Not Home for Christmas
The Rabaul garrison had been told that no one could expect to be home for Christmas. 'It is not the best up here now as we cannot get leave to go to the theatre to see a show and as that was our only entertainment it makes things more dull than ever.'
We were thinking of being relieved when this started but now we will be stopping here indefinitely.
Well, my Darling, things are still quiet up here and it is still sunny and hot although we are still getting some showers. Matupi has been behaving itself too. There is only a little smoke and steam rising from it now--just like it was when we arrived here....We have not received your parcel yet...Have you received the one I sent yet?
Our native that looks after the fires could not be found all day last Thursday until night time. He had been up to the village with a shovel digging a trench like they have seen the boys about here doing, for himself and Mary and pickannie and monkey to shelter in. He says he is going to run like damn if we get a raid as he no like Japs as they beat them like Germans to make them work, but we treat them like friends so they like us.
Jack's thoughts were for his family too. 'Well sweetheart how are those children of ours? Just as mischievous as ever? Ask Joan to write me another letter as it will please her and I like getting a letter from her. I have got her a dress and two for Jen and tried to get one for you but they don't seem to stock for women--only material to make them. So I will get you some if you want it or something that would be useful. It's very hard to get anything for grownups at all and now they have not much of a stock in at all. Still I'll try to get something I can afford, that I think you would like.'
This letter was written before Christmas 1941. Compulsory evacuation of European women and children had begun. By that time the decision had long been made not to reinforce, that is, to abandon Rabaul. Jack did not realise that the outside world had turned away from him and his mates, and from the people who had spent much of their lifetimes working in New Guinea on plantations, or in civilian occupations, and from the New Britain people themselves. He should have put on his army boots and run like damn at this very moment.
The reasons given for the official decision are brutal and repugnant. The cable on 12 December 1941 between Canberra and Washington reveals it all. Reinforcement was not possible because it would be too hazardous for those sent. A voluntary withdrawal would have a bad psychological effect on the Dutch. The garrison was too small to repel any attack but despite whatever numbers the Japanese brought to overwhelm the island, a token resistance had to take place. These are the rationalisations of men far away and safe.
Requests, pleas, cables from the civil administration in Rabaul were ignored and not answered from Australia. Ah, Jack, if you'd only known.
Well dear will you give my good wishes for the Christmas and New Year as I will not be able to write to everyone again before. I hope you all have a good rest and a little fun and do not worry about me as I am quite well.
Jack was an honest victim of the propaganda machine.
If there is any rumours flying about about us up here don't take any notice unless notified in public by the Government. We are well and anyone that wants to take our Island will not look for to attack us the second time as they will think that they are in the midst of a volcanic eruption the temper we are all in.
On the Royal Australian Engineers' Christmas card that he sent were the season's greetings and a cheeky 'to you all. Thumbs up.'
The last words he ever wrote, in the final paragraph of his Christmas letter, became his eloquent farewell.
Well sweetheart I will close now with my dearest wishes to you and children and all my love to you all and hoping to see you in the near future and if by any chance that God wills I do not make the grade in a tough spot remember I tried to do my duty and I will meet you again but be of good cheer and God go with you all. Yours for ever and ever, love Jack.
The Garrison Sacrificed
On New Year's Day the Area commander ordered his men to fight to the last and concluded with the words, underlined and in capitals: THERE SHALL BE NO WITHDRAWAL. Strategically that was a foolish order. No preparations were then made for withdrawal into the mountains. No food or arms caches were taken up into the ranges. Lieutenant Selby was told that hiding stores showed 'a defeatist attitude'.
In Frankston the summer holidays had started.
Official and personal documents at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra allow the story of the fall of Rabaul to be put together. There are some curious revelations. In a 'most secret' letter dated 26 June 1941, Coast Defence Survey enquired about 'naval representation'. It was not until 28 October that Brigadier Basil Morris wrote that this was 'being reviewed.' That seems extraordinarily dilatory considering that there were 15,000 troops in Malaya by October 1941. Did the dreadful unpreparedness lead to one theatre of war being reinforced at the expense of another?
In expectation of naval reinforcements beach electric lights, both battery operated and power operated from a petrol motor generator, were suggested. A reply was to be sent by Air Mail. Even to the last there seemed to be a primitive lack of urgency, an air of wait and see.
In response to a cipher message of the 2nd of December 1941, some militia personnel were got ready to sail. The sender of the message ominously insisted: 'Not repeat not A.I.F. personnel.' It seems a curious request.
These are quibbles in the face of overwhelming disaster.
Japanese bombing raids began on the 4th of January 1942, and, from then on, the South Seas Force drew inexorably nearer and nearer. On January 20 one hundred and twenty Japanese aircraft bombed Rabaul. On January 22 forty five Japanese fighters and dive bombers silenced the Praed Point battery. The order came to move. The enemy convoy was in sight.
The men who faced odds of seventeen to one on January 23 included Jack the stonemason, some clerks, a barrister, an insurance inspector, a doctor, a farmer, a manager, an articled law clerk, a pharmaceutical chemist, a bank teller, an accountant, some salesmen, a drainer, a printer, a student, a fisherman, a hosiery operator, a bookeeper, a mantle manufacturer, a furniture designer, a hotel employee and a truck driver. They were all expendable.
Miss Doris McRae was of course proved to be correct. Aerial photographs, those modern weapons of war that she had feared, were used by the Japanese as the basis for planning the attack.
In Frankston on Friday night, January 23, 'the married ladies repeated their most successful concert on behalf of Red Cross funds...the choruses were rich with true patriotic spirit.' They rendered Land of Hope and Glory, There'll Always Be An England, and Rule Britannia.
Jack and his mates were dead, dying, retreating, or surrendering on that day. A few had been buried alive under a gun emplacement on 22 January. When the order came, EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF, some escaped west and south and some turned back and surrendered. Some escaped and then surrendered, only to be massacred at Tol plantation.
An organised evacuation would have been possible. Apparently it was considered permissible for officials in Australia to abandon or withdraw their support, that is, to show, privately, a 'defeatist' attitude - or did they rationalise it as a 'realistic' attitude - but forbidden for the fighting men, facing danger and completely outnumbered, to have a rational fall back strategy.
© Jenny Evans, 2003