New Guinea 1941
On June 6 1941, Jack stood outside his tent and photographed Matupi, one of the volcanic cones beside Blanche Bay which occasionally stirred into action. Matupi was sending out its columns of smoke over the camp. The next day, a buffalo team coming up Casuarina Avenue caught his eye. Three natives posed on a road for him on the 8th of June: he labelled the photo 'scenery among hills.' Best of all, he was able to take a shot of the Rabaul swimming pool beneath the coconut palms. He may not have had the wherewithal to go off on a cruise like Ossie or Joy before the war but here he was, courtesy of the people of Australia.
Jack wrote thirty five letters from Rabaul. Three remain: numbers 12, 22 and 35. They are undated but must have been written in 1941. He had promised to write at least one letter home each week and wrote in pencil when he could not get nibs. Jack, like his brother George, heirs to dour and stubborn generations of North Country people with insides of soft sentiment and crushed tenderness, as the writer Arnold Bennett would say, did his duty and kept his word.
In letter 12 he is a sightseer in a strange new environment, as well as a father concerned for his family and a Frankston man attached to the town and musing about his friends and acquaintances. He is also a man coping with the strange new task of delegating business worries to his wife. Most of all, he is a man who will one day be home to stay. He is one of the ordinary fellows who has no idea of the deceptions that have already occurred and those that are to follow.
It is beautiful and moonlight at night time up here at present and the weather is very pleasant. At the new site there is always a breeze blowing and we are right on the sea. So we can have a swim any time we get the chance.
It was impossible to do that at Frankston in June, in the depth of winter. This was the time when the wind howled around the corners of the pubs and up and down Bay Street and people were glad to get indoors and sit in front of their fires after a hard day's work.
Doris had written that she had had trouble with the wireless set they had bought long ago but that it had been fixed and she was back in contact with the world. Jack, in reply, confessed to wireless troubles too. Only by standing outside a hut that had one could some of them get to hear anything from the outside world. It is not too fanciful to see those wireless troubles as a metaphor for what was about to happen.
'From September 1939 onwards Australian Governments had been confused rather than guided by events......The thoughts of many political and industrial groups still flowed in the channels which had been dug by the arguments over defence policy in the period between the two wars.'
Price control, rationing, the reallocation of manpower, the disposal of primary products, or the maintenance of trade, all had to be treated delicately. The Australian public did not like to be harried or inconvenienced.
In July 1941 Cr Oates pointed out that the Send Off Committee had fallen down on the job and that the public showed little interest in farewelling the fighting services. 'Men had gone abroad without send offs, and returned men had not been recognised.'
That incapacity was reflected nationally. 'Democracy has seldom produced a worse means of obtaining strong government in a crisis than when, in Australia in 1940, it produced a coalition depending on the votes of two Independents. This fact in itself suggests a state of irresolution in the nation....' That irresolution of both the leaders and the followers was reflected in half measures and sectional greed. In the long run it led to the deliberate murder of my father.
Frankston was forced to rally to help itself as the months went by. Would Japan declare war? Would there be an invasion? ARP sections were put in place and wardens and section wardens named and streets identified. A blackout test was made compulsory for 9 to 10 pm on Tuesday September 23, frames being made by householders. Jack was not there to help Doris. He was part of the 15% war effort that Australia had roused itself to make.
The political crisis of late 1941, which ended when John Curtin, the Labour leader, was able to form a government, meant some internal political stability after a period of much argument. It did not augur well for the small expeditionary forces hastily scattered to the north. A poor and makeshift effort would take time to reverse.
Jack could send home photos of Matupi until he was blue in the face. His political and military masters were about as trustworthy as that smoking volcano. Menzies lacked the capacity to demand 'a hard strong unrelenting sacrifice' writes Paul Hasluck in retrospect. The nation, represented by small towns like Frankston, would not change. Employment and wages had risen. The war effort, so called, impinged heavily on those men who volunteered or were forced to leave their families. For others, it was often more a matter of irritation and inconvenience.
The men at Rabaul even experienced hunger. Jack wrote: 'We have got more rations now so things will be alright again as far as the food question is concerned. We were getting a bit light on.'
Even though people like Mrs Linda Render, who after all had seen two sons leave Frankston, donated six shillings towards canteen orders for the boys overseas at Christmas, by November 7 1941 only £25 had been collected. Frankstonites were probably more interested in The Standard's 'Thrilling Escape From Crete' story than Jack yearning for his dearest sweetheart and the kids.
The men in Canberra thought that the Australian people might behave badly. It comes as a shock to read those words fifty years on. We have been told that the people rose to the occasion and behaved spendidly. In fact, this was true only of certain groups. The rest, in these early years of the war, put self interest first.
Somewhere in the jungle there was once a photo of a plump dark haired wife, a blonde nine year old, a two year old in overalls, and a cocker spaniel 'I get a lot of pleasure looking at you all when ever I have a fit of the blues' wrote V12000. He had been gone a long time. 'I am back on the job now and am not sorry to be so. As it is a bit dreary laying on your back all day long you get very soft on it and sweat all day worse than if you are working.' He had been in hospital with, of all things, rubella.
He sent back photos of the plantations and a shady walk, and one of a palm lined foreshore. Thick jungle edged a narrow strip of sand and a calm sea. It was warm and sultry. That set him thinking about summer on Frankston beach.
I hope we get home before it gets cold and then we can all go down and have our tea down there for the time I get leave. Has Joan learned to swim yet? If not we will have to give her a few lessons. Jen I suppose is just as keen as ever of the water. Remember the time she fell down the hole the kiddies dug at the edge the last time we were in together?
To so many people living in Frankston at that time, such plain and simple joys made life worthwhile.
Jack sent photos of the main avenue of tall trees leading to Rabaul; the opulent Rabaul Club; a plantation with a girl looking just like Joan; the Overseas Chinese School with the Mother volcano in the background; and the Rest House for troops, run by the ladies of Rabaul, with 'self on steps' beside a pal from the Battalion.
He sent photos of Corporal Jones draped in snake beans, and Sergeant Wall 'with the pudding we all had a hand in making', and Butch Newman from Tasmania, 'one of my companions', and Bill Lovel in the cookhouse, and Slim Richmond, 'one of the boys from the 46th Battalion with us here.' The boys of the Three Services Football team he photographed and sent, lined up in their singlets, and in action on the field, and one snap of 'the natives watching the changing of the guard.'
On the back of a photo of himself taken by one of his mates he wrote 'you know the Rotter'. He had the deprecatory Australian sense of humour.
He was both pleased and dismayed that his young brother Claude had joined up. Three Renders were surely enough from any town.
I will be looking out for him and if they do get sent abroad let me know. They might get sent to relieve here. If you can get him to put in for reinforcements for Rabaul to this station of L Force if there is a vacancy or to stop there till we get back, I would like to serve with him. I would have advised him not to rush into this kind of thing. I myself rue the day I left the old battalion as I would not condemn my worst enemy to this deadly existence.
His old company had been the 46th Militia. As far as he knew those old pals were at Bonegilla.
In this letter Jack also expressed his regret that he was not doing a real job like his brother-in-law Roy Fleming in the Middle East. There the division lay, between real soldiers and choco men.
To Rabaul had been sent Lieutenant Colonel Carr's 2/22nd Battalion of the 23rd Brigade, a Coast Defence Battery with attached Fortress Signallers and Engineers under Major Clark, an anti-aircraft unit under Lieutenant Selby, Captain Matheson's 17th Anti-Tank Battery, and a detachment from the 2/10th Field Ambulance. There were also a native constabulary and Lieutenant Colonel Walstab's New Guinea Volunteer Rifles. Hoping to make Rabaul a major base for British and American fleets, the authorities had sent Colonel Scanlan to take over command in October 1941.
'In October 1941 the Australian Chiefs of Staff decided that Rabaul could not be held in the event of a determined Japanese attack.'
'The road back...is short, but a long trip, remembering.' writes F.M. Budden in his impassioned book The Chocos. Australia had been warned by Gordon Bennett of its unpreparedness in 1937. In 1941 its defence rested in militia hands, in part time, ill equipped hands. Political conscripts were looked upon with distaste. Budden writes:
It was all right to tolerate the considerable number of evils in life but the evil of compulsory soldiering was not acceptable, not until the troops transferred to the A.I.F. This did not make him a better soldier; it gave him an X on his regimental number and more equipment to fight with, but no change in the man himself.
So at Rabaul were real soldiers and the rest.
The small force had established itself during 1941. Quarterly progress reports on fortress installations were expected back in Australia. Among other activities, Jack was equipped by his trade to make formwork, do concrete work, and prepare sites for searchlight emplacements and engine rooms. Hadn't he built stone walls in Frankston and landscaped gardens on Oliver's Hill and even built an entire stone house from rocks collected from the beach at the foot of the hill? His eyesight was questionable, and he had been sent as a Cook Class 2. Did he realize that?
In September 1941 the guns had been installed and were ready for proofing. 'Owing to strong south east wind that has been blowing continuously and the dusty nature of the soil progress has not been very rapid.' The men sought to trick the enemy by using camouflaged grass huts but too much clearing exposed their positions.
The Rabaul men lacked news of the outside world except through official channels and the lifeline of letters and newspapers from home. Civilians were reluctant to leave but some withdrew. The people who opted to remain must have been given false hope by the officers and administrators. Reinforcements were coming, they were told. The fact of the presence of a garrison going about its business was surely sufficient evidence that things were under control.
An inter-service planning team visited Rabaul in November 1941.
Jack's tone was optimistic. 'They will soon peter out as we have the line up of those against us, and know what we are doing, and not being nervous of a stab in the back from any other quarter. In the next few months I think the war will now be over; at least only twelve months.'
On second thoughts, 'still we will have to bear some losses but there is one consolation--they have suffered just as great a blow and have also lost quite a good percentage of their attacking forces.' Someone was telling the troops strange things. Perhaps this letter was written just after the attack on Pearl Harbour.
The Pacific struggle was still seen as a secondary enterprise by those running the war in the northern hemisphere. Great umbrage was taken at Australian suggestions of a different point of view. If there was misinformation at the highest levels, it is understandable that the lonely observation post at Rabaul was misled.
Jack found it better to think where his heart really lay, with the summer storms over Victoria, and his two girls' health. 'Please look after them and take no risks as I want to hear that they are better soon.' He had lots of local people to think about. There was Ron in the navy and not able to be home for Christmas, young Jack working for the Heymansons, Kath helping Doris in the garden, and brother in law Ivan battling to keep mobile. Thoughts of his garden were a fond standby. 'The old lemon tree will come in handy and in that sand seems to be doing pretty well by the photo you sent me of it and yourself by it.'
He thought of Ben Fletcher and his family, and of his own father. 'Glad to see that Dad has plenty of work but it is a shame that he has to work so hard so late in life. When this blinky war is over we will have to try and make it a bit easier for him.'
© Jenny Evans, 2003