Easton-Cook’s War, or The Man Who Never Was Part 5, The Brisbane Line

Part 4 told of the last years of Easton-Cook’s War, how he evaded all attempts by the authority to compel him to join the armed forces. But at some stage in the 1940’s Easton-Cook had come into contact with the communist journalist Rupert Lockwood, an association which would bear fruit during the Petrov Affair, a Cold War Espionage scandal.

Historian Drew Cottle referred to Kenneth Easton-Cook (whom he called ‘Ken Cook’, the name under which he knew him) in his 2002 book The Brisbane Line: A Reappraisal. This argues that there had been a nascent right-wing conspiracy to establish a collaborationist government in the event of a Japanese conquest of Australia.

‘The Brisbane Line’ was the name given to the controversy started by Eddie Ward, Minister for Labour and National Service in the wartime government of Labor Prime Minister John Curtin. In October 1942 Ward claimed that he had been leaked evidence of a ‘defeatist’ and ‘treacherous’ plan by the previous conservative Menzies government, in the event of a Japanese invasion, to withdraw troops from northern Australia and concentrate defences in the south-east where the bulk of the population was concentrated.

There had indeed been a plan to concentrate Australia’s defences in the south-east, but it was only one of several options in a submission prepared by the Army. And it had been presented not to the Menzies government, but to Ward’s own Labor Government in February 1942. But Ward never let the facts stand in the way of a good conspiracy theory. He thundered away at the conservatives for planning to betray the country and when asked for proof, coolly announced that the relevant documents had gone missing.

Ward’s allegations were an early iteration of the theory that there had been a powerful clique of Australian conservatives in thrall to the Japanese. And it was the historian Cottle’s interest in the background to Ward’s allegations that, in the mid-1980s, set him on Easton-Cook’s path.

In his book Cottle gives a whole chapter to Easton-Cook’s account of his life, from his claimed pre-World War II recruitment by British intelligence in Hong Kong to the botched ASIO assassination attempt in 1974. Cottle noted that ‘only the sketchiest of written records which validate the oral testimony of Cook exist’. He said the records he himself worked from included Easton-Cook’s correspondence with Eddie Ward himself, with Kenichi Otabe ‘the Japanese Consul General’ (Otabe was in fact the Vice Consul), and with Commander Long of the Naval Intelligence Division. However, files in the National Australian Archives and newspaper archives provide an outline of Easton-Cook’s career which is quite different to the account he gave Cottle.

To start with, Easton-Cook’s testimony in The Brisbane Line: A Reappraisal is obscured by a jumbled chronology and lack of clear reference points. He appears to claim that, prior to February 1937, he witnessed horrific Japanese atrocities during the Battle of Shanghai – which in fact took place in the second half of 1937. Then, Easton-Cook cites the exodus of Japanese businessmen and families from Sydney on 15 August 1941 on board the Kasima Maru. Using this event as a reference point, he dates crucial meetings he had in Sydney with Lieutenant Commander Long of Naval Intelligence and Major Scott of Military Intelligence to a few months before the departure of the Kasima Maru – i.e. at some point in the first half of 1941. But Commander Long had moved to Melbourne in 1936; Scott had done so in mid-1940 and by the first half of 1941, when he was meant to be meeting Easton-Cook in Sydney, Scott was in a military camp on Wilsons Promontory.

Among other discordances, Easton-Cook told Cottle that during his 1941 visit to Australia the Japanese spy Major Sei Hashida had, with the permission of then Minister for the Army Percy Spender, visited the BHP Steelworks at Newcastle, Lithgow Light Arms Factory, and Yampi Sound Iron ore deposits. In fact the closest Hashida got to the BHP steelworks was a distant hilltop; to Lithgow, Katoomba; and to Yampi Sound, Broome. And rather than allowing him to do so, Spender had expressly forbidden Hashida from visiting sensitive installations. (See the series Major Hashida’s Diary in earlier issues of a rich life).

Again, Easton-Cook claims to have been working for both Navy and Army Intelligence in 1942 – but the former disowned him in April 1940 and there’s no evidence of him working for the latter after November 1940. In fact, by 1942 he was actually under the hostile surveillance from the newly established Commonwealth Security Service, which had absorbed some of the intelligence functions previously carried out by the Army.

Then there are straight factual errors: Easton-Cook talked of the ‘Japanese submarine attacks on merchant shipping along the Australian coastline’ in 1939–1941. There were no such attacks until 1942.

All this bears out the impression, near-universally held by observers in the period 1940–1943, that Easton-Cook was careless with the truth, an opportunistic fantasist whose brief involvement with Naval and Military intelligence was shut down as soon as they realised just what a shonk he was. And it shows that he continued to make play with that brief connection with the intelligence agencies until his death. And this brings us back to The Brisbane Line.

Probably the most significant part Easton-Cook played in Australian history was as a source for Document J, the notorious memorandum which formed part of the evidence presented to the Petrov Royal Commission in 1954 – a ‘farrago of fact, falsity and filth’, according to the Counsel assisting the Commission. As we noted earlier Document J, written by the communist journalist Rupert Lockwood, was intended to brief Soviet officials on skeletons in the cupboards of Australian conservatives. It included a version of the conspiracy theory that there had been a nascent right-wing collaborationist movement in Australia at the beginning of WWII.

The reason Lockwood’s ‘farrago’ changed Australian history was not so much because of the noxious slanders it contained, but because Dr Herbert Evatt, the Leader of the Labor Opposition to the Menzies Government, bizarrely staked his own credibility on the argument that Lockwood had not, in fact, written Document J. But he had. And when this became obvious it dealt Evatt’s authority a fatal blow and split the Labor Party, thus sending them into the political wilderness for two decades.

In Document J, Lockwood stated that he had first met Easton-Cook in Melbourne in the early 1930s, and that Easton-Cook ‘later came to Sydney and worked for both Military and Naval intelligence, on Counter-Espionage … he was sacked for “talking too much”’. Specifically, Document J cites Easton-Cook as the source of a discreditable anecdote about Percy Spender. According to this story, Spender tried to coerce a young woman into have sex with him by telling her that when the Japanese conquered Australia he, Spender, would be in such good standing with the Japanese that he would be able to protect her.

And on that unpleasant note we conclude the story of Kenneth Easton-Cook, The Man Who Never Was. He fantasised about being a romantic spy at the centre of the action, fending off beautiful women and deadly assassins. In fact he was a common-or-garden sociopath: his real forte was lying, cheating, dodging obligations and exploiting other people. He claimed he had helped avert the Japanese threat to Australia. He claimed to have uncovered a conspiracy among Australian elites. In fact, his big e claimed He contribution to Australian history turns out to have been gossiping with his drinking mate Rupert Lockwood about the sexual habits of the great and good. Rather than uncovering a treasonable plot by Australian conservatives, if Easton-Cook had any impact at all, it was his small contribution to Document J, a document which ironically helped ensure those conservatives stayed in power for decades.

(Nick Hordern is the co-author, with Michael Duffy, of two histories of the Sydney underworld: ‘Sydney Noir’, which covers 1966-1972; and ‘World War Noir’, which covers 1939-1945. Both are published by NewSouth Publishing.)

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