“Osmar White was not only one of the finest correspondents of the Second World War but also a visionary writer and philosopher of courage and conviction” : – Phillip Knightley, author of  First Casualty.

Osmar White was born in New Zealand in 1909, and worked in Sydney in the late 1920s before moving to South East Asia and China, where he wrote features and short stories for Australian and American papers. Around 1934 he returned to New Zealand, and then joined the Melbourne Sun News-Pictorial in 1937. He enlisted in the AIF in 1941, but was ‘manpowered’ out by Sir Keith Murdoch who said ‘Oh we don’t want you rushing around with a pack on your back, you’ll fight the war with your pen, dear boy’.

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Osmar White, Tiergarten, Berlin – July 1945 (Photo Osmar White)

Arriving in Port Moresby in June 1942, White set off with Damien Parer on an epic journey up the Bulldog Track to report and photograph Kanga Force, 2/5th commandos fighting the Japanese around Salamaua and Wau, near Lae. This trek was the basis of White’s great book of the New Guinea, Green Armour. ‘Until all forests end, it will still grow and decay … under the spilled loads of heaven.’

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Osmar White, New Guinea 1942 (Photo Osmar White)

With Parer and Chester Wilmot, White reported on the Kokoda Track in August, and was badly wounded while on an American ship bombed by the Japanese in the Solomons later in that year.

While recovering in Melbourne, he wrote Green Armour.

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Later that year Murdoch sent him to New York and then London for more treatment, after which he covered the drive by the Americans through France and Germany. He was  the only Australian in the handful of journalists to witness the final surrender of the Germans at Reims on 7 May 1945.

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‘A great occasion would seem to demand great reporting. Well it didn’t get it, but it got the best that the available great reporters could give it …’  White wrote ‘ten thousand words in ‘prepared pieces’ to cover every possible contingency and of course scrapped almost all of it. When the event was over, the final accounts were written in a condition of complete exhaustion and at great speed. The fourteen hundred words of eyewitness stuff on the signing I wrote in 38 minutes flat. No literary masterpiece of calculated adjectives and nice nuances was ever turned out under such conditions, but the result was at least an exhibition of my newspaper instincts if it wasn’t pure Conrad! … After the signing I got decorously drunk and stayed decorously drunk for three days.’

Letter to Mollie White, 10 May 1945

White then witnessed the horrors of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and elsewhere and arrived in Berlin on 3 July 1945

In Conquerors’ Road, White devotes a chapter to guilt, and reports on the efforts of the Allied Military Command to show the German people what they should have known about. They took civilians on tours and showed photographs, such as this one of White’s taken in Buchenwald – with the grimly humorous note that this was a hut for children ‘and French generals.’

‘Buchenwald, Belsen, Dachau, Auschwitz – names that enraged the world too late.

I spent, in all, fourteen or fifteen days in concentration camps – not one-hundredth part of the time needed to learn the whole truth,’ he wrote in his book Conquerors’ Road (1996).

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[Conquerors’ Road was written in 1945, turned down by publishers of his successful Green Armour, probably because of White’s clear-sighted and politically incorrect  view of Germans and the Soviet behaviour.

White revised the book in 1983, but he died in 1990, before it could be published. The manuscript was edited by his daughter, distinguished journalist Sally White with Neil McDonald and published by Harper Collins in 1996.]

After his first day in Berlin, (3 July 1945) White wrote:

‘That day storms swept over the city. Torrents of silver rain fell out of a wild sky. Thunder rolled. Water cascaded from shattered walls and flooded broken pavements. Those pitiful, stripped sticks, the Tiergarten’s trees, wept with it.

I stood in the lee of the Brandenburger Tor. It was decked with sodden red flags, but the stones of the arch were so pitted by shrapnel that its outline was hazy. On all sides the vista was one of ruin – ruin beyond belief. The metal dome of the Reichstag had run like tinsel in a match flame, exposing its warped supports …

The winds that blew down the mazy, rubble canyons that had once been gracious thoroughfares were heavy with the stench of quenched fire and stale death. Uncounted corpses lay rotting under the wreckage, crushed or burned or entombed in cellars and sewers. Yet this macabre burial ground still teemed with life. Four million human beings were existing in it like vermin in a garbage tip …’

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White is a terrific reporter, and offers a devastating interview with a German woman about the prevalence of rape by Soviet soldiers, years before Anthony Beevor brought this fact to public attention in 2002 in his book Berlin The Downfall 1945.

After the war White was Herald special correspondent in New Guinea, and wrote several influential books including Parliament of a Thousand Tribes (1965) and Time Now, Time Before (1967) as well as novels including Silent Reach (1978). He died in 1990.

Sally White donated his papers and photographs to the National Library of Australia in 2013. They are held at Ms Acc06/177 and Ms Acc 07/141 and are used here with permission.

Osmar White’s photographs formed part of an exhibition I staged at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne in  2007 about Australia’s Second World War war correspondents – Alan Moorehead, Damien Parer, Ken Slessor, Chester Wilmot and Osmar White.  Their work, and others’ is featured in my book Eyewitness: Australian s Write from the Front-line (Black Inc 2005 – available at the iBookstore and on Kindle.)