A daring escape: Gladys Baker

(Published Una Voce, June 2002, page 14)

This is the story of Gladys Baker’s escape from the Japanese as she described it on Radio 2FC at 7.45pm on Sunday night, 27 August 1942. Glad was a widow with no immediate family. Her husband, Bill, an ex-serviceman from WWI, died from blood-poisoning in Rabaul about 1934.

After Japan attacked and when women and children were being evacuated from New Britain I asked permission of the Administration to remain. I thought maybe there might be use for my medical knowledge and I thought that my ‘mud-ticket’, which I gained because of my knowledge of New Britain waters, might be required.

That last Christmas of 1941 at Langu was the closest I could make it the same as all others. I arranged the usual sing sing for the natives but I doubted if we would ever have another Christmas on Langu for a long time. Almost a week before Christmas the first of many Jap reconnaissance planes came over. Nearly all of them would come down low and circle the house at Langu. In case of bombing I made the natives take shelter in the reinforced concrete culverts I had helped them build. Some Zeros came too with the Rising Sun glinting on their wings and I hated the scream as they dived to look at Langu and at the plantation anchorages.

Just after Christmas I was granted permission to remain in the Territories. The last ship carrying women and children had gone. As far as I knew I was the only woman left.

On 19 January the natives told me that Praed Point at Rabaul had been bombed and gave me details of the bombing which I later found to be accurate. The news came by drums and smoke signals down the mainland of New Britain and my boys picked it up. It was a clear day and they had seen the smoke signals on the mainland 64 miles away. The following day all radio news from Rabaul ceased and later I learnt from the natives Rabaul had fallen.

There was a small steamer anchored at Witu – the Lakatoi -and I tried to persuade the crew to leave for Australia but they thought the run would be too risky. On January 24th I loaded my pinnace – Langu the Second – and set out for the mainland to make food dumps which I was sure we would require later. I was sure if any Australians escaped from Rabaul they would make down the coast. Langu the Second had only 9 knots and was 27 feet long. I had with me a boat’s crew and we established our dumps along the Aria River. I left a cutter on the mainland with eight boat’s crew – boys from my own plantation – with instructions to return to Witu immediately and tell me if they had any news of Australian soldiers.

On my return trip on 14 February a Jap seaplane circled my small pinnace and looked about to land. I told the boys what to say in case the Japanese did land and come across to investigate us. I hid in the bilge under the after-decking. There was a slap as the seaplane landed and the motors roared as it taxied close. Next I heard footsteps on the deck accompanied by a flood of fluent Pidgin. The Japs had boarded us and were questioning the natives. The native boys told one of the two in answer to his questions that their master had gone to Sydney a long time ago and that they were going back to the plantation on Witu to pick up a load of workers to take them back to their villages on the mainland. I remember that strangely enough I was not frightened of the Japanese. Perhaps that was because a rat in the bilge water was running about and brushing against my bare leg – I was wearing only shorts and shirt. I bit my lip till blood ran to prevent myself screaming and giving myself away to the Japanese. The Japs seemed satisfied with my boys’ explanations, gave them a cigarette and a biscuit each, went back into their plane and took off. And it wasn’t a rat after all. It was only some cotton waste. When I came up my face was covered in a black scum of oil, and pitch from the decking had blackened my back. I saw then that three of the boys had spread a sail over the decking and pretended to mend it all the time the Japanese were on board.

I got back to Langu and two days later the cutter returned. The boys told me of 18 Australian soldiers who were at Linga-Linga Plantation at Talasea. The Australians, the head boy told me with tears in his eyes, were ‘Sick fella masters too much’. I immediately loaded the pinnace with food and medical supplies. I overloaded dangerously because I had 15 tons by measurement on a 5½ ton boat and at midnight on the Sunday, with three natives and a half-caste girl, Emma Leahmann, we crossed to Iboki. I found the 18 Australians there and met the Assistant District Officer, Keith McCarthy. Keith put me in charge of the Iboki camp and the next morning five of the Australians who were well enough left for Cape Gloucester. They were to wait there until the other 13 were well enough to travel and join them. They meant to try to get to Finschhafen. I cooked for and nursed the 13 boys who were sick, and meanwhile Keith McCarthy with Rod Marsland went back to Tol Plantation which was the scene of the Japanese Massacre. I nursed the boys for about a week, then an order came back from McCarthy telling me to send them to Gloucester. I prepared the boys for the trek, and they went by canoe and launch.

Finschhafen had fallen before they left Cape Gloucester, and the 18 boys got to Madang from where they went overland to Moresby and did not get to Australia until 2½ months after I did.

I remember a funny incident at Iboki. I had taken my denture to clean it when one of the soldiers suddenly took a bad turn. I went to him and left the denture in a half bottle in which I was cleaning it. When I returned, it was gone and I accused the soldiers of playing a practical joke. I was rapidly becoming annoyed until I suddenly noticed a native boi who was quite naked except for a pair of rosary beads he was wearing around his neck. I looked closer and discovered that he was also wearing, attached to the beads, my missing denture.

With the Australians gone from Iboki, I got the pinnace out and sailed up the coast towards Rabaul to see if I could find more troops. A little way up I saw a boat stranded on a reef and thought it might have been an enemy boat. I left the pinnace to go on up the coast in charge of the boys, while I returned to Iboki in a canoe. However that night the boat on the reef got off and came into Iboki. To my relief it was a Mission boat and they were surprised to find a woman to welcome them. They had on board 35 boys of the 2/22nd Battalion in charge of Captain E.S. Apel who is now Lieutenant-Colonel. Some of them were very sick and others were wounded. A few days later the pinnace came back with 15 Diggers, a Guinea Airways boat brought more. Escapees continued to trickle in until we numbered 191 in all. Some of the boys had lost all their clothes and were wearing lava-lavas, and all of them were bearded.

I remember being struck by the number of ginger beards. I worked night and day caring for them and feeding them. In sixteen days I could only snatch 13 hours sleep. Two of the boys were badly wounded and one of them whose name I think is Bill Collins of Cronulla had been shot up by the Japs in the Tol Plantation Massacre.

After he was captured he broke away with his hands still tied together. The Japs fired at him and hit him in the shoulder, another shot went through his wrists and miraculously severed the cord which bound him. They had already taken his boots and he wandered in the bush for four days. Brambles and thorns cut his legs badly. He went back to the massacre scene and helped two soldiers who had been bayoneted and left for dead, up a steep incline to a native house. The Japanese came, set fire to the house and Collins alone was able to escape.

Many of the sick had severe tropical ulcers, and malaria and dysentery had struck many others. The fever cases were more severe than usual because of the poor diet the men had been subjected to. Their systems were craving for salt and sugar. However, whilst in camp, we were able to kill a bullock or some goats every day and this with a small helping of rice, tea and jam, helped pick the boys up. Water was a difficulty and the natives brought us water by canoe from a distance of 12 miles sealed in long lengths of bamboo. On March 15th we had a round-table conference attended by all Army officers and by the Captains of the boats of the small mosquito fleet which by now was assembled at Iboki. It was finally decided to go with the fleet back to my plantation to see if the steamer which had been there when I left was still sheltering. Early next morning we arrived at Witu and fortunately the steamer, the Lakatoi, was still there. We put the sick soldiers into an improvised hospital while the others, with natives, set to work cutting leaves and small trees to camouflage our tiny fleet. We camouflaged the steamer – a ship, by the way, of 170 tons – by mixing camouflage colours from a combination of red, white, black, grey, blue and yellow paint which we found on the island. With other soldiers I went to my plantation and we killed as much livestock as the ship’s refrigerator would hold. I had no time to collect many personal belongings or papers.

On the night of 19 March we were all on board the Lakatoi. I played poker with some of the men while we were waiting to sail and lost £11. I was holding fours all the time. Next afternoon we sailed and we prayed for luck. I piloted from Witu through the Dampier Straits and dropped anchor at Umboi Island in the Straits on the 21st. Some of the boys went ashore for a wash at the creek, and on the after deck we built a place to cook for the troops. Next day we sailed again, passed Finschhafen in broad daylight and followed the main Japanese water route past Gasmata. This is rather a feat considering we had no charts of any description with us and the Dampier Straits through which we passed is thickly studded with outcrops of reef, and is known for its tricky tides.

With the help of a Papuan native boat crew we managed to get to the Trobriand Islands, and once there the Papuan bois could pilot us on to the D’Entrecasteaux Group where we were to meet the Laurabada – the Papuan Government Yacht – having previously contacted by tele-radio Army and Navy authorities at Port Moresby.

After giving us some more medical supplies they piloted us through the China Straits, and we trusted in luck and providence that we’d meet up with Australia sometime, somehow – still having no charts.

We arrived in Cairns on Saturday, 29th March. [China Straits to Cairns – approx. 850 km.] The civilians and officers were billeted in hotels and the troops were taken to a camp for the night where doctors and nurses took charge of them. The next morning (Sunday) a special train was made up and although I was offered help for the train trip I preferred to carry on alone. On the journey I made it a practice of devoting each hour to a particular carriage to continue the medical treatment which I had been giving the troops from the start of the evacuation.

The Red Cross and the Queensland people were marvellous – bringing supplies of food and clothing to the train for the boys. On the following Wednesday I handed over to an Army Medical Officer at Exhibition Camp, Brisbane.

When we started our evacuation I weighed 11st. 5lbs.; when we handed the troops over at Brisbane – although I didn’t know it then – I weighed 7st. 1 lb.

In recognition of her work in helping the troops in their escape, Gladys Baker was later awarded an OBE. She was among the first civilians to return to Rabaul after the war and after only a short time back on Langu Plantation she was stricken by malaria (?) and died. She was buried in front of her beloved plantation home.

(Our thanks to Peter Coote for sending us this story.)


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