1917 - 2012 | Victoria | War correspondent
During seven decades in journalism, starting as a copyboy on The Hobart Mercury, Warner became a distinguished war correspondent and an influential interpreter of Asia. He served in the AIF early in World War II. Later, as a correspondent in the Pacific, he was aboard a British warship when it suffered a kamikaze attack. He worked for The Melbourne Herald, Reuters, the London Daily Telegraph, and The Reporter magazine. He landed with US marines on Saipan, witnessed the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and covered both the siege of Dien Bien Phu and the early days of the Korean War.
Denis Ashton Warner was, if not the premier Australian war correspondent of his generation, among its most enduring and influential figures, both as an interpreter of Asia for a worldwide audience, and as an example of a journalist-adventurer of another era.
When Warner passed away at his home, Ramslade, on the Mornington Peninsula on July 12, 2012 at the age of 94, he had worked as a journalist-author for more than 70 years. He began his career as a copy boy on The Mercury in Hobart, and later as a reporter for The Herald in Melbourne.
His international career included stints as bureau chief for Reuters-AAP in Tokyo in the immediate post-World War II period, a longstanding arrangement with The Daily Telegraph in London, Reporter magazine, The Atlantic and south-east Asia correspondent for Look magazine in its heyday. He was a regular contributor to The Herald and to Fairfax papers, including The Sydney Morning Herald.
Warner’s was a remarkable career that included assignments spanning a generation of conflict in Asia, from the Pacific war, to the Malayan emergency, to the Korean War, the beginning of the end of French colonial rule at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Indonesian upheavals in the 1960s and Vietnam.
In his later years, Warner edited The Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter from 1981-95, giving the publication an influential niche voice in debates about Australia’s security interests in the region. Warner spent most of his career working as a freelance journalist. This was testament to his entrepreneurial skills and his reluctance to yield to any one master.
On occasions this led to difficult relationships with various employers, including his staple, The Daily Telegraph. His editors at the Telegraph failed to appreciate the significance of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu – or they simply did not want to acknowledge a Communist victory – and discarded much of his copy.
“To write hundreds and hundreds of words every day in these circumstances only to have most of them thrown away seemed to be asking too much of me,’’ he wrote in his excellent memoirs, Wake Me if There’s Trouble: an Australian Correspondent at the Front Line, Asia at War and Peace, 1944-1964 (1995), and Not Always on Horseback: an Australian Correspondent at War and Peace in Asia (1997).
Warner resigned, renewing his association with the paper a few years later.
He was a good writer, as the following attests in his description of the beginning of the siege at Dien Bien Phu: “For some minutes in the early evening chill [of May 13] the Viet Minh guns were silent, for a minute or two, perhaps for 10 or 20. No-one seemed to remember very clearly. These were the last moments of peace Dien Bien Phu was to know for 56 days’’.
Warner’s combat experience – first as an enlisted man, and then as a correspondent – was matched by few, if any, of his peers. He served in the 9th Division in the Middle East, and then in the Pacific as an accredited correspondent to the American forces as they moved towards Japan – Bougainville, Saipan, Guam and Peleliu.
His most wrenching moment occurred on Saipan in June 1944 as he came ashore with American Marines. “I can never forget the last great Japanese kamikaze charge: hundreds of Japanese clutching bottles of sake in one hand and any sort of weapon they could find in the other, burst through American lines. The next day more than 4000 Japanese lay dead in the line of the charge,’’ he wrote.
His immediate post-World War II career owed much to Keith Murdoch, chairman of the Herald and Weekly Times group – the two would lunch periodically at the Melbourne Club up the hill from HWT headquarters – until Murdoch’s death in 1952, after which Warner’s relationship with The Herald withered.
Later HWT proprietors were relatively disinterested in Asia until the Vietnam War intervened.
Throughout the 1960s Warner remained an influential voice in Australia’s debate about its relationships with Asia and Vietnam in particular.
His moderating of early editions of Meet the Press on television elevated his profile in his home country.
In 1962, he wrote: “Why is Australia getting involved in the Vietnam War? Partly because we think a Communist victory there would threaten the rest of South-east Asia and jeopardise our security, and partly because of the need to convince America that we are more than paper allies”.
In his later years, Warner did not resile from that view.
Warner’s early advocacy did not prevent him becoming a significant critic of America’s conduct of the war in Vietnam, including its tendency to inflate a Viet Cong body count.
“What no-one will accept indefinitely, and especially in a war of this sort, is the persistent attempt to win by pretence what has not been won on the ground,’’ he wrote.
Those words under the Warner byline appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1965, 10 years before the war ended in an American retreat.
Tony Walker is a former international editor of The Australian Financial Review and former foreign correspondent for Fairfax and The Financial Times in the Middle East, China and the United States.
News Corp, 1987
Photo: Norm Oorloff, 1998. Courtesy News Corp
Photo: Craig Borrow, 2009. Courtesy News Corp
'Denis Warner 1917-2012', Anthony McAdam, Quadrant, 2012.
The Last Confucian, Denis Warner, 1963.
Kamikaze: The Sacred Warriors 1994-45 (with Peggy Warner and Sadao Seno), Denis Warner.
Wake Me if There’s Trouble: an Australian Correspondent at the Front Line, Asia at War and Peace, 1944-1964, Denis Warner, 1995.
Not Always on Horseback: an Australian Correspondent at War and Peace in Asia, Denis Warner, 1997.