The War on the home front
Review of Hal Colebatch, The Secret War: How unionists sabotaged our troops in World War II, Quadrant Books, Sydney, 2013.
The New Criterion, Vol.33, November 2014
In 1942, Lockheed’s production lines in Burbank, California were operating at full stretch, turning out P-38 twin-engine fighters for deployment in the Pacific. Before the aircraft could engage the Japanese, however, they first had to survive an encounter with another enemy: the stevedores who controlled Australian ports.
Hundreds of thousands of Australians were in uniform and the country felt threatened by invasion. At the Breakfast Creek docks in Brisbane, however, the unionized workforce went to war with U.S. Military Police who were supervising the transfer of supplies.
The laborers, known in the Australian vernacular as wharfies, took umbrage when M.P.s searched their lunch bags and recovered more than 800 cartons of cigarettes. Brigadier-General Elliott R. Thorpe, who was stationed in General Douglas MacArthur’s Pacific headquarters, recalls what happened next:
As a means of “getting even” with the “bloody American MPs” the wharfies proceeded to wreck four P-38 fighter planes that had been shipped from the United States.
They simply hooked the lifting crane onto the planes and, without unbolting the planes from the decks, would signal the hoisting engineers to lift, which effectively tore the planes to pieces.
Australia’s Secret War presents a catalogue of similar stories in a confronting counter-narrative to more familiar wartime stories of courage, brotherhood, and sacrifice. The evidence gives rise to two important questions. First, what drove the unionized workforces in Australia’s ports, coal mines, and steel mills to disrupt the Allied war effort in such a reckless and treacherous manner? Second, what does it say about the blinkered outlook of historians who have not bothered to tell this story before?
The consistency of statements by Australian and American witnesses, from military and civilian life, leaves little room to doubt that the sabotage of P-38s was not an isolated incident. “On the contrary,” says Colebatch, “every major port seems to have been affected in a similar way. They were the rule, not the exception.”
An Australian sergeant recalls Allison Aero engines being lifted from the hold of a freighter in Port Adelaide in 1942. The winch driver would snatch up the net, swing it over the side, and drop the engine on the concrete wharf.
Australian airman Alan Marks conveys his experience as a strikebreaker on the Hamilton wharf in Brisbane unloading jeeps in wooden crates from a Liberty Ship. An inexperienced hand-winch operator accidentally allowed a crate to slip into the harbor and the American supervising office called in a diver. When the diver surfaced he reported that he had found at least eight more crates underwater. Should he get the lot?
More disturbing still are the claims that the interruption of supplies by strikes, sabotage, or theft cost Australian and American lives. Landing at Milne Bay on the eastern tip of New Guinea, troops from the Seventh Infantry Brigade discovered that the accumulators had been removed from their radios. Anti-aircraft guns arrived without their mountings.
Soldiers unpacking radar equipment on Green Island in Papua New Guinea learned that the valves had been stolen by stevedores at Townsville, preventing Radar Station 317 from going on air. Colebatch’s witness, a former serviceman called James Ahearn, links the incident to the deaths of thirty-two men aboard sixteen American Vultee Vengeance dive-bombers that became lost in a storm as they returned from a raid. “Had it not been for the greed and corruption on the Australian waterfront, such lives would not have been lost,” says Ahearn.
Militancy on the wharfs was compounded by industrial action elsewhere. The 1940 coal strikes, in the author’s view, “have a good claim to be the most treacherous event in Australian history.” During a war that more than any other relied on industrial capacity, coal production in Australia barely rose. The Commonwealth Year Book, the Australian almanac of official statistics, records the number of workdays lost to strikes in the industry. In 1939, there were 291,067. In 1940, there were 1,371,382.
The grip of the miners’ union was powerful. License plates were removed from convoys of trucks because of the fear of reprisals against the drivers or owners; police escorted the drivers as the pickets shouted “to hell with the war effort!”
Ambivalence towards the Allied cause infected the Australian Labor Party, the political arm of the union movement, which had assumed power in Canberra two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Labor Prime Minister John Curtin’s nemesis within the party was Eddie Ward, the minister for labor, of whom it was said that the only war that mattered was the class war. In 1936 when Australia increased its military spending, Ward told Parliament: “I ask myself whether this represents a policy for the defense of Australia or whether Australia is being considered merely as a pawn in some militaristic scheme.”
Curtin, who suffered from high blood pressure, reacted badly to the anti-war tensions in his own party, reportedly emerging from more than one party meeting in tears. In January 1944, with twenty-one mines shut and Sydney transport workers on strike, Curtin accused the unionists of “lawlessness, open and unashamed.” It was impossible, he said, “to ignore the effect that this loss of production must have on munitions, transport and supply, and, therefore, on the effectiveness of the country to wage war.” By refusing to return to work, the unionists “were as much the enemies of Australia as those who have organized force majeure against it.”
Curtin’s obvious despair adds weight to Colebatch’s contention that the strikes were not the isolated work of a handful of men, “but appear frequently to have been nationally coordinated and involved many thousands.” Colebatch is less assured, however, when answering the question why. He resorts to dot points covering a long list of human, cultural, and political failings, from conscious treason by Nazi sympathizers to a pacifist streak with the ALP. None of these, by itself, is convincing.
Colebatch is on firmer ground, however, in discussing the influence of Communism, an ideology that kept large sections of the Australian trade union movement and the Australian intelligentsia enthralled for much of the twentieth century. In Memoirs of a Slow Learner, the Australian writer Peter Coleman describes how his bohemian acquaintances would stop off at Sherry’s coffee shop in mid-town Sydney to consider “more important things” than the war. Marxist ideology—or at least Marxist rhetoric—was frequently used by unionists to justify their action. The Rev. Mr. E. K. Ditterich, a former Royal Australian Air Force chaplain, recounts a conversation with workers striking for more pay. Had they realized, Rev. Ditterich asked them, that many Australian lives were being lost? “Their reply,” he told Colebatch, “was that they didn’t want to take part in any ‘capitalist war.’ ”
Nevertheless, it is difficult to explain wartime industrial disruption merely in terms of ideology. Moscow’s agency was clearly present, but it does not explain why the militancy continued beyond June 1941, when Germany violated the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and the Soviets changed sides. The reported claim of one group of striking workers that their aim was “to keep conditions for when the boys come home” sounds rather too trite.
In the end, the infuriating false-consciousness of Australian workers, the bane of the country’s Communist intellectuals for decades, favors more prosaic explanations. It would seem that it was not so much a utopian vision that inspired the industrial perfidy but tribalism, opportunism, and greed. Industrial bargaining power was strengthened by the wartime shortage of labor and the urgency of much of the military cargo. “That suited us,” one anonymous dock worker testifies. “We were the ones that could pick and choose. We didn’t have to stand up for work. The boot was on our foot. We said, ‘we’ll just do the night work, get penalty rates.’ ” Like the spivs and drones who sold nylons and stolen ration coupons in wartime Britain, the unionists may have simply been putting naked self-interest ahead of the national commitment to total war.
The evidence of partisan influence is much stronger when Colebatch takes on his second target, the cultural gatekeepers who collectively decided that industrial sedition would not be included in the received account of the war. It is difficult to prove a negative, he concedes, but the totality of Australian writing on the history of World War II by authors largely sympathetic to the Left shows “a general pattern or mind-set of omission and silence on the subject of wartime strikes.” Creative writers, too, have chosen to ignore the stories despite their dramatic potential. “I do not call this conspiracy,” says Colebatch, “nor do I quite call it coincidence.”
It may simply be a case of repressed memory, the phenomena evoked in Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s lyrics to the theme song of The Way We Were: “What’s too painful to remember,/ We simply choose to forget.” One thinks not, however. The story Colebatch has uncovered of the shameless and unconscionable behavior of certain Australian workers during World War II undermines the cherished myth of honest trade unionists toiling selflessly for the public good. History, like most disciplines these days, feels threatened by an open mind.