On 12 December 1941, five days after Japan entered the war, War Cabinet decided to compulsorily evacuate Australian women and children from the territories of Papua and New Guinea. Evacuation orders were broadcast over Rabaul radio on 16, 18 and 20 December. Males over 16 were to remain in Rabaul with their fathers, but in a few cases younger boys stayed. Ivor Gascoigne was 15 and had recently started work.
He pleaded to remain with his father, Cyril, a motor fitter. Acting Administrator, HH Page, said it should be his mother’s decision. Ivor and his father died aboard Montevideo Maru. Ivor’s mother lived with the pain of that decision for the rest of her life. His sister still does.
The evacuation order did not apply to indigenous, mixed race or Chinese people. The failure to evacuate Chinese women and children in Rabaul and Kavieng caused understandable bitterness in a Chinese community that feared the Japanese.
The six government nurses were offered evacuation but volunteered to stay. The Australian Army Nursing Service nurses were not given the opportunity to evacuate as it was deemed their duty to stay with the men.
Mission women were also given the option to stay and a number, including many women of several nationalities at the Catholic Sacred Heart Mission and four Methodist nurses, did so. The nurses and Kathleen Bignall, who owned a plantation, were later interned and sent to Japan. All survived and were repatriated after the war.
When it received the evacuation order , the Administration notified outlying islands and transported people to Rabaul. The women were given only a day or two’s notice and limited to a baggage allowance of 30 pounds (11 kg) with an extra 15 pounds for each child.
One evacuee on New Ireland recalled how, as the women prepared to depart, the men plaintively sang the Maori Farewell. “We should have been singing it to them,” she says.
The monsoon was in full force, making sea travel difficult and dangerous. The liners Neptuna and Macdhui arrived in Rabaul on the evening of 21 December and the women and children boarded next day as heavy rain fell.
The log of the small coastal vessel Ambon tells how gales, heavy seas and poor visibility meant regular changes of course to take shelter. The Ambon’s 21 passengers from Pondo on the north coast of New Britain finally arrived in Rabaul on Christmas Day 1941, three days after the evacuation. Seventy-five women and children from New Ireland and the north coast of New Britain also arrived too late.
By 28 December the situation in Rabaul was grim. Two civil aircraft were sent to Rabaul to evacuate the remaining women and children. They arrived early in the morning and loaded and took off within five minutes.
The civilians who remained were mainly Administration officers, planters, businessmen, traders and missionaries. Most were settlers – ‘Territorians’ as they called themselves – and their livelihood was in New Britain. Many were former World War I soldiers too old to enlist.
Meanwhile, as Neptuna and Macdhui steamed south, the women and children separated from their men felt deeply uncertain about their future. The evacuation was officially complete by 29 December when 592 women and children from Papua and 1210 from New Guinea arrived in Australia.
Back in Rabaul, hundreds of civilians were left to their fate.
On 15 January, Acting Administrator Harold Page cabled Canberra asking War Cabinet to consider evacuating civilians from Rabaul and the New Guinea islands to either mainland New Guinea or Australia.
The Chiefs of Staff considered the cablegram and advised the War Cabinet meeting of 19 January, as they had previously, that an attack on Rabaul was likely to be of such strength that the Australian force would be overwhelmed. They also advised that civil administration should continue for as long as possible – to provide administrative services and law and order so avoiding the diversion of military personnel to such tasks – but that any “unnecessary civilians” should be evacuated.
The advice was accepted and Page was asked to compile a list and instructed that the people named should be evacuated “as and when transport is available”. But the decision had come too late.
The 6000 ton Norwegian freighter Herstein had arrived in Rabaul on 14 January and was unloading cargo until 18 January, when it began to take on copra at about the same time War Cabinet considered evacuating civilians. But on the morning of 20 January, while still loading, Herstein was bombed by Japanese aircraft and burned to the waterline. It was the same day War Cabinet’s reply to Page was drafted. There was now no available transport.
In her book, A Very Long War, Margaret Reeson quotes an Australian officer who escaped from Rabaul as saying “the abandonment of the European males and the Chinese population was scandalous.” But events had moved too quickly and the Australian Government and the Rabaul Administration simply ran out of time.
Only four of the hundreds of European civilians who remained in Rabaul were alive at the end of the war. In addition more than 150 civilians were liberated from a camp at Ramale in the Kokopo area, nearly all were members of the Sacred Heart Mission including many nuns.
From The Tragedy of the Montevideo Maru: Time for Recognition
Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society