1909-1991 | VIC | War correspondent
White, born in New Zealand, published a novel and hundreds of short stories and articles before joining The Herald and Weekly Times before World War II. Accredited as a war correspondent in 1941, he covered the New Guinea campaigns, including Kokoda. While attached to the US fleet, he witnessed several naval battles before being wounded at Rendova Island. He wrote Green Armour, a classic of jungle warfare, while convalescing, before a posting to Europe. He covered the liberation of Buchenwald and other concentration camps, as well as the signing of the German surrender.
Osmar White was once asked, in an interview for the archives of the Australian War Memorial, what good journalism meant to him. Without hesitation, the answer came back: “Tell it like it was”.
The problem for White, as it later became clear, was that it was virtually impossible to follow that maxim and report a war accurately. The forces of censorship, politics and propaganda tended to conspire against truthful, candid reporting. “I think you had to be a bit of a schizophrenic to deal with the situation,” he explained. “Say you were in the field, and you saw your own mob getting plastered by the enemy ... You couldn’t tell it like it was because it [would have aided] the enemy. You had to accept the necessity for censorship in a military sense. You also, I’m afraid, had to accept censorship in a political sense”. Any correspondent who didn’t censor himself, he argued, “needed their head read”.
Self-censorship prevented him telling the story of shocking behaviour by some Australian troops in Moresby after an early bombing attack: behaviour which he said enraged him ... “They absolutely went berserk. They wrecked the city, looted, rioted and behaved in a thoroughly bad way”. He wanted to write that story, to make Australians aware of the need to send away disciplined, properly trained men with competent leadership – but he decided against it. It would have given aid and incentive to the enemy, and damaged morale at home.
Censorship was a constant companion. Four years later, when he wrote a book exposing instances of looting and rape by Allied troops during the occupation of Germany, he found himself again up against the forces of suppression. In 1945 he submitted the book, Conquerors’ Road, to publishers, who found it too hot to handle.
Despite such frustrations and imposed limitations, Osmar White carved out a reputation as one of the finest war correspondents of his time. In company with the photographer Damien Parer and the broadcaster Chester Wilmot, he covered the savage fighting on the Kokoda Trail. It was largely as a result of the combined efforts and testimony of White and Parer (who became something of a team) that Allied troops, who had been wearing desert khaki when they arrived, were issued with mottled green uniforms for jungle warfare. “You could see the khaki a mile away,” White explained.
White, born in 1909 in Feilding, New Zealand, arrived in Australia with his family, aged five. Early in his career he wrote short stories, became a stringer for The Wagga Wagga Advertiser, and travelled extensively in Asia and the Pacific before joining The Sun News-Pictorial. He remained with the Herald and Weekly Times group until the 1960s, first as a war correspondent and later as a special writer with a wide brief. He spent more than a year on an investigative series into the parlous condition of Victoria’s mental health and juvenile justice systems in the early 1950s and was a roving correspondent in the Pacific. The first Australian journalist to cover New Guinea affairs consistently amid growing demands for PNG independence, he wrote a well-regarded history of the emergent country. In the mid-1950s, he reported the International Geophysical Year activities in the Antarctic and was seconded to the Australian Government to conduct an independent survey of the effectiveness of the Colombo Plan.
White had been accredited as a war correspondent in 1941 and posted to New Guinea where his youthful travels helped: “I knew my way around a bit, so I was never scared of the jungle or the climate or the mosquitoes or what-have-you”. He did, though, refuse to wear the shorts issued to most troops, because of the threat of mosquitoes and leeches. He was also critical of the heavy army boots worn by Australians: he believed it more sensible to wear the Japanese type of footwear, a light canvas boot with some ankle support. He felt that Australians should never have been issued with 303 rifles, that they should have carried Tommy guns or Stens or other forms of automatic weapons. These opinions did not get past the censors.
White was familiar with the territory. He believed that the Australians were not going to hold the Japanese back, but that the jungle was. The jungle was Australia’s “Green Armour”. Not long after his coverage of the Kokoda fighting, White was severely wounded in the feet and ankles by a direct bomb blast while aboard a tank-landing ship in the Solomons. After recuperation in Australia, he went on to cover the Allied invasion of Europe, and was present for the liberation of Paris, and later of the Buchenwald concentration camp. He was the only Australian newspaperman to witness the surrender of the German Army, in a schoolroom in Rheims.
Of his period in post-war Germany, White wrote to his wife Mollie: “Completely and hopelessly impossible to try and tell you a story about occupied Germany and the vista of desolation it opens up – not just physical desolation. Nor can I see it as newspaper material ... I don’t know how I’m going to handle the job. Ten to one it will have to be a book ... to get off my chest what newspapers wouldn’t use”.
It took a long time for it to be told: the story of the ugly side of the Allied occupation. And it was in a book. Fifty years after he finished writing it, and five years after his death, Conquerors’ Road reached Australian bookshops. White had finally been able to tell it like it was.
Harry Gordon was the youngest Australian war correspondent in the Korean War. He later became editor of The Sun News-Pictorial, editor-in-chief of the Herald and Weekly Times, and chairman of Australian Associated Press. He was inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame in 2013.
Osmar White, New Guinea, 1942. Self-portrait
Osmar White with ABC correspondent Chester Wilmot on the Kokoda front.
'From Kokoda Track to Conquerors Road: Osmar White’s War Correspondence', S. White, RMIT conference
Osmar White interviewed by Peter Jepperson, the Keith Murdoch Sound Archive of Australia in the war of 1939-45, April 14 1990, Australian War Museum