Matt Foley was one of the two remaining former Australian coastwatchers who served in Papua New Guinea during World War II has died. He was 91.
Foley lived in Rabaul, in East New Britain Province, from 1947 until 2005, when he left for the Gold Coast after a long battle with Malaria.
In 1943, aged 18, the Ballarat-born signalman stepped off a submarine at New Britain’s Cape Orford to begin his service monitoring Japanese ships in the Pacific. After a nine-month stretch in the New Britain bush, Foley was almost captured when, expecting to be picked up by an American patrol boat in March 1944, he accidentally signalled a Japanese craft to come to shore. “That was a terrible night,” Foley told AAP in 2005.
At the time he was leading a group of friendly islanders carrying silk supply-drop parachutes which were to be returned to Australia “to save money for the government”. When the Japanese vessel was about 500 metres from shore, Foley asked an islander who spoke some Japanese to call out that they were only local villagers fishing. “They accepted that and they turned around and went on their way. About half an hour later along came the PT boat. It was the closest I had been to being captured in my life,” he said. He returned to Melbourne to be mustered out in 1946.
But he’d started a love affair with Rabaul. “He loved Rabaul, he loved the people. Everybody liked him,” his son, Philip, told AAP. “He had so many stories.”
During the war he was part of a team that rescued downed Australian airman William Townsend, who in 1967 would become air vice marshal of the Australian Air Force.
In the years before Papua New Guinea achieved independence from Australia, Foley was president, trainer and a jockey at the Rabaul Amateur Turf Club.
He was also devoted to the Returned Service League, serving as president and life member of the Rabaul RSL. He was on the Rabaul Town Advisory Council and a mainstay of the local Catholic church.
Rabaul Historical Society spokesperson Susie McGrade said Foley devoted his life to the town. “He used to drive his nurses crazy because it was all he’d talk about, Ms McGrade said. “He was a legend in Rabaul, he was a legend amongst the Returned Service League.”
Foley met his wife, Margaret, in Rabaul in 1947. She’d left Sydney on a cruise ship with the dream of going to Hollywood to start a career as an actress with Columbia Pictures. Instead she met Matt Foley.
The couple opened and ran a transport business, New Britain Transport, before Margaret’s death following a battle with cancer in 1969. Foley never remarried. For 30 years he ran a series of cocoa and copra plantations, working for 10 years beside his son, Philip. After a prolonged fight with malaria, Foley left Rabaul in 2003 for the Gold Coast to get treatment. It would be almost 10 years before he would return home to Rabaul.
In September last year he went back to take part in services marking the 70th anniversary of the war and the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. “He came up five days before the service to catch up with friends,” Ms McGrade said. “He was so tired at the end he couldn’t deliver the oration but it was good he came one last time.”
Matt Foley died at the Gold Coast Hospital from complications following a massive stroke. He is survived by his son Philip and daughter Linda.
Maxwell Hayes remembers: Ever the comedian, I saw him [Matt Foley] in Melbourne three or so years ago when he was staying with his sister. Remembering that I was once booking his clapped out WW2 vehicles for numerous faults some 50 years ago as a young copper, I jokingly said, “Matt, I have come to arrest you”. His reply was “About bloody time” and we shook hands.