The Evacuation of the Sepik: JA Thurston’s April to September 1942 Expedition

The Evacuation of the Sepik: JA Thurston’s April to September 1942 Expedition

Wewak, 1938

Elizabeth Thurston

My father-in-law, Jack Thurston, arrived in New Guinea in 1924 to take up a job with the  Administration in Kavieng. He had served in the First World War and spent time afterwards in Europe where he picked up enough  German to become conversant. This would certainly have inspired him to travel to the former German Territory of New Guinea where plantations were being expropriated.

Jack left the Administration after two years to work as mate on the Meklong, which belonged to WR Carpenter. He eventually skippered it before acquiring his own boats to carry copra and cargo around the islands, and transport miners to Salamaua during the gold rush.

In 1926, Jack, through his good friend, Phebe Parkinson (sister of Queen Emma), purchased land at Jacquinot Bay situated on the Drina River. Here he established Drina Plantation, which was later used as a base for soldiers of the 2/22nd Battalion after their escape from Rabaul in 1942.

When war broke out, Jack was gold prospecting on his lease in the Sepik. Although he was over forty, he planned to fly to Rabaul and head south to Australia to report to the Navy Office for service. His wife, Betty, and son, Jackie, had already been evacuated by Kevin Parer in December 1941, when all the women and children were ordered to leave the Territory.

With the bombing of Rabaul, government officers and civilians in the Sepik were left to fend for themselves. The DO [District Officer] JH Jones, placed the government schooner, Thetis, at the disposal of any Europeans and non-essential government officers wanting to leave Wewak for Australia by sea. However, after the Japanese captured Lae and Salamaua, any escape by sea would be too dangerous. Any evacuation party would have to cross the backbone of New Guinea over the Thurnwald Range, Donner Mountains, and the Limestone Plateau to the headwaters of the Fly River.

MV Thetis at Kanganaman village, 1956

This expedition was classified as a government evacuation party and Jack was appointed by DO [District Officer] Jones to lead it on a journey that would take 148 days and successfully bring the civilians and carriers to safety in Daru. Thirteen years previously, Ivan Champion and Charles Karius had made a patrol in the reverse direction—up the Fly and down the Sepik.

Jack was later commissioned into the Royal Australian Air Force but, for much of the rest of his Pacific War, was on intelligence duties with the American Forces. After the war, Jack and Betty, with their expanding family, returned to New Britain. (A second son, Michael was born in Australia in 1942 while Jack was crossing the Limestone Plateau.) Daughters, Carla and Paula were born later. He extended his interests in plantations acquiring Volupai at Talasea, and Manguna on the south coast. His interests extended to shipping and sawmilling and he remained devoted to Papua New Guinea until his death in 1985.

The following is a summary of the diary he kept on the expedition. The story of the expedition will appear in PNG Kundu in two parts. Part I, which follows, describes the preparation for the expedition and includes an account of an insurrection at Angoram which complicated those preparations.

Evacuation of Civilians from Wewak to Daru—March to September 1942: Part I

Jack Thurston

Early in January 1942 the District Officer, DO JH Jones, drew up a scheme for the evacuation of civilians and Government Officers from the Sepik District in case an evacuation became necessary. This scheme was drawn up in case of an enemy attack on Wewak by bombing and an enemy landing. It was therefore necessary to put some of the plans into action at once.

A site was chosen in the hills at the back of Wewak where stores were taken, and an emergency wireless station set up. Another base was made at the head of the Kariari River to Yimas, a village on the Arafundi River, a tributary of the Sepik River, where stores from Maprik, Angoram and Aitape were to be sent. This site was convenient to either move inland or to go down the river and then proceed by sea. It was thought more than likely that the route by sea for evacuation would be closed.

When Rabaul, Salamaua, Lae and Madang were bombed, the District Officer gave the order for those wishing to join an evacuation party to proceed to Yimas. With some of his staff he moved to his base behind Wewak, and a watching post was kept at Aitape.

It was made very clear to all civilians that the evacuation was voluntary. Stores were removed to Yimas and most of the civilians in the district went to Yimas.

Eric Petterson (also on expedition) and Jack Thurston

After bombing Madang, the Japs did not continue further north with their activities as was expected, so a halt was called in the evacuation plan and the District Officer was in touch with Headquarters at Wau and Port Moresby to see if an evacuation could be arranged by air or sea. During this period the civilians at Yimas became very restless as can be understood with a large number of men cooped up on a very small island that you could walk around in five minutes.

Gradually, they drifted down to Angoram [government station] where ADO [Assistant District Officer] George Ellis was in charge. Ellis, from the beginning, had told many people that he would not leave his station.

Then came the order that all men over 45 were to be evacuated; civilians and Administration Officers and all others were called for service.

This put an end to any plans for evacuation.

Ellis was ordered to take all over-age men to the Ramu by the Small Ramu, thence up the Ramu Valley and join the District Officer, DO Oakley. Later this was altered to a route down the coast to Bogadjim [just south of Madang], thence inland. Ellis refused to go both times.

ADO [Assistant District Officer] Taylor was sent from Wewak to take over the station from ADO Ellis who refused to hand over. Ellis told a number of people that he would never leave the station and he had all the police going about armed with 100 rounds of ammunition on them. He himself was always escorted by a police boy.

Word came that DO Jones was coming to Angoram, and two days before he was due Ellis decided to hand over to Taylor and things looked quite alright. On the morning of 20

Jack Thurston at his mining claim

March, Ellis appeared at the District Office with a revolver in his hand, backed by a line of police boys and gave Taylor and others half an hour to get off the station, otherwise he would put them off.

A fight ensued which lasted about three hours. Ellis had all the police, about fifty, all entrenched around his house, and it soon became clear that they would not be dislodged without loss of lives on our side, so it was decided best to retire to Marienberg and meet Jones who was on his way upstream. Unfortunately, Taylor was wounded in the groin whilst getting away on the Thetis. He was operated on at Marienberg and recovered.

On DO Jones’ arrival, it was decided to return to Angoram so a small party went upstream in the Thetis. On landing and cautiously advancing towards Ellis’s house, they found the station deserted and Ellis was dead, having shot himself.

Before the police cleared off, Ellis had told them to go upstream and kill any whites they saw.

Patrol Officer Strudwick, who had been wired to come to Timbunki, was murdered on his arrival there by some of the police.

Many of the police came back to Timbunki and Angoram to give themselves up as they stated they had been forced into joining Ellis and did not wish to be in any trouble. Some of the leaders of the police entrenched themselves on an island in the Chambri Lakes [a series of swamps and shallow-water canals in East Sepik]. From there they made a trip up the Krosmeri river and attacked a party of miners there, killing G Eichorn, J Wilton, J Mitchell, R Beckett and a Chinese, Ah Sang.

Aerial view of Angoram on the Sepik River ,1942

It was not known if young Eichorn got away or was murdered.

Mr Jones instructed me to bring all stores down from Yimas to Angoram and to pick up Messrs Milligan and Searson, Patrol Officers at Timbunki, and proceed to the head of the May River where a base was to be established by Messrs Milligan and Searson, and I was to proceed on and take a party of civilians across New Guinea to Daru.

After he received the news of the murder of Strudwick and the further desertion of police from a base at Yarangu, Jones ordered me to proceed on the evacuation trip without Messrs Milligan and Searson, taking PO [Patrol Officer] Hodgekiss with me and to return on the Thetis after bringing our party as far as we could go up the May River. Already fifteen whites had left just after the Angoram fight on the Nereus and they eventually reached Australia.

Editor’s Note: Thurston’s account of his evacuation expedition will appear in the next edition of PNG Kundu.


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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