A tribute to Peter Figgis, MC: Patrick Lindsay

Patrick considered it ‘a great privilege’ to be asked to pay tribute to Peter Figgis’ remarkable wartime service at Peter’s funeral.  He said: ‘I hope I can do justice to an extraordinary man’.  The following is what he said.

Some months ago, as I looked at this gentle, cultured, handsome man … in the sitting room in his nursing home … I remember thinking: I wonder whether the staff here have any idea of how much this old man risked and what he did for the freedom we all enjoy in Australia today.

They say that, in wars, individuals rarely play a significant role. But, let me tell you, individuals like Peter Figgis, and his small band of comrades in the Coast Watching service, played a role far, far in excess of their numbers in the Pacific War.

In fact, I reckon if Peter had been a Yank, they would have made ten movies about him and his exploits by now—with everyone from Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart through to Brad Pitt playing him.

In fact, Peter was straight out of Central Casting: tall, dashing, handsome, with a movie-star smile and piercing eyes. Yet he was self-deprecating and unflappable under pressure.

I remember looking into his eyes—once windows into the mind of a warrior—and seeing eyes brimming with the compassion of one who has seen the unspeakable horrors of war and who has learned life’s enduring lessons. He radiated integrity.

Peter left his job with the wool firm, Grazcos, to join up in Caulfield, Melbourne on 4 July 1940, aged 24 years and 8 months. At that stage he wouldn’t have realised how many of his skills and early life experiences had combined to prepare him ideally for his future roles in the war.

He was a fine athlete, and in particular, an outstanding long-distance swimmer. He was an accomplished sailor. A natural leader, he had served with the Melbourne University Regiment before the war.

Within a month of enlistment, Peter was commissioned a lieutenant with the 2/22nd Battalion and then appointed as the battalion’s Intelligence Officer … aged 25. Peter and his battalion hoped to join the rest of the AIF in the Middle East but in the early months of 1941 they were sent to Rabaul on New Britain Island as Lark Force, a garrison for the town, which was in those days Australian territory.

Initially, Peter and the other 1400 troops thought they’d been stuck in a tropical backwater while the war raged elsewhere. But then came Pearl Harbour and the Japanese onslaught through Asia and then the Pacific, and Rabaul was suddenly a vital strategic location.

As Intelligence Officer, Peter repeatedly warned headquarters in Australia that Japanese troops were on the way and that they would overrun the small and pathetically poorly-armed garrison. His warnings were ignored.

On 23 January 1942, an overwhelming Japanese invasion force covered the horizon with ships. They landed and swept aside Lark Force in a single day. Peter’s commander was forced to issue the order ‘every man for himself!’

For Peter, this was the start of 79 days on the run through the jungles of New Britain as he and his mates tried to evade the Japanese and somehow get themselves back to Australia. They had been abandoned by the high command: one communique even referred to them as ‘hostages to fortune’.

One of those who travelled with Peter on this odyssey was his life-long friend, Hugh McKenzie, later best man at his wedding and godfather to his son, and after whom his son was named.

During their escape, on Friday 13 February Peter’s group almost ran into a Jap patrol and then Peter and Hugh McKenzie stumbled across a terrible sight at Tol Plantation. Here they found the mouldering remains of 120 Diggers who had surrendered to the Japanese ten days earlier and who had then been tied together with wire in groups of ten, then taken into the bush and bayoneted or shot to death.

So Peter and his mates knew what awaited them if they were caught. That only served to redouble their efforts. They found a small abandoned dinghy, repaired it and sailed it down the south coast in an epic journey: four men in a 12 foot dinghy. After a month or so battling the seas and hiding from Jap planes and patrols, they made contact with a larger group of escapers. They eventually made radio contact with Port Moresby and arranged for a boat to rendezvous with them to take them to the PNG mainland.

The boat was the official yacht of the Administrator of Papua, the Laurabada. It was 30 metres long with beautiful lines. But it had just four cabins and was designed to accommodate eight passengers. Peter and 156 diggers jammed themselves on board and sailed to Moresby, arriving on 12 April 1942.

Of those 1400 troops of Lark Force, about 200 were killed in action, around 400 escaped and 800 were taken prisoner.

Some months later, the 800 POWs were put on board a ship bound for Japan. The Montevideo Maru was torpedoed by an American submarine near the Philippines. All 800 POWs went down with the ship … still today, Australia’s greatest maritime disaster!

You’d think that, having survived such a shattering experience, Peter Figgis would have opted for a quiet desk job somewhere out of the action. Not Peter, he volunteered for the M Specials, a secret intelligence group, and then accepted an offer to return to New Britain … back to the nightmare from which he’d escaped … this time as a Coast Watcher.

The Coast Watchers were a select band, formed early in the war, who watched and reported on enemy movements, initially from Australia and the surrounding Pacific Islands but, after the Japanese occupation, from behind enemy lines.

They were codenamed ‘Ferdinand’ after the mythical bull which would rather smell the flowers than fight in the bullring. They were to observe and report, not to fight. But, of course, they were in constant danger, being hunted by the Japanese, by land and by air. Some 36 of them were captured and executed by the Japanese.
It was during his training, on the Gold Coast, where he worked alongside the heroes of the Singapore Z Special raids, that Peter met his beloved Nerida. 

A year after his escape, Peter was aboard an American submarine heading back to New Britain with another Coast Watcher, Malcolm Wright, and four PNG native soldiers, including Sergeant Simogun Pita, another of Peter’s lifelong mates. They secretly landed at Cape Orford, about 80 kilometres from Rabaul and began reporting on Japanese operations.

Like all Coast Watchers, Peter communicated by using the then state of the art AWA Teleradio: a cumbersome, complicated apparatus that had a separate transmitter, receiver, tuner, amplifier and petrol-driven engine to charge the battery. It took between 12 and 16 men to transport it … and this was the ‘portable’ radio that the Coast Watchers had to use while trying to evade the Japanese.

For more than a year, Peter lived this bizarre life on the edge. Always alert for Japanese patrols, who would try to home in on his radio signals and hunt him down. He and his mates lived largely off the land, with regular but rare supply drops by Catalina flying boats. Many of the pilots became cherished friends and they often dropped special gifts of tobacco or whisky, and the occasional letter from home or newspaper or magazine.

Peter and his fellow Coast Watchers saved countless allied lives by giving early warning of bombing raids. Their warnings allowed the Americans and the RAAF time to scramble their fighters and attack the bombers from out of the sun, often eliminatingthe unsuspecting Japanese.

The Coast Watchers were also responsible for saving the lives of many downed airmen, including the future president of the United States, John F Kennedy, who was rescued by an Australian Coast Watcher, Reg Evans, after his PT 109 was sunk.

During his time on New Britain and on subsequent assignments, Peter and his comrades had many narrow escapes from capture. On one occasion he swam out to sea in pitch darkness to find and guide in an American submarine. This was a remarkable man.

Peter had a special kind of courage, perhaps of an even higher degree than the hot-blooded courage we often see of extraordinary valour in action. To have witnessed the dangers, to have seen first-hand the merciless actions of his enemy—who at that stage appeared unstoppable—and to have escaped them once, meant that returning to the nightmare demanded a level of courage unimaginable to us mere mortals.

Peter’s superiors recognised his bravery.  He was recommended for the Military Cross. His recommendation read: “Whilst in enemy occupied territory (Japanese) T/Captain Figgis furnished most valuable and timely reports of Japanese shipping, submarine and aircraft movements which enabled allied aircraft to inflict considerable loss on the enemy.

” He organised and maintained a native intelligence system which has supplied GHQ with information regarding the enemy’s strength, dispositions and installations. Since the 2nd October 1943, Captain Figgis has been in charge of the allied intelligence bureau party of which he was previously 2 IC.

” The presence of the party was known to the Japanese, whose reconnaissance planes and land parties have searched continuously in an endeavour to locate it.  With a total disregard for personal danger, Captain Figgis has continued to report enemy movements until 19th November when he was instructed to withdraw further inland so as to avoid capture and be available to resume his original role when opportunity offered. Captain Figgis is still in enemy occupied territory.”

Peter was given a ‘periodical’ award of the Military Cross for bravery. That’s reserved for those who display numerous acts of valour over a long period. The citation for the MC read, with wonderful brevity: “for exemplary courage with allied intelligence bureau”. The MC was awarded by the NSW Governor on 27 February 1947.

Peter was delighted after the war to know that his great friend Simogun had been awarded the British Empire Medal for his bravery. He would become a PNG Parliamentarian and would later become Sir Pita Simogun.

Peter Figgis was a special member of a special generation of Australians. As Hugh [Figgis] will tell you shortly, his war service was only one shining part of his life. But it was an inspiration to all those who know or learn of his story.

Peter and his comrades risked so much and sacrificed so much for us. Their sacrifices will only be in vain should we fail to keep their stories alive.

Peter Figgis’ story is part of our dreamtime. We must pass it on to future generations.  May Peter’s spirit live on.


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