PHOTO: HMAS Australia II entering Sydney Harbour c.1939. (Royal Australia Navy)
It was attacked by more kamikaze aircraft than any other Allied ship in WWII and its story helped shape Australia's future, but chances are you've never heard of HMAS Australia II and its wartime exploits.That's something author Mike Carlton has sought to remedy in his latest book on Australia's naval history, Flagship: The Cruiser HMAS Australia II and the Pacific War on Japan.
"The accepted wisdom is that it was the Army, Australian diggers who stopped the Japanese on the Kokoda Track. And they did. That's true … but it was the Navy that did it first at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942," he told ABC News Breakfast.
"It's a strange quirk of history but when the two world wars [were fought] the Navy was always first in and last out."
What was Australia II?HMAS Australia II was a powerful weapon in Australia's arsenal when it was acquired in 1928 and it was sent to the North Atlantic to look out for German battleships when WWII broke out.
By 1942 it had helped stop the great Japanese sweep south in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and in 1944 it took part in one of the greatest maritime battles in history — the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
INFOGRAPHIC: Captain Emile Dechaineux was killed in the Japanese dive bomber attack in 1944. (Royal Australian Navy)
It was here that a kamikaze attack killed the ship's captain, Emile Dechaineux, and more than 25 other men.
"It must've been absolutely terrifying," Carlton said of the attacks.
"It was an idea utterly alien to young Australian kids, 19, 20, 21, that a boy their own age a Japanese man their own age, would be willing to kill himself, to commit suicide, to kill you."
By 1945 the repeated kamikaze attacks had taken their toll and the war was over for the cruiser.
Carlton said wartime stories were naturally compelling for Australians, but that the importance of our Navy in this crucial time was often overlooked.
"You could build a house out of the books written on Kokoda," he said.
"We have this natural image of Australia as bushies, as people who live in the outback.
"But in fact we're not, we're a maritime people."
PHOTO: The damage to Australia II's bridge and foremast following the aerial attack of October 21, 1944. (Royal Australia Navy)
'We were dragged into nationhood'The HMAS Australia II has a compelling battle history, but arguably its greatest impact on the nation came not from a frontline encounter, but a murder while the ship was at home.
In March 1942 the crew was stunned to find a sailor, Stoker Riley, stabbed and bleeding to death. Carlton recounted how before he died Riley named his two attackers and said they had sought to kill him because he had threatened to expose their homosexual activities.
PHOTO: HMAS Australia II's company on a visit from Queen Elizabeth II in March 1954. (Royal Australia Navy)
At a hastily arranged court martial the two men were found guilty and sentenced to death under British Admiralty law.
It was this that left a mark.
"That provoked a constitutional crisis between us and England over the death penalty," Carlton said, explaining that Australia struggled with how to deal with the legalities of such a move and whether it would break from the norms of England.
"We were little better than a colony. We clung to the apron strings of Mother England.
"This dragged Australia towards nationhood."
How Australia has changed sinceIn researching the history of HMAS Australia II, Carlton reflected on how Australians had changed in the last 70 years.
"We ate different things, we wore different clothes, we had lower expectations [back then]," he said.
"I really think the '39-'45 generation of Australians were the greatest generation we have ever known.
"They grew up in the depression, they had the best years taken from them."
GIF: HMAS Australia II at war.
As the nation and its people changed, so too did their military needs. After a rescue mission to the Antarctic and then a trip with the Queen around the barrier reef, HMAS Australia II was scrapped in 1956.Carlton said Australians could learn from the stories of these battle cruisers and the men and women that went to war on them.
"When you get to the stories and uncover it, some extraordinary things happened," he said.
"You do need to learn from them, the mistakes that were made.
"It was necessary for us to fight the second world war … but since then we have blundered into wars."