‘Bodies everywhere’: Isolation has nothing on Diggers’ nightmare

It is 75 years since Australians celebrated their triumph over a threat more deadly than any virus.

Few will mark the anniversary of Victory in the Pacific against the invading Japanese next Saturday, transfixed as they are by the uncertainties and burdens caused by COVID-19.

It is worth remembering, however, that the Australians who prevailed over this enemy were sustained by their inner strength and the knowledge that defeat was not an option, setting an example in the face of adversity which we would do well to follow as we fight our own battle. They are all but gone now, these warriors of yore, but I interviewed one of the them a few years ago and if you are thinking of complaining about social distancing and toilet paper shortages, you might first read what this old Digger told me.

"We went straight to Milne Bay (in New Guinea) from Townsville. That was before the Japs landed. It only a matter of six weeks or so when we had an alert. Late that night we got a call to take our rifles and ammunition and move up to a point on the beach. The Japanese landed and started to make their way towards us. They started to advance through the jungle.

"At this time it was raining day and night and we moved up the beside the aerodrome. The Japanese were sending waves of troops across and they were just getting mown down. They hit us with everything they had.

"We just lay in the mud and fought. The fighting went on for about 10 days. It was our first action, the first for me and my mates. At one point a message came along the line that no prisoners were to be taken.

"After we'd pushed them back I took out a patrol to check on a listening post we had up near the Japanese lines.

"There were dead bodies everywhere. They were so thick on the ground that you just walked across them. It was a sight I never want to see again. They were also hanging down from the coconut trees. Our fighter planes were strafing the tops of the trees and shooting the snipers. They were tied in and when they were hit they fell and just hung there.

"We never found the men at the listening post so we presumed that the Japanese got them. We pushed them back but we had so many men sick with malaria and tropical ulcers that if they'd landed another 2000 men, they would have overrun Milne Bay.

"Tokyo Rose would come on the radio and we'd pick her up on our sets. She used to say: 'You Milne Bay murderers. We're going to come back and we're going to nail you to coconut trees.'

That was a bit bloody scary because they used to do that - crucify people on coconut trees.

"After Milne Bay we were sent to Jackino Bay and I was there when peace was declared. I was 23 then and I'd been on active service for the best part of three years.

"If Milne Bay had gone the Japs would be here now. There's nothing surer. They were convinced they were going to win. We were out to survive. You just did your best.

"When peace was declared we came back to Brisbane. They put us in the Exhibition showgrounds and I was put in a pig pen. The name of the pig was written over it - Pride of Erin - I've never forgotten that.

"So I thought 'this is no good' so I got a few of the other Brisbane boys and said 'Let's break camp.'

"They tried to stop us at the gate but we told them where to go and walked home to Paddington.

"I was like a skeleton then. I knocked on the door at home and there was no answer. So I went around and knocked on the door at the side of the house and Dad came out and he just looked at me. He couldn't believe his eyes. He didn't know I was back from New Guinea."

His story is but one of many but it resonates with the qualities of endurance, perseverance, mateship and courage that saw Australia emerge victorious from that conflict.

I'd like to think that many of us still possess these qualities, qualities which have hitherto been untapped but are now being called upon to deal with this latest threat to our society. I hope I'm right.

There was nothing special about the Digger to whom I spoke. He was one of the many and he's now gone to his eternal reward but I'll spare him a thought next Saturday. His name was Bernie O'Connor of the 101st Australian Brigade. He was also my father. Lest we forget.

Originally published as 'Bodies everywhere': Isolation has nothing on Diggers' nightmare