Under that tamarind tree: Author unknown

This draft of an article was found in a filing cabinet in the Memorial Hall at Samarai which was being used in 1946 as the District Office. Stan Middleton was the District Officer and Dawn Skelly his typist.

Ghosts haunt war-torn Samarai Isle

Foreword: Not all of a War Correspondent’s job is reporting the event of war. Witness this story from a Tribune man in the Southwest Pacific. At the end of the manuscript was a note to the boss which said, in part: “I know this is not exactly a news story, but I fell in love with Samarai and couldnt help doing the story. If I never come back to ‘Chicago, you’ll find me under that tamarind tree.”

Somewhere in New Guinea

Samarai was founded some half century ago and finally became the gayest spot in the Pacific. Rendezvous for plantation managers seeking a brief break in months of lonely living. Mecca for pearl traders, gold miners, drifters and wastrels from the world’s end and wide-eyed tourists. Oasis of liquor and gambling and … whispers go …women.

Then, too, it was the most important trading and commercial between Rabaul and Port Moresby, despite its tiny size and small population. There were two hotels, the Samarai and Cosmopolitan (the Pacific closed years ago), two Churches (Anglican and Roman Catholic), a power plant and ice houses, four large stores and several smaller ones, the bank, the school house, electric lights and even a tiny railroad running along the wharf. Every two and a half weeks the Burns Philp boat brought supplies: fresh meat, eggs, butter, liquor and all the things that made Samarai seem like a paradise to those on less fortunate islands.

Errol Flynn, Tasmania’s gift to Hollywood, knew Samarai in his less golden days. Beatrice Grimshaw, South Seas novelist, did some of her work here. American yachts, complete with millionaires, used to make it a port of call. Life was a permanent party according to legend. Even former residents admit that not too long ago Samarai was a ‘wild place’, adding wistfully that it quietened down in the last few years.

Samarai has the outlines of a sleeping goddess when seen from a distance against the mists that often serve as a backdrop for her light green loveliness. At a first far-off glance the white houses, red roofs bright against the palms, green roofs blending with them, give the aspect of a still populous place filled with enviable people. But as the boat draws closer to the yellowed sea wall patched with moss, the evidence of a town’s death lies sprawled along the coast. Charred timbers from the pier have tumbled into the sea. A jumble of twisted iron and crumbled concrete, with galvanised metal roofing beside a few sagging walls, marks the business section. The strongbox of the Bank of New South Wales stands like a faithful sentinel amidst the wreckage.

They must have known Samarai was doomed, all the gay people, when the Japs began their relentless march southwards hopping from island to island like a swarm of incredible locusts. By mid-December, a few days after Pearl Harbor, the women and children had been sent south to safety. The Japs poured into Rabaul a month later and most of the male residents left Samarai early Sunday morning, 25 January. The following month a torch was put to the business section. That was more than a year ago and Samarai has become a ghost town, plagued with echoes of ghostly laughter, the rustle of silken gowns, the tinkle of ice against glass, the scent of perfume.

Those who step ashore pass the bathing area, its diving board waiting for swimmers, and on to a path leading to the main street. Only the Anglican Mission, which is said to have been fired four times but refused to burn, still stands in the business centre. A grass-grown crater, reminder of the two-ton bombs the Japs dropped on Samarai, remains.

The school house next door, attended by Samarai children until they went to Australian schools at ten or so is gone. The store beyond, where the Samarai hotel stored its empty bottles, is gone. Only the bottles remain unharmed, half filled with rain water. A few yards further on is the cement strong box through which someone has chopped a hole. The steel safe within is still closed. But the vault floor is covered foot thick with checks and papers.

Thousands of others, a file clerk’s nightmare, are scattered for yards outside the vault. Pick up a few: payments for copra, payment to the Cosmopolitan Hotel, two pounds deposited 16 February 1939, to the credit of Samarai Tennis Club.

Elsewhere throughout the area are melted trade beads, the colourful glass which once intrigued the natives fused into permanent clusters, rusty hurricane lamps, tiny padlocks, tons of shells from which mother-of-pearl buttons were to be made, crockery, pans, rusted tin cans, twisted typewriters, the sign of the Cosmopolitan Hotel, a small safe open nearby. The outline of the principal street is already growing dim, and the ruins are adorned with something that looks like morning glory. A couple of natives shout in happy unison as they try to push down a still standing section of wall. Other than that, and the birds singing and the sound of surf, there is no noise.

Wander down the avenues past the fallen flagpole to the edge of the residential section. There is a well-kept marble shaft that seems oddly out of place in such desolation. It is a memorial to Christopher Robinson, a former governor of Papua. Someone tells you later that Robinson killed himself after a rebuke from the home authorities on his administration. The cricket pitch is just beyond, knee-high with grass, next to it a weed-choked tennis court. Benches for the cricket players still stand in the tiny club house and tin nameplates designating the players lie on the ground not far from the blank scoreboard.

There are dozens of houses on the island, some in the central valley: a malarious swamp filled in by native prisoners years ago. Others on the hill that runs on three sides of the island or along the coastal plain. All are surrounded by fragrant blossoms and flowering shrubs of red, pink, purple, orange, yellow, white, blue, scarlet and indescribable shade. Most of the houses are bungalows, although at least one has a second storey. Nearly all the gates are ajar as though waiting for someone, and the few that are closed swing open eagerly at a touch. The doors are open too, and most of the windows either open or partially covered with broken glass or torn screen or matting. What little furniture left is invariably tipped over and smashed.

Vines have begun to work their way through cracks in the house walls, their green fingers exploring tentatively before beginning to rip and tear so the wind and rain can enter and finish subjugating these civilized intruders. The jungle has begun to attack from below aided by white ants. Some of the house supports are obviously weakened and steps have rotted making them unsafe. Rain pours disconsolately from a broken gutter, its spatter undermining a piling. Paths wander in friendly fashion from house to house, sometimes dipping into the valley by means of cement and stone steps, but little else is friendly.

The areas hinder passers-by; roots trip unaccustomed feet and even the vines and branches seem reluctant to permit passage. Huge spiders–harmless, but horrible–spin webs where the unwary are sure to become enmeshed and the spiders themselves, soft and alarming, sometimes drop onto the wayfarer. Wasps have built nests in the houses and the very coconuts seem to drop with malicious purpose. There is a great loneliness about walking up a once well-kept path, lizards scurrying ahead past the bougainvillea and poinsettia; the red and green croton bush or the yellow and white frangipanni (single blossoms of which bring two shillings in Australia), and coming to the white railed steps of a dwelling.

There’s an impulse to shout “any one home” but the impulse dies at sight of the wide verandah and spacious rooms with newspapers from January 1942 strewn about, broken lamp shades, perhaps an old wicker chair, a ping pong paddle, a doll’s house, a child’s torn book, household hints pasted up by a conscientious housewife or ‘Simpson’s Book or Baking Treats’. The house shelters nothing but insects and reptiles.

In what must have been one of the finest houses on the island are found tattered music rolls from a vanished player piano, a coral fountain on the porch equipped for running water and electric lights, cages for a large aviary, the rim of a Chinese lantern and the bone handle of a carving knife.

In the yard at the back is a huge tamarind tree providing shade on even the sunniest days, a bench nearby and beyond it a rock garden and grotto, a lovely mess of vines growing on the damp walls. A second pathway leads to another garden with a wicker chair strategically placed and yet a third garden bordered with beer bottles (empty).

There’s the War Memorial and library dedicated Anzac Day, 1926, whose only serviceable book seems to be Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. And the Native Hospital, its beds all wooden which the natives are said to prefer, or the native jail, each cell spotless with whitewash each bolt noiseless and well oiled.

One wonders where the little girl is who wrote a faded essay on coconuts and how fares the teacher who graded it ‘good’ but added that it was supposed to deal with copra. A discarded report informs all who cares to read that Mr Cahill (as of 13/6/40) was no longer supplying the hospitals with firewood, that certain malarial precautions are being neglected and that the prisoners have failed to empty the rubbish bins at the native hospital. What of the Medical Officer who made that report? In the hospital (visiting hours 10.30 to 12 Noon, 4 pm to 6 pm, 7.30 pm to 8.30 pm, please ring the bell) are a cast iron crib, a huge basket (probably for dirty linen) dozens of bottles of medicines and a notebook for the year 1934 and part of 1935.

There’s a strange feeling of disapproving eyes watching as you thumb through the daily items, discovering intimate details of the ailments of residents of Samarai and nearby Islands. You wonder about Mrs A “whose manner was very strange” one lovely day in May and who collapsed and died at 11 am two days later although the record reads “colour unchanged, pulse good” 15 minutes before. How is Master B who had an ingrown toenail removed in November 1934; the “male infant, weight 7 lbs 3 ounces” born Christmas eve 1934; or “female infant weight 7lbs 13½ ounces” who was fretful that night of 3 June 1935? What about Mr X, of which cautious inquiry later reveals to have been a pearl buyer, now dead, who was admitted because he was a chronic taker of morphine (30 grains daily) and stayed in the hospital for nearly nine months? Why, on April 21, 1934, did he change his mind about a tooth extraction? Did he take another shot and forget the pain? And who was Mr Y who died one evening at 7.05 but “had a quiet day” first?

Then, too, what was the real story behind the scandal hinted at in a letter found in the bedroom (as proved by the bedstead without springs) of a little house nearby? The letter from one woman to another says in part: “Just fancy G. accusing you of theft–his paltry old things–what would you want them for?” A fair question, but what was the answer.

You’ve talked with some who’ve lived on Samarai for many years, and you know other things about the place. It was once known as Dinner Island and can be walked around in 20 minutes. There were about 130 European adults and 40 children with perhaps 40 married woman and 15 single. The Samarai hotel accommodated 20 persons, the Cosmopolitan 30. The town had boasted electric lights since 1926, and everyone had a radio and a refrigerator. There was no cemetery, all burials being on Logia or Rogia islands nearby. Malaria was unknown, snakes few. Five shillings monthly was the only charge for living there (exclusive of rent, of course) since there was neither income nor sales tax. Sometimes one would see three prisoners picking up leaves: one holding the bag, one spearing the leaf, and the third removing it and dropping it in.

There were thoroughfares named Marine Parade, Dart, Opal, Ballantyne and Healy Streets. The women were crazy about bridge and wore evening dresses to official affairs or “flash” (stylish) parties. Men wore dress trousers, white evening jackets and white waistcoats with stiff collars. “I’ve never seen such an ideal place to live”, the Good Samaritan said. “Clearing out was the hardest thing I ever did in my life.”

As the boat leaves Samarai, the island–the closest approach to a Hollywood set you’ll ever find anywhere–begins to drop behind, but the red and green roofs still show distinctly. The ruined waterfront is hidden by distance. You’d swear you were seeing a populous place filled with enviable people. But you know better. And it makes you sad. August 1942


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