Waste not: Denis Compston

I was manager of Potsdam Plantation for four years in the early 60s and no doubt a few readers of Una Voce will have read some of my short stories of plantation life.

otsdam is half way between Madang and Wewak with Bogia being the nearest hospital and administration station.

I was only 18 years old when I took over this very rundown plantation. It was a very large Japanese base during WW2. With the help of the local boys, we found the remains of a Japanese hospital dug into the hills of the plantation. There were hundreds of tons of unexploded bombs everywhere around the plantation.  On the south side of the manager’s house was a large Japanese mass grave. I could not get over how well my garden thrived. I only found out about this grave when my dog brought a very yellow, half broken part of a human skull into the house. After making a few enquiries, the dear old gardener told me of the grave, and of how the US Army came into the plantation when the war was coming to an end. There were so many dead and dying Japanese that they bought a bulldozer in and dug a mass grave. A few years later the manager’s house was built without the knowledge of the grave.

When I arrived, there was a tired old tractor that brought the copra into the driers daily. It was such a slow process with the tractor breaking down all the time. The company I worked for (W.R.C. Rabaul) was of no help.

In a shed was an old WW2 Chevrolet Blitz truck that was left after the war. It was in rather good condition; however the engine was a mess. I had a wonderful old driver boi [sic] who had leprosy. Otto was astonishing for his knowledge of machinery. He kept my WW2 jeep going, plus the damn tractor. He told me that he looked after the Japanese transport during the war. He hated this but it kept his family and his village alive and safe. There were Japanese bombed trucks, a tank and two smashed planes around the plantation. Otto told me “why don’t we take an engine out of one of the Japanese trucks and put it into the Chevy truck?” With a lot of help and effort we did exactly that. Within a short time, Otto had the Japanese engine installed and BINGO, the old Chevy truck was back on the road and bringing in tons of copra. The truck was a monster to drive and very basic. Otto was one of the most humble, and the nicest guy. He had a lovely wife and son who thankfully were not afflicted with the disease.

An army disposals unit used the Blitz to collect tons of unexploded bombs from the plantation and the local area. The bombs were taken to a desolate beach at the end of the plantation. Warnings were given to air, sea and local villages that the bombs would be detonated at a particular day and time. The explosion was massive and heard miles away with the shock wave creating a thunderstorm.

It was a sad day when I left Potsdam and all the lovely people who worked for me. In those days it was safe and we lived off the land and just enjoyed life. The ADO and his family, the POs and the staff at the hospital in Bogia were good company.

A few years later I heard that the Japanese found out about the mass grave, but the Company would not let them back onto the plantation. There were still very bad memories of the war. No doubt, today, the remains would have been taken back to Japan.


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