Private Stokie’s war in the jungle: Don Hook

One of the more extraordinary stories to come out of WW2 involves John Stokie, a New Guinea planter and one-time private in the NGVR, who ended the war as a decorated coastwatcher and guerilla leader. Stokie has been described as a “roughneck” with no military training or knowledge, and as a first class bushman who knew how to work with the local people. Don Hook has been tracing, albeit with some difficulty, the background and adventures of this amazing soldier.

Leslie John Stokie was born at Colac, a dairying town in western Victoria. His date of birth is shown on most Army records as 12 September 1902. On others it is 12 December 1901 which is probably correct.

Stokie worked for five years as an agent for the Victorian Producers’ Cooperative. He joined the New Guinea Police Force but left after 12 months to go to the British Solomon Islands Protectorate (BSIP) as a representative for Lever Bros.

Several years later, he returned to Australia and bought a dairy farm at Pakenham south east of Melbourne. That didn’t last long and he was back to New Guinea in the late 1930s managing plantations.

In July 1940 Stokie enlisted in the 2nd AIF, giving his date of birth as 12 December 1901. He was posted to a machine gun training company but was discharged after five months under the then Manpower Act.  As a plantation manager, he was deemed to be in a reserved occupation.

Stokie joined the NGVR in Rabaul in April 1941 and was placed on the reserve list. He was told he’’d be required only if there were an invasion in which case his knowledge of the Bainings would be invaluable. 

In September 1941 Stokie married Helen Mason, a sister of Bougainville planter and coastwatcher Paul Mason. It was Stokie’s second marriage. His first wife had died about seven years previously, leaving him with two sons. The boys—John (14) and Peter (7)—were with Stokie’s widowed mother Henrietta at Upper Ferntree Gulley, near Melbourne.

Stokie was mobilised on 20 January. The next day he stood guard at the Rabaul wharf before being transferred to A Company 2/22nd Battalion. Later in the day he was admitted to the regimental aid post suffering from malaria. He left the aid post on the morning of 23 January—invasion day—scouted the immediate area and then boarded a truck that promptly became bogged in the sand. The officer in charge made the call: Every man for himself.

Stokie still had malaria and it wasn’t long before he lost consciousness. When recovered, he set out on foot for the Bainings but was confronted by a group of Japanese on bicycles. He reacted by throwing a Mills bomb at them, and quickly ran into the kunai.

In an official Army report by NG239 Pte John Stokie on his movements during the period January 1942 to March 1943, he wrote of further serious bouts of Malaria leaving him “nearly dead for four days”.

He gave details of his journey by foot and canoe to reach the Bainings; providing food and care for troops trying to escape; compiling details of every Japanese position in the Rabaul area; and defying Japanese calls for his surrender.

On one occasion the Japanese sent a native force of 200 to take him prisoner. According to Stokie, he told them to go home while their luck lasted. They did.

Stokie heard snippets of war news from time to time. They were not always accurate like claims that Port Moresby had fallen and Japanese troops had landed in Australia.  But he reacted positively by having work done on his plantation when he was told, incorrectly, that the Allies had retaken Salamaua, Lae and Kavieng.

Eventually at the end of July, he came to the conclusion that the war would continue for a long time. He had a canoe built and set out for the New Guinea mainland.  He had to return, however, when a native crew member became very ill. This delayed future plans until at least October.

Stokie learned that shot-down American airmen had been hiding in hills at the back of Ulimono for some months. The Japanese were very active in the area and it took several weeks to get a message to them. Stokie told them he was sailing to the New Guinea mainland as soon as the north-west monsoon ended, and invited them to join him.

At first the Americans thought it might be a trap. But that was discounted when they read Stokie’s note a second time. It ended with the words “Cheerio all. The best of luck”.  According to the Americans that sounded like the words of a “dinkum Aussie”.

The three young airmen were in poor health when they arrived at Stokie’s camp. Two had to be carried but they soon recovered after medical attention and good food.

In early March 1943 Stokie and the Americans waved lap laps and flashed a mirror at a low flying American Liberator aircraft. When the aircraft returned the next day, it dropped food and instructions for identifying themselves. They received further visits during the next two weeks and were dropped flashlights to signal their position to a Catalina flying boat sent to pick them up.

On arrival in Port Moresby, a US general decorated the airmen with the Purple Heart and congratulated them on their amazing luck. Along with Stokie they were debriefed and then presented to a group of war correspondents. The story attracted headlines in several countries with Life magazine devoting nine pages to their rescue.

All John Stokie wanted to do was establish whether he was a soldier or a civilian. “If I’m a soldier, can I have some leave?” he asked senior officers.  He got his leave.

Interviewed in Melbourne, his mother Henrietta told journalists: “It seems that John has done his duty.”

She said he was very carefree and never worried. “As long as his wife, mother and children are well he does not appear to have a care in the world.”

After a family holiday, Stokie returned to duty as NGX450 Lt John Stokie of “M” Special Unit, and he was soon in action as a coastwatcher and leader of a small guerilla group in New Britain.

On 28 September 1943 the American submarine Grouper put ashore 16 Australian and 27 native troops near Cape Orford south of Wide Bay.

A group led by Middle East veteran and former patrol officer, Captain Ian Skinner, included Lt Stokie as 2IC and  Sgt Matt Foley as signaller. They moved quickly to the Open Bay region on the North Coast near a mountain known as The Father.

Later, Skinner moved south to form Lion Force guerillas while Stokie stayed in the north with Sgt Foley. Officially, Stokie was supposed to be gathering intelligence, not fighting. His native troops had deliberately not been issued with modern automatic weapons.

The Japanese were in retreat from West New Britain giving Stokie plenty of opportunity to use his newly formed force. However, he was refused permission to mount an attack on a post manned by 15 Japanese naval men at a village near Ulamona.

Soon afterwards, HQ New Guinea received the following signal from Stokie:

For security reasons it became necessary to liquidate Jap garrison at Ulamona. Now have their books 2LMG (light machine guns) in short their entire belongings, maps charts, etc. no survivors.

Thereafter Stokie was allowed to use his native followers armed with spears, knives and captured weapons to seek out the enemy in their country. By the time Stokie was withdrawn from New Britain in June 1944, his men had killed 63 Japanese.

Their method of attack was described as simple, devious and of little risk. The natives would approach a camp and single out a Japanese, engage in conversation, and offer brus (leaf tobacco) and native food. On a given signal, the natives would seize the nearest Jap whilst others quickly emerged with sharp axes and promptly executed the entire party. It was bloody but effective and silent.

Not surprisingly, there were differences between Skinner and Stokie.

Skinner is quoted as saying: “As regards Stokie … well, any military unit of any size would be well off without Stokie.”

A high ranking officer said: “Skinner is a good soldier. Stokie is a roughneck, a first class bushman and can handle boys. Has no military training or knowledge.”

On the other hand, Sgt Matt Foley described Stokie as a “good bloke – a gallant gentleman.”

He was much older than the rest of us. He was not fast but he could walk all day. He was an incredible walker. He’d say you go ahead and I’ll catch up later and he would,” Sgt Foley said.

When the war ended John Stokie was an acting captain and had been awarded the Military Cross for outstanding gallantry during the period September 1943 to May 1944. The citation said his personal courage and vast knowledge of natives contributed to the success of coast watching and guerilla operations on New Britain.

Stokie is thought to have returned briefly to New Britain after the war but he and his wife Helen settled on farming properties at Nana Glen and Upper Orara on the NSW North Coast.

Helen’s nephew, Jim Mason from Sydney, remembers staying at Nana Glen with his aunt and “Uncle John” in the 1960s.

He liked horses and we went to race meetings at Coffs Harbour and Grafton. He enjoyed riding, especially an old racehorse named Helen’s Beau, and obviously was a good rider,” according to Jim.

John Stokie is believed to have been President of the Coffs Harbour Race Club in the 1960s. Unfortunately, all club records for that period were lost in a flood.

Jim Mason said his uncle’s dress on the farm was always a singlet, trousers, and gum boots. He liked a drop of whisky and smoked cigars.

He was quite a character. He was a member of the then Country Party and claimed a former Governor General Sir Paul Hasluck as a friend.”

John Stokie died in 1973 not long after being involved in a road accident. He is buried at Coffs Harbour. Helen moved to Sydney after his death and remained there for the rest of her life.

Nothing is known of Stokie’s two sons from his first marriage. Jim Mason said he’d met Peter in Sydney years ago but had never met the elder son John who, at that time, lived in Melbourne. Today, if alive, they would be 75 and 82.

Stokie’s young brother, Pte James Albert Stokie, died in a Japanese POW camp six months before the war ended. Aged 40, he’d been captured on Ambon in early 1942.

Canberra-based Don Hook was a PNGVR member in the 1960s.


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