The evacuation of Samarai, Boxing Day 1941: Rosalie Thacker (neé Skelly)

This is a record of the last days our family (mother Lillian, sisters Zelma, Dawn, Leonie and myself and others) experienced prior to, and after, the evacuation. My father, Clarence, remained in Samarai with many other men.

There was talk of war and the possibility of the Japanese becoming involved in the South Pacific area. I remember asking my father if the Japanese would come to Samarai. With a squeeze of my hand he reassured me, “No, they won’t come here, lovie.”

Some time before our evacuation the Caroline Maru, a small Japanese naval vessel, visited Samarai requesting water. The Customs officer was very suspicious and wondered why a Japanese ship was in these waters so far from home. A house guest took a photo of the hull and gave it to my mother. I now have it. The hull shows a very shallow draft, no doubt to enable it to go into shallow water. Little did we know that the Japanese were about to invade our peaceful shores. Obviously they were spying.

As time passed people on Samarai became more and more aware of the war situation, but continued their daily lives. A couple of weeks before Christmas Day 1941 a plane from Port Moresby flew low over Samarai and dropped a message for the Resident Magistrate, Mr Woodward, telling him to make urgent preparations for the immediate evacuation of women and children from the South East District, Milne Bay, Northern District and outlying islands. An enormous task, considering the vast area.
All ships in the Coral Sea were called in to assist with the evacuation.

The Burns Philp MV Neptuna embarked women and children from Rabaul and Samarai, and the passenger ship Katoomba took others from Samarai. The MV Macdhui (which had our Christmas goodies on board) had to by-pass Samarai to evacuate other woman and children from the New Guinea mainland.

The morning of the news of evacuation my sister Dawn and I, not knowing what was happening, decided to go down to the baths for a swim. Suddenly our attention was drawn to Duro, one of our hotel staff, running down the road calling out “Sinabada (our mother) wants you to come quickly”. We grabbed our towels and hurried home, wondering what the urgency was.

When we arrived Mum, without explanation, told us to get dressed quickly and pack a small suitcase of clothes. I, being thirteen years old, was allowed 35 lbs weight but my older sisters were allowed 45 lbs. Having packed all we could, we carried our cases down to the Customs Office to Mr Ernest Bremen who we knew well.

As we waited for our turn to be weighed, with suitcase, on a copra scale all kinds of thoughts went through our minds. We still did not know what was happening and after the weigh-in were allowed to return home leaving our suitcases with Customs. That night we were told we had to leave the island as the Japanese Fleet was heading for Rabaul.

As mother was licensee of the Samarai Hotel and had to cater for meals and accommodation for the few remaining families, as well as the RAAF Catalina crew on reconnaissance missions in the Milne Bay area and who stayed overnight with us, we were one of the last families to leave.

On Christmas morning mother was up early as the Catalina was due from Port Moresby. The pilot said to her “Mrs Skelly, there will be a plane here tomorrow and you and your children have to be on it. It will be the last plane out of here.” With that he said “We will be leaving shortly but will return late this afternoon.” The Catalina was very late returning and mother became concerned and sent one of the native staff down to the foreshore to await its arrival. He came running back to the hotel calling “Sinabada, Balus ikam! (aeroplane is here).” We were all very relieved.

It was our custom in the hotel to have Christmas dinner in the middle of the day but it was a nightmare trying to make it a festive occasion for so many when our Christmas supplies had not arrived from Sydney. With mother’s ingenuity and the help of a good cook-boy everyone enjoyed a great meal. The only thing missing from the menu was chicken. As we only had three left in the fowl-yard mother decided to cook them for the aircrew’s dinner.

The hotel guests had already begun their evening meal when they were joined by the aircrew. One woman, seated at a table close to them, noted they were given a chicken meal and said in a loud voice “So we weren’t good enough to have chicken but the Air Force are. They already live on the fat of the land.” Everyone in the dining room fell silent: none of us could believe anyone could say such a thing. This outburst really upset my sister Dawn.

Boxing Day came. It was still dark when mother woke us and with dread in our hearts we hurriedly showered and went downstairs for breakfast. After our “Goodbyes” to the hotel staff we made our way to the foreshore where the last of the evacuees had gathered. As we stood waiting to get into the dinghy I couldn’t help thinking this can’t be happening to us. Leaving the island we loved so much we wondered if we would ever see our father again. We kissed and hugged him goodbye, and were then rowed out to the flying boat. The dinghy took out three or four people at a time until everyone was on board.

The aircraft had been stripped to make room for us and our baggage inside. We sat wherever we could. With the door locked and engines running we knew we were on our way. Twice we taxied about two miles out into the China Straits, but failed to take off because of the heavy load. After taking a longer turn up the Straits the pilot announced that if we didn’t take off on the third try luggage would have to be ditched. He then made a run and was finally airborne. The aircraft was so overloaded we skimmed the treetops of nearby Kwato Mission.

The sun was rising as we were on our way to Port Moresby, flying at 15 000 feet. After a calm flight we arrived in the early afternoon. Mother and we girls were the last off the plane and as we climbed up the steps from the small jetty she stopped suddenly. We looked up to see a tall man in Air Force uniform in front of us. He asked if she was Mrs Skelly; she said yes and that we were her children. He said “I am the Wing Commander-in-Charge of the Catalina Division and I have come to thank you, on behalf of my men and myself, for the care you took of them during their stays in Samarai.” He then wished us a safe trip to Cairns and a happy life in Australia. I could see mother was quietly delighted by this. I found out later that the officer’s name was Charles Pearce.

We were met by a government official and taken to the Papua Hotel, owned by Burns Philp, and still being built. There were no walls, so brown paper was hurriedly put up for privacy for each family (walls definitely had ears, but who cared). We were told the Army would hide us in the ranges at the back of Rouna, some thirty miles inland from Port Moresby. But after much thought it was decided to send us to Cairns. Arrangements were made for the flight, but we had to leave our suitcases behind so journeyed South with what we stood up in.

On the morning of 27 December we were taken out to Jackson’s airport at 3.30 am and boarded a Lockheed Hudson aircraft for Cairns. It was cold and very misty. We were now classified as evacuees. Arriving at Cairns we were again met by a government official and taken to Hyde’s Hotel to freshen up, have a meal and rest until the afternoon. We then boarded a train for Sydney via Brisbane, a week’s journey. There were several hundred people on it and the sleeping cars were given to women and children. The majority were German women and children from New Guinea, now classified as prisoners of war, who were going to a camp at Nowra in NSW.

It was impossible to get any news of what might be happening at Samarai. The journey to Brisbane seemed endless; perhaps not having any room to lie down and sleep made it seem so. At the numerous stops Red Cross and other organisations gave us food and drinks for which we were very grateful. In Brisbane we were taken to the Canberra hotel with still no news of Samarai.

I remember looking out the window some six floors up and saw a number of women and children standing in a square of some kind. We were later told they were prisoners of war from New Guinea. We had very little sleep for the rest of the journey and were relieved to reach Sydney with the nightmare finally over. We stayed at the Hotel Metropole and were well looked after. Still no news from Samarai although we read in a newspaper that a Japanese aircraft dropped a bomb there an hour after we left.  We were very concerned knowing that our father and other men were still there. We remained at the Metropole for a few days until mother decided it was time we found a place of our own. Our suitcases arrived in Sydney six weeks later on the Burns Philp ship Muliama.

A “scorched earth” policy was adopted for Samarai preceded by a Farewell Party. What couldn’t be eaten or drunk was taken onboard the coastal vessel Matoma together with my father, seven Burns Philp staff and six other people. They sailed for Port Moresby on 25 January 1942.

My father returned to Samarai early in 1946 and had the task of making a place for our return later that year. My sister Dawn’s thought on returning to Samarai was that if ever a beautiful island was raped – it was Samarai. 

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