When Home Was A Trip Through Hell
Here is the story of one man’s war. It is a microcosm of the overall conflagration, the story of a small party of stragglers’ epic escape from the Japanese on New Britain…a story rich in drama, courage, endurance and an indomitable will to survive.
Part 1 was in Una Voce Issue No. 2, June 2014 Part 2 of 2
Neave is reluctant to talk about the massacre. Official histories record that more than 200 Australians who had escaped from Rabaul had gathered at the plantation. Some gave themselves up, others were captured by the Japanese.
About 160 men were shot or bayonetted to death in four separate groups. A few escaped by feigning death. Neave’s party, then eight strong, escaped into the jungle before the killings started. They had to cross a wide, shallow river. Others trying to cross the same river had been machine-gunned. Neave’s party learned later from natives that the Japanese had left only half an hour before they crossed.
They headed for Gasmata, on the south coast, but found that the Japanese had taken it. They were then cut off, with the enemy ahead and behind them. They could not walk on the beaches because the Japanese were searching for the telltale footprints.
At a village named Tui, the headman allowed them to stay in a hut after they told him the Japanese were killing their men and molesting their women, and that they (the Australians) would return later with American soldiers and drive the Japanese away. By this time they were exhausted, wasted from starvation, malaria and dysentery.
‘We were just like skeletons, with beards and long hair and dressed in laplaps’, Neave recalls. ‘We lay there for two or three weeks.’
It was at Tui that Bill Neave’s mate, George Coates, died. Coates had been a workmate at Dergholm station before the war and had been with him right through. His other mate, Lance Howlett, was lost in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. Two of their party, who had been off to another village, brought back some quinine in a beer bottle.
‘I think that saved us,’ he said. ‘One night’, he continued, ‘a message came through for us to hurry back night and day to Jacquinot Bay to be evacuated. The message came from a Catholic missionary there, Father Harris.’
Neave’s party learned that a large group of Australians who had escaped the massacre at Tol, and others who had made their way across the island, were living at Jacquinot Bay, awaiting evacuation. Jacquinot Bay was 30 miles away and it took them four days to get there, helping and carrying each other. On the way, staying overnight in a village, they encountered a native who had come to the village with a party of others to ‘kill the white masters’.
‘He was a very bad man,’ Neave recalls. ‘We had a hand grenade as well as our rifle and revolver and I went up to the chief and said ‘If you don’t kick this fellow out, I’ll throw this bomb over your hut – finish!’ He got him out pretty quickly.’
They arrived at Jacquinot Bay to be met by Father Harris.
‘I’m sorry to have to tell you, boys,’ he said, ‘the ship has gone and won’t be coming back.’ ‘Apparently what happened was that the native who brought us the message stopped at a ‘singsing’ for four days on the way,’ said Neave. ‘As it turned out, we were four days late.’
The official history shows that the ship, the Laurabada, left Jacquinot Bay on April 9, taking 131 soldiers, 21 civilians and four Navy men. It reached Port Moresby on April 12 – probably the day Neave’s party reached Jacquinot Bay.
The party stayed at Jacquinot Bay for some time. A coastwatcher who had left on the ship, left behind a radio and an engine to charge its batteries. With this transmitter, a civilian radio operator named David Laws, who had also escaped from Rabaul was able to contact Army authorities at Port Moresby. Laws was to remain a close friend of Neave. The official war history shows that as a member of ‘M’ Special Unit, he was killed in action in 1943.
Efforts to get the authorities from Port Moresby to pick them up, or send food and medical supplies, failed. The party was joined by three more stragglers, one of whom died.
One night, Neave and Laws received word that the native, who had earlier threatened to kill them, was going to lead the Japanese to them at 7 o’clock the next morning. It was decided he had to be killed. They drew straws to see who would carry out the execution. Laws drew the short straw. After a long search, they found him at 4am. Neave recalls: ‘When he came out, we told him to make talk [pray] to God. He tried to grab the rifle but Dave shot him. His brother came out and made a run towards me. I pointed the revolver at him, but I didn’t shoot because he stopped straight away.
‘On the way back, the natives told us about a small boat that was hidden – one the plantation owners used to wander around the islands in.
‘They also told us where there was a 44 gallon drum of petrol, so we were getting somewhere.
‘When we got back (to Jacquinot Bay) I saw Father Harris. I said: ‘Pray for us father. We carried out what we had to do, but it’s my funeral’. He said: ‘I’ll do that for you.’ At this point in the narrative, Bill Neave was overcome with emotion. We took a short break before he continued.
They found the boat where the natives told them it was hidden. It was about 17 or 18 ft long, said Neave. The engine was seized and the sump had a large hole in it. They patched the sump with wood and cloth but for two days they were unable to get the motor running.
On the second day, as Neave and Laws were working on the boat Father Harris came to them. He told them they had better get it going soon because the Japanese would be there any day.
‘I don’t like your chances,’ he said. ‘You’ve evaded them, and they will make an example of you.’
‘I got a bit wild,’ Neave recalled. ‘I picked up a lump of wood and hit the crankshaft, and Dave said: ‘I think it moved, Bill.’
‘Sure enough, it did move, and we eventually got it working.’ They left Jacquinot Bay with 10 men aboard the creaky little craft. None of the men had done any sailing; the compass did not work: they steered ‘by guess and by God’.
‘Father Harris did not show up before we left because he knew we were going to grab him and put him on the boat,’ said Neave. ‘The Japanese knew he had helped us, so we knew what would happen to him. I heard later that he was executed, but can’t verify this.’
Before leaving, they radioed Port Moresby saying they were putting to sea in an unseaworthy boat and asking if they could be picked up. They were told to sail for Buna, about 300 miles south.
It was the monsoon season, with strong currents and waves ‘as high as a house’, said Neave. They boat’s engine kept cutting out and they drifted miles off course. At one stage, he had a bout of malaria and went into a coma. His comrades thought he was dead and were about throw him overboard when one of them noticed he was still breathing.
‘That’s how close I came to not making it,’ he said.
They were at sea six days and nights. The only food they had was a few coconuts which went bad. Eventually they saw land and some lights which they took to be Buna. But they were unable to get their small craft over the reef to make landfall. The current carried them away to the north.
As it happened luck was with them. The lights they saw were either Lae or Salamaua – both then held by the Japanese.
The next day they landed at Sio, on the Huon Peninsula – on a coral reef half a mile from the shore, from which natives came and rescued them. They had half a gallon of petrol left.
They found some food in a house left by civilians who had evacuated. They got their radio going and asked Port Moresby for food, medical supplies and petrol.
‘They didn’t send any food or medical supplies but they dropped some petrol from a plane,’ said Neave. ‘It was aviation petrol – no good for our boat!’
Later they set off for Bogadjim (south of Madang) where they thought they would be picked up and taken overland to Port Moresby. On the way one spark plug after another broke down because of the aviation fuel. Eventually they drifted ashore, where they were found by a coastwatcher who took them to Bogadjim.
At Bogadjim, a missionary fed them well and they rested for some weeks, gaining strength for the long walk inland across the Ramu Valley. Neave said he believed the missionary was later killed by the Japanese.
‘Anybody who helped us had no hope,’ he said. ‘They just got them and finished them.’ From Bogadjim, over the Finisterre Ranges and through the Ramu Valley to Bena Bena (in central New Guinea) – it was a repetition of their trek through New Britain. There were, by then, 13 of them (they had picked up three others in New Guinea, also from the 2/22nd Bn), living off what they could get from the natives.
‘Bena Bena is right up high in the mountains,’ said Neave. ‘That’s where the natives are really warlike tribes – with bones through their noses. But they were really good to us – better than a lot of the more civilised blokes.’
At Bena Bena, he said, they encountered six American airmen who had made a forced landing. They were picked up in a light plane and flown out, taking one Australian with them.
‘But they wouldn’t pick us up,’ he said. ‘Apparently, there was a difference of opinion between one of our own officers and an American officer.
‘They sent word to us that if we wanted to get to Port Moresby we would have to walk to Wau – about 200 miles away over the Finisterre Ranges.
‘They flew in some boots and stuff, but they wouldn’t pick us up. It took us about three weeks to walk down to Wau over the mountains, gullies and gorges.
‘The natives were very good to us in New Guinea. They knew we were coming and gave us food. We were really picking up well and putting on weight.
‘There was an army base at Wau. From there they flew us to Port Moresby.’
Bill Neave’s army records show he was ‘derelict’ in the jungle for 183 days – for which he was paid two shillings and two pence (22 cents) a day ‘sustenance’.
After a long period of treatment for malaria, he joined the 2/4 Battalion (Sixth Division) as a reinforcement in Queensland. He saw action with the battalion in the Wewak area in 1945. He came through the war without being wounded. But he had his near misses. In New Guinea, a hand grenade landed at his feet – and failed to explode.
Bill Neave was acting platoon sergeant in the action at Wirui Mission, Wewak, on May 15, 1945 where Pte Edward (Ted) Kenna, of Hamilton, won the Victoria Cross.
Bill Neave married Gladys, a girl he met during the war, in 1947 and moved into the house where he [lived] in Casterton. He has a son and a daughter living in Perth and a son in Mildura.
With thanks to The Herald Weekend 11 December 1976