Even as Australians begin commemorating the 50th anniversary of the victory over Japan and the end of World War II, they have become embroiled in a debate over what to call the day of capitulation.
The government of Prime Minister Paul Keating decreed this year that from now on, Aug. 15 here shall be known as V-P Day (for Victory in the Pacific). For years, Australians, like Americans, have called the anniversary V-J Day (for Victory over Japan).
The change has struck some critics as being oversensitive to the feelings of a former enemy, and they have refused to use the new name.
“This is political correctness if ever there was, to avoid offending the sensibilities of our biggest trading partner,” columnist Mike Carlton wrote in Saturday’s edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, “but I shall continue to refer to V-J Days while . . . the Japanese insult us with their refusal to acknowledge their atrocious past.”
The failure of the Japanese government to satisfy Australians with an unconditional apology for Japan’s aggression and atrocities during World War II rankles many Australians.
Even Peter Garrett, the lead singer of the Australian pop group Midnight Oil and a member of the international board of the Greenpeace environmental group, could not keep resentment out of his gentle anti-war speech to a crowd attending an outdoor religious service Sunday in the Sydney suburb of Parramatta.
Noting the official Japanese refusal to apologize, Garrett acknowledged that “the slate is still not clean.” But Japan-bashing was not Garrett’s main theme. “It’s a special day when we commemorate a war and celebrate peace,” he told the worshipers, and these words seemed to set the mood for most of the Australian commemoration.
In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, the commemoration began Saturday with a parade of 12,000 men and women who had served in the war. Most of the men, wearing suits and sweaters in the morning winter chill, were bedecked with rows of brightly colored ribbons and medals. Although the marchers, in their 70s and 80s, walked gingerly, their pace was brisk, kept up by bagpipers and marching bands.
Well-wishers, many not much younger than the marchers, cheered the veterans on, calling out, “Good on ya, fellas!” or “Good on ya, boys!"--a kind of Australian hooray. The marchers smiled and pumped thumbs-up. “Thanks for coming,” said one veteran.
The veterans marched behind regimental banners that identified their units by official title or nickname--Royal Australian Armored Corps, for example, or New Guinea Volunteer Rifles or Desert Harassers or Mice of Moresby.
The banners also listed the places where they fought. As a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, Australia was at war with Germany the moment that Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. Australians then fought alongside the British, mainly based in Britain as pilots and air crew or in North Africa as desert fighters. Tobruk and El Alamein were the battlegrounds listed first on many banners.
In 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and then started to move down the Malay Peninsula, Australian troops moved back to the Pacific to defend their homeland. As British defenses collapsed, the Japanese captured many prisoners, including 22,000 Australians. Almost 8,000 died in Japanese camps. The later battlegrounds on the regimental banners in the parade included such nearby places as Borneo, New Guinea and New Britain.
All the major Australian newspapers issued special supplements over the weekend commemorating the anniversary. One matched 50-year-old photographs of revelers in the streets of Sydney with photos of the same people now. But most offered analyses of the significance of the war to Australia.
A recurring theme was the influence of the United States. Using Australia as a base of operations, a million Americans spent some time in the country during the war.
When the war began, historian Carl Bridge wrote, the country “was still an outlying British province.” But “the war pushed America’s flight path into Australia, and we have remained in its orbit, still dependent on its power and enthralled by its culture.”
Singer Garrett, born after the war, described those like himself as “the modern majority” and urged the worshipers to choose between peace and “war in all its forms.”
“Peace does not mean threatening other people with weapons that can blow the world sky-high,” he said.
The four-day commemoration will culminate Tuesday in a massive parade in Sydney of floats featuring vintage World War II jeeps and aircraft.