Lex McAulay Author & Publisher of WWII Pacific Books

Lex Mcaulay

McAulay is a retired Australian Army serviceman, and veteran of Vietnam, he is the author of a dozen books, including six on WWII

Tell a about yourself and your background
Talk about your first book
Tell a little more about 'Battle of the Bismarck Sea'
Talk about 'Into The Dragon's Jaws'
Mention about your book on Wewak & Hollandia
Speak about your research methods
Where are your published works available
Future projects and comments

Tell about yourself, what got you interested in WWII?
I was born in 1939 in Innisfail, Australia, north of Townsville. When the Pacific War started there was a great increase in air activity and apparently at an early age I was an expert in aircraft recognition. As the Japanese came closer almost all civilians were evacuated south to Brisbane. Before we left, I have a clear memory of standing outside our home, with all the adults, after the air raid siren sounded, and watching a Japanese flying boat silhouetted against the full moon. I now know these were the Mavis aircraft of the Yokohama Kokutai flying recon from Rabaul looking for shipping, and Innisfail was a port for coastal traders. The flying boats would check out the rivers and harbors for shipping, and of course the moonlight would help them.

Almost all civilians were evacuated south ahead of the expected Japanese invasion, and we spent a couple of years in Brisbane. After a year or so in Brisbane we returned home, and had an apartment next to a tailor, who did a lot of business with US and Australian military - uniforms and badges were everywhere. My father and uncles were in the armed forces, and one uncle was killed in the RAAF in an air collision. So WW2 was full of interest for me as a child. My own intention to become a pilot was halted by getting hit in the eye by a cricket ball which inflicted permanent damage. I later joined the army and did three tours of duty in South Vietnam which allowed me to experience the war from out in the weeds with infantry to General Westmoreland's operations room at MACV - probably a wider range of experience than any other Australian.

My own intention of joining the RAAF as a pilot ended one day at a high school cricket match, when I was hit in the eye by a ball traveling at a high Mach number. This resulted in an eye injury which affected depth perception, so my landings tended to be 'not good'. Being of Nordic-Celtic ancestry, I joined the Army instead and by closing my 'cricket eye' shot to Marksman standard.

I applied for language school and graduated from the year-long Vietnamese course, the equivalent of the US school at Monterey. I did three tours of duty in Vietnam, and these ranged from out in the weeds to the Military Attache Staff at the embassy in Saigon. The time in Saigon included the Tet offensive, and my apartment was between the US Embassy and the Independence Palace, so the first hours were full of interest. So were the following weeks. I retired from the army after 22 years and started researching and writing military history. In 1996 we left Canberra and came to live here in sub-tropical Queensland. So from my earliest memories I had an interest in WW2 in the Pacific, both from family connections and as a child observing the adult world.

Talk about your first book, and the process of writing & researching WWII Pacific
My first book was a novel based on my experiences in infantry in Vietnam - When The Buffalo Fight. However, I had retained my interest in the Pacific War and the big daylight raid on Rabaul Harbor seemed to be ignored by most writers, so I began research on this in the early 1980s and it became Into The Dragon's Jaws, published by Champlin when Barrett Tillman was publishing manager.

I used a mixture of veterans' interviews, and their letters and diaries, plus official records and donated personal records at the Australian War Memorial. Now, of course, the WW2 veterans are going fast. One aspect I soon experienced was that often the veteran knew little of what actually happened apart from his own personal observations, and often what he 'knew' was public relations communiques which not always were accurate. So some tact was necessary when a veteran repeated what was from a MacArthur communique but was not historically accurate. Also, because something had appeared in writing from a headquarters it was accepted as solid fact, but often this was not so.

In the following years I alternated books on Australians in Vietnam with books on WW2, which included two on Australian fighter aces - Six Aces and Four Aces - and RAAF fighter pilots in the siege of Malta 1942, Against All Odds. As the subject matter of my other three books on the SWPA was mostly American, I sought US publishers for Battle of the Bismarck Sea, Into The Dragon's Jaws and MacArthur's Eagles.

Depending on the manuscript size required by the publisher, I included as much as possible about the aviation contribution in my books on the campaigns in Papua-New Guinea 1942-43, Blood & Iron (Kokoda) and To The Bitter End (Buna-Gona) because other writers concentrated on the ground actions and ignored the vital contribution of the air arm, and also the effect Japanese naval superiority and the Rabaul convoy runs had on Allied land operations - attacks were ordered against the fortifications in hope the landing sites would be captured before the convoy arrived. Some other authors did not make this connection and criticised the commanders without knowing why orders were given. To correct what seemed to me to be a great imbalance in books on the SWPA, I was the first to make extensive use of the large Australian War Memorial collection of translations of captured documents and prisoner interrogations to give the Japanese side of events. Even now authors cannot always be bothered to do this research.

Tell a little more about your book on 'Battle of the Bismarck Sea'
Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a natural chronological successor to my books on Kokoda and Buna-Gona, and, of course, it was the first great success for the 5th Air Force - Kenney's ideas were starting to fall into place: new commanders, new aircraft modifications, new tactics. There was probably a bit of thin ice appearing under the feet of Kenney and Whitehead after the debacle of the January 1943 convoy to Lae, so the March success was necessary in every way.
This battle was another in that series of those where everything goes right for one side before the battle but nothing works after it begins. Bad weather hindered Kenney's recon flights and signals intelligence only told him a convoy was forming. The convoy was happily steaming along under the bad weather and seemed sure to arrive at Lae as scheduled. Then the B-24 found them; the B-17s attacked and scored hits; the Japanese commander made his fatal error and decided to circle while survivors were ferried back to Rabaul; Allied air power massed for the first time and in the morning caught the convoy well out to sea instead of under the protection of the Lae defenses.

Other books on the Bismarck Sea repeated MacArthur's claims for 22 ships sunk and 30,000 soldiers lost, but my research identified the ships, their cargoes and total losses, as historical fact, not public relations communiques. This information was a bit of a disappointment to some veterans, who had been comfortable with MacArthur's exaggerations. The sad thing about this book was that when it was in the publishing process, several of the veterans died and so never saw the book. One good thing was that my research located the surviving crew members of John Smallwood's B-25, which crashed back at base - they all had thought for decades that each was the sole survivor of the crash.

Some controvery still goes on about the subsequent attacks on Japanese soldiers off the ships, but these men had lowered landing barges and were aboard with uniforms and equipment, even artillery, and one regiment's military colours with honor guard, and were heading for shore. To say that these people should have been immune from attack is to say that no one ashore or aloft should fire on military forces until they reach the high tide mark on the beach. The do-gooders would have had no problems if the Japanese were strafed once they reached the beach, but are upset because they were attacked at sea. Can they be attacked at the 5-fathom line? In the surf? Knee-deep in water? Or do they have to be ashore and dried out? It must also be remembered that many Allied airmen had seen the crew of a B-17 machinegunned in the air when they baled out over the convoy. The sort of mentality that promotes the view that the Japanese off the ships should have been left to get to shore, and only then attack them, is the sort of mentality that had European regiments lined up shoulder to shoulder standing 50 metres apart while the officers argued over which side should have the courtesy of firing first. A sort of blind stupidity, or stupid blindness.

Talk about your Rabaul book Into The Dragon's Jaws
Into The Dragon's Jaws came from my interest in the low-level raid into Rabaul Harbor, and was the first project when I used the collection of captured documents and prisoner interrogations. This material gave a whole new view into the actions. The MacArthur Archives in Norfolk, Virginia, provided excellent service by copying and sending the collection of Special Intelligence Bulletins, the signals intercept reports for the top level commanders in the SWPA, and this allowed me to show that despite the series of raids on Rabaul, the JNAF and JAAF were replacing aircraft as fast as they were lost. Where the Wewak missions of August were a great success, the weather was to the advantage of the Rabaul defenses and General Kenney could not apply enough air power on successive days to achieve the desired effect. This book was my first adventure into the world of official records and archives of the SWPA campaigns.

Mention about your new book on Wewak & Hollandia
MacArthur's Eagles completes the series I wanted to write about the New Guinea theater, and it describes the air campaigns against Wewak in August 1943 and March 1944 and the Hollandia campaign March-April 1944. The Japanese air commanders never really understood air power and General Kenney showed them how it was done, by destroying the JAAF three times on their own bases. Again, to give the Japanese side I made extensive use of the captured documents, prisoner interrogations, and also the signals intelligence intercepts in the US Archives in College Park, MD.

When the captured documents and signals intercepts are assembled, we can see that wartime Japanese reporting was abysmal and I believe it to be one reason for their complete defeat. There was a constant stream of replacement aircraft and entire units had to go to Manila to re-equip, but along with this there were laughable claims for damage inflicted on the US air arm. In some actions my research shows the US claims and JAAF losses exactly relate. I tried to identify the losses for Neel Kearby's big day over Wewak, his MOH mission, but apart from admitting two officers were lost, and a couple of other airplanes were damaged, nothing in the Japanese records confirms this combat - yet Kearby's claims were confirmed by cameragun and witnesses. Similar losses reported in captured documents are not reflected in the signals intelligence reports.

I did find in the captured documents the name and unit of the man who shot down Tommy Lynch and nearly got Dick Bong on that same mission. Of course, to them it was merely a P-38 shot down - they never knew who was the pilot. I've come to the conclusion that the coastwatchers and similar 'spy' missions were conducted to give the Japanese a decoy away from our use of signals decodes, which provided far better information over the entire SWPA than could be seen by a few people watching a few military bases. There's probably a Ph.D there for someone.

Speak more about your research methods and processes
Research for the books involves locating and interviewing as many veterans as possible, and official records, donated personal records, and official and personal and official photos. Sometimes the official records are not a good and accurate account of the events, for several reasons. Some reasons are interference from high command, pressure of work on the relevant staff, or reconstituted records after the originals have been lost or destroyed. In the Bismarck Sea action, as I have shown in my book, the staff were deluged with reports of the actions, of bad weather, ships on fire, bomb hits and so on, and it would have been impossible to establish and maintain an accurate account of what was happening in real time. Only after the battle was over could it all be sorted out and an accurate account complied. But then General MacArthur insisted that 22 ships had been sunk and kept this up until the end of the war, when it must have been known that real losses were 12 ships.

An Australian Army Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Geoff Waters, was most unpopular when he showed from captured documents and prisoner interrogations that 115 Regiment was alive and well fighting in New Guinea, after MacArthur and Willoughby insisted it had been sent to the bottom of the sea. Geoff was sent back to Australia for showing MacArthur to be wrong, but later returned to New Guinea and showed that General Adachi was the originator of orders to kill prisoners, so Adachi was arraigned on war crimes. He committed suicide.

Another example of high command interference in official records is by General Kenney. The mission report of the daylight bombing attack on Rabaul on 5 January 1943 did not claim much damage to shipping, but there is a typed note on the bottom to the effect that, 'by order of General Kenney' a list of ships sunk and damaged was inserted. This was to back the citation of the award of the CMOH to General Walker.

When I wrote my books on the above campaigns, no one had made use of the valuable collection of translations of captured documents and prisoner interrogations in the SWPA and South Pacific Areas. These were a window into the life and times of the Japanese, at that time, far more valuable and accurate than the post-war stuff from Japan. I made as much use of that captured material as possible, and since then other writers have used it. I find it excellent to give a balanced account of the events, and otherwise any book without the enemy side is unbalanced. I have been to New Guinea, but not actually walked the Kokoda Trail - I had enough of that in the infantry anyway.

Where are your published works available
When I was visiting the AWM or other archival locations I met various people working on their own projects, and it became obvious to me that the mainstream publishers would not publish those manuscripts with the excuse that they were 'too specialized'. However, I believed those stories should be told and the information made available to the public and families of veterans. Also I was not always happy with the amount of editorial interference with my manuscripts at various publishers. When Banner Books became available in the early 1990s, I took it and decided to be more understanding of the author's intentions. Since then we have published over twenty titles, including a couple of mine, on Australian aviation, maritime and military subjects. If we Australians do not do this, no one else will. The return from one book goes to finance the next. We have a standard style of presentation, and with two exceptions publish in hardcover with dustjacket, and in large format to do justice to the photos, and so the book will have some dignity and presence on the owner's bookshelf. Eleven titles are out of print, as we do not reprint, but go on to the next title. For information, see banner-books.com.au

What is your next project upcoming?
A biography of John Lerew, the RAAF Commander at Rabaul when the Zeros arrived and his squadron lasted 7 minutes. He asked Townsville for modern fighters and was told the cold truth - there were none; he was to attack the invasion fleet. He then sent the Roman gladiator's salute - We who are about to die salute you - and disobeyed orders and arranged for his squadron to be evacuated, then survived being shot down at Gasmata, established the RAAF Directorate of
Flying Safety and went to ICAO in 1946. A full career.

What is your greatest hope for the future of WWII Pacific research?
The continuation of what is going on now. The WW2 veterans are going fast, but there is a very active group in all fields working hard to present the facts of that major war.
Researchers and authors in this field are mostly a good bunch of people who share information and discoveries with each other and will research something for another in the field. There are few prima donnas. Since the advent of the Internet and email, the flow and cross-flow of information 'around the circuit' has been amazing. It's a great fraternity and a pleasure to be one of them.

How do you feel about the remaining relics of WWII left in the Pacific?
The only way in which these relics will be preserved is for those actively interested in the matter to remove them to a location where they can be refurbished, and this is to the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia or Europe, where facilities and expertise exist. To leave the relics in the field will be to see them eventually completely destroyed by natural or human action. It takes lots of money to do this, of course.

Thank you for the interview Mr. McAulay

Books by Lex McAulay
Four Aces Australian fighter pilots, 1939-45
Battle of the Bismarck Sea
Into the Dragon's Jaws The Fifth Air Force over Rabaul, 1943
MacArthur's Eagles
Blood & Iron

 

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