Welcome again to our annual service in memory of all “Lark Force” members and civilians lost in 1942 in Rabaul, plus the survivors who have nearly all since passed on.

It’s hard to think that this all happened 74 years ago.   My name is Norm Furness and I was an original member of the 2/22 Battalion when it was formed at Trawool in July 1940. We trained at Trawool then marched to Bonegilla near Albury till finally, in March 1941, we were shipped to PNG.

On my birthday, 15 January 1942,  my platoon mates took me down to our canteen which was still operating then; only eight days later the Japanese invasion fleet sailed into Rabaul Harbour.  I can remember at dawn counting 25 ships either in, or coming into Rabaul, and that included  two aircraft carriers with planes on the decks revving up to attack us. We thought then that none of us would survive; but here I am in 2016 relating the story to you.

Lark Force was a physically well trained group but very poorly equipped and not fully prepared for the situation we found ourselves in. All communications soon broke down and the order “Every man for himself” was another setback as no plans had been made and very few of us knew the island other than around Rabaul.

The Japanese had control of the area in just a few hours.  They had the airfields plus the harbour facilities as almost nothing had been destroyed.  The Japanese had no need to chase us into the jungle as we offered little resistance with our meagre ammunition and equipment, so they sent small groups on small ships down the coast where they landed.  Soon, small groups were rounded up in areas like Tol and Gasmata  and over 160 men were brutally executed.

They captured others who were taken back to Rabaul as POWs.  These later lost their lives when the Japanese ship MS Montevideo Maru was sunk on 1 July when transferring POWs back to Japan.

I finished up on the north coast [of New Britain] with my small group of about a dozen. We lost our officer Len Henry and Sgt John Hayes when trying to find out what was happening.   They ran into a Jap patrol who killed them both. Others died of sickness or became POWs.

Then a miracle happened and out of the jungle came Keith McCarthy, a District Officer who knew the area so well.  He immediately set a plan to get things moving towards a possible escape. Nine weeks later over 200 people were taken off the north coast and another group of over 100 off the south coast of New Britain, PNG. My personal view has always been that without Keith the total number to escape would have been about 50.

I speak about this every year because it is what really happened. Those that escaped also went through hell and their health suffered as a result. As at today only about three survive out of the total force of 1400 and I am one of them.

Now, to the relatives of these men who never came back: believe me they will never be forgotten and much has been done to keep the memories alive with memorials and services like today.

On ANZAC Day this year [2016] a group of about 30 relatives are going to Rabaul for services at the war cemetery and at Tol plantation and you will hear plenty of this in our next newsletter thanks to Marg Curtis and their team for carrying on a wonderful tradition.

We must also thank Laurie Luxmoore Jnr for organising today and as usual the Salvation Army Band members for their contribution.

We all remember certain people on days like this. I know I do: like Ernie Sinclair, Snowy Gleeson, Billy Maher, Gordon Grant, Arthur Robinson Brian Hannigan and many others. Think about yours and re-read the books you have and names will come to light, like men that that have kept the Association going over many years like Bill Harry, Fred Field, Geoff Donaldson, Pip Appel, Arthur Pyke, Alec Tolmer plus others, mainly relations.

What happened in Rabaul was one of the tragedies of war and the relatives of these men and six nurses should never be forgotten as also should be the civilian population of Rabaul.

Thank you very much for coming today.