Norm, who was President of the 2/22nd Btn/Lark Force Assoc., was involved in the formative stages, in early 2009, of the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society, which has now been integrated into the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia. He tirelessly supported the fundraising for the Rabaul & Montevideo Maru Memorial at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and spoke, on behalf of all the military, at the dedication ceremony on 1 July 2012.
Norm managed to survive the horrific onslaught of the Japanese in the early part of WWII: his escape from Rabaul in January 1942 involved walking down to Talasea in West New Britain, boating across to the Witu Islands and sailing out on the Lakatoi under extreme conditions from the Witu Islands to Cairns. He always remembered his mates who died in the Tol Massacre, on the Montevideo Maru and whilst escaping, through illness, hunger or drowning.
Each year in January there is a memorial service at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, for many years organised by Norm. And each year in July a casual gathering for families of Lark Force at the original campsite in Traawool, Victoria.
In 2012 Norm Furness was awarded the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance Medal, and received an OAM in the Australia Day Honours 2016. The citation read: ‘For service to veterans and their families’.
Norm was involved with the erection of several memorials in Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.
- Memorial at the original campsite at Traawool in Victoria;
- The Montevideo Maru Memorial dedicated at Ballarat in February 2004;
- The Rabaul 1942–45 Memorial, dedicated 16 September 1993 on Rabaul foreshore;
- The Tol Plantation Memorial, dedicated May 1987 on the site where over 160 Australians were massacred by the Japanese;
- Plaque at Bendigo Soldiers Memorial Museum, dedicated 11 November 2011;
- Haus Niugini, Frankston, Victoria (part of RSL Park), dedicated 1991;
- § Rabaul & Montevideo Maru Memorial, Australian War Memorial, Canberra ACT.
He is particularly well-known for his lifelong active work in support of the widows and families of the 2/22nd Battalion/Lark Force Association, and also for his commitment to the few survivors of the battalion, despite their widely scattered homes. In the 1960s and 1970s Norm was involved in raising funds to build three units at RSL Care, Frankston, for widows of the 2/22nd Battalion.
Following that, Norm was involved in the fundraising for Haus Niugini, Frankston, Victoria (now part of RSL Park), a community centre dedicated in January 1991. On a visit to Haus Niugini a few years ago, Norm realised that there was no longer knowledge about the 2/22nd Battalion/Lark Force which was disappointing.
Norm’s efforts as Welfare Officer for the East Malvern RSL Sub-branch earned him both a Life Membership and an RSL Life Membership.
Norm has been interviewed regularly, including for John Schindler’s DVD series:
- The Tragedy of the Montevideo Maru and Some Came Home.
- He was also interviewed for the Australians at War Film Archive, available HERE , and
- for the Burwood Bulletin’s March 2013 issue, where he spoke about his escape from Rabaul in 1942.
Norm once said ‘The 2/22nd Association has been my life as I was born in 1922, lived in house 22 in Fairfield, went into the 2/22nd Battalion, my Army Number VX23557 adds up to 22…’
Norm’s seventy+ year commitment to the families of those who did not survive has been extraordinary. In order that history can learn from the past, and so that his mates did not die in vain, Norm has also worked to ensure that what happened to the 2/22nd Battalion, a unit which has not been re‐raised, and Lark Force, will not be forgotten.
Norm Furness was clearly an outstanding Australian. Being one of a fortunate few to escape New Britain at the start of WWII, he has devoted his life to the 2/22nd Battalion community and to helping others. In selflessly and proactively caring about others over a long period of time, he demonstrates a wonderful spirit of humility, kindness and strength that all Australians might aspire to. He has been a loyal friend to his mates who did not survive Rabaul, 1942, by doing all he could to assist the widows and families, and to ensure the memories of their men live on.
Tributes flowed in on the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Facebook.
No longer a tropical paradise
Norm Furness gave the following talk at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, Victoria, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Rabaul, 15 January 2017.
Many of the force and locals lost their lives as a result of the Japanese invasion. Approximately three hundred escaped, but have now long since passed on. I was an original member of the 2/22nd Battalion when it was founded at Trawool, seventy-seven years ago. We later moved to Bonegilla Camp with thousands of other men and we became the 23rd Brigade comprising four infantry battalions (the 2/21st, 2/22nd, 2/23, 2/24th). However, things quickly changed and it was decided a new divisional makeup was required. The 9th Division was formed in the Middle East using men from the 6th and 7th Divisions. They wanted more troops from Australia and the 2/23rd and the 2/24th were chosen. This left us one battalion short, so the 2/40th Battalion from Tasmania joined us to make up the three battalions to a brigade. But more was to come!
We became part of the 8th Division and the rumour was that the whole division was going to Malaya, which it finally did. But guess what? Not the 23rd Brigade. Again, we were split up and the 2/22nd was to go to New Guinea, the other two battalions went to Darwin and later to islands in the Timor Sea Timor and Ambon. Now, back to us!
Norm Furness (far right) with HQ Platoon, 2/22nd Lark Force Battalion
We finally leave and sail from Sydney to God knows where, as we weren’t told a thing. But it turned out to be Rabaul on the island of New Britain. Most of us had never heard of the place and we thought it was a tropical paradise. In Rabaul, the 2/22nd Battalion, comprising 946 men, including officers, was joined by several smaller groups, like signallers, engineers, anti-tank, anti-aircraft and medical units with others to finish up with a total of about 1,400 men. We became known as Lark Force. Then life became so different, we received orders and dug out foundations for two naval guns. We had them cemented in and only one practice shot ended up being fired! Life was good but this was not what we enlisted for. This sort of activity went on for about nine months. We became the ‘Forgotten Unit’, we lacked so many things and our equipment was so outdated some of it was completely useless.
Finally, Japan entered the war. From March 1941 until December 1941 we were garrison troops frustrated that the real war seemed so far away, but all that was about to change. As enemy planes were soon heard overhead, bombs began to fall … and in January 1942 the war came to Rabaul! With Japan entering the war, it quickly indicated that Rabaul was indeed a prime objective and priority for them. Whilst listening to their planes overhead, our air force arrived: eight Wirraways, built in Melbourne, but built for one reason only: to teach our young pilots to fly. They weren’t fighter planes and certainly no match for the Japanese Zeros. I personally saw the five that took off all shot down on their first mission up against the Japanese planes. The Japanese wanted Rabaul as a major base, so that from there they could push towards Australia. On 23 January 1942 in the early hours of the morning, the Japanese invasion fleet arrived, and landings were soon taking place which we found impossible to stop.
We were so outnumbered—out gunned—we had no planes, as our gallant airmen had been lost in the air raids that preceded the landing. We lacked any modern guns and/or ammunition. Our meagre task force put up great resistance that left many of the enemy dead, but we were soon bypassed and surrounded. We had no choice, but to fall back under concentrated firepower and continual strafing by the Japanese planes.
Finally, the order ‘Every man for himself’ was issued as resistance became impossible, due to a total lack of supplies and communications. So without ammunition, stores, food or medicine, small groups of survivors headed for the mountain ranges behind Rabaul. Some men were to finish up on the south coast, others on the northern coast of New Britain.
Norm Furness at a 75th anniversary commemoration of the sinking of Montevideo Maru at Bendigo RSL, 2017
The sad story of what happened after that has been told many times. Prisoners being massacred at Tol Plantation and Gasmata. Later, many prisoners of war and civilians lost at sea with the sinking of the Japanese ship, Montevideo Maru, on route to Japan. Others dying in the jungle due to sickness and starvation. We survived that and after months on the move in the most shocking conditions, owe our lives to Patrol Officer Keith McCarthy, who organised the escape plans that saved so many lives.
What happened in Rabaul was a tragedy. We should always remember the sacrifice made by the men of Lark Force. We had a job to do and we did it to the best of our ability with what we had. It at least delayed the enemy’s push towards Australia.
Today, very few of those 1,400 men still survive. We are not here today to glorify war, but to honour our dead, and to pray that the younger generation learn by the mistakes of the past.
Edited extract from When the War Came: New Guinea Island 1942, PNGAA, 2017
Wartime escape; a lifetime's service
Norm Furness was interviewed by Evan Papamichael
The Shrine Medallion: “For outstanding contribution to community understanding and Victorian service and sacrifice in war and peacekeeping. Norm Furness 2012.”
Evan: You won the award in Novernber last year. It’s an excelient peace-keeping award from the Shrine Authority. Can you taik about what you did to qualify for it?
Norm: Well the first thing I knew about it, was about a week before the actual award night. They rang me from the Shrine and said: “You’ve been nominated for the medallion. We would like you to come in to the Melbourne Town Hall next week. We’ve narrowed the nominations down to five finalists.”
So of course I went in, and when we got in there we were shown to our seats. The five finalists, plus their guests, were all sitting at the one table. The compere, who was from ABC Radio read our the nominees and told a bit about each one. I thought their qualifications, possibly, were better than mine. But they were a lot younger than me; I think that possibly helped me. The other thing was that in Christmas 1940, my girlfriend gave me a watch for Christmas and I wore that watch all the time I was up in New Guinea. It had been in rivers, been in the ocean, crawled through mud with me. A couple of years ago I took it down to a watch-maker in Ashburton to see if he could put a new glass because you could not read anything on it. I told him its history and he said, “Yeah, leave it with me”. I went back a week later and he said “Oh that was an interesting watch. I’ve had a look at it and there’s nothing wrong with it.” So on that night, I wore it. It was a good luck charm.
Evan: Could you please tell me something about when you were at war?
Norm: I worked for The Australian Paper Mill out at Fairfield. I was there one day and one of the chaps that worked with me said “I wont be there for a couple of weeks in February. I’m in the army.”
I said: “Gee, I’d like to do that too. Can I come?” He said “Yes. But there’s only one thing, youve got to be eighteen.” I was a big boy so I put my age up two years and he took me down to the drill hall. This was in 1938 that I joined the army. I was in the 57 160 Battalion at Westgarth.
I did a hitch with them and then war broke out and I was immediately called up. In June 1940, I switched over and joined the AIF (Australian Imperial Force), which was the main force of volunteers. I went into the 2nd/22nd Battalion. They were a wonderful bunch of fellas.
Finally they sent our Battalion to Papua New Guinea. We were on the island of New Britain and the main town there was Rabaul. The reason we were sent there was that it had two airfields and they thought that if Japan came into the war one of the places they would want in the Pacific Ocean was the island of New Britain. The bombing raids started just after Christmas in 1941 , so it was on the cards that they were going to make a move on the island. There were 1400 of us and we were very ill-equipped. We had been up there for nine months before Japan entered the war and had been forgotten about. There have been books written about it. We became known as hostages to freedom.
It was finally, on 23 January 1942, that the Japanese landed. I saw the Japanese fleet; they started to land there at about 2.30 am, in the dark. You couldnt see what was going on, but you could hear it. They were shooting and we were shooting, but you could not see what you were shooting at. They were just bombarding along the coasr, where we were. Then daylight came and I looked down into Rabaul harbour, and where, the night before, there was not a ship of any sort in the harbour, I counted 25 ships, including two aircraft carriers, all Japanese, with all their planes on the deck revving up in the daylight to come looking for us.
Fifteen thousand troops landed that morning from Japan. They had the air power, they had the weaponry, they had heavy guns, which we didn’t have. Wherever they struck any resistance, they just moved along a couple of kilometres and there was nobody there, so before we knew what
was going on they were on both sides of us and we were in danger of getting encircled.
They would have killed the lot of us. So the order was given about 11 am by the colonel in charge that it was a case of every man for himself. That did not mean you broke off separately, but you broke off into small groups. And there were about 10 in my group.
The only way we could go was back into the jungle.We had nothing other than what we stood up in! We had no food, no medical supplies, no nothing. In a matter of a couple of weeks, our clothes were falling apart. That went on for 10 weeks.
A patrol officer by the name of Keith McCarthy helped us. He had been sent over by the Australian Government to try and find out what had happened to us. He knew New Britain backwards and he knew what to do to survive; so 10 weeks later, I escaped from the island.
And even on the ship that we escaped on we had to go down the straits. There’s a strip of water there between the New Guinea mainland and the island and that was the only way we could go, but as you could imagine by that time the Japanese had already landed in New Guinea so the land was occupied on both sides by Japanese.
But we had no choice.We had to ‘make a run’ for it. There were 200 of us on our boat I and we went , down through the straits there and “someone” looked after us, because that day—I’ll always remember it, dull and overcast—we couid hear the Japanese planes, but we couldn’t see them and they could not see us either. We were just sitting back-to-back on the deck, because it was only a little copra boat and we were packed on like sardines. Out of the force of 1400, only 300 of us escaped. And today there are only three of us left.
Last year in July a special memorial was unveiled at the War Memorial in Canberra for the 1050 troops and civilians lost on the Japanese ship Montevideo Maru.
Evan: At present, Norm, are you doing some Peacekeeping work?
Norm: No, not now. But after the war I [joined] the East Malvern RSL. I’ve been a member there for fifty-sixty years, now. I took the job as the welfare officer and looked after the ones that weren’t well: they were returned servicemen and families whose loved ones never returned; I did that for 20 years. I used to do hospital visiting and then each year they have the Anzac Appeal and the Poppy Appeal and I took on those too. I got a lot of enjoyment out of it. I’ve got awards from the RSL as well. I’ve got the RSL Meritorious Service Medal. That is for service to the RSL and that’s their top award.
I’ve been on the Committee of the 2nd/22nd Battalion for about 30-odd years. I’ve been the president for about the last 12, and I still am now. I have had a wonderful life.
This article included by courtesy of the Burwood Bulletin.