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Fifty Years Ago: 1972

Did you know that 50 years ago, the year: 1972, was officially declared “International Year of the Book” by the United Nations?

Two years earlier, in 1970, UNESCO (the UN’S cultural arm) had announced this as a way to promote the need for increased access to books around the world. At this time the book, Jikji (in English translated as ‘Anthology of Great Buddhists Priests’ Zen Teachings’), was formally recognised as the world’s oldest book printed with movable metal type having been printed in Korea in 1377. I'm sure you thought the Bible was the oldest printed book? The first Bible, printed by Johannes Gutenberg wouldn’t be produced until c. 1452-55. Jikji, is an abbreviated name and was written by the Buddhist Monk Baegun. In 2001 UNESCO formally endorsed this 1972 proclamation that it was the oldest book in print. While much of the book has been lost part does survive in the National Library of France. To commemorate the year of the Book a number of postage stamps were issued across the world (some are pictured below).

On 26 January 1972 an Aboriginal Tent Embassy was set up on the lawn of Parliament House in Canberra. Don’t let the term “tent embassy” fool you, this has become a permanent establishment and this year marks 50 years since it was set-up. This is the longest continuous protest for indigenous land rights anywhere in the world.

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, 1972 (Source: State Library NSW)

On 22 May 1972 the country of Ceylon was re-named Sri Lanka and established as an independent nation under the leadership of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was the world’s first female Prime Minister. Though Sri Lanka became independent of British rule they remained within the British Commonwealth. For more on Sirimavo Bandaranaike click here for the blog!

The Loss of the QEII

The year began with the destruction of one of the world’s most recognised and luxurious ships, the Queen Elizabeth. On 9 January 1972, the ship was destroyed in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour by fire. The Cunard Line Ship was launched on 27 September 1938 and named after Queen Elizabeth, wife of sitting monarch King George VI. At the time she was the largest passenger liner built and would retain that title for almost another 60 years. Despite being built as a passenger ship the QE entered war service in early 1940 with a new coat of paint hiding her Cunard colours. Later in the year she was converted to a troop ship and continued on her secret missions. After the war, while the QE was returned to passenger service her sister, Queen Mary continued in military service to help return troops to their homeports before joining QE back at sea on the transatlantic crossings between Southampton and New York. The ships were incredibly popular until the 1960s when airline travel began to take hold of the market at which time both ships were retired and replaced by the more economical Queen Elizabeth II.

In 1968 QE was sold to an American company who set her up as a hotel in Florida, similar to what happened to Mary who is still located in Long Beach, California being used in the same manner. Unfortunately, QE didn’t have the same success as Mary and in 1970 she was sold to a Hong Kong company. The ship was re-named Seawise University as the ship was to be used as a floating university cruise ship. The trip from the USA to Hong Kong took months and the cost of repairs began to mount. On 9 January 1972 as the overhaul of the ship neared completion a number of fires broke out on the ship with the water from the fireboats causing her to sink. There was some suspicion that this may have been an insurance job as the vessel was insured for much more than she had been purchased for. Eventually the ship, which had been left at the site of her sinking was declared a shipping hazard and was dismantled for scrap. A sad end for a war hero & majestic liner.

The Discovery of a Japanese Solider from WWII

Another story from January 1972 was the discovery of a Japanese soldier in Guam who had been living in hiding since World War Two. Shoichi Yokoi was a Japanese solider who was unaware that the war had come to an end, so he spent 28 years hiding in the Guam jungle.

Back in 1944 during the Battle of Guam when American forces captured the island a number of Japanese soldiers fled capture and went into hiding. While most eventually moved on three remained hidden in the jungle and though they lived separately they did visit with one another until 1964 when two of the men were killed during a flood.

This meant that for the last 8 years of his time in hiding Shoichi Yokoi was all alone. When he was found in 1972, he was in relatively good health and explained that he had actually known the war ended as far back as 1952 however as per Japanese cultural expectations it was a disgrace to be captured so he remained in hiding.

Bloody Sunday

In Derry, Northern Ireland the British Army shot 26 unarmed protestors, killing 14, on 30 January. The incident would become known as Bloody Sunday with most of those shot while fleeing the scene or trying to help the injured. This occurred at a time when tensions were extremely high in Northern Ireland.

In the aftermath the findings of an investigation into the incident cleared the soldiers of any wrongdoing. It wouldn’t be until the late 1990s that a second investigation began into what actually transpired. This investigation took 12 years and in 2010 when the final report was published, UK Prime Minister David Cameron issued a formal apology, and a murder investigation was subsequently launched. No charges have been laid largely thanks to the period of time that has passed since the massacre.

The Winter Olympics

It was a big year for international sport with both the Summer and Winter Games held!

On 3 February 1972 the Winter Games opened in Sapporo, Japan. This Winter Games was notable because it was the first to be held outside of Europe or North America. Japan was set to host the 1940 Winter Games however after Japan and China went to war in 1937, they elected not to host the games. Due to WWII the 1940 games were cancelled anyway.

There were 35 nations represented at these games with the Soviet Union topping the medal tally followed by East Germany in second place. One thousand athletes competed at the games however just 205 were women.

These games also saw Japan win their first winter Olympic gold when Yukio Kasaya won the 70m ski jumping. They also took home silver and bronze in this event to win all three of the country’s medals at these games.

Interestingly this was the last games where gold medallists in the skiing events wore all-wooden skis.

Australia sent four male athletes to these games. Two competed in speed skating while two others competed in alpine skiing. Unfortunately, it would be thirty years until Australia took home any winter medals.

The Summer Olympics

Later in the year the Summer Olympics took place in Munich, West Germany. Held from 26 August until the 10 September the games were overshadowed by a dark incident. Part-way through the games, on 5 September, nine Israeli members of the Olympic team were taken hostage and two more were killed by a Palestinian terrorist group. The terrorists demanded the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners who were being held in Israeli jails.

This demand was not met and instead, the next day, West German police ambushed the terrorists. The rescue attempt failed, and all hostages were killed, including one police officer who was caught in the crossfire. Five of the eight terrorists were also killed. The three surviving terrorists were taken into custody however just one month later they were released in a prisoner exchange following the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 615. The aim of the hijacking was to have the terrorists released so they accomplished what they set out to do with the terrorists offered asylum in Libya.

Following the attack on the Israeli team all Olympic competition was suspended for 34 hours with a memorial service held on 6 September. This ceremony was attended by 83,000 people.

At the conclusion of the games the nation’s that finished on the top of medal tally were the Soviet Union, USA and East Germany. The host nation came in fourth while Australia finished sixth bringing home 8 gold medals, of which three were won by 15-year old swimmer Shane Gould (she also won a silver and bronze medal). Of the 17 medals won by Australia, ten were won in the pool with the others won in cycling and sailing.

Shane Gould with her Olympic medals, 1972 (Source:

Tragedy in Nicaragua

The year came to a devastating end with deaths of between 5,000-11,000 people in Nicaragua following a 6.2 magnitude that occurred during the middle of the night near the capital Managua. Around 20,000 people were injured and over 300,000 people were left homeless. In the immediate aftermath over 1 million people were displaced and the city, which was largely constructed years earlier in a haphazard nature was no match for the earthquake. Most emergency response equipment was damaged which made the recovery almost impossible, this included the cities main hospitals which were unable to treat patients.

Twenty-five nations came to the aid of Nicaragua sending millions of dollars of support however there was no coordinated distribution and much of the aid that was received was not suitable for the needs of the victims (e.g., winter clothing for a nation that has a tropical climate and frozen meals for people who didn’t have any way of cooking them). This all led to growing discontent amongst the people and helped create a situation of instability. For this reason, it wouldn’t be until the 1990s that any reconstruction of the city would begin.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake authorities were accused of stockpiling foreign aid (another factor that helped breed discontent) and this saw Roberto Clemente, a famous Puerto Rican baseball star in the USA personally charted a relief flight at the end of 1972. In a tragic incident this flight crashed immediately after take-off on 31 December 1972, crashing into the Atlantic Ocean. The cause of the crash was overloading of the plane and engine failure.

The Uruguayan Air Crash Survivors Battle

On 13 October 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed in the Andes. The story of this incident is not your usual plane crash story as the plight of the survivors is unimaginable.

The flight was a charter from Montevideo, Uruguay to Santiago, Chile for the Old Christians Club Rugby Union Team as well as their friends, family and support staff. There was a combination of pilot error and issues with the plane that caused it to crash into the Andes during a storm.

Of the 45 people on board five passengers and two crew in the tail and back end of the fuselage fell from the aircraft when it broke apart, six died on impact with the seventh surviving the fall only to die from injuries.

The survivors of the crash are located 71 days after the crash (source: UK Independent)

A further four people died when the fuselage hit the snow and threw them form the craft. The pilot died on impact while the co-pilot was severely injured. Along with the co-pilot, 32 others survived the crash though they suffered various serious injuries. There were some medical students on board who got to work quickly trying to help everyone.

After eight days of searching for the plane when it didn’t arrive at the destination, the search was called off and it was believed no one would be able to survive in the harsh conditions.

While rescue crews search for the plane the death toll began to rise. On the first night five more people died and by the time the search was called off just 27 people remained alive. Around this time a radio was found in the plane and the survivors heard via the news that the search for them had been called off. They now knew they needed to try and survive as well as find help.

Most of the survivors lived by the ocean and some had never seen snow, so they had a sharp leaning curve to work out how to survive I the harsh cold conditions. With limited food options many resorted to cannibalism.

Seventeen days after the crash there was an avalanche that struck the survivors and buried them inside their makeshift shelter. Eight people were killed.

As November came and the snow began to melt some of the survivors decided that they needed to head out in search of help. It wasn’t until December that help was found and finally on 22 December helicopters carrying rescue crew arrived at the site with the last of the survivors airlifted out on the 23rd December 1972.

Of the 45 onboard and 33 survivors of the crash, just 16 people were rescued after 72 days.

Pop Culture

In Australia Donny Osmond was at the top of the charts with his song "Puppy Love"! Across the globe "American Pie" by Don McLean was hitting the airwaves as was Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again Naturally".

At the movies the highest grossing film was "The Godfather" followed by "The Poseidon Adventure". The Best Picture Oscar for 1972 went to "The French Connection" which took home many of the big awards with five wins.

Let's finish with a Fun Fact!

In 1972 the Iceland Government made the worship of Norse Gods legal by recognising Asatru as an official religion. This movement had been experiencing a rise in popularity which was highlighted by this government decision.


Further Reading:

*Where more information is provided see individual blogs or posts for further reading


  • Australia Through Time, 2004 Edition (Sydney: Random House, 2004)

  • The Visual History of the Modern World (Sydney: Funtastic, 2005)

  • Dateline: People, Places and Events (Sydney: Murdoch Books, 2006)

General Online:

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica; <>

  • National Geographic Education; <>

  • History Channel (A & E); <>

  • BBC World News; <>

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