Diary Australia

Pearl Harbor

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

The Punchbowl in Honolulu, Hawaii is a place of reverence in which 34,000 American battle-dead are interred. Battlefield remains are still being identified at this place of honour and including now the remains of US servicemen lost in the Korean War (1950-53), and recently returned by Pyongyang. As a mark of respect and in acknowledgement of wartime bonds between Australia and the US, our delegation for the Honolulu Dialogue began the gathering by paying our respects at this emotionally moving memorial. A gentle rain was falling. The ceremony reminded me of the final volume of the late Senator John McCain’s memoir, The Restless Wave. McCain recalled the story of being in Hawaii for the 50th Anniversary of the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor on the infamous day of December 7 1941. McCain listened to President George H. W. Bush address the gathering as the Pearl Harbor veterans passed in review, ignoring the rain on that day too. Accompanying the president were two of McCain’s senate colleagues: Senator Bob Dole (Republican, Kansas) and Senator Dan Inouye (Democrat, Hawaii). Both senators, like George H. W. Bush, had shown exemplary courage during combat in the second world war. Both Senators Dole and Inouye had won the Medal of Honour. As McCain watched the veterans march past, he began to cry and did not understand why. He asked Dan Inouye why this was happening. Without his eyes leaving the parade, the Hawaii Democrat simply said: ‘Accumulated memories.’ The Punchbowl is a reservoir of accumulated memories of thousands of brave men and women who have served America and those allies who fought with them. The mosaics on the wall of the Punchbowl tell a graphic story of the Australian/American Alliance during the second world war. Step by step, a tide of battle from 1942-1945 is outlined brilliantly from Milne Bay and Guadalcanal; from the Coral Sea and Midway to Balikpapan and Okinawa. Milne Bay (August, 1942) deserves to be acknowledged more broadly in our military culture for it has always been overshadowed by the US and Australian struggles with the Japanese on Guadalcanal and on the Kokoda Track. The victory at Milne Bay by a combined Australian/US force speaks eloquently for itself. It was the first time in which a Japanese amphibious assault had been thrown back, literally into the sea. The closest cooperation between the RAAF squadrons and the Australian Army set a new benchmark. Finally, the performance of the American Combat Engineers at Strip No. 3, with their 0.5 calibre machine guns mounted on halftracks, made an extraordinary contribution to winning the battle. If the battle for Australia was being fought on land, in the air and upon the sea throughout 1942, Milne Bay represented a turning point, just as Guadalcanal represented the denial of Japan’s imperial ambitions.

Incidentally, while at lunch in the mess of Camp H. M. Smith in Honolulu, as guests of Marine Commander in the Pacific, General Lewis Craparotta, I was told an interesting story by a colonel at the table, concerning the fate of the USS Ward. From Camp Smith, parts of which resonate with the imagery of James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, the vista of Pearl Harbour with the USS Arizona Memorial and the USS Missouri opens up. USS Ward was on patrol outside Pearl Harbor early on the morning of 7 December, 1941 when it surprised a Japanese submarine which it attacked and sank. Ward was under the command of Lieutenant Commander, William W. Outerbridge. The story goes that three years later to the day, on 7 December, 1944, at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, the Ward was hit by kamikaze attackers and had to be sunk. The USS O’Brien which was tasked with its sinking was commanded by the same Captain Outerbridge who had been in command of the Ward on 7 December, 1941, off Pearl Harbor.


The waves are restless again, across the Indo-Pacific. In discussions at both IndoPacom and at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, Australian and American contributors exchanged views on the challenges emerging for both Australia and the US as a consequence of China’s return as a great power. A massive geostrategic shift has occurred which has had a huge impact upon the balance of power from Somalia to Sakhalin. China has challenged the West with a ‘full-court press’ on economic and security imperatives through to its own version of human rights doctrine. What is certain is that we have not seen the full extent of Chairman Xi’s ambitions. Relatively recently, China was seen as a benign power re-entering the international order. The militarisation of the South China Sea; the quest for bases in the Indo-Pacific, including in Vanuatu, has caused a deep reassessment of the West’s relations with Beijing. This reassessment in our region includes countries as different as Japan or the Philippines or Vietnam. The plight of the Uighurs has crystalised in negative responses internationally. Chinese technology is certainly impressive, but it acts as a tool for stifling repression. In Washington DC, there is a very definite consensus among both Republicans and Democrats that China is a strategic adversary which is bent on displacing and then replacing the US as the primary global power. The military parade for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, worthy of Leonid Brezhnev, simply confirmed this common conclusion and much of the discussion in Honolulu focused on this new reality.

In the corridors over coffee, the subject of discussion was, as always, the presidency of Donald Trump. Americans are as often perplexed by the 45th president as American allies happen to be. His second unilateral withdrawal from Syria simply created a vacuum which Putin’s Russia has filled. So much for policy by Twitter. So much for the transactional presidency.

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