In October, 1945, following the Japanese surrender, the small British aircraft-carrier HMS Speaker carried some of the surviving Australian soldiers released from Japanese prison camps back to Sydney.
They had had no mail or news from their families for more than three and a half years. Most were in desperate physical straits and it was a medical rule of thumb at the time that their suffering had taken ten years off their life expectancies. Already, all but the strong had perished and many of them said later that in another month they would all have been dead: their ordeal had simply gone on too long.
When Speaker arrived at Sydney, watersiders went on strike for thirty-six hours, preventing them being disembarked. It was perhaps an appropriate ending to the saga of Australia’s wharves in the Second World War.
When No. 317 Radar Station was being set up at Green Island east of New Britain during the war it was found that all the valves for the radar sets had been stolen by wharf labourers at Townsville. Without the valves the station was unable to go on air as scheduled, and a violent electrical tropical storm caught a force of two-seater American Vultee Vengeance dive-bombers flying back from a raid on the Japanese base at Rabaul.
The storm upset the aircraft’s compasses and even though they were in radio contact they became lost. Without radar the station could not guide them home and they flew on till they ran out of fuel and crashed, as those listening on the ground heard. Two of the aircraft were found. Sixteen others were lost and all the thirty-two men in them perished. James Ahearn, an RAAF serviceman at Green Island, wrote:
Had No. 317 been on air it was possible the doomed aircraft could have been guided back to base. The grief was compounded by the fact that had it not been for the greed and corruption on the Australian waterfront such lives would not have been needlessly lost.
RAAF Sergeant H.T. Tolhurst, who had opened the box marked “RADIO VALVES HANDLE WITH CARE” and found it empty, commented:
We believed that had we been on air it was possible that we could have guided those doomed aircraft back … All of the personnel keenly felt the loss of those … young lives. Our feelings were not helped by the scorn of the US Air Force personnel who became aware of the reasons … and who tainted us with the contempt they held.
As Japanese forces attacked Milne Bay in 1942, and Australia and America tried to rush reinforcements to the aid of the troops holding on there, Townsville watersiders went on strike to prevent munitions being loaded. They refused to load heavy guns unless paid treble or, later, quadruple time. A small group of US Army personnel, under a US Army colonel who had trained Australia’s first modern heavy artillery battery, eventually threw the watersiders off the wharf and loaded the guns themselves. By that time the rest of the convoy had sailed. The guns reached Milne Bay too late.
When advance elements of the 7th Infantry Brigade in the ship SS Tasman reached Milne Bay in 1942, proceeding straight into battle, they found that watersiders at Townsville had broken into the radio vans and taken all the accumulators from the radio sets. Other waterside strikes caused Milne Bay to be supplied for the battle with anti-aircraft gun-barrels without mountings. Tasman was the target, during these months as it ferried troops to New Guinea, of not exceptional but repeated strikes with each voyage.
In Adelaide in the same year, 1942, watersiders unloading a ship deliberately wrecked American aircraft engines by dropping them from cargo-nets until American soldiers fired sub-machine-guns and dropped stun-grenades on the watersiders. On the Brisbane wharves Australian watersiders also deliberately wrecked US P-38 fighter planes. One soldier later wrote:
They simply hooked the lifting crane onto the planes, and, without unbolting the planes from the decks, would signal the hoisting engineer to lift, which effectively tore the planes to pieces.
On the same wharves, in August 1942, after soldiers with drawn bayonets had stopped them stealing food from the stores they were loading, watersiders smashed vehicles of an army battalion being rushed to New Guinea by dropping them from winches.
During the course of the war virtually every major Australian warship, including at different times its entire force of cruisers, was targeted by strikes, go-slows or sabotage.
Australian Naval men in ships operating in the islands were reduced to near-starvation because of strikes in Australia and tried to feed themselves by depth-charging fish, and soldiers went without food and ammunition. Australian warships sailed to and from combat zones without ammunition for the same reason.
A former infantry sergeant wrote of fighting in New Guinea:
On our way back we were ambushed by the Japs and one of our NCOs was killed. We returned to the hill and had to stay that night. The Japs attacked several times. My brother was shot in the mouth but was able to walk back with us next day.
The lads were using hundreds of rounds of small arms ammo and stores were running low.
We had orders next day to go easy with the ammo that we had as the wharfies at Sydney were refusing to load any on the ships.
You can imagine what we would have done to the wharfies had we been given the chance—the Japs would have been second priority.
By 1944 waterfront strikes and obstruction on the wharves had reached such a pitch that the admiral in command of the British Pacific Fleet, Sir Bruce Fraser, threatened to transfer the fleet base from Australia to New Zealand.
Late in the war, the 20th AIF Brigade at Morotai were apparently unable to carry out planned landings at Labuan and Brunei to rescue Australian prisoners-of-war in Borneo (scene of the Sandakan Death March, which only six of several thousand Australian and British prisoners survived) because owing to a wharf strike in Brisbane there were no heavy weapons. All concerned with planning the operation believed there was great urgency in rescuing the prisoners, and the infantry commanders indicated they were prepared to land without heavy weapons, but the idea was shelved. By way of contrast, a US mission to rescue prisoners at the Cabanatuan camp in the north Philippines was carried out successfully at about the same time.
Australian troops returning from the islands in 1945 had machine-guns trained on their ship in Sydney Harbour and were disarmed and kept at the Sydney Showground for several days until, following negotiations with the authorities by their commanding general, they were allowed a victory parade without arms. The authorities had taken them at their word that they had sworn to kill Australian watersiders. Previously, Army and Air Force units had apparently planned to fly from the islands in transport aircraft to “clean up the wharves”.
At least as late as October 1945, after the end of the war, strikes meant troops in New Guinea and the islands were on starvation rations.
Though they have since been largely suppressed or glossed over by pro-Labor historians and writers, these episodes were not apparently considered shameful by all watersiders and other strikers but on the contrary have been recounted by some as matters of pride.
There were, according to official records, 4123 strikes in Australia during the war, 3662 of them in New South Wales, with 5,824,439 working days lost directly through strikes. The number lost indirectly is impossible to calculate but may be several times greater. There are reasons to believe, including the evidence of some of those very close to him, that they were a major factor in the premature death of Prime Minister John Curtin.
Aided by the accounts of numerous ex-servicemen and others, I have set out to document in my new book, Australia’s Secret War, part of the untold story of a war some Australians waged against their own country between 1939 and 1945 in its time of greatest peril.
This is the introduction to Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II, by Hal Colebatch, published by Quadrant Books, $44.95.