THE PACIFIC WAR New Guinea Islands 1942
The bleakest, most depressing days in Australia’s history were surely the six months following Japan’s entry into the Second World War … the invasion of Rabaul by Japanese troops on 23 January 1942 was the first occasion on which enemy forces had landed on Australian-controlled territory.
Lt-Gen. the Hon. Sir EF Herring
In January 1942 Rabaul was Australia’s front line in the Pacific war. This war was fought on Australian soil against Australian people. It was a critical period in the history of both Australia, and what was then the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea.
Rabaul, on the northern tip of the Gazelle Peninsula, is surrounded with volcanoes and therefore complicated by the natural danger of volcanic activity. Its magnificent port was the export and import centre for the New Guinea islands with vessels loading copra, cocoa, timber and marine products. Whilst Rabaul had the major population, others were scattered on New Ireland and other islands in the Bismarck Archipelago.
When WWI broke out in 1914, Australia moved quickly to secure the former territory of German New Guinea, and Japan seized those German territories in the Pacific, north of the Equator—the Caroline Islands, the Mariana Islands and the Marshall Islands. At the conclusion of WWI the Council of the League of Nations granted mandates to both Australia and Japan in respect of these former German territories.
Whilst Australia had responsibility to protect the people of New Guinea, certain League of Nations restrictions were imposed prohibiting the establishment of fortifications, military or naval bases and of training local inhabitants other than for maintaining law and order. Australia abided by the conditions but Japan did not.
The European residents in New Guinea had considerable unease as they watched increasing visits by Japanese and German shipping to Australian Mandated New Guinea. After war with Germany broke out in 1939, a coastwatching network was set up by the Royal Australian Navy.
A militia unit—the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR), using obsolete WWI equipment—was formed in the Territory with its headquarters in Rabaul. This was made up of planters, administration officers, traders, schooner masters and
other members of the community—men between sixteen and forty-five with intimate knowledge of New Guinea and its people.
In 1941 Australia sent Lark Force, 2/22nd Battalion, to Rabaul, and 1 Independent Company to Kavieng. No plan was made for the civilians. The defence of New Britain was to be the responsibility of 1,400 Australian troops, based around the 2/22nd Battalion. Among them was a Salvation Army band from Brunswick in Melbourne.
The 1 Independent Company, a commando unit, comprised around 250 officers and other ranks. About 150 men were based in Kavieng to protect the airfield, while others were deployed as observers to central New Ireland, Bougainville and Manus, as well as to Tulagi in the British Solomon Islands and Vila in the New Hebrides, now Vanuatu.
On the ground, the military command could not possibly cover the miles of coastline with the token force they had. Yet the Chiefs of Staff in Australia had decided that the garrison would not be evacuated, would not be reinforced and
would not be re-equipped. In August 1941 Rabaul was assessed to be at risk of a major invasion, but a proposal to evacuate civilians was rejected.
European Evacuation from Rabaul—22 December 1941
The first Japanese surveillance aircraft flew over Rabaul on 8 December 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. On 11 December 1941 Canberra said there would be no evacuation, reversing this decision the following day. Males over sixteen years were to remain, although there were cases of younger boys staying.
The fate of Lark Force was set in a cable sent to Washington, on 12 December 1941, by the Prime Minister’s Department, Canberra:
… it is considered better to maintain Rabaul only as an advanced air operational base, its present small garrison being regarded as hostages to fortune.
Word had to hurriedly reach outlying plantations, and small vessels were delayed bringing women and children in to Rabaul because of the treacherous weather and rough seas. The Burns Philp ships, MV Macdhui and MV Neptuna, evacuated European women and children on 22 December 1941, although many from outlying plantations and New Ireland missed these ships. Upon reaching Australia the lives of the evacuees fragmented and many struggled. They had lost their men, their homes, their friends and their community.
The evacuation order did not apply to indigenous, mixed race or Chinese people. The failure to evacuate Chinese women and children in Rabaul and Kavieng caused understandable bitterness in a Chinese community that feared the Japanese. Later, those on the New Guinea mainland were approved evacuees. Despite the evacuation of women and children, many wives and families of missionaries and several nurses could not reach Rabaul in time, or elected to remain.
The First Bombs—4 January 1942
These were dropped on Rabaul on 4 January 1942, and the last civilians were taken out on 8 January 1942. 1,700 servicemen and at least 300 European civilians were not evacuated, despite several ships entering Rabaul before the bombing started.
In early January 1942 Lark Force was told that ‘Every man would fight to the last’. Still, no dumps of food, medicines, ammunition or maps were made in the mountainous jungle behind the Gazelle Peninsula.
Air attacks were made on Rabaul and Kavieng on 20 January. Rabaul saw eighty bombers and forty Zeros bomb shipping, wharves, airfields and buildings. One result was inevitable for the gallant five Wirraway crews of the RAAF No. 24 Squadron who took off to do battle in the face of overwhelming superiority, and they will always be remembered for their magnificent courage.
The Fall of Rabaul—23 January 1942
It was only a few hours after the Japanese invasion force of around 5,000 troops, mainly from the 144th Infantry Regiment, entered Simpson Harbour, quickly overwhelming the small Australian garrison on 23 January 1942, that word went out ‘Every man for himself’.
Those who escaped were considered the lucky ones and yet what many of them went through, walking hundreds of miles over rugged mountainous jungle in the wet nor’west season, crossing raging rivers often infested with crocodiles, suffering hunger and starvation and the dreaded malaria, can only be imagined. 214 escaped on MV Lakatoi and 156 were rescued on HMAS Laurabada. Others escaped New Britain and New Ireland on smaller vessels.
Japanese brutality towards prisoners of war, coastwatchers, interned civilians and missionaries in both New Britain and New Ireland was regular. For those captured or who gave themselves up, there was five months of imprisonment labouring for food.
The sixty officers who had been separated from the men, together with seventeen nurses and one civilian woman planter, were shipped to Japan on 6 July on MS Naruto Maru and spent the rest of the war years as prisoners of war. In addition, more than 150 civilians were eventually liberated from a valley camp at Ramale in the Kokopo area after WWII ended—nearly all were members of the Sacred Heart Mission, including many nuns.
Many of the soldiers and civilians who were rescued owed their lives to members of the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU), the New Guinea residents and some courageous New Guineans. These people took initiatives and accepted risks.
Rabaul became a key Japanese staging and supply centre, headquarters of the Japanese South East Fleet. In 1945, when Japan surrendered, there were nearly 100,000 Japanese troops and auxiliaries in this part of New Britain.
Difficult and costly battles were fought during the New Guinea Campaign from the invasion of Rabaul by Japanese troops on 23 January 1942—the first occasion on which enemy forces had landed on Australian-controlled territory. Many people mistakenly believed the first Japanese attack was the bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942, which received comprehensive media coverage—whereas Rabaul, the horrific massacre at Tol Plantation and the tragic sinking of MS Montevideo Maru received little, if any, mention.
The Rabaul 1942–45 Memorial on the shores of Simpson Harbour, honours all those who lost their lives in the defence of New Britain, and in the course of the Japanese occupation during 1942–45. It also features a cairn in remembrance of Montevideo Maru.
A memorial has also been erected in Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby to commemorate over 700 officers and men of the Australian Army (including Papuan and New Guinea local forces), the Australian Merchant Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force, who gave their lives during the New Guinea Operations, and who have no known grave.
Eighty years later many Australians are still unaware of this history. It is important to ensure that the sacrifice of these men is not forgotten, and that the Fall of Rabaul and surrounding islands and the sinking of Montevideo Maru remain an enduring part of the nation’s history.
Edited extract from the Introduction, Andrea Williams,
When the War Came: New Guinea Islands 1942, PNGAA
Tol Massacre—4 February 1942
Some of those who escaped from Rabaul and walked through the jungle eventually found a few small boats, in which they crept along the south-east coast of New Britain coming ashore in the vicinity of Tol Plantation at the eastern end of Wide Bay. Unfortunately, they were expected and were met by five barge loads of Japanese troops. The exhausted Australians had no choice but to surrender. Two men escaped and were re-captured at the neighbouring Waitavalo Plantation, where they were smeared in pig grease and burned alive in the house.
Another who escaped, eventually came into contact with some civilians on the bank of a creek about half a mile from the beach at Tol Plantation. They untied the cords which had been on his wrists all the time, and provided him with food.
After the war, 160 bodies were discovered in the vicinity of Tol and Waitavalo Plantations, including seven NGVR soldiers. A few survived by playing dead although they had terrible wounds and, against all the odds, managed to get back to Australia. They later described how most of them were rounded up and in the early morning of the next day, 4 February 1942, tied up in small groups, led into the jungle and bayoneted or shot by Japanese soldiers. The Japanese officer responsible for these war crimes was Colonel Masao Kusunose, who later committed suicide.
Some historians believe that the Tol Plantation massacre was among the most callous in the war. A school in the area has been named the 2/22 Lark Force School, and a small cairn was erected at the site in 1987 by survivors of the 2/22nd Battalion and members of the 3rd Brigade Australian Army.
‘Keepers of the Gate’
The New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR), a militia unit, was established in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea in September 1939. With an establishment of twenty-three officers and 482 other ranks, sub-units were established in Rabaul, Kokopo, Wau, Bulolo, Lae, Salamaua and Madang.
When the Japanese invaded Rabaul in the early hours of 23 January 1942, there were eighty soldiers from the Rabaul company of the NGVR positioned on the extreme northern flank of the defence around the western shore of Simpson Harbour, but they
withdrew when outflanked to the south, and most moved west along the north coast. Of these, twenty-two escaped, forty-six were captured and twelve perished in battle or succumbed to privations suffered during their escape.
Other NGVR units monitored the Japanese bases in the Huon Gulf region, establishing observation posts and camps overlooking the main approaches—they were the ‘Keepers of the Gate’. In a series of raids NGVR inflicted significant casualties on the Japanese. On 28 June 1942 NGVR and the newly-arrived 2/5th Independent Company carried out a highly successful attack on the Japanese garrison in Salamaua.
Later, when the focus shifted to the Kokoda and Milne Bay battles, NGVR continued to man its posts overlooking the Japanese—1942 was NGVR’s year. However, it was an exhausted unit by September. Although some troops remained in place, there were too few to be effective when NGVR was officially disbanded in April 1943. It was later reformed as the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (PNGVR) in 1950.
Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU)
From their inauguration in April 1942, the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) played a vital role. The Australian Army called for young men to become patrol officers in ANGAU—the section of the Army which carried out the function of the two former civil administrations of the Territory of Papua and the Mandated Territory of New Guinea.
When a large part of New Guinea was occupied by the Japanese, some amazing feats of valour and endurance were performed by ANGAU Patrol Officers. Courage, ingenuity, bold shrewd enterprise, great patience and perception were required of them. They were deprived of the company of all other white men and without even the most ordinary comforts of life. Yet, enabled by their intimate knowledge of the indigenous people and the country, they lived amidst the enemy, causing incalculable losses by the intelligence sent to headquarters by wireless.
The ANGAU officers and their New Guinean carriers, labourers, scouts, guides and police were highly regarded by the American and Australian military. After the end of World War II, ANGAU was abolished and was replaced under the Papua New Guinea Provisional Administration Act (1945–46) by the combined government of Papua and Australian New Guinea.
This force had its beginning in 1922 when the Royal Australian Navy received approval to recruit a network of unpaid, carefully selected civilians, including merchants, missionaries, planters and public servants who were living or working on or near the coast of the northern mainland of Australia and the islands to the north. The network was established for the purpose of reporting in wartime, any unusual or suspicious happenings along the coast.
When Japan began its move southward in January 1942, the network was enlarged. More people with local knowledge were recruited as well as personnel from the Australian armed forces.
These men were landed at various vantage points, mostly at night, to observe and report by radio, movements of enemy shipping, planes and troops and any other information deemed important.
Most of them were helped by the local people, including Pita Simogun, Luluai Golpak and Kina Awai amongst others, who risked their lives and that of their families, operating behind Japanese lines, fighting the enemy and gathering critical intelligence for the Allies—despite the threat of instant reprisal if they were discovered. Some of our men were accidentally betrayed and taken prisoner, which earned them instant execution. Theirs was a lonely death—alone against a brutal enemy.
The names of many of the coastwatchers who died are recorded on the memorial to them, which is located at Madang.
Rabaul & Montevideo Maru Group
This was established in 2009 to represent the interests of the families of the soldiers and civilians captured in Rabaul and the New Guinea Islands after the Japanese invasion in January 1942, many of whom are believed to have perished on MS Montevideo Maru.
The major objective of the group was to have a memorial erected for those lost and, on 1 July 2012—the seventieth anniversary—a commemorative sculpture was unveiled by Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce, AC, CVO, Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, at a ceremony attended by 1,700 people—many in their eighties and nineties—at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The Rabaul & Montevideo Maru Group was wound up in 2013, with its assets and remaining objectives being transferred to the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia, and in 2017 the PNGAA published When the War
Came: New Guinea Islands 1942, to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Fall of Rabaul and the sinking of the Montevideo Maru.
The book tells the stories of the civilian and military men, nurses, missionaries, women and children caught in the leadup and aftermath of the Japanese invasion and occupation of the New Guinea Islands.
The group has now produced an education package to complement the Australian History curriculum for secondary school students—and they work to encourage everyone to explore the significance of WWII in the Papua and New Guinea Islands—and what the start of the Pacific War in 1942 meant for Australia.
Sinking of Montevideo Maru—1 July 1942
Early in the morning of 22 June 1942, members of the Australian 2/22nd Battalion, No. 1 Independent Company, and civilian prisoners, captured in New Britain during the Fall of Rabaul in January of that year, were ordered to board MS Montevideo Maru, a Japanese passenger vessel used by the Imperial Japanese Navy during WWII as an auxiliary vessel transporting troops and provisions throughout South East Asia—only the army officers, some nurses and a small number of civilians were left in the Malaguna Road camp.
MS Montevideo Maru sailed unescorted for Hainan Island, keeping to the east of the Philippines in an effort to avoid Allied submarines. On 1 July 1942, the ship was spotted by the American submarine, USS Sturgeon, which manoeuvred into position and fired its torpedoes. The ship sank by the stern in as little as eleven minutes from their impact.
Although the Japanese crew were ordered to abandon ship, it does not appear they made any attempt to assist the prisoners to do likewise. Of the eighty-eight Japanese guards and crew, only seventeen survived the sinking and subsequent march through the Philippines jungle.
While the exact number and identity of the more than 1,000 men aboard Montevideo Maru has never been confirmed,
Japanese and Australian sources suggest an estimated 845 military personnel, including thirty-six NGVR soldiers, and
up to 208 civilians perished in the tragedy —the greatest loss of Australian lives at sea in war or peace.
Considerable efforts were made by both the Inter-national Red Cross and the Australian Government to seek details of Montevideo Maru’s passengers from the Japanese authorities, however, the deaths in Australia’s least-known maritime disaster were not revealed until after the end of the war, when Japanese records were accessed in Japan.