C.O. (Bill) Harry: Frazer Harry

Bill led an extremely interesting and varied life in both PNG and Australia. He died in Melbourne, after several months of ill health, on 4 January 2011, aged 94.

Bill started life in a farming family in the north central Victorian region, the youngest of five children. Pre-depression the Harry family enterprise was extremely successful, being the largest wheat growers in Victoria, and the largest Clydesdale horse breeders in Australia. The depression years altered things dramatically, and Bill, being the youngest, didn’t see his future on the land. The war came along and he travelled to Melbourne. On 28 May 1940, he enlisted in the AIF. The 2/22 Infantry Battalion was formed and, in February 1941, the 1300 men were transferred to Rabaul, on the island of New Britain, in New Guinea.

The story of the 2/22 Battalion and what it went through is a long, tragic story. Suffice it to say that, after the Japanese invasion of Rabaul in January 1942, the Japanese attacking force, when it came, was estimated to be up to 20,000 troops (with over 40 ships including 2 aircraft carriers; up against 1300 infantry men with a meagre 6 Wirraway planes. Fewer than 400 of the original 1300 made it home, and of Bill’s unit of the Intelligence Section, he was the only survivor.

Bill’s role prior to the invasion was to survey the surrounding area. In addition he was friendly with some of the Methodist missionaries, particularly John Poole, and went on mission patrols with them further into the bush: gaining a greater understanding of the jungle, its tracks and villages. The area inland from Rabaul, running down the island, and in the Baining Mountains, was the only obvious means of retreat in the event of attack.

On the morning of 23 January 1942, the Japanese did attack. Overwhelmed by the invasion, retreat became inevitable within hours. Colonel Scanlon, the commanding officer, soon declared “every man for himself”. As there had been no official plan for retreat, a message also went out for Bill Harry. Bill’s knowledge of the land was invaluable and he worked with Scanlon and Command HQ to assist in planning the belated retreat into the jungle. When Scanlon and some other officers decided to surrender, Bill opted to go it alone and hit the bush looking for his mates. From Rabaul, and the Malabunga and Vunakanau area, he travelled down to Lamingi, then across to Sum Sum on the south coast, gradually moving down past the Wide Bay area, Waterfall Bay, Palmalmal, eventually down to Gasmata.

Bill spent the next few months in the bush, sometimes by himself, sometimes in a small group, dodging the enemy and helping out as many stragglers as he could find. He always said afterwards that he was reasonably comfortable dealing with the bush: he’d take his chances there, rather than with the Japanese. It was a judgment that was to prove vital. Among other atrocities that occurred, approximately 120 Australian troops who surrendered to the Japanese at Tol plantation, in the Wide Bay area, were tied together in groups of 10 or so, marched out into the jungle just back from the beach, and bayoneted or shot. A few members of the small party Bill was with at that stage came across the terrible scene a few days later. (The other great tragedy which befell so many of the troops and civilians who were captured or surrendered, was the sinking on the 1st July 1942 of the Montevideo Maru, en route to Japan as a prisoner transport ship. Some 1200 were lost at sea, including over 800 troops as POWs, the majority members of the 2/22 Battalion).

At one stage, the party Bill was with needed to get word to another group of soldiers back up the coast re planning their escape from New Britain. Bill was the one nominated for this task. He was given 4 days to get there and return, otherwise he’d be left behind. He got there and returned in less than 2 days, virtually not stopping or sleeping the whole time.  It was a remarkable effort, later referred to by some of his battalion mates as “Bill Harry’s March”. He and 120 others eventually made it off New Britain by boat, the Laurabada, in April 1942.

New Guinea drew Bill back after the war, working with Burns Philp based in Port Moresby.  He became involved in the local scene, joining a cricket club, and generally getting to know the region. Around this time he and brother Lindsay had pooled their money and purchased war surplus machinery to ship back to Australia.  They couldn’t afford insurance, and unfortunately their ship struck a reef in the Coral Sea: they lost the lot. 

Bill eventually returned to Melbourne, and took up a position as a clerk with the Soldier Settlement Commission. When this instrumentality merged with the Rural Finance Commission Bill became its Deputy Chairman which position he held until his retirement. He was primarily involved in land development and gained particular satisfaction from the Heytesbury settlement which became one of the best dairying regions in Australia. Bill had seen the disasters of land development and management from his early years, and basically spent his working life ensuring that that wouldn’t happen again.

Another of Bill’s real passions was helping War Veterans and their families, and he will be remembered for this as much as anything else he achieved. Bill retained a lifelong bond with his battalion mates and, after the war, was instrumental in forming the 2/22 Battalion Lark Force Association, being its President, and later Secretary, from the 1950s until 2002. It is difficult to comprehend the time and effort he put into this and it was truly appreciated by the men and their families. In addition to this, he was:

  • Honorary Treasurer of the Victorian RSL for 39 years,
  • On the Board of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust which raised the funds and set up the Winston Churchill Scholarship.
  • On the Salvation Army Executive Committee for over 20 years,
  • On the Corps of Commissionaires Board of Governors for over 30 years,
  • A founding member of the Anti-Cancer Appeal,
  • 26 years as Chairman of the Patriotic Funds Council of Victoria,
  • A Trustee with the Necropolis Trust for 15 years from 1988. 
  • A Council Member of the Melbourne Lord Mayors Fund for Hospitals and Charities for 40 years.

Within the RSL he was, among other things:

  • Honorary State Treasurer for 37 years
  • Treasurer of the War Veterans Homes Trust
  • Treasurer of the RSL Widows and Widowed Mothers Trust
  • Chairman of the Anzac Appeal and Poppy Appeal
  • a member of the RSL National Finance Committee
  • Chairman of the RSL Cricket Competition (cricket being a great love)

On Bill’s eventual forced retirement from his charitable work, due to ill health, Mark Sherlock of the RSL stated that “Bill Harry’s service to the ex-services community has never been equaled anywhere in Australia”. Although never one for self-importance, Bill was never the less proud to receive an OBE in 1982, and then in 1996, an AM, for services to the ex-services community, and charitable service to the community in general.

Family was the other great thing in Bill’s life. In the 1960s, he met and fell for Ruth McMaster, a school teacher who originally hailed from Melbourne. Ruth also had a New Guinea connection, being appointed deputy principal of Malabunga High School, near Rabaul in the 1960s. Bill proposed to her on Namanula Hill in 1966, overlooking Rabaul and its stunning harbor. Ruth accepted and returned (giving up her career) to set up home in Melbourne. A year on, son Frazer came along, followed by Rohan 18 months later. In more recent years Bill lived to see grandchildren Sarah and Ryan.

PNG, and ENB/Rabaul in particular, remained a lifelong passion. Bill was involved in organizing various official trips and events in the region, such as memorials to the 2/22 Battalion, and those lost on the Montevideo Maru, and the memorial Cairn at Tol. He was great mates with men such as Keith McCarthy, Frank Holland, Rod Marsland: like Bill all great contributors to PNG both during and after the war, with incredible stories of their own. Time Bill and his family spent around Rabaul post war was always enjoyable, Rabaul returning to some of its past glory, and of course always so beautiful. Bill made over 20 trips back there, and catching up with local identities and friends, including the Cohen family, Father Frankie, Matt Foley, Jim Copeland, “Dutchy” Shelekans, Arch Taylor, among many others, was hugely important. They were always very “social” occasions! 

Until ill health, Bill, with Ruth, was active in the church, and his other interests, and of course getting to the beach house at Mt Eliza (named Namanula after that most significant place in Rabaul) and traveling extensively both in Australia and overseas.

Bill was a man who did so much for others, and who held such a love for New Guinea and its people. He has requested his ashes be scattered in Rabaul.             

 

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