Evacuation from Edie Creek: Hilda Johnson

Extract from a letter written by Hilda Johnson to a close friend – published Una Voce, December 1997, page 30 and in Tales of Papua New Guinea, page 65.

The letter was written some time during January 1942. Ted (Johnson) was the Chief Metallurgist for New Guinea Goldfields Ltd – he was evacuated during January 1942 between Japanese air-raids on Wau. (Hilda and Ted were the parents of Ross Johnson, our Treasurer.)

…However one can only live a day at a time these days and things would sort themselves out later I hope. I’m hoping very hard that Ted may get away from N.G. He could easily get a job in Munitions and if we can all be together again, money won’t matter very much. I can’t bear to think of all the things I have left behind me. Goodness only knows whether I’ll ever see any of them again – quite apart from some lovely bits of furniture and my pictures etc, there is all my linen – and blankets and cutlery etc and practically all my clothes. The people who got out by ship were lucky as they could take plenty of luggage with them. We who were on the mainland of N.G. were the unlucky ones. The whole journey now seems like a bad dream and just ages ago.

When Japan declared war we radioed and cancelled Ross’ trip home. He was disappointed but not nearly as much as we were, as we had made such preparations for his Xmas etc. However Mrs Gross [wife of N.G.Goldfields’ General Manager] and Pat arrived by the plane on Friday and thought we were crazy not to have let Ross come. The following Tuesday we were told that the Commonwealth Government were evacuating all women and children. I spent a hectic afternoon packing linen, etc., and next morning started packing and re-packing my 30 lbs trying to decide what I needed most. I was told to be ready to go at a moment’s notice on Thursday. I also did a bit more packing of household stuff and then decided I’d better use up all the fruit and stuff I’d got in for Xmas cakes and puddings so I made Ted two large Xmas cakes. By night I was so tired I could scarcely stagger. On Thursday we were told we’d probably go on Friday. We decided anyway to go to Wau and do some banking business. We were only allowed £5 in cash as the Bank was short of money. Some folk were lucky enough to be able to collect a bit of cash. I took my suitcase down on Friday and left it in Wau. The road was in an awful state as we had had so much rain and it was a most unpleasant journey.

In Wau we discovered that as the flying had been so bad, there wasn’t much chance of our going before Monday so we returned to Edie Creek. Saturday morning I spent making four tins of biscuits – fiddling sort of rusk affairs that Ted likes and that keep indefinitely. It became very difficult to settle to anything so I decided Ted could do with another pair of socks. By Sunday night I had finished one sock and started the other one. On Monday we were told Wednesday and I began to hope for more bad weather so that I’d get Xmas at home. However the weather was very good for flying about that time. The first lot that flew out went from Moresby by boat but as it must have been very expensive keeping a big ship there waiting when the flying was bad, she departed and they then chartered a Douglas and two Lockheed airliners to ferry everyone to Cairns. From Wau they used the two big Junkers and a few smaller planes. The Junkers are only for freight and people had to sit on suitcases and they had some very rough trips – one Junker load was 11 women and 33 children and nearly all were sick – there is no air conditioning in a Junker, very hot and dark inside and near the tail are two open porthole affairs and there it is bitterly cold. They sent four pregnant women and their children in one planeload – they were deadly sick and two of them had their babies before the boat left Moresby.

Anyway, to return to my story, I heard a rumour on Monday afternoon that they were trying to hurry things up a bit and that we’d be going the next day. By evening I had half a sock finished and then word came that we had to be on the drome by 10 a.m. the next morning. I had to dash round then and do a few things about the house and we left home at 8.30 a.m. the next morning. Some plane-loads had left Wau before we arrived and we were told we’d be going in the afternoon. Getting baggage weighed was a great business as most people had over 30 lbs. And we were made to disgorge. My handbag weighed at least 14 lbs and I wore one coat and carried my fur coat with a cardigan stuffed into its sleeve. In the afternoon the biggest Junker came in and its pilot refused to fly again – said it was too rough. We had to wait for the other Junker to come and everything depended on its pilot. It is generally considered dangerous to fly after 4 p.m. there so we had booked a room at the hotel for the night and thought I’d go at 6 a.m. the next day. However at 4 p.m. the 2nd Junker arrived and its pilot reckoned he could make Moresby. He has never been known unwilling to take a chance. Finally we were loaded in – over 20 women and about six young babies and we had to sit on planks along each side. I had a seat in the tail beside an open porthole. We left the drome at 4.30 and all the men were very sick at our flying so late. That departure was a frightful business and half the planeload wept bitterly. We flew round in the clouds for a solid hour around Wau. The pilot tried to get through at 6000 ft. but finally had to go 14000 ft. to get across and it was very bumpy in those clouds. Everyone thought they were going to be sick but only one woman was and she had several bouts. It was bitterly cold where I sat even with my fur coat and finally just when we all felt we couldn’t hold out much longer we got into Papua and mercifully it was clear there and we arrived at Moresby at 6.50 p.m. and about five minutes later dusk fell like a blanket – no twilight there. We were not expected so late and no preparations were made for us.

They got our luggage out by lantern light and the soldiers took charge of us – nursed the babies and made us tea in buckets. We sat out there for over 1 1/2 hours, much to the disgust of the mothers. Finally we were taken into the hotel (about 5 miles) in army wagons and they had managed to get a meal for us there. The hotels were all full and there was nowhere for us to sleep. Finally they got us billeted round the town (all the women having departed) but it was well after 10 p.m. before most of the mothers got their infants parked. It really was an awful day. I had a very hard bed in the bachelor quarters of the B.N.G. Trading Co. However I was so weary I’d have lain anywhere. Next day we returned to the drome about 11.30 a.m. – they served tea and sandwiches out there under a canvas sail. While we were there a couple of plane-loads arrived in – one lot came from Bulolo in our Junker and never have I seen anything so ghastly as they looked – some had to be carried out. Finally, about 2.30 p.m., we were ready to leave. The Douglas took off and we went in the Lockheed later – we passed the Douglas in mid ocean and beat it into Cairns by over 1/2 hour. It was a lovely trip over the ocean though very bumpy just before we landed.

We were taken to a hotel and told we’d be there till Friday. There are lots of decent hotels in Cairns but we were unlucky and struck a poor one – the Railway Hotel where we were regarded as a nuisance. A special train of about 200-odd people had left Cairns on Xmas Day and they intended to wait till they collected another trainload. There were only about 70 in our party. However the hotels were booked up for Xmas and we were not wanted, so they put two carriages on to the usual morning train to Townsville. We were given an awful breakfast at 7 a.m. and left at 8 a.m. in two aged 2nd class carriages. In our half were over 20 women and about 10 infants and one had to sit bolt upright on a hard seat for the day, jammed up with people one hoped one would never see again. Xmas dinner we had at a Railway restaurant – oily fish and lumpy potatoes – frightful and we were hot and thirsty, also filthy. However Townsville wasn’t quite so bad as we got a better meal there and also I had a decent bath at the station. The Red Cross met us there and were very kind. They managed to get some sleepers and extra room for the mothers with babies. That emptied our carriage considerably and we were relieved to lose the kid who had screamed all day. We could lie down at night but it was very uncomfortable and so filthy. We had to have the windows open because of the heat and our door wouldn’t shut so the soot just poured in. I spent two days and two nights in that awful carriage and by the time we reached Brisbane I felt very ill and determined to buy myself a sleeper to Sydney.

However at Brisbane the Tourist people met us and took us to the Hotel Canberra where we were given rooms and had baths and a really good breakfast – mothercraft trainees took over all the babies and bathed and fed them on the roof garden. We had an early lunch and there and then left for Sydney, this time in first class sleepers – shared a sleeper with a friend who had a tiny baby. He behaved like an angel the whole trip. However as soon as we crossed the border the heat became intense until we could scarcely bear to sit on the leather seat cushions – it was 110 degrees at Casino. We had dinner at Grafton and VADs [members of a Volunteer Aid Detachment] met the train there and minded the babies. My arrival in Sydney I told you of in my last letter.”

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