Chocos and Real Soldiers
The debacle had been allowed to occur. Its effect brought a tinge of high-mindedness to the editor of The Standard, the Shire councillors, and the letter writers in February 1942. They had no idea of what had happened, only that Japan had established a base within striking distance of Australia.
Here is what the editor wrote in The Standard of Friday February 6 1942.
Hundreds of members of the Australian Military Forces are in action now at Rabaul. For the first time in our history members of our home defence forces are firing to kill, fighting shoulder to shoulder with members of the A.I.F. - those very A.I.F. chaps which certain high officials of the Returned Soldiers Assocation were anxious to deprive of that title - if they came back. How foolish those officials must feel today.
Since the first callup the lads of the Militia have been known as Chocos, a term attached to them in the spirit of that irrestible humour of the A.I.F. Chocos they were before Rabaul, and perhaps Chocos they'll be after, when the story is written of their exploits, of a hard fight against overwhelming odds. But the term Chocos will carry a different meaning. It will be a term of praise to those very gallant young men, lads, who fought with the A.I.F. at Rabaul.
In many ways in past months the callup has been treated as a kind of extended picnic, a spirit which has caught on from the top down. Young men who went in reluctantly, have quickly learned to like the life; it has improved their health, but they have growled because they've had nothing to do.
Their training is being tightened up. The picnic atmosphere of U.T. camps is being wiped out, and in its place a programme of intensive training is being rushed through. These young men might yet have to fight. And if they do, they will; their brothers-in-arms at Rabaul have proved that. As a certain famous character in fiction said, regarding the rise of another word, in the future when you say Choco, say it with a smile - a smile of appreciation.
That is the attitude of mind of all thinking people in Australia. That paragraph is written to put wise those thousands of lads away on the other side in camps, on ships, and in planes who read this paper; since they left these shores many things have changed, the implications contained in the term Chocos too.
It was decided that presentation wallets would be made available to militia men serving with the A.I.F. in Rabaul. Too late. The dead men and the unfortunate men and women at the Malaguna Road prison camp hardly needed such superfluities now.
At the February council meeting, various councillors had their say.
Cr Wells: 'We have men in Rabaul and Port Moresby who have volunteered from the ranks of the militia to serve in these places. What's the difference between these men and the A.I.F?'
Cr Heath: 'Militia men were now fully fledged soldiers.'
Cr Devlin: 'We have a lad at Tyabb who wished to join the A.I.F. but was too young. When he reached the age for the militia callup, he was not allowed to transfer to the A.I.F. but he volunteered for service with the militia in Rabaul and is there now. From one week to another we don't know in what part of it the boys may be.'
Cr Pratt: 'I am of the same opinion as Cr Heath. Port Moresby or Rabaul are just as vital to us as the Middle East.'
Better late than never, a bit of honest talk for once, came General Sturdee's review on February 15 1942.
So far in this war against Japan we have violated the principle of concentration of forces in our efforts to hold numerous small localities with totally inadequate forces which are progressively overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers. These small garrisons alone without adequate reinforcement or support never appeared to have any prospect of withstanding even a moderate scale of attack. In my opinion, the present policy of trying to hold isolated islands with inadequate resources needs review.
Choco and Proud of It asked in The Standard why a large section of the Australian people, ' so jealous of its reputation for fair mindedness, should still try to draw a line between those who have volunteered and those who have been called up.....the chocos fighting for the homeland in the best A.I.F. tradition won't worry if they don't get a present. All they ask is for equipment good enough to give them a chance of knocking over the Japs if and when they set foot on Australian soil.'
Nasty words were spoken on the other side of the world. According to Oliver Harvey, Eden's Private Secretary, Australia was 'in the greatest possible flap. Almost a panic over the Jap approach and our alleged failure to have helped them more.' Curtin he described as 'a wretched second rate man.' Sir Ronald Cross felt that Australians were 'an inferior people' with poor nerves.
Small exactions on enemy aliens were demanded. George Wells of Frankston had died in June and his will expressly stated that 'no portion of the assets shall be distributed or paid during the war to any beneficiary or creditor who is an enemy subject wherever resident or to anyone on his behalf or to or on behalf of any person resident in any enemy country or territory or in any country.'
On April 10 1942 there was some good news in the paper. Two men had escaped from Rabaul - Private Cummins and Private Perry. There might be more.
There was never to be any good news for Doris. The propaganda machine misinformed her and she kept up false hopes. At a meeting of the Prisoners of War Auxiliary of the A.I.F's Women's Association, 'a meeting that packed the two biggest rooms in the Legacy Club, overflowed into the hall and down the stairs' and out into the street, reassuring fibs were told. Diggers and nurses back from Malaya discounted atrocity stories. The Japanese, they insisted, definitely respected the Red Cross. Prisoners would all be taken to Java which had plentiful food and a sound economic system. Milk and cheese might be short, but the climate made 'the scantiest of clothes adequate' and 'the island's medical and dental services 'were good.
The audience was told that many men had gone bush and were living off the land, or playing football and cricket in camps.
'Heartening too were the repeated warnings given by speakers to disregard atrocity stories, and Lady Mann...appealed to the women not to pay too much heed to the Jap as he really is broadcasts.'
Jack was dead by July 1942, if the official story is true. He was a POW in Rabaul until sent on board the Montevideo Maru, to be shipped to Hainan Island. That means that for five months he was a prisoner. There were no letters to Doris and the girls now. A dreadful silence descended upon the fate to which the captured people were subjected. It took three years to find out what might have happened. In 1945 it was revealed that the U.S. submarine Sturgeon had attacked the Montevideo Maru and most on board were drowned.
© Jenny Evans, 2003