Despite the length of time since the tragedy of Rabaul, its consequences continue to be powerfully imprinted on the people directly affected and their descendants. The sacrifice of fathers, grandfathers, brothers and friends killed under Japanese occupation – and the lack of knowledge about how and where many of them met their deaths – ensures lingering grief and uncertainty.
As the women and children bid farewell to their men just before Christmas 1941, they were apprehensive but had no thought they would never see them again. For these people, every Christmas remains a painful reminder of what they have lost.
Upon reaching Australia the lives of the evacuees fragmented. Friends drifted apart and families scattered, their plight subsumed within the disruptions of a nation at war. Margaret Reeson writes in A Very Long War:
If the fall of Rabaul and the disappearance of the Australian men in the islands had taken place at a time when the nation was not preoccupied with a great many other military setbacks, that too may have held a larger place in the national consciousness.
As it was, both the evacuation of the women and the disappearance of the men coincided with a time when the Australian people feared invasion by the Japanese, and week after week the daily news was filled with other real and impending disasters.
The evacuation was particularly difficult for women who had been involved in plantations and other commercial enterprises. Their wealth left behind, many struggled financially. Often there was no employer to help. When Rabaul fell, the larger Pacific trading companies took the view, as the men were no longer working for them, that they need not continue paying their salaries.
While Army families received soldiers’ wages throughout the war, many civilian wives had no reliable income. Separated from their men, homes, livelihood and community, many struggled. There was an overwhelming feeling of loss, isolation and disempowerment.
The women took what employment they could. Sometimes this meant leaving children with grandparents to find work elsewhere. After the loss of husbands, such separation triggered anxiety and depression. The women felt humiliated by their status as “those poor evacuees”. The children talk of feeling “different”.
A few letters from the men got through in the weeks immediately following the evacuation of Rabaul. They mentioned air raids and the loneliness of life ithout families. Then they stopped arriving.
Meanwhile the women and children lived in the hope of imminent reunion, even action by the Government to rescue their men.
On 6 February 1942, Army Minister Forde wrote to Prime Minister Curtin:
It is quite apparent, however, that not only the relatives of the Rabaul Garrison, but also the people of Australia are anticipating that some drastic action, which for security reason is not being divulged, is being taken by the Government and that every possible avenue of relief is being utilised.
Should the facts of the position become known to the public, I feel sure it would come as a very great shock, and they would wish to know what endeavours have been made to relieve the situation. I appreciate that there might be very severe limitation on our ability to do this…
In fact, although many of the men who succeeded in fleeing Rabaul were retrieved, nothing could be done for those who remained.
In April 1942, as part of a reciprocal agreement with the Allies, the Japanese dropped brief letters from the Rabaul prisoners while on a bombing raid over Port Moresby. These established that many people had been moved into prison camps. Nearly half the missing people either had written or were mentioned in these letters.
Later, relatives were to receive letters, cards and some radio messages from officers who had been shifted from Rabaul to Japan. But beyond this, for most families, what followed was nearly four years of official silence interspersed with disturbing rumours.
The women listened to prisoner-of-war radio broadcasts and mailed 15-word letters through the Red Cross. There were no replies, but the families never gave up hope they would be reunited with their men.
The first detailed newspaper reports of what had happened to Rabaul were released by the censor and began appearing in April 1942. Based mainly on interviews with escapers, the Sydney Morning Herald had articles like ‘Gallant beach fighting and terrible retreat’ and survivors’ detailed accounts of the Tol massacre.
Here was an agonising puzzle for the families of the missing: there had been news of a horrific massacre and an unexpected release of letters but, after April 1942, nothing.
Within weeks of the war ending in September 1945, the terrible tragedy that had befallen Rabaul and Montevideo Maru became clear. Hundreds of men had died in Rabaul and more than 1000 had perished in the sinking of the ship.
The overriding need of grief-stricken families was to learn what had happened to their men. They had many questions but few precise answers. The government, supported by the opposition, chose not to hold a post-war inquiry into the fall of Rabaul, setting aside the 1942 suggestion by Army Minister Forde that there might be one.
The Government’s position led to various theories being promulgated about what had happened to the people of Rabaul.
Mrs Frances Ryan, who by now knew she was a widow, wrote to Prime Minister Chifley:
No inquiry into the tragedy of Rabaul has been allowed. You yourself have expressed the opinion that no good can come of it, but as a widow of one of the men I hope the inquiry will be made.
Over 300 civilians were needlessly sacrificed and we women were kept in ignorance far too long. To us has [sic] been the years of anxiety, loneliness and sadness.
But the war was over and Australia was moving on. Many families chose not to discuss what had happened to their men; it was a story too dreadful to reflect upon. Margaret Reeson writes:
For the families of the men in the islands, therefore, there was little national energy left for what might, in other circumstances, have seen an outpouring of public sympathy and support.
For families of the missing there was no dramatic news, no funerals, no reunions, no visible mourning, no grave, no certainty and no end to the suspense of waiting. The families of the island men received none of the usual overflowing of concern, compassion and practical help on which Australians pride themselves…
And, of the men on Montevideo Maru:
There were no witnesses and no remains. How could anyone be sure who went on what ship? Was the government trying to provide a softer version of their end compared to the possibility of torture, executions or painful and lonely death of disease on a jungle track while trying to escape?
Andrea Williams writes:
At first the families had no choice but to accept the news, but then questions arose causing a pain and uncertainty which persists. There were so many rumours. Who was on the ship? Did the ship leave Rabaul loaded with the men, and then return a few days later without them? Why would an important document, the only reference as to who was on board Montevideo Maru, disappear from Central Army Records?
How to explain the inconsistencies between the names on various lists as to who was on the Montevideo Maru? Why is there not more acknowledgement of the fate of the New Guinea islands men in Australian history?
Such questions, and others like them, remain. Even now, not all are capable of being answered.
But there is one outstanding matter that can be addressed and awaits official attention. It concerns the moral obligation of the Australian nation for the sacrifices made in Rabaul.
In late 1941, the Australian Chiefs of Staff and the Australian Government, realising the dangers involved but also believing the measure was justified in the defence of Australia, chose to retain Lark Force and civil administrators in Rabaul, and did not encourage other civilians to leave until too late.
It can be fairly said – and historian Prof Hank Nelson supports such an assertion – that this decision, made by a new government confronting the most difficult circumstances, challenges the Australian nation with a significant moral obligation to the men and women who died and their relatives.
These people were compelled to make a sacrifice emanating from a need to defend Australia. It was a sacrifice that made a great contribution to the safety and security of the nation. It is a sacrifice that has never been appropriately acknowledge or recognised.
That is what this Submission and its recommendations are designed to resolve.
From: The Tragedy of the Montevideo Maru: Time for Recognition
Copyright Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society