Voices from the air, p.28

Voices from the Air, page 28


Voices from the Air

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  Other news and feature material on Morotai was drying up. All the POWs had been evacuated a month earlier and many of the last groups to pass through had already been interviewed by Fred Simpson in Kuching or Frank Legg in Manila. The strange transition period for many soldiers still overseas was also creating difficulties for Duckmanton.

  I’m finding it rather difficult, to say the least of it, to get fellows to relate anecdotes and the like from their past Army experiences. Most of them are interested in only one thing and that is getting home as quickly as possible and since the shipping situation has to their way of thinking, been handled so badly, they are not in any way willing to relate such stories.11

  Australian forces were assisting with the formal re-instatement of local authority in the islands after the end of Japanese occupation. The Japanese had displaced the Sultan of Ternate, the head of a small Muslim kingdom in the Moluccas (Maluku Islands), and Duckmanton and MacFarlane sailed on HMAS Bowen for the official re-instatement ceremony, with an Australian surveillance party visiting the islands. Duckmanton met the Sultan at breakfast in the Ward Room. ‘He’s a man in his forties – about five-feet tall and very thin. He speaks English fairly well and is deeply conscious of his responsibilities to his people, scattered throughout the Halmaheras and the Moluccas.’

  When they reached Ternate at dusk, many people had come out to welcome the Sultan but most were kept back from the wharf, apart from a group of dignitaries and a few small, naked boys diving from the wharf into the water. That evening Duckmanton and MacFarlane attended a dance at the palace, where the band played ‘Colonel Bogey’ and ‘The Hokey-Pokey’. ‘The windows and doors of the ballroom were all wide open and around them dozens of people – children among them – were crowding to watch the dance. The ceiling and all the glass from the windows had been blown out, but the terrazzo floor was intact.’12

  They then moved on to Sanana Island for the re-instatement ceremony where Duckmanton recorded his commentary.

  I’m speaking to you from just outside an old fort built by the Portuguese when they first came to these islands in the fifteenth century. It’s now very dilapidated and there’s moss growing on the walls. Protruding from the broken battlements are some old cannon . . . Out in front of the dais there is a guard of honour from the RAN and the AIF and also some Indonesian troops. On three flagpoles made of bamboo the British, Dutch and Australian flags are furled waiting to be broken at the top by three Naval ratings standing at attention at the foot of the pole.13

  To the sound of a children’s pipe and drum band and the Dutch national anthem, the Australian representative read out the proclamation declaring that Australian troops under the C-in-C General Blamey had accepted the Japanese surrender, and would maintain law and order until the restoration of the Netherlands East Indies government.

  Concerts and other entertainment were held at Morotai for the Australian former POWs and soldiers and at one concert Talbot met a young nurse’s aide, Florence Simmonds. Talbot was somewhat shy but a connection was made and they later married and had four children: Christine, Susan, Craig, and Kim.

  Duckmanton was curious to see how the Japanese accused of war crimes were being treated and, with an Army PR officer and a Department of Information journalist, finally arranged access to the Japanese POW camp on Morotai.

  There’s a side-road near here which has a very interesting sign-post about 100 yards along from its junction with the main highway. In large black letters it says ‘Keep Out’ and beneath a drawing of a particularly fierce looking revolver are the words ‘The Guards Here are Trigger Happy.’ It marks the entrance to the POW camp and is a warning to unauthorised persons who let their curiosity get the better of them to come no closer to the high barbed-wire fences.14

  He found the war criminals living separately from the ordinary Japanese POWs, but ‘whereas POW have only to march everywhere, these men must do everything at the double’. His view of the Japanese he encountered in the camps ahead of the war crimes trials was unforgiving, as is made clear in this commentary at the end of one broadcast.

  They want to shake hands now and forget. ‘We’ve had our differences,’ they say in effect, ‘but now all that is past. We should both forget about it.’ This too was the attitude of many controlling our POW. After a beating, when a man was lying exhausted, the Jap responsible would go to him and offer a cigarette, or perhaps give him a letter from home that had been lying around in their Orderly Room for months. It’s an attitude that must be changed.15

  The first war crimes trials by an Australian Military Court began on Morotai at the end of November. Again, Duckmanton’s commentary on the surviving recording is simple and authoritative and the broadcast of his introduction, and the proceedings of the war crimes trial itself, must have been compelling listening for the radio audience in the immediate aftermath of the war. He also filed news copy on the trials.

  At ten o’clock this morning four Japanese army officers and two privates, the first to be tried by an Australian court for crimes against war prisoners, were marched under armed guard into an army hut near the beach . . . While the court members were being sworn, the Japanese stood stiffly to attention and then with the exception of Captain Awasi, who was to be tried first, were marched outside again.16

  Evidence for the trials had been gathered by the surveillance party that Duckmanton had accompanied around the islands the month before. Several Indonesians had given evidence that they witnessed the Japanese executing Australian airmen on islands near Sulawesi, and one of the Japanese later confessed. Duckmanton observed the Japanese in the Army tent outside the court room where they waited to be called, some of them drawing with a stick in the sand floor, some appearing nervous and others staring straight ahead with expressionless faces. His despatch sent after five days of the trial tried to find some understanding of the Japanese actions.

  To questions of the prosecuting and defending officers they reply with little or no hesitation and when each of the actual executioners has been asked for details of his crime he has stood up and with arms outstretched demonstrated how the victim was tied and then said ‘I have bayonetted him through the chest’ as calmly as if he were asking the time of day. Most of them have admitted it was wrong to ill-treat a defenceless war prisoner but an order was an order and their duty was simply to obey it even though they considered it unlawful.17

  For Duckmanton and the public listening at home it seemed little sense could be made of such atrocities. Duckmanton was the last ABC correspondent appointed during the Second World War and his reporting of the war crimes trials was the last significant field reporting by a correspondent of wartime events.


  The ABC war correspondents of the Second World War were part of an important change in the Australian news landscape. They broke new ground for radio reporting from the field and their compelling stories on-the-spot gave impact, immediacy and authority to coverage of the war. Their work helped serve the growing demand for independent, accurate and timely news on ABC radio which led to the establishment of the independent ABC News service in 1947. It wasn’t long before the Korean War saw ABC correspondents return to the warfront but in much smaller numbers.

  Overseas, the London bureau grew into a significant news operation and by the end of the war, the London correspondent and news editor, Hugo Jackson, had a staff of seven sub-editors. By the early 1960s this had grown to 10 journalists, largely editing and writing copy from the news agencies, whose product was still not directly available to the ABC within Australia.1

  In 1956, the establishment of an ABC bureau in Singapore began a significant ABC focus on Asian news coverage that has continued over the following 60 years.

  The ABC Talks Department went on to develop the wartime field broadcast skills of reporters, and their voices were heard in Talks programs on ABC radio. However, once the war finished, news reporters reverted to writing copy, and it was many years before their voices would again be hear
d reporting news stories from Australia or overseas.2

  Foreign correspondents in London, the United States and Asia would eventually become household names through their reports for ABC Current Affairs and News programs, and the advent of television yet again required correspondents to develop new skills.

  From the 1960s another war, the Vietnam War, and another generation of war correspondents would again play a key role in the expansion of ABC foreign reporting, building on the legacy of the first ABC war correspondents twenty years earlier.

  Many of the pioneering ABC correspondents who covered the Second World War continued their careers as journalists or broadcasters after the war. For most, the war was the defining period of their professional lives and for some it also had an enduring impact on their personal lives and their families.

  Chester Wilmot

  When the Australian Commander in Chief, General Blamey, cancelled Chester Wilmot’s accreditation as a war correspondent at the end of 1942, Wilmot returned to Australia. He continued to broadcast commentaries for the ABC and spent some time writing his classic book on Tobruk.

  Little more than a year later, the ABC helped to get Wilmot back into the field, this time reporting the war in Europe for the BBC. On D-Day in June 1944, he flew into Normandy by glider with the invading Allied forces and recorded some of the most memorable reports of the war.

  His fellow correspondent and friend, David Woodward, was with Wilmot at Divisional HQ at a French chateau as they waited for troops from the beachhead to link up with them, and for the bombers to drop more gliders carrying urgently needed anti-tank guns. There was gunfire from nearby and the wounded were being brought into the building.

  And then came the sound of a great many aircraft, low down. We saw the big bombers that were acting as tugs, and behind them the slender graceful gliders that they cast loose. And we knew that within those gliders were the vital seventeen pounders on which our defence was to depend. And conscious of the decisive moment of the battle, Chester Wilmot stepped out on the terrace, fully exposed, with his hand-mike to his lips, to see and describe it all.3

  Wilmot went on to report the rest of the war for the BBC, becoming one of the most well-known war correspondents of the time and one of the finest chroniclers of the conflict. He covered the German surrender ceremony and the Nuremburg war crime trials, and wrote an acclaimed history, The Struggle for Europe, which cemented his reputation as an author and military historian. Thereafter, Chester lived and worked in England, writing and broadcasting, straddling newspapers, radio and television. He became one of the BBC’s foremost live broadcasters and commentators. In summer, he played weekend cricket with the office team from The Observer newspaper. An Observer colleague, the journalist Michael Davie, recalled that Chester was not a very good cricketer, wore tight trousers and did not run very fast but, ‘at the wicket, he seemed, as I imagine he seemed at Tobruk, indestructible’.4

  At Christmas 1953, Wilmot and members of a BBC production team were in Sydney, where they completed a special Christmas radio broadcast for the BBC and the ABC. Late that Christmas night Wilmot and the others listened to the rebroadcast of the program they had just finished, and which was also being heard in Britain.

  ‘We sat on the floor around the loudspeaker with glasses in our hands, exhausted but happy – happy that the job was over and that all had gone well,’ recalled BBC radio features producer, Laurence Gilliam. ‘And in spite of the somewhat difficult reception conditions on Christmas Day, we heard every word rebroadcast from London on that hot Australian night, and Chester’s strong, vibrant voice triumphantly made its way through the sniping sound of radio static, carrying the programme along with the sureness and certainty that his whole optimistic personality could give.’5

  On his way back to England two weeks later, Chester’s plane crashed in the Mediterranean. There were no survivors. Wilmot was 42 years old when he died, leaving behind his wife Edith, and three children. Obituaries for Wilmot mentioned his mental and physical energy, his reporting and analytical skills and his understanding of military strategy. Wilmot’s fellow war correspondent from North Africa and Europe, Alan Moorehead, also remembered his generosity to colleagues in the field, his concentration on reporting the battle, not himself . . . and his integrity. In his remembrance of Chester, Moorehead wrote: ‘I cannot remember a man who kept his mind in such steady focus on what he believed to be the essential things and the truth.’6

  Lawrence Cecil

  Lawrence Cecil had played a largely supporting role in the Middle East but he had also recorded thousands of messages home from the troops. These had been very popular but were soon overtaken by the return of the troops themselves. He was the most experienced broadcaster in the field unit and had also produced some of Wilmot’s more complex radio recordings.

  On his return to Australia Cecil wrote a report about the work of the field unit in the Middle East, and about his own role. Despite the undoubted problems in the field, Cecil had done valuable work: among other things, he rightly pointed out that if he had not arranged safe passage for the ABC field unit during the evacuation from Greece, the subsequent historic recordings from Tobruk and Syria might not have been made.

  Cecil was a liked and respected figure among the broader group of war correspondents and with Army authorities, and though his pride may have been wounded by the differences with Wilmot, he was a fundamentally fair man, and he was generous in his praise for the work of Wilmot, MacFarlane and Gallwey.

  Wilmot argued in a separate report to the ABC that an administrative and representative role for liaison with the Army, like Cecil’s, should not be necessary for any of the field units covering the Pacific war. Having an administrative correspondent who could not report from the field did not make much sense, and the ABC effectively adopted Wilmot’s approach.

  Regardless of the frustrations or achievements of his time with the field unit, Cecil had long since decided that his time in the field was over. He was older by far than any of his colleagues in the Middle East field unit. He had no desire to return to the front and he went back to his role as the ABC’s leading producer of radio drama in Sydney.

  Henry Stokes

  Henry Stokes escaped the fall of Singapore and returned to Australia angry at the loss of Australian lives and those left behind. Around 15,000 Australians became prisoners of war. Stokes made a broadcast on the fall of Singapore within a day of landing back in Australia, in which he criticised the lack of adequate prepared defences on the northern end of the island. They had been hastily put together by the Australian troops after they had crossed from the mainland with the Japanese behind them. ‘There were no aircraft to counter Japanese reconnaissance planes . . . Lean, brown Queenslanders would watch them from their gun positions and curse bitterly. Our men had no answer, save heroism. But heroism is at a discount without air equipment.’7

  A newspaper report of Stokes’s broadcast commented: ‘Mr Stokes understands the emphasis that lies in understatement and his quiet conversational tones conveyed in restrained language a vivid picture of the last days of the naval base, the type of fighting and what inadequate air support meant to the men on the ground, a weakness that the speaker was able from personal knowledge to compare with the position in Greece and Crete.’8

  Frank Dixon saw Henry in Sydney around a day later, still almost two weeks before the surrender of Java, which Stokes felt was now a ‘death trap’ for any Australians who might be deployed there. After hearing his views of the calamitous events in Singapore and of ‘British complacency and inefficiency’, Dixon arranged for Stokes to talk to the ABC commissioners; and his senior Canberra journalist, Warren Denning, set up a meeting with federal government ministers in Melbourne. Dixon was mystified when he learned that the ‘ministers who heard Stokes’ story were not greatly impressed by it.’9 Stokes view of the failures in Singapore could not have been clearer. ‘Singapore,’ he said, ‘was the most tragic story of the war.’10

spent some time working on ABC shortwave news broadcasts before he and his wife Evie and daughter Meredith moved to Canberra, where their son, Jonathan, was born later in the year. Stokes moved into government and the diplomatic service and in July, he became head of the Secretariat of the Political Warfare Division at the Department of External Affairs, which was responsible for propaganda against enemy forces and targeting local populations within war zones. In 1945 he was posted to Chungking in China, as First Secretary to the Australian Legation and the following year he was appointed Australian political liaison officer to the Australian Commissioner for Malaya, which saw him return to Singapore. Henry’s marriage to Evie did not last. He returned to journalism with the Adelaide Advertiser and later as a sub-editor with the Daily Telegraph in London before retiring to a home in the hills outside Adelaide where he lived until his death in 2005.

  Peter Hemery

  Not long after his acrimonious resignation from the ABC at the end of 1944, Peter Hemery was back in New Guinea as a correspondent for the American news agency, INS. Hemery had been one of the most talented ABC field broadcasters in the war years, and the role with INS gave him free rein to further extend his reporting into photography. For the next few months he covered some of the same campaigns and battles in New Guinea and the Pacific as his former ABC colleagues. Despite the toll on his physical and mental stamina, Hemery seemed happiest when he was busily engaged by a challenging reporting task – and he was something of a risk taker. In February, during a volcanic eruption on New Guinea, inland from Collingwood Bay, Hemery convinced an Air Force colonel to fly him over the volcano.


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