80th Anniversary of the Battle for Rabaul

Rabaul, then capital of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea with its magnificent tree-lined avenues, fell to the Japanese on 23 January 1942, 80 years ago today. What resulted was the greatest devastation to people and land that Australia has known on its territory through war. Today we remember all those who were sacrificed, and all those who had to live through those terrible years of war.

Rabaul occupied a position of strategic importance to both Japan and Australia both from a defensive and offensive point of view.

The Japanese bombing of Rabaul began on 4 January and continued on a daily basis until their invasion force stormed ashore at Rabaul’s Blanche Bay just after midnight on 23 January 1942. Despite a fierce but brief fight, the outnumbered defenders were overwhelmed and had no choice but to surrender. The Air Force managed to get away but the army had to remain.

The small Australian garrison sent to Rabaul, Lark Force, was overwhelmed and most of its troops, including six army nurses, captured. Approximately 400 troops and civilians escaped to the mainland and another 160 were brutally massacred at Tol Plantation. In July 1942, 1054 of the captured Australian men, including civilian internees, were drowned when the Japanese transport ship Montevideo Maru was sunk by an American submarine off the Philippines coast en route to Hainan. Only the officers and nurses, sent to Japan on a different ship, survived.

The following brief outline has been collated for this anniversary from various sources, in particular with special thanks to Peter Stone and his extraordinary book ‘Hostage to Freedom’. Any comments or additions are welcome. Please email coordinator@pngaa.net.

New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR)

Immediately after the outbreak of war in Europe on 4 September 1939, the Australian Army issued authority to form the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR) amongst Rabaul’s white residents. This would be a militia unit of volunteers unpaid until the unit was mobilized with a medical detachment of Chinese youths. Consideration was given to allowing New Guineans to join but the Administration decided, given Australia’s responsibility to protect the indigenous people, that they would not be permitted to fight. For 20 years Australia had scrupulously adhered to the Terms of its Mandate requiring no military or naval fortifications and prohibiting the military training of Papua New Guineans except for essential police work and local defence.

The NGVR was formed in Rabaul on 19 September 1939 with around 150 members. Other detachments were organized at Madang, Lae and Salamaua, totalling about 300 men.
The Rabaul contingent consisted of a headquarters base, machine-gun section and one rifle company. The men trained in their own time and by the beginning of 1942 were a small but highly effective force. This was understandable considering that their ranks included specialists in many necessary field – doctors, engineers, and experienced soldiers from past wars. When mobilized within A company of the 2/22nd Battalion, they played ‘a magnificent part’ in the attempted defence of Rabaul despite the civilians’ lack of intensive military training.
NGVR was a volunteer Australian Army Reserve units which was formed, served and disbanded overseas. It was in the Australian Army Order of Battle, ie a front line unit.

Chinese Auxiliary Ambulance Detachment
In 1941, a group of courageous Chinese men decided to form their own unit called the Auxiliary Ambulance Detachment to help play a part in the defense of Rabaul. Young men included Chin Hoi Meen and Ben Cheong, well known in Rabaul following the war.

In 1939 Eric Feldt joined Naval Intelligence as staff officer in Pt Moresby and was given command of the Coast Watching Organisation. Coastwatchers surveyed the Australian coast and its island screen of New Guinea, New Britain, New Ireland and the Solomons, concerning themselves particularly with shipping and aircraft movements. Local civilians, administrators as well as airline pilots on coast routes were appointed.

Weary Dunlop, in his forward of Eric Feldt’s book The Coast Watchers (1991 ed) said:
‘Coast Watchers served behind enemy lines, living by their wits and at great risk of capture and execution as spies. Their main communication was by a teleradio network in code, by precarious submarine contact and by air drops. They were dependent on the assistance of native islanders, whose allegiance potentially could be underminded by Japanese conquest and ruthlessness. Feldt’s story of the brave, versatile ad adventurous men who fought this lonely war also records the courage and loyalty of the many islanders who assisted them at grave personal risk.’

Their operations were code-named FERDINAND, from the children’s storybook character, Ferdinand the bull. In ‘The Story of Ferdinand’, the titular character, unlike all the other bulls, refused to fight. The code-name was selected as a reminder to the coastwatchers that it was not their job to fight, but rather to observe. The intelligence that they gathered played a significant part in the execution of the war in the Pacific.

Many coastwatchers were tortured or paid the supreme sacrifice of death. In March 1942, following the execution of an elderly planter by the name of Percy Good, the coastwatchers were given ranks or ratings, mostly in the Volunteer Reserve, in the hope that this would provide them some protection in the event of capture. In many instances, it did not. On New Ireland, for instance, Lieutenant Alan ‘Bill’ Kyle, RANVR, and Sub-Lieutenant Gregory Benham, RANVR, led around 30 military and civilian personnel to safety before being captured and executed just 18 hours before they were due to be evacuated by submarine. They were both posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

One of their most important contributions in the Pacific theatre was the intelligence provided during the Allied campaign at Guadalcanal, which involved some 16,000 US marines, 48 combat ships, 28 auxiliaries and 670 aircraft.

In 1959, a memorial lighthouse was erected at Madang, on Papua New Guinea’s north coast to honour the Coastwatchers. The memorial plaque bears the names of 36 Coastwatchers killed in enemy occupied territory while risking their lives in the execution of their duties. The plaque also bears this inscription: They watched and warned and died that we might live.
Operating behind enemy lines, and constantly hunted by the Japanese, it was very dangerous work that brought torture and summary execution to those who were caught.
The loyalty of the native people of New Guinea to Australia was vital to the survival of Coastwatchers, and it says much for the quality of Australian government officers and missionaries in the territory that most of the native people remained loyal to Australia during the Japanese occupation. They served the Coastwatchers and Australian troops willingly as carriers, and some risked their lives by gathering intelligence while undertaking labouring work for the Japanese at their bases.

In a small number of cases, the native people betrayed the Coastwatchers to the Japanese. On Bougainville Island, the Japanese had won the loyalty of so many of the local natives by mid-1943 that all Coastwatchers had to be withdrawn, including the famous Coastwatchers Jack Reed and Paul Mason.

With forces of the United States of America poised to invade Guadalcanal, Mason and Jack Read (his fellow coastwatcher in the north) were ordered to report all enemy aircraft and ships proceeding south-east. On 7 August Mason’s celebrated signal, ‘Twenty-four bombers headed yours’, brought disaster to the Japanese as American fighters swooped on them. Only one Japanese aircraft returned. Unsuspecting until too late why such losses continued, the Japanese had their air cover destroyed. ‘Tokyo Express’ warships steaming down the Solomons ‘Slot’ subsequently encountered a similar reception. (Fleet) Admiral William Halsey, U.S. Navy, said that the coastwatchers ‘saved Guadalcanal’ and Guadalcanal ‘saved the South Pacific’. Mason was promoted sub lieutenant and won the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross .

Lark Force
On 18 February 1941, during the term of the Menzies government, the War Cabinet authorized the dispatch to Rabaul of an AIF battalion and the installation of coast defences.
The defence of New Britain, a front of more than one thousand miles of coastline, was to be the responsibility of 1399 Australian troops known as ‘Lark Force’.
The garrison consisted predominantly of the 2/22nd Battalion, part of the 23rd Brigade of the 8th Division, 2nd Australian Imperial Force. The average of these raw troops was just eighteen and a half years.
It was formed 1 July 1940 at Victoria Barracks, Melbourne. On 11 July it moved to Traawool to undertake infantry training. In September, the battalion was then required to march 235 kilometres to Bonegilla where it arrived on 4 October 1940. They undertook further training before moving to Sydney to go to New Britain. Lark Force arrived in March 1941 on the Katoomba and April 1941 (Zealandia) and established four main defensive posts around Blanche Bay.
After being captured, the battalion was not re-raised and a large number of its personnel died in captivity; those that did not either escaped from New Britain and returned to Australia, while others returned to Australia at the end of the war in 1945..
The composite Lark Force group included :
The New Guinea Volunteer Rifles – c 100 men
17th Anti tank Gun Troop – 110 all ranks
Royal Australia Air Force 24th Squadron– 51 men
The Royal Australian Navy – 10, commanded by Lt HA ‘Hugh’ McKenzie, Naval Intelligence Officer
A detachment of 2/10 Field Ambulance – 2 Officers and 20 ORs
Lark Force equipment included two 6-inch ex-naval anti-aircraft guns on Praed Point at the entrance to Blanche Bay, and two WW1 vintage 3-inch anti-aircraft guns.
Connection with Bert Hinkler
Bert Hinkler’s first solo flight in record time of 16 days from England to Australia in February 1928 was a landmark in aviation history for Australia. This flight carried some of Lord Dewar’s special whisky to HV Jaques who presented it to the Officer who first shot down an enemy plane in anger during WWII. It was won by Lt Peter W Fisher at Rabaul in January 1942. Peter Fisher’s son, Warwick, has donated it on permanent loan to the Hinkler Museum in Bundaberg.

Nuns and Nurses
When the bombing of Rabaul occurred in early January, Bishop Leo Scharmach, leader of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) at Vunapope, immediately offered the mission’s hospital at Vunapope to the military. As the bombing increased, all wounded and sick members of the forces and civilian patients were evacuated from the two hospitals at Namanula to the Vunapope mission with the aid of two army ambulances and several private cars which had been commandeered. Army and civilian sisters were also transferred. By the time of the invasion, the hospitals resources were stretched to the limit. The Mission at Vunapope consisted of MSC brothers and fathers, and two congregations of sisters – the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, consisting of Australians with Dutch, French and Irish sisters, and the MSC sisters, all German except for their Superior who was American.
One of the Sacred Heart nuns wrote about the invasion:
‘With thumping hearts and blanched faces we listened to the blood-curdling yells as the ferocious little men charged the hospital. With bayonets gleaming in the brilliant morning sunshine they rushed upon us. Over hedges, over stumps they flew, not stopping in their mad rush until we were completed surrounded. Sick and wounded were forced to line up with the rest of us and hold their hands up high.’
Seventeen Australian nurses were stranded in Rabaul when the Australian government refused the use of the Herstein for evacuation. The nurses had made it clear that they would not leave willingly, but the opportunity was lost. Seven were with the AIF, six were civilians at the Rabaul Hospital and four were with the Methodist Mission. There was also one civilian Australian woman, a plantation owner from Rabaul, who was imprisoned in Japan with the nurses, a total of 18.
Rod Miller says: ‘These nurses were amongst the longest serving Australian POW’s/internees of WW2. These women have an extraordinary place in Australian history for they are the only Australian women ever captured by an invading force on Australian territory.’
Arriving in Japan in only the clothes they wore, they were interned in the Bund Hotel, which fronted Yokohama Harbor. Coming from tropical heat, the winters were brutal.
After a few weeks at the Bund Hotel, they were moved to Kanagawa Internment Camp #2, the Yokohama Yacht Club located at Shin-Yamashita-cho, Naka-ku, Yokohama City. They were interned on the second floor. Food was scarce, and sometimes they caught floating vegetables from the sea with bamboo sticks and a piece of string.
After about two years at the Yokohama Yacht Club, the nurses were moved to 4573 Izumi-cho, Totuska-ku (present day Izumi-ku), Yokohama-City. The building at Totsuka was a former isolation ward for contagious diseases such as dysentery, typhoid and cholera. At that time it was a quiet agricultural village near the Chogo Highway.
They were looked after by a female cook who was called ‘Obasan’, which is a common Japanese word used to describe middle-aged female workers.
In Totsuka, the nurses were not forced to do any work but had to pump water at the well as well as carry wood and stumps home for fuel. They were not used to the vegetable growing either, but Obasan instructed them. As the war situation got worse, the food shortage gradually became serious. To quote Mavis Cullen’s statement in ‘Prisoners of War: AUSTRALIANS UNDER NIPPON’, ‘We were losing weight and we were hungry and it was cold. And we were all sick. I escaped malaria, but we all had dysentery, beriberi, and tapeworm.’

Information about the POWs should have been passed on to the Central Intelligence Agency of POWs in Geneva, in accordance with International Wartime Laws. However, the Japanese Government never passed on anything about the Australian Nurses, and their internment at Yokohama had long been hidden from the international world. In January 1945, the Japan Representative of the International Board of the Red Cross passed on an inquiry to the POW Information Bureau of the Japanese Army, titled ‘Regarding Information on the Non-Combatants and POWs interned at Rabaul, New Britain’. It was a request that they wanted to meet the Australian POWs held at Zentsuji POW Camp to get information about the safety of non-combatants in Rabaul, as they had received very little information about them from Japanese authorities. On May 2, 1945, the Chief of the POW Information Bureau sent them a flat rejection, saying, ‘As all the information we received about the non-combatants and POWs of the enemy countries has been passed on, there is no more we can do.’ Then on June 16 1945, two months before the end of the war, in a reply sent from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Minister of the Swiss Legation, they finally admitted that there were Australian nurses interned in Totsuka Internment Camp and sent them a list of names, including the American, Etta Jones. The Japanese Government had hesitated to make their internment public. Being alone in the world with their existence hidden, the nurses encouraged each other and endured food shortages as they waited for victory and liberation.

The ABC telemovie, Sisters of War, is inspired by the remarkable true story of two extraordinary Australian women, Lorna Whyte (Sarah Snook), an army nurse and Sister Berenice Twohill (Claire van der Boom), a Catholic nun from New South Wales. You can watch it at https://iview.abc.net.au/show/sisters-of-war

Salvation Army
If a unit was fortunate enough to form a Regimental Band its members were trained for stretch-bearer duties when in action. The 2/22nd Infantry Battalion was one such unit whose Bandmaster, Sergeant Arthur Gullidge, arguably Australia’s most prolific composer of brass band music during the period between WW1 and WW2, decided to reconcile his Christian beliefs against the war by enlisting as a musician along with as many of the Brunswick band as he could. The Salvation Army has a strong anti-war ethic with many of its leaders and members being strong and active pacifists. Six of the bandsmen who went to Rabaul were also members of the Territorial Staff Band which comprised the Salvation Army’s finest musicians. 22 Salvation Army bandsmen went to Rabaul and two non-Salvationist bandmen also enlisted into the 2/22nd Battalion.
Being a bandsman/stretcher-bearer in war was not an easy way out of avoiding front-line combat duties. Indeed, they put aside their musical instruments and accepted the same exposure to incoming bullets as the fighting soldier, but without a personal weapon for protection.
DO Harry writes in the Foreword of ‘Brave and True’ by Lindsay Fox that:
‘They were a blend of youth and maturity, excellent musicians with a talent for providing magnificent entertainment on any occasion. Their versatility knew no limits as a Band, as individual performers or when they put their instruments aside to form a male choir as they did on many Sunday evenings at the Rabaul Methodist Church.
Lt-Col Pam Trigg wrote in the Introduction to Brave & True:
‘For those of my generation it seems strange that men should join a brass band attached to a military battalion and go off to war. The men in this story were very confident of doing their job and coming home. Their letters are full of ‘when I get home I’ll…’ but they never came. It wasn’t until October 1945 that their grim fate was known.
The band was made up of Salvationists, mostly from Melbourne, one member from Sydney and one from Tasmania. There were also two non-Salvationist band members. When the Japanese invaded the island of Rabaul, two members were killed during the attack, four died whilst trying to escape and 16 were on the Montevideo Maru when it went down.

The RAAF’s 24th Squadron under Group Captain John M Lerew arrived in Rabaul early December 1941 with ten Wirraway fighter/trainers and four Hudson bombers.
On 20 January 1942 Commander Mitsuo Fushida of the First Air Fleet led the first wave against Rabaul, consisting of 109 aircraft made up of Zero fighters, dive and conventional bombers.
Only eight of No. 24 Squadron Wing-Commander John Lerew’s original ten Wirraway fighter-trainers remained to defend Rabaul. Two were already in the air and bravely turned into the huge bomber formation at 10000’. In an obvious suicidal mission, the remaining six Wirraway pilots and their gunners took off to assist the two already airborn Wirraways – to do battle with no less than eighty bombers and forty zeros.
Of the eight two-man crews that took part in the dogfight, six men were killed and five wounded or injured in action that lasted less than ten minutes.
After the action, Lerew requested that fighters be sent from Australia but there were none. Over the next couple of days he made plans to evacuate his airmen. When ordered to stay and fight, Lerew responded with a signal ending Nos morituni te sautamus—loosely translated, the Roman gladiators’salutation, ‘We who are about to die, salute you’. RAAF personnel evacuated to Sum Sum and were flown out by Flying Boats prior to 23 January
Sgt FS Smith AIF said later ‘But for sheer, cold-blooded heroism I have never seen anything to compare with the pilots of those Wirraways. They knew they were doomed but they had all the guts in the world.’
In 1946 Senator Sampson asked the Minister representing the Acting Minister for Defence, why no recognition, ‘posthumous or otherwise has been granted to the crews of the six Wirraways who were sent on a suicidal attack on forty seven Zeros’. The Government reply was simply that no Japanese aircraft were shot down so…In the circumstances, it is not possible to submit citations for individual awards.’ The Australian Government was at least consistent in its insensitivity and ignorance of events in Rabaul.
1 Independent Company
The 1 Independent Company, a commando unit, comprising 17 officers and 256 other ranks, was detached to garrison the nearby island of New Ireland.
The 1st Independent Company was formed in May/June 1941 and was trained at the No. 7 Infantry Training Centre at Tidal River, Wilson’s Promontory in Victoria. Commanded by Major James Edmonds-Wilson, in the event of an invasion of New Britain by the Japanese the 1st Independent Company was under orders to resist long enough to destroy key airfields and other military installations such as fuel dumps, before withdrawing south to wage a guerrilla war.
About 150 men were based in Kavieng to protect the airfield while others were deployed as observers to central New Ireland, Bougainville and Manus Island as well as to Tulagi in the British Solomon Islands and Vila in the New Hebrides.
In the early morning of 22 January 1942, the Japanese landed at Kavieng. The small force that had remained at the airfield blew up the supply dump and other facilities before withdrawing to Sook towards the main force. Some were captured in the withdrawal. Once the company had regrouped at Sook, on 28 January they withdrew further south to Kaut, where they helped with the repair of the Induna Star, before setting out along the east coast of the island. They reached Kalili Harbour on 31 January but after learning that the fighting on New Britain was over and that the Japanese had occupied Rabaul. it was decided to sail for Pt Moresby.
On 2 February the schooner was sighted by a Japanese plane which subsequently attacked, causing considerable damage to the vessel as well as destroying one of its lifeboats and causing a number of casualties. The Induna Star began taking on water and as a result the men were forced to surrender. Under escort by a Japanese aircraft and then later a destroyer, they were instructed to sail to Rabaul where they became prisoners-of-war.
On 11 December 1941 the War Cabinet endorsed that there should not be compulsory evacuation. Next day they reversed this decision for European women and children. Males over 16 were to remain in Rabaul with their fathers, but in a few cases younger boys stayed.
Although China was our ally and had been at war with Japan since 1937, the Chinese women and children were not evacuated. This caused understandable bitterness amongst the Chinese population who feared the inhumanity of the Japanese. (p42)
The six government nurses who had resided in Rabaul were offered evacuation but volunteered to stay. The Australian Army Nursing Service nurses were not given the opportunity to evacuate as it was deemed their duty to stay with the men. Mission women were also given the option to stay and a number, including many women of several nationalities at the Catholic Sacred Heart Mission and four Methodist nurses, did so. The nurses and Kathleen Bignall, who owned a plantation, were later interned and sent to Japan. All survived and were repatriated after the war.
When it received the evacuation order, the Administration notified outlying islands and transported people to Rabaul. The women were given only a day or two’s notice and limited to a baggage allowance of 30 pounds (11 kg) with an extra 15 pounds for each child.
The liners Neptuna and Macdhui arrived in Rabaul on the evening of 21 December and the women and children boarded next day as heavy rain fell. The monsoon was in full force, making sea travel difficult and dangerous. The log of the small coastal vessel Ambon tells how gales, heavy seas and poor visibility meant regular changes of course to take shelter.
The evacuees were told not to discuss where they had come from, after landing, for fear of causing panic. Many had no homes to go to and their sense of isolation through the war years caused understandable stress. They had lost their homes, their husbands, their income and their friends.
By 28 December the situation in Rabaul was grim. Two civil aircraft were sent to evacuate the remaining women and children. They arrived early in the morning and loaded and took off within five minutes.
The civilians who remained were mainly Administration officers, planters, businessmen, traders and missionaries. Most were settlers – ‘Territorians’ as they called themselves – and their livelihood was in New Britain. Many were former World War I soldiers too old to enlist.
The 6000 ton Norwegian freighter Herstein had arrived in Rabaul on 14 January and was unloading cargo until the 18th when it began to take on copra. But on the morning of 20 January, while still loading, Herstein was bombed by Japanese aircraft and 2000 tons of copra was immediately ignited. Herstein burned to the waterline. Members of the Norwegian crew showed great courage. They manned machine guns on the vessel, and fought the Japanese planes, carrying on despite the intensiry of the dive bombing and the heat and roar of the flames spreading over the ship. Thirty of the crew, mostly Norwegian, were later captured by the Japanese. Most were lost on Montevideo Maru. It was the same day War Cabinet’s reply to Page was drafted advising him to consider evacuating civilians. There was now no available transport.
On 12 December 1941, the War Cabinet approved the recommendation to retain the garrison in Rabaul. Even if Lark Force had been strengthened to a brigade it could not have withstood a determined seaborne assault. It was surmised that the garrison, however small and however suicidal, could impose upon the Japanese at least a short delay which may have been of great value to Australia.
Following the Pearl Harbour attack, the Chiefs of Staff had advised the Australian War Cabinet that the most probably action of the Japanese would be to occupy Rabaul, Pt Moresby and New Caledonia as well as Darwin and Singapore. On 9 December 1941 an unidentified twin-engine monoplane, considered to be a Japanese naval heavy bomber, was reported as making three runs over Rabaul, pointing to the possibility of early attack.
The fate of Lark Force was set in a Most Secret and Important Cable sent to Washington on 12 December 1941 by the Prime Minister’s Department.
‘Formerly it was not intended to develop Rabaul beyond the requirements of an advanced air operational base. It was felt that strategically Rabaul was too exposed for our very slender forces. Doubt has been expressed of the possibility of American forces operating in the area. Under these circumstances, and as reinforcements and subsequent supply would be hazardous without United States co-operation, it is considered better to maintain Rabaul only as an advance air operational base, its present small garrison being regarded as hostages to fortune.’
The Japanese invasion forces assembled in the Marianas and the Caroline Islands in early January 1942; those for Rabaul at Guam and those for Kavieng at Truk.
The Nankai-shitai (South Sea Detachment) were a specially trained support task force of Army troops to be deployed in the South Pacific to take Guam and Rabaul in cooperation with Japanese Navy operations.
Just after midday on 20 January, Sub-Lieutenant Cornelius Page, a coastwatcher on Tabar Island, east of New Ireland, spotted twenty aircraft heading for Rabaul. A few minutes later, a report of another fifty was received. A third, undetected formation also was closing in.
The naval landing forces detailed to take Kavieng and vicinity met with no opposition.
Soon after midnight on 23 January 1942, Major WT Owen’s ‘A’ Company, comprising about 90 AIF and around 50 NGVR were waiting beside Vulcan. A fleet of Japanese transports entered the harbour and launched thousands of troops in landing barges. A company realized they were to face a formidable foe. They fired landing craft with mortars and defended it vigorously.
‘A’ Company held their position through the hours of darkness until daylight. The half-light before dawn revealed the situation was hopeless: more than fifty ships, including an aircraft carrier, had entered Simpson Harbour. The men at Vulcan Beach withdrew before they could be encircled.
By 9am Lark Force HQ received reports that the Japanese were coming through ‘in their thousands’ and could not be held. Enemy aircraft, flying low, were machine-gunning and shelling all roads.
Colonel Scanlan decided it was useless to prolong the action. About 11am on 23 January 1942 Scanlan gave the order to withdraw and break into small parties. Lt-Col Carr later reported that:Colonel Scanlan was of the opinion that further sacrifice of life would not serve any useful purpose and in his opinion it was desirable to close down the action and withdraw…it would now be ‘every man for himself’.
At Rabaul, about 100 wounded and sick servicemen, merchant seamen and civilians were left in the care of the six nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service.
Lark Force and the civilians on the run now had a new enemy – the never-ending jungle, treacherous rivers, constant rain and hunger and the ever present mosquito. The ceaseless tropical downpour meant no dry clothing and feet became horribly festered. Rivers literally swarming with crocodiles had to be forded. Malaria-infested mosquitos gorged themselves on the unprotected men and fever was ever present. Starvation was imminent. For weeks the ration was, at least for one group, ‘one army biscuit and one twelfth of a tin of bully beef’. Yet the men needed food for energy; for strength to enable them to continue despite every aching muscle sending a signal to lie down and die. Many did.
European Missionaries played a large role in the cultural development of New Britain and were ultimately to become a major factor in the rescue of Australian soldiers after the Japanese invasion of Rabaul in 1942.
12 Methodist Missionaries, along with other mission personnel, lost their lives on the Montevideo Maru and in the New Guinea islands.
Pamphlets were dropped by the Japanese demanding that all Australian soldiers and civilians on New Britain surrender and await capture.
Upon capture, most of the men were interned in camp outside Rabaul.
Japanese treatment of Europeans, Chinese and Indian prisoners-of-war and of Allied pilots shot down and captured was brutal in the extreme. Instances of torture, executions for trifling or imagined offences, medical malpractices and burials alive were revealed after the Japanese surrender of Rabaul.
In 2011 and 2012 the Japanese government hosted surviving prisoners to Japan to provide an apology. The Australians visited places where they were imprisoned and saw other tourist areas. The Japanese were generous and kind hosts and the apology was warmly received.
Many inhumane acts were committed during the Pacific War but few could equal the atrocities committed at Tol and Waitavalo Plantations on 3 and 4 February 1942. The exact number of prisoners-of-war killed at Tol and Waitavalo is not known but a military Court of Inquiry investigation the atrocities estimated the dead at not less than 150.
On 3 February 1942 five barges loaded with Japanese troops turned towards Tol Plantation. About 50 yards offshore they began shelling the beach.
Australian soldiers were walking in, often one by one, and giving themselves up. The interpreter, Sungai, often said to them ‘Show the guards where you have been hiding’, and the guards would go out with them and come back alone with blood on their bayonet.
Early on 4 February 1942, the prisoners were assembled at the Tol Plantation house. They had their hands tied behind their backs with fishing line. Groups of 10 or 12 were then marched in various directions into the undergrowth and were shot or bayoneted to death. Some prisoners prayed, some simply said cheerio to their mates, and some begged for their lives. They were all aware of their fate, having heard the screams of their mates. ‘They marched to their death with head erect, shoulders back and a cheery word of farewell on their lips’ recalled one of six survivors – Private William Cook. Six miraculously survived and the massacre was reported in the Australian press in April 1942.
The killings were a flagrant contravention of the Hague Convention of 1907 to which Japan was a party and which forebade the killing or wounding of an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or no longer having means of defence, has surrendered. All had been entitled to be treated as prisoners-of-war.
The officer responsible, Colonel Masao Kusunose, later committed suicide.
A number of incredible stories of escape happened by small individual groups of men who managed to find small pinnaces, canoes and open rafts to take them off the islands. Often this happened after walking for months and hundreds of kilometres through thick enemy patrolled jungle, high mountainous terrain and crossing raging, crocodile infested rivers with no food, no medical supplies, no ammunition or maps and no clothing.
Territorians who knew the New Guinea terrain such as Frank Holland, Ken Douglas, Lincoln Bell, Bert Olander, Gladys Baker and many others, assisted Assistant District Officer Keith McCarthy in the self imposed task of rescuing the men who had, apparently been considered expendable. The exhausted remnants of Lark Force began staggering into Port Moresby when the Rabaul campaign was thirty-seven days old. The last came in 267 days after the fall of Rabaul.
MV Lakatoi
The 243 ton Lakatoi was one of several small inter-island trading vessels owned by Burns Philp & Co. On 23 January 1942 she was loading copra at Garove Island in the Witu Group, near Gladys Baker’s Langu Plantation. Keith McCarthy became aware of its location on 16 March. Gladys had been a nurse in WWI and joined the men to care for them and to help guide the Lakatoi through the surrounding coral reefs.
A fleet of small boats, known as Harris’ Navy, under Patrol Officer ‘Blue’ Harris came across from Lae and ferried men from the north coast of West New Britain to Witu. These boats were manned by NGVR soldiers from the NG mainland. On 21 March, exactly 2 months after the Japanese invasion of Rabaul, Lt-Col Carr, Captain Field, Captain ES Appel and 211 others board the Lakatoi to make a dash across hostile waters toward the mainland, and then down to Australia. Two days later, on 24 March 1942 they motored through the Trobriand Islands where they met up with the Laurabada and obtained food and medical supplies. They arrived Samarai 25 March and continued on toward Australia. The boat was crowded but the food adequate. Cairns was sighted on 27 March 1942 and piloted into Cairns the next day.
214 people on board consisted of 162 AIF and NGVR troops, 6 NGAU. 6 European police, 16 civilians, 4 European crew, 18 native crew and two other natives.
The Laurabada was a yacht built for the Lieutenant-Governor of Papua Sir Hubert Murray as his official inspection vessel.
On 23 March 1942 HMAS Laurabada was ordered to meet the Lakatoi (on her way to Cairns with evacuated soldiers) in the Trobriand Islands. On 6th April 1942 she received orders to proceed to New Britain to take off evacuees who had headed to the south coast of New Britain. On 9th April 1942 Laurabada picked up 131 soldiers, 4 RAN and 21 civilians from Palmalmal, south Jacquinot Bay, arriving back in Pt Moresby on 12 April.
Montevideo Maru
The Japanese merchant ship Montevideo Maru, built in 1926 to carry emigrants from Japan to South America, was used as a troopship in World War II. On 28 May 1942 it departed Surabaya under the command of Captain Kazuichi Kasahara carrying personnel for Rabaul, where it arrived on 9 June. There were frequent air raids during the period Montevideo Maru was in port but the ship sustained no damage. On 22 June, an estimated 845 prisoners of war from Lark Force and 208 interned civilian men were marched from their camps to board the vessel under the supervision of Japanese guards. Escorting the men on the voyage in addition to the ship’s crew was a naval guard of an ensign, a medical orderly, and 63 ratings. After embarkation, the ship set sail for Hainan island at the south-east corner of China. The US submarine Sturgeon, under the command of Lieutenant Commander William ‘Bull’ Wright was on patrol west of Luzon on the night of 30 June. Like all Japanese and Allied ships carrying prisoners of war, Montevideo Maru bore no special markings.
On 1 July 1942, about 110 kilometres north-west of Cape Bojeador on Luzon, at north 18 degrees and 40 minutes, east 119 degrees 31 minutes, Montevideo Maru was torpedoed and sank in just 11 minutes according to Lt Cdr Wright’s log – there was not even time to radio a distress message. Wright, of course, was unaware the ship carried allied prisoners. It is believed all prisoners perished along with some of the crew and guards.
A subsequent Japanese report to the owners of Montevideo Maru said three lifeboats were launched, one of which was severely damaged. Many of the crew and guards got away in the other two and, the following day at 7 pm, made landfall near a lighthouse at Cape Bojeador. In seeking safety, only a small number survived conflict with Filipino guerrillas. The last resting place of Montevideo Maru is on the ocean floor of the South China Sea, probably at a depth of about 4200 metres. Rabaul had contributed over 1000 of the 8000 Australians who died as prisoners of war of the Japanese.
It was the only Japanese hellship with no allied prisoner-of-war survivors. There was no enquiry.
Naruto Maru
On 5 July 1942 the nurses at Vunapope were told they were going ‘to Paradise’. On 6 June they boarded ‘a dirty old freighter’, the Naruto Maru (Captain Chitanu) and spent nine days ‘sweating and starving before we reached Japan’. Initially the nurses, together with the 60 Officers who had been Rabaul POWs were kept down in the hold, but with some fast talking by the officers and hour on deck each day grew to most of the daylight hours. Meals, such as they were, consisted of a bowl of rice and barley mixed with cabbage or onion and fa few rations that the officers had managed to bring aboard, all taken whilst squatting in the hold of the ship.
The only concession to privacy made by the Japanese was to provide separate male and female quarters in the hold by a rope. Conditions were cramped and disgustingly uncomfortable. 60 officers, 17 nurses and one civilian reached Yokosuka on 15 July 1942 and were ‘delivered’ to the Chief of Staff of Yokosuka Naval Station. The men and women were separated. The officers were sent initially to Ofuna POW camp. After intensive interrogation over a period o0f six months Major Mollard and Lt Ted Best were sent to Zentsuji POW camp on the Inland Seas where they were united with most of the officers from Rabaul and remained there till the end of hositilities. Other officers, including Colonel Scanlan, spent time in Hokkaido. The nurses spent their war in Yokohama.
Moment of Surrender
The official surrender ceremony was held on board the British Navy aircraft carrier HMS Glory off Tavui Point, Rabaul,at 10.40am on 6 September 1945. General Hitoshi Imamura was instructed to hand over his sword by placing it on the table in front of General Vernon Sturdee. Terms of surrender, orders and instructions were read and translated. Three copies of the surrender document were signed.
By 5pm, after mine-sweeping operations had cleared Blanche Bay, Vendetta led the convoy (HMS Glory, Hart, Kiama, Dubbo, Lithgow, Townsville and Reserve) into Simpson Harbour.
Searching for Australians
Rabaul was subjected to one of the longest Allied air campaigns of the Pacific war. The first bombing raids were flown by Catalinas of 11 and 20 Squadrons RAAF shortly after the town fell. Australian, American and later New Zealand aircraft continued to raid the township and harbour, and other targets in New Britain, until the war’s end.
In 1945 when Japan surrendered there were still nearly 100,000 Japanese troops and auxiliaries in the area.
The opposing forces maintained positions while waiting for the formal surrender of the Rabaul garrison. This occurred on 6 September 1945 on board HMS Glory, an aircraft carrier of the British Pacific Fleet.
The Australians demanded the immediate handover of prisoners of war. Some hoped to find hundreds of Australians and Americans—members of Lark Force and others captured in and around New Guinea, New Britain and New Ireland. But the Japanese advised the number held was far less. The number was just 26, which included 18 British soldiers captured in Singapore, four Australian civilians, two New Zealand and one US airman and John Murphy.
The Australians liberated 5589 Indian, 1397 Chinese, 688 Malayan and 607 Indonesian troops. All nationalities had suffered terribly.
Also discovered were internees, mostly pre-war inhabitants of New Britain. On 13 September, troops and Red Cross officials liberated the camp holding Chinese residents. Jubilant men, women and children flocked around their rescuers. They had endured three and a half years of captivity, forced labour and cruelties. Three days later, troops found other civilians, mostly missionaries, at Ramale. Sister Berenice Twohill recalled:
‘We knew something must have been happening because the planes weren’t going out at all…[the war] must have been coming to an end. They didn’t tell us. Then, all of a sudden, one morning we heard this ‘Cooee’ on the top of the mountain…so we Cooeed back.’
It would take a few months to get all of the former prisoners of war and internees back home to various countries.
There was virtually no trace of the Lark Force prisoners of war and more than 200 civilians interned at the same time. Four civilian men kept at Rabaul to work for the Japanese confirmed that the prisoners of war and most of the civilians had been taken away in the middle of 1942. Hopes were raised that they would turn up elsewhere but within a month it was apparent that only the officers and nurses were alive. The Japanese advised that the rest were lost in the sinking of their transport ship. An Australian officer in Japan turned up a manifest of 845 prisoners of war and 208 internees, including Norwegian merchant seamen, who boarded the Montevideo Maru in Simpson Harbour on 22 June 1942. The list was possibly incomplete.
The Japanese advised that Montevideo Maru was sunk on 1 July 1942 off the Philippines.
By June 1946, when the question of an inquiry was debated in Parliament, Curtin had died and Ben Chifley spoke for the government. The debate on 26-27 June covered Rabaul, Ambon and Timor and other disasters that had occurred early in the war. In his speech Chifley did not refer specifically to Rabaul, but to ‘Dunkirk, Malaya, the Middle East and elsewhere’. He said he did not favour inquiries unless it could be shown that men were ‘corrupt or treasonous rather than fallible and mistaken’. Opposition leader Robert Menzies followed Chifley and said that on ‘post-mortems’ he was ready to ‘personally agree’.
When the war ended and people in Australia celebrated, the Rabaul families scattered throughout Australia waited for news. Four years of hope were soon turned into horror when they found their men had died three and a half years earlier. There was no formal enquiry.

Rabaul & Montevideo Maru Memorial, Australian War Memorial Canberra
A permanent Australian national memorial provides a lasting tribute, a place for all people to remember and to honour the sacrifice of the men and all those lost in the New Guinea islands as a result of the Pacific War.

The events were catastrophic for both the residents of the New Guinea islands and the troops of Lark Force and 1 Independent Coy sent to the islands in early 1941. Families were torn apart, loved ones missing and there were many unanswered questions.

The Rabaul & Montevideo Maru Memorial was dedicated at the Australian War Memorial on the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru on 1 July 2012. It was dedicated by the Australian Governor General, Dame Quentin Bryce.

Due to large scale renovations at the Australian War Memorial, the memorial was removed into storage in May 2021 and will be returned to a suitable location close to completion of the renovations. Unfortunately this might take some years.

The Rabaul and Montevideo Maru group has an online lesson program for teachers which complements the Australian History Curriculum.
Included are lesson plans, background notes, worksheets, links, resources, templates and easy access to an electronic 15-minute version of the VD Some Came Home, all to be used in conjunction or separately to support the delivery of this unit of work.

Lark Force Memorial
Five members of the Lark Force Association attended the official unveiling of a new monument on the shores of Simpson Harbour on 16 September 1993 by the Hon Sinai Brown OBE. The local police band attended and over twenty wreaths laid at the base of the 20-ton rock that forms the foundation of the memorial.

After the war Keith McCarthy wrote:
‘As the Australian soldier fought he also taught an important lesson to the natives – the lesson friendship. The [New Guinea] police and the native men of the Infantry and the Coastwatchers, and the thousands who had served as carriers, had shared both the peril and meagre rations of the Australians. There was no master and servant relationship here, for the frontline men treated the black men as equals, with nothing false or patronising in their friendship. It became fashionable after the war to regard as sentimental nonsense the legend of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, but sentiment should be judged by the times. This friendship was certainly not won by mere material things by the mosquito nets and the hammocks that replaced the sleeping boards of the villages, the pressure lamps and the blankets, the regular supply of cigarettes and tinned food. The foundations of goodwill had been laid, and the war consolidated them so that the black man saw the white man in a clearer light and the light was to grow in intensity so that the natives began to glimpse the future of their race.
Sergeant Major Simogun, a native policeman who was decorated after his exploits with (coastwatcher) Malcolm Wright, in New Britain, expressed the thoughts of many when he told me: ‘Before the war I knew only two or three white men as friends. With the war I have got to meet the real Australian, who has treated me as a man and a friend.’

Papua New Guinean War Heros

Following are some of the PNG war heros who worked above and beyond their duty as war on their homes progressed. Additions are welcome.

In December 1942 in Australia Pita Simogun, a Papua New Guinean, joined a coast watching patrol, led by the naval officer Malcolm Wright and destined for West New Britain on 30 April 1943. In October 1943 the party crossed the rugged interior of New Britain to Nakanai, where they operated independently and with great precision as a highly successful guerrilla force. He was awarded the British Empire Medal for his war service.

Post WWII Simogun was an active and influential member of his community, the only Papua New Guinean to serve on all four Legislative Councils, from 1951 to 1963.

Paramount Luluai, Golpak MBE LSM, was another WWII war hero. During the war he assisted Coastwatchers Skinner, Wright and Murphy with arranging carriers; and later hid and helped rescue a number of survivors from crashed Australian and American aircraft. After the war Golpak was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his bravery and dedication.

After his death in 1959 at his village at Pomio, a memorial was unveiled on 6th May 1961. On a hilltop overlooking the sea at Pomio, a brass plaque has the inscription: ‘An outstanding leader and a firm friend. He placed his loyalty above his own life.’

Yet another PNG war hero was the late Warrant Officer Paul Yauwiga Wangunare DCM. He was man of immense stature, both in feat and physique; a towering figure, legendary warrior and national hero.

In remembering all those who fought to protect our people we must not take our peace for granted.
We will remember them.
Lest We Forget.

Hostages to Freedom by Peter Stone
Brave and True by Lindsay Cox

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