21 Jan, 2012 01:00 AM

The fall of Rabaul on January 23, 1942, will forever be linked with two tragedies, the massacres at Tol and Waitavalo that claimed at least 158 lives on February 4 that year, and the loss of 1053 soldiers and civilians aboard the Montevideo Maru on June 30. A catastrophe that scarred the lives of thousands of Australian families, the fall of Rabaul has special meaning for – among others – Australia’s ambassador to the United States Kim Beazley and cabinet minister and former Midnight Oil lead singer, Peter Garrett.

Garrett’s grandfather, Tom, was a copra and cocoa planter on New Britain when the Japanese attacked. Beazley’s uncle, Sydney Beazley, had been a builder and technical teacher at the Methodist mission. Both men were aboard the Montevideo Maru when she went down after being torpedoed by the USS Sturgeon, an American submarine, off the Philippines coast on June 30. Only 18 people, all members of the Japanese crew, survived. The ship’s commander, Captain Kasahara, made it ashore but was killed – along with most of his remaining crew – by guerrilla fighters.

To be marked by a special service at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance at 2.30pm tomorrow , the Rabaul anniversary is a reminder of the horrors an earlier generation of Australian soldiers and civilians faced with resolution and resilience. It is also the beginning of a succession of anniversaries and commemorations that mark 1942 as the most desperate year in Australia’s history. These include the fall of Singapore on February 15, the bombing of Darwin on February 19, the fall of Timor on February 23, the Battle of Sunda Strait in which the cruisers HMAS Perth and the USS Houston were lost on March 1, the air raid on Broome on March 3, the midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour on May 31 and the shelling of Sydney and Newcastle on June 7.

Australian morale lifted for the first time when General Douglas MacArthur and his entourage arrived in Melbourne on March 21. The first real glimmer of hope appeared when, between May4 and 8, American and Australian naval forces turned back a Japanese invasion fleet on its way to Port Moresby in the Battle of the Coral Sea. This was quickly followed by the American victory in the Battle of Midway from June 3 to 6 that ended Japanese naval supremacy in the Pacific just seven months after Pearl Harbour.

Then, on the night of July 21 and 22, the Japanese landed 3100 soldiers, engineers and press-ganged native carriers near Buna on Papua’s north coast. The first of many thousands of Japanese soldiers and marines, their task was to cross the Owen Stanley Ranges and take Port Moresby from the landward side. Thus began the epic battle for control of the Kokoda Track, a desperate struggle, marked by atrocities and fought across absolutely unforgiving mountainous jungle terrain. Kokoda was one of the Pacific war’s great turning points; by mid-November Japanese land forces had been fought to a standstill for the first time. The Americans became the masters of the game but the much-derided Australian militia had shown them the way. In 1941 Australia was responsible for two territories in what is now Papua New Guinea – Papua and New Guinea. The Territory of Papua, formerly British New Guinea, had been taken over by the Australian Government in 1906. Its capital was Port Moresby. The Territory of New Guinea, the north-eastern part of the main island together with the Admiralty Islands, New Ireland, New Britain and Bougainville, was formerly German New Guinea. It passed to Australian control under a League of Nations mandate following the Treaty of Versailles. Rabaul was the capital.

Now largely abandoned since the catastrophic volcanic eruption in 1994, the old town nestled on the shore of Simpson Harbour. It was flanked by The Mother and The North Daughter, two of the seven volcanoes in the Rabaul caldera. Its picture-postcard setting and tree-lined streets, repeatedly memorialised by Japanese amateur photographers and aspiring artists during the three-and-a-half year occupation, belied the dark events of 1942-45. In addition to those massacred at Tol and killed in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru, at least 1000 American, New Zealand, British, Chinese, Malay and Indian prisoners and forced labourers were murdered.

Strategically located and with excellent port facilities, Rabaul was seen by Japanese generals as the key to a successful attack on mainland Papua and New Guinea. The Port Moresby assault force turned back by Rear Admiral Crace’s cruisers during the Battle of the Coral Sea embarked its troops from there. At the height of the occupation Rabaul was home to up to 100,000 Japanese soldiers and support staff. These included an estimated 2000 ”comfort women” conscripted into sexual slavery in military brothels where NCOs could pay four yen for an hour’s diversion and poor sailors were charged a more affordable 3.5 yen for the same period. The women, many of whom came from poor families in Japan, Korea and China and had no idea of what awaited them, were also euphemistically known as ”special necessary personnel” or SNPs.

When New Guinea’s German population was repatriated after World War I, their places had been taken by Australians, many of whom were veterans. Peter Garrett’s grandfather, for example, had served with the 6th Light Horse Regiment. Rabaul’s European population totalled about 1000 souls when war broke out in 1939. Both Papua and New Guinea were undefended at this time. Rabaul could not have been fortified in any case under the terms of the League mandate.

In February 1941, recognising the threat of war with Japan, Australia dispatched Lark Force – the 2/22nd Battalion of the 8th Division AIF – to the island. The unit had a watching brief and was charged with monitoring Japanese activity in the Bismarck Archipelago. The soldiers arrived in March and were soon joined by 2/10th Field Ambulance, a unit whose members included six nursing sisters. Lark Force was also supported by members of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles.

”Bird forces” were also dispatched to other outposts to Australia’s north in the path of the anticipated Japanese onslaught. On December 8, 1941, the 1090 strong Gull Force went to Ambon and the 1400 men of Sparrow Force to Timor. Gull Force commander Lieutenant Colonel Roach was relieved of his command on January 14, 1942, after complaining his mission was hopeless and his men were being sacrificed.

Although almost all European women, children and men over military age had been evacuated from Papua by the end of December, 1941, the process was much slower in the Territory of New Guinea. Australian authorities opposed compulsory evacuation of Rabaul as late as December 11. They only changed their minds on December 12 after the War Cabinet voted to abandon Lark Force to its fate. The belated evacuation took time to organise. Substantial numbers of women and children finally sailed on December 22, 1941.

The nurses at the civilian hospital volunteered to stay. The army nurses weren’t given any choice. They, and the defenders, were left to await the inevitable end: ”… it is better to maintain Rabaul only as an advanced air operational base, its present small garrison (1450 men plus civilians and the nursing staff) being regarded as hostages to fortune,” a telegram from prime minister John Curtin’s office to Washington on December 12 said.

Lorna Johnston, now 96, was one of the army nurses. She has recently returned from a trip to Japan where she received a formal apology for her three years as a prisoner of war. When the Japanese landed, Johnston, her five colleagues, seven civilian nurses from the town hospital and their patients were taken to the Catholic Mission in Vunapope. When the Japanese arrived the bishop told them it was a German mission. ”They swallowed it and let us go,” Johnston said. The cover story did not hold for long and in July, 1942, the nurses were shipped to Japan. Despite being initially mistaken for Australian ”comfort women” they were spared rape. ”We weren’t their type,” Johnston said. ”They never broke our spirit.”

Rabaul was first bombed on January 4, 1942 – more than a month before the first raid on Darwin. The initial air attacks destroyed three of the four Hudson Bombers sent north to help defend the town. The actual invasion, which took just hours to seize the land around the harbour, began in the early hours of January 23, 1942. It followed a ”full-scale” air raid, consisting of 100 Japanese planes, on January 20 that had already caused immense damage. The RAAF’s 24 Squadron, led by Wing Commander John Lerew, had arrived at Rabaul’s Vunakanau airfield in mid-December. It put up a gallant, but hopeless, defence with eight Wirraway armed trainers. Four of the planes were destroyed in the first 10 minutes of the unequal air battle. Two made it back but with major damage. The surviving planes were too slow, too lightly armed and could not climb fast enough to be effective as interceptors. The Japanese air raid had been led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the officer who had organised the attack on Pearl Harbour just weeks before.

The invasion fleet, which carried an army of 5000 men, was spotted by an Allied flying boat the following day. Lerew was told to attack with ”all available aircraft”. As the Wirraways did not have bomb racks he was left with the one surviving Hudson. Lerew rounded up 100 locals to push the plane through the mud to the runway. From there the crew of four took off to attack two aircraft carriers, three or four cruisers, a flotilla of destroyers and between five and seven transport ships. The Allied flying boat that had sighted the fleet was shot down shortly after calling in the report. Night fell before the Hudson’s crew could locate the fleet and they returned to base.

Lerew, meanwhile, had thrown his Australian high command into confusion when, on being ordered to keep his airfield ”open”, he replied: ”Morituri vos salutamus”. It took some time before a Latin-educated desk jockey realised it was the salute of the ancient gladiators: ”We who are about to die salute you.”

The Japanese landed about 2.45 am. Attacking in overwhelming force they had driven the Lark Force defenders back into the jungle by 9am. Organised resistance ceased by that afternoon when the order ”every man for himself” was given. Only about 400 diggers survived the fighting retreat to make their way back to Australia. One was Sergeant S. Costello, a member of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles and an accountant in Rabaul, who was evacuated aboard HMAS Laurabada on April 12. A picture taken aboard the ship shows a gaunt and malnourished figure in a tattered uniform who has looked into the abyss and seen the abyss look back.

Another 1000 Australian soldiers were captured. About 150 of these, along with a small number of civilians, were massacred at the Tol rubber plantation on February 4. A further 849 diggers died when the Montevideo Maru went down claiming a total of 1050 Australian lives. The ship’s dead included Acting Corporal Albert Cooper, a ruggedly good looking 24-year-old whose devil-may-care grin beams out at you from a hand-coloured studio portrait now in the collection of the Australian War Memorial.

The horror of Tol was such the Australian Government suppressed the findings of its inquiry into the atrocity until 1988: 47 years after it took place. The Australians had retreated into the jungle with the intention of making their way to Wide Bay about 90 km south of Rabaul. Five barge loads of Japanese troops disembarked there on February 3 and immediately set about rounding up the exhausted and starving Australians. The first 10 taken prisoner were bayoneted to death on the spot. The remainder surrendered.

The Japanese took their dog tags and personal property before marching the men into the jungle in groups of 10 or 12 where – their hands bound behind their backs – they were either bayoneted, shot or burnt to death depending on the whims of the killers. Another 11 Australians were machine-gunned from behind at the nearby Waitavalo plantation.

None of the Tol bodies were buried, just covered with palm leaves. When diggers from the 14/32nd Australian Infantry Battalion recaptured the area in April 1945 they discovered the bones of 158 people scattered across the ground. The murders had been carried out by the 3rd Battalion of Japan’s 144th Infantry Regiment under the command of Colonel Masao Kusonose. He was tracked down by Occupation Forces in Japan in December 1946 but managed to cheat the hangman by starving himself to death over nine days near Mt Fuji. At least two Australians, Billy Cook and W.D. Collins, survived the slaughter at Tol. Both were members of the 2/10th Field Ambulance. With the aid of natives they linked up with 150 other members of Lark Force and were among those evacuated on HMAS Laurabada in April. The two men gave eye-witness accounts of the massacres on their return to Australia.

David Ellery is The Canberra Times’ Defence reporter.