The MS Herstein was a Norwegian cargo ship of 5100 tons, owned by Sigurd Herlefson & Co and which, since May 1941, had been chartered to the Commonwealth of Australia.
In January 1942, while berthed and loading copra, Herstein was severely damaged in a Japanese air raid on Rabaul. She caught alight and there were some fatalities. Herstein was eventually cut from her moorings and beached near Matupit Harbour.
The master of the Herstein, Captain Gotfred Gundersen, managed to evade capture by the Japanese and escaped from New Britain on the Laurabada, but, upon the fall of Rabaul, 31 of the ship’s crew were taken prisoner by the Japanese. They were interned and later transferred to the ill-fated Montevideo Maru.
Before the demise of the Herstein, Australian Administration officials in Rabaul had suggested to the Federal Government in Canberra that the ship forego loading copra and, instead, take on board non-essential civilian personnel and ship them to safety before the imminent Japanese invasion. The request was turned down.
And so it was that the original role of the Herstein, to take on copra, remained unchanged, the people of Rabaul effectively stranded, the last reasonable means of evacuation denied them.
On 20 January, the Japanese bombing raid scored several hits on the ship and the highly combustible cargo burned for two days. The Japanese invaded three days later.
Canberra’s reluctance to enable the Herstein to be deployed to the evacuation of civilians not only resulted in the destruction of the ship, it was a death sentence for most of its crew and perhaps for many hundreds of Australian civilians.
It was one of those enigmatic decisions that leave a multitude of questions unanswered.
Source: From research by Chris Diercke, who is investigating the Norwegian and Japanese antecedents of the Montevideo Maru disaster.
Continued: The Herstein men’s fateful decision to stay