Left to their fate...

I was 11 weeks on the island after the Japanese landing. I lived on Taro, sweet potatoes and fish, but the soldiers did not have a chance. They were not accustomed to the native food and went down with fever and dysentery. In every second or third kanaka village all the way along there would be two or three soldiers dying.

At the food dump at Malalonga, the soldiers had bayoneted all the tinned food with a view to preventing the Japanese from using them. This meant, of course, when the other Australian soldiers came along the food was poisoned.

There was no organisation on the part of the civil population or by the military leaders either. That is my honest opinion.

[Kenneth Ryall, plantation manager, Kokopo, who escaped the territory. Quoted in a minute to the Secretary, Department of the Army, 16 May 1942, in NAA A5954 Item 532/1]

As early as 1940 it was suggested that the Australian women and children - approximately 3000 of them - living in Papua and New Guinea should be encouraged to leave for Australia. However, despite the looming threat of war with Japan, the Administrator in Port Moresby, the Honourable Leonard Murray, was loathe to force families to leave their homes unnecessarily and to incur the costs of evacuation and resettlement in Australia. By September 1941, Burns Philp, the Territory shipping agent, was advising that women and children should not travel to the territories and in November passengers were obliged to sign an indemnity notice warning them of the dangers as well as the difficulties of evacuation in the event of hostilities. Soon, only 'essential travel' permits were issued. But, despite these restrictions, it was still only a policy of voluntary, rather than compulsory, departure until four days after Japan entered the war.

Finally, on 12 December 1941 a meeting of the War Cabinet in Melbourne approved the recommendation 'that women and children, other than missionaries who may wish to remain and nurses, should be compulsorily evacuated from the Mandated Territory of New Guinea and Papua'. The code-name 'Z day' was given to the classified date for the evacuation, 18 December 1941, and the Australian Government would pay costs incurred.

European women and children were brought from all over the territories to Port Moresby and Rabaul. Many had to be shipped or airlifted in to the main centres from the outlying areas. Others, delayed by weather and transport, missed the ships and had to be flown to Australia days later. They were leaving their men and their homes and for many of them, the only life they had known. By 15 January almost all of the Australian women and children had been evacuated. There was no attempt to evacuate non-European women and children, such as the Chinese, despite knowledge that they too would be in danger from the Japanese.

Neither were there any attempts to remove the European civilian males. Those on New Britain, together with the 1400 Australian troops posted there, were left to deal with the Japanese onslaught when Rabaul fell on 23 January 1942.

On 6 February 1942, after the fall of Rabaul, the Minister for the Army, Frank Forde, wrote to the Prime Minister, John Curtin:

The attitude of those with near relatives in our Garrison at Rabaul is becoming bitter and hostile at the lack of any news of their sons, brothers and husbands, and of the feeling that is being created that although something could be done to assist them, nothing is being attempted.

[NAA A2684/3 Item 749]

But little could be done to assist them. Despite the concerns of their relatives, the fate of many of the men who remained in New Britain and nearby New Ireland has never been completely established. It wasn't until after the war ended that the grim details began to emerge. Hundreds of civilian internees and POWs drowned in early July 1942 when the American submarine USS Sturgeon torpedoed and sank their transport ship, the Montevideo Maru, as it sailed to Hainan. Harold Page, Deputy Administrator in Rabaul, was one of those lost. Others simply disappeared.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Left to their fate..., DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 8 December 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/world-war-ii-1939-1945/events/japanese-advance-december-1941-march-1942/fall-rabaul/left-their-fate
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