sent home to Brisbane, but went back to fight in Bougainville after his recovery.

He returned once more just a few years ago, taking my three brothers with him. He showed them around the Bay, told them his stories of fighting in the mud and the heat and the rain; making friends with the locals they were fighting alongside.

As some of you know, my family is no stranger to war, going back to my grandfather’s service in 1915, on the Western Front in Monash’s 3rd Division.

In the next war, my dad fought in the RAAF, and was attacked by enemy infantry while he was constructing airfields at Tarakan and Balikpapan – roughly five thousand kilometers from home, and three thousand from where his brother-in-law fought in Milne Bay.

As a boy, I was very conscious that our family life was shaped by my father’s experience in the war. And that our nation’s life was also shaped by war.

It’s something I’ve never lost sight of, and I’ve tried to learn more about as I’ve got older.

Most Australians under a certain age have probably never heard of Milne Bay, or if they have, don’t quite understand its significance in Australian history.

Those of us who are connected to it through our family histories, and who know how much we owe to those who have fought and fallen on our behalf, know just how significant it was. That gives us a duty to let a new generation know, too.

Today young Australians are still fighting and falling in Afghanistan. By honouring the men who fought at Milne Bay, we honour them, too.

Milne Bay is one of many battles our country can remember with pride, sadness and gratitude, as we do today.

Ladies and gentlemen, lest we forget.