Australia's Secret War

Daily News (Warwick, Australia), April 26, 2014 | Go to article overview

Australia's Secret War


IMAGINE if you will, October 1945, the end of the Second World War, the British aircraft-carrier HMS Speaker arrives in Sydney Harbour with hundreds of just-released prisoners of the Japanese, half-dead, starving and desperate for home.

As they were about to enter the dock, waterside workers, known as a[approximately]wharfies', went on strike for 36 hours, the soldiers then forced to stay on-board, so tantalisingly close to home, for another two days.

This final act of cruelty by their own countrymen was their thanks for all the sacrifice.

A new book by Perth lawyer Hal Colebatch, Australia's Secret War, relates the previously untold story of trade union bastardy during WW2 and the HMS Speaker incident was just one of hundreds of similar events.

What the wharfies did to Australian troops - and their nation's war effort - between 1939 and 1945 is nothing short of an abomination.

Using diary entries, letters and interviews with key witnesses, Colebatch has pieced together with forensic precision the tale of how unions sabotaged the war effort and how wharfies vandalised, harassed and robbed Australian troop ships and probably cost lives.

In his book, Colebatch coolly recounts outrage after outrage.

There were the radio valves pilfered by waterside workers in Townsville which prevented a new radar station at Green Island from operating.

When American dive bombers returning from a raid on a Japanese base were caught in an electrical storm and lost their bearings, there was no radio station to guide them to safety.

Lost, they ran out of fuel and crashed, killing all 32 airmen.

Colebatch quotes RAAF serviceman James Ahearn, who served at Green Island, where the Australians had to listen impotently to the doomed Americans' radio calls:

"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."

There was no act too low for the unionists.

For instance, in 1941, hundreds of soldiers on board a ship docked in Freemantle entrusted personal letters to wharfies who offered to post them in return for beer money.

The letters never arrived.

At one point in 1942, a US Army colonel became so frustrated at the refusal of Townsville wharfies to load munitions unless paid quadruple time.

He ordered his men to throw the unionists into the water and load the guns themselves.

In Adelaide, American soldiers fired sub-machine guns at wharfies deliberately destroying their aircraft engines by dropping them from great heights. …

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