OCTOBER 23, 1944: BATTLE OF LEYTE GULF BEGINS
In March 1942 US General Douglas MacArthur had been changing trains at Terowie, 220km from Adelaide, when he gave his famous impromptu speech about Allied strategy. In it he talked about the relief of the Philippines being a priority, uttering his best known quote: “I shall return”. On October 20, 1944 he finally made good on that promise, as troops stormed ashore at Leyte, followed later by MacArthur who announced “People of the Philippines: I have returned”.
US General Douglas MacArthur wades ashore on Leyte Island.
But the landings were a signal for the Japanese to launch “Sho-Go” (Operation Victory), a huge attack force fleet, to try to prevent the Philippines being liberated. If the Allies captured the Philippines they could cut off energy supplies coming from Japanese possessions to the south. It was a last-ditch effort by the Japanese to stop what looked like certain defeat. When the emperor’s fleet engaged Allied ships from the US and Australia from October 23-26 it was the biggest naval battle in history. Known as the battle of Leyte Gulf, it involved nearly 400 ships and hundreds of thousands of naval personnel. The battle crippled the Japanese fleet and opened the way to an Allied victory, but it also revealed a terrible new Japanese weapon.
In July 1944 US president Franklin Roosevelt had called MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz, the heads of the army and the navy in the Pacific, to a meeting in Hawaii to plan the next phase of action against the Japanese.
The Allied forces assemble before the battle.
Nimitz favoured the capture of Formosa (Taiwan), bringing them close to the Japanese mainland. But MacArthur argued for the liberation of the Philippines because of its strategic value in cutting of the Japanese from their fuel supplies from the Dutch East Indies.
Despite allegations that the Philippines had a primarily political value, MacArthur’s argument won out. MacArthur was there to command the land troops, personally wading ashore, while Admiral William Halsey commanded the 3rd fleet to take on the Japanese navy.
As Allied troops landed on October 20, the Japanese set in motion their plan to thwart the attack. It involved sending a “First Attack Force”, the major attack thrust, commanded by Admiral Takeo Kurita across the Mindanao Sea, via the Surigao Strait to the south, while a decoy force under Vice-Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, with Japan’s four remaining aircraft carriers as bait, would try to lure the US fleet away from the San Bernardino Strait, sailing across the Sibuyen Sea to the north.
In the days before the Kurita’s fleet arrived the Japanese were already causing havoc, unleashing what proved to be a hint of a new tactic. On October 21 HMAS Australia was struck by an explosives-packed Japanese aircraft, deliberately flown into the bridge. Captain Emile Deschaineux was among the 30 crew killed, or fatally injured. It was a foretaste of things to come.
The USS St Louis explodes after a kamikaze attack during the Battle of Leyte Gulf
On October 23 two US submarines discovered the First Attack Force, sinking two cruisers and damaging a third ship. The battle was on.
On October 24 Halsey’s aircraft engaged another prong of the attack, sinking a battleship, but also losing a carrier to an air attack sent from nearby Luzon.
But Halsey was enticed by the decoy force and steamed north, wasting time pursuing the Japanese carriers.This left the San Bernardino Strait unguarded and exposed the remains of the Allied fleet, allowing the First Attack Force to inflict heavy damage.
However Allied air superiority prevented the Japanese from entering the strait. Halsey’s miscalculation would result in some bad blood between Kinkaid and Halsey. After Halsey destroyed the Japanese carriers the decoy fleet withdrew and Halsey responded to calls for help from Kinkaid.
Army nurses work in a church converted to a hospital for the wounded on Leyte Island.
On October 25 the Allies and the Japanese met in the battle of Surigao Strait, the last phase of the battle of Leyte Gulf. As the Japanese approached the Surigao Strait they ran into an ambush by the US fleet.
As the Japanese position became more desperate they unleashed the Special Attack Force flight, known as the “Kamikaze” or “Divine Wind”, more aircraft loaded with explosives flown directly into the Allied ships.
Among the ships sunk was the USS St Lo. In all the Japanese lost 5000 of their pilots at Leyte for the toll of 34 Allied ships. With his losses mounting Admiral Kurita broke off the attack and ordered his ships to turn north.
The last actions in the battle took place on October 26 as Halsey’s fleet attacked retreating Japanese ships.
OCTOBER 22, 1919: BIRTH OF AUTHOR DORIS LESSING
Winning the Nobel prize for literature is normally the pinnacle of a writer’s career. But in October 2007 when Doris Lessing first heard the news that she had won, her reaction was “Oh Christ!” To be fair she had just stepped out of a cab carrying her shopping to find a posse of newspeople on her doorstep. so it was not a moment for which she had prepared. She told journalists that she was going inside to answer her phone and to go “upstairs to find some suitable sentences, which I will be using from now on.”
When she returned she told reporters that she was surprised “because I had forgotten about it actually” but added that she was not too surprised because she had been on the shortlist several times over the past few decades. She made it clear that although it was an honour she was not getting too excited or letting it go to her head. But she also said “I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I’m delighted to win them all … it’s a royal flush.”
Writer Doris Lessing addresses the media outside her North London home after winning the Nobel Literature Prize in 2007. Picture: AFP
It was an unconventional reaction from an unusual writer and an atypical woman. Lessing, born a century ago today, was one of the most important and influential writers of the second half of the 20th century.
Born Doris May Tayler in Kermanshah in Iran on October 22, 1919, her banker father, Captain Alfred Tayler, a World War I veteran who had lost his leg from shrapnel wounds, was working at the Imperial Bank of Persia. He had met Lessing’s mother Emily (nee McVeagh) while recuperating. Emily was a nurse with ambitions to become a matron, but she accepted a marriage proposal from Alfred. They were married in January 1919 before leaving for Iran where Lessing was born. Lessing grew up faintly aware her mother regretted the marriage for stifling her career.
Doris Lessing as a young woman.
The family moved to Rhodesia in 1925 where Alfred became a farmer. Lessing was educated at Catholic schools, but left at 14 and educated herself. She would later speak about her lack of formal education with pride.
In 1937, while working as a telephone operator she met civil servant Frank Wisdom whom she married in 1939. They had two children and she played the dutiful wife and mother two years but hated the life. The marriage broke down and they divorced in 1943, Lessing leaving Wisdom with the children she felt unprepared to care for, by which time she was having an affair with an RAF officer.
Lessing became a member of a communist group, through which she met German refugee, lawyer and activist, Gottfried Lessing. They married in 1945, she had another child, but again felt the strictures of being someone’s partner. They divorced in 1949 and Doris headed for London, by then intent on becoming a writer. She had to take whatever work she could to survive while working on her book and finding a publisher. She also involved herself in intellectual life in England.
British writer Doris Lessing in 1976. Picture: AFP
Alfred & Emily by Doris Lessing.
Her determination paid off with the publication of her first novel The Grass Is Singing in 1950, a manuscript she had been working on before leaving Africa. The book dealt primarily with relations between blacks and whites in Rhodesia as well as between a husband and wife. It was seen by some as shocking, because of a white character developing a close relationship with a black servant.
Encouraged by the success and acclaim for her first book other works followed, including in 1952 the novel Martha Quest, the first of her Children Of Violence series of five novels about Martha a woman who grows up in Africa but moves to England. But it was the 1962 novel The Golden Notebook that made her a literary superstar. Written in the form of notebooks kept by writer Anna Wulf, its unconventional structure and its explorations of communism and the female condition (she resisted being called a feminist) made the book a controversial, but critically admired bestseller. It also helped elevate her profile, she became a favourite talking head and actively campaigned for issues such as nuclear disarmament.
Doris Lessing, 86, at home in 2006. Picture: AP
Lessing was adept at short stories as well as novels and tried many different forms, including writing science fiction, horror, even a book written from the point of view of a cat, but always with her interesting insights into society and human nature.
In her later years she continued to write despite illnesses and advancing age, her last book Alfred & Emily was a biography-fiction hybrid, imagining how her parents’ lives might have been different. She died in November 2013, her two sons had died before her but she was survived by her daughter Jean.
OCTOBER 17, 1949: WORK BEGINS ON SNOWY HYDRO SCHEME
Before a crowd of about 2000 people and with prime minister Ben Chifley standing beside him, Australia’s governor-general, Sir William McKell pushed a button to detonate an explosive charge. It was October 17, 1949, and the blast set in motion one of Australia’s biggest engineering endeavours, the Snowy Mountains Hydro scheme — a project to build 16 dams, seven power stations, a pumping station, 145km of tunnels and 80km of aqueducts to harness the flow of the Snowy River for hydro-electric power and for irrigation.
This important moment in this country’s history had been years in the planning and attracted about 100,000 people, 70 per cent of whom were immigrants, to work on it during its construction from 1949-74.
Dignitaries at the official launch of the Snowy Mountains Scheme at Adaminaby in 1949 included (from left) prime minister, Ben Chifley, governor-general William McKell and minister for works and housing Nelson Lemmon.
At any given time there were up to 7000 people working on the Snowy Scheme and while many were single men a large number of families also moved to the rugged alpine bushland.
Thousands of children grew up in the towns that were created as homes for the workers. Among them was Graeme Ford, the son of road building engineer Stan who had worked on building strategic roads in the Northern Territory during World War II.
In the early 1950s Stan was working in Lismore and heard about the Snowy scheme. He drove down with a friend and “ended up getting a job immediately” says Graeme. Stan later sent for his family to join him. They travelled to the mountains by train in 1956 and like many other families were picked up by a fleet of buses and jeeps ferrying new arrivals to the towns.
A group of migrant workers working on Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme circa 1956.
Some towns were set up for the single men who lived in barrack-style accommodation but there were also towns for families.
“My mother cried on the train on the way down,” Ford recalls but the family found their new home to be far from the spartan bush cabin they were expecting. It had double-glazed windows, insulation and “everything was very advanced, cutting edge”. While the earliest workers had lived in tents, by the ’50s things were clearly far more comfortable.
Still unhappy when they arrived, Ford’s mother was greeted warmly and made to feel at home by a German woman, Elsa, who lived across this road. “She hardly spoke any English,” Ford says.
The Fords moved from town to town as the work progressed from higher up in the mountains down to the lower slopes. Wherever they went they mixed freely with people who came from about 30 different nations.
Students of Happy Jacks school leave class in 1956.
The Department of Education established schools wherever there were children.
Ford says, “We had a really interesting teacher, Gus Plater. It was his first year out and he was just brilliant.” Teachers in the Snowy project towns had to be inventive and also make their lessons work with students who barely knew any English. “We were completely integrated.”
Ford also says many people forget that there were also a significant number of Americans working on the scheme. “The Americans wore different clothes and had all kinds of accoutrements in their homes. It was like a taste of what the future was like.”
When they weren’t in school the children explored the rugged environment. “We were right in the bush. All the kids knew the bush like the back of our hands. We developed a real love of the land.”
English lessons for migrant workers on the Snowy Mountains Scheme in Cooma circa 1956.
In those days, Ford says, “the mountains were under snow for five months of the year” and many people from Europe went skiing. “We had sleds made by our fathers in the workshop from bits of pipes.”
There always seemed to be something happening or something to do. Whenever royalty visited Australia they made the trek to the Snowies to be given a tour, Ford saw the Queen twice, waving his flag as she passed by. In 1956 the Duke of Edinburgh visited and his convoy stopped so he could chat. He singled out Ford’s mother and asked if he could see her home, but she was reticent knowing her husband was asleep on the couch after his shift. Fortunately a neighbour offered her home for inspection.
“We didn’t feel like it was backwards, or feel deprived, we felt like it was a really interesting place,” Ford says.
The children who grew up there have formed a strong bond, with social media groups and frequent reunions, including one this weekend. Ford says they have also written a self-published book, Snowy Kids, which will be available at their reunion.