Across the sea, at night, strapped to the outrigger of an open canoe!

Born on 27 July 1923 in Sydney, John Edward Hart gave an early indication of the adventurous and colourful life he was destined to live when in 1941, at 17, he forged the signature of his father, Jack Shelton Hart, a widely respected country magistrate, on a consent for the younger Hart to enlist in the wartime militia force.  A year later he landed at Rabaul and was part of the Australia Lark Force retreat across the Baining Mountains.  A fall from a cliff left him with a broken leg and shoulder and Hart found himself with a small group of soldiers, all struggling to survive in dense jungle.  After Hart’s broken leg was treated and crudely splinted by one of his mates, the group spent an amazing seven months in the New Britain jungle, with Hart at this stage also battling malaria.

They survived on meagre supplies of jungle fruits and vegetables, supplied by the local people.  Hart and his companions were eventually rescued by an Australian Navy ship.

Undeterred by his experiences, Hart saw action again in 1943 with the 9th Division, C Company, in the Battle of Sattelberg on the Huon Peninsula [29 October to 25 November 1943].

Although a proud, loyal and patriotic Australian, especially during his war years, Hart became a committed pacifist in his latter years.  He appeared in the ABC TV documentary, Faces of War, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of World War II.

Asked by an interviewer whether he felt bitter about the Japanese, Hart replied:  ‘It’s time to forgive…you can’t hold on to vengeance.  The future is with our children. Two of my grandchildren live in Tokyo with their Japanese mother and Australian father.’

Peter Fisher, who also survived Rabaul at the start of the Pacific War, wrote the following tribute to John Hart on 27 November 1998.  It was included in the March 2018 issue of Memorial News, in Una Voce, with permission from Peter Fisher’s son, Warwick Fisher.

Loyalty – Initiative – Courage!

These were three characteristics which I attributed to ‘Jack’ Hart.

First, Loyalty:

To his country
To his officers
To his mates
To his job as a gunlayer on No. 1 Gun

John Hart, through his gunsight was very much focused on the enemy (as I was through my binoculars).  As the gun barrel moved almost against his ear and as repeatedly the blast flew back over his head, ‘Jack’ maintained his view of the enemy aircraft.

Secondly, Initiative:

As he helped other young men carry their burdens
As he took advantage of any opportunity to scrounge what little food was available
As he searched the coast, in vain, for any seaworthy canoe which might take him along or away from the coast of New Britain

Thirdly, Courage:

As (after falling and breaking a leg), he, with the help of his mates, sustained himself for some six weeks until news of a ‘rescue’ became a possibility
As he lay strapped to the outrigger of a native canoe, and was paddled at night across the open waters of Jacquinot Bay
As in his determination to survive and to return to Australia

The Anti-aircraft Battery—an ancillary force to the 2/22nd Battalion, 8th Division AIF—consisting of 54 militiamen (with an average age of 19 years) left Sydney for Rabaul in August 1941 where they were to complete their training as artillerymen. Only seven returned to their homeland.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbour on 8 December 1941, the unit went into action against a reconnaissance plane on 4 January 1942, and on 20 January 1942, claimed its first victim.

In 1998, I spent 24 February in and about the devastated town of Rabaul, visiting Kokopo and Bitapaka Cemetery.  Finally, in the late afternoon, I was able to persuade the driver of the mini-bus to take me back to what we had called ‘’Frisbee Ridge’’.

In late March 1942, after trekking some 300 miles, I was invited to a small repast at the Wunung Mission.  The occasion was the arrival of Lieut Hugh McKenzie (Naval) and Lieut Peter Figgis (Intelligence).  Also present were Major (Bill) Owen, Major (Ted) Palmer and Father Ted Harris (the three great heroes of my life).

In confidence it was revealed that:

I and some others (including David Bloomfield of the AA Battery) were detailed to set-up the Observation Post. On Easter Sunday, under cover of sub-machine guns, I met up with Patrol Officer Allan Timperley and his party, who had, at daylight, just come ashore from the 28 foot launch Mascot.

In his diary, Timperley relates that on Sunday 5 April 1942:

We turned our attention to the plantation residence and walking towards us was a ‘man in tattered clothing’.  It is hard to say who was the most surprised.  I shall never forget the expression Lt Fisher’s face had when we acquainted him with the fact that we had crossed to New Britain from Papua.

Mascot brought with it two signallers, Sgt JH Marsh and Cpl HG Neil and native crew; it also delivered a wireless transmitter, a limited amount of food and an old gramophone with four records which were played incessantly.

Four days later, Mascot steamed out of the bay and at 6am sighted the Laurabada. Timperley and Lieut McKenzie boarded Laurabada and guided her to Palmalmal.

At 4 pm on that same day, 150 troops were embarked on Laurabada in just 40 minutes.  The ship left in heavy seas and under cover of drenching rain.

In an understatement, Timperley reported:

We left Palmalmal feeling that we had done our job and that our results were much greater than anticipated.

But what of the disabled John Hart?

In an account which, later in 1942, I put together, I had stated:

Mention should be made of the remarkable efforts of Gunners Hart, Hanna and (Arch) Taylor… Upon receiving the good news the ‘boys’ forced the natives along (to Palmalmal).  They made a bush stretcher and set off at 10 am on 8 April, arriving at Palmalmal by canoe in the pouring rain at midnight.  The natives had carried Hart some 30 miles along the rough track, placed him on a canoe and completed another 25 miles across the open bay in fourteen hours.

This story has been lodged with the Australian War Memorial, Canberra (Private Records, Incoming Receipt No: 23799, File No: 89/0716; Accession No: PR 89/40).

Across the sea, at night, strapped to the outrigger of an open canoe!
That took COURAGE!
Loyalty – Initiative – Courage!

An archived interview with Archibald Taylor via ‘Australians At War Film Archive’ produced by University of New South Wales (2003):