Mr Henry Chow, President Rabaul Town Council
On behalf of the people of Rabaul we join with you in this commemorative service for the prisoners of war who perished in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru on this day 30 years ago ... We know only too well the mental anguish and suffering of those who were left behind.
As one of those who were left behind and as a young boy who experienced and managed to survive the horrors and hardships, the fear and anguish of those five years of war in this area, I would like to recall for you some of those experiences.
The town of Rabaul suffered its first damage one December morning in 1941 when the first wave of 18 Japanese aircraft bombed the airfield and military installations and parts of the town. Later a second wave of aircraft hit the town, then there was the landing of troops on the North Coast, and invasion and occupation of the town of Rabaul and the whole of New Britain and New Ireland.
At the time of the Japanese occupation of the town it had suffered comparatively little damage. The majority of the buildings were not damaged at all and were used by Japanese troops. The old Kuo Ming Tang Hall and several other large buildings were used to house the prisoners of war…These prisoners were used in the construction and repairing of damaged roads, bridges and airfields, and in the unloading of goods from ships. Their daily ration was a small quantity of rice. In the overcrowded and unhygienic conditions under which they were forced to live, and with the deficient diet and the hard manual labour which they had to endure, many of the prisoners grew very thin and weak, and sicknesses and diseases were rampant. Some died as a result, and many were flogged because they could not work from weakness. So it was probably a merciful relief to them when they were loaded on to the Montevideo Maru taking them to proper prisoner of war camps in Japan.
Prior to the invasion the civilian population had evacuated the town and the indigenous people had deserted their villages and vanished into the bush.
Except for the fighting and chaotic conditions which prevailed for the several weeks immediately after the invasion, the year 1942 and the early part of 1943 were comparatively peaceful for the civilian population. Food and livestock were easily grown and raised at all the places where the people had evacuated and settled. And the occupation forces had left them alone as long as they were not suspected of espionage activities.
It was a different story by the middle of 1943 when the allied air and naval offensives against the New Guinea islands were in earnest. Aerial dogfights in the sky by scores of aircrafts between the opposing forces were a daily occurrence. The night skies were pierced by the spears of lights from searchlights and gunfire from naval bombardments, and were continually lit by the flashes of exploding bombs. During the day marauding aircraft would bomb and strike at every building in sight and at every sign of life, irrespective of friend or foe. At night, if a fire was seen, the place would be bombed out of existence.
By late 1943 the Japanese air force in Rabaul was wiped out and the naval fleet was destroyed. The allied air forces bombed and strafed the New Guinea islands at will, day and night. The town of Rabaul was completely destroyed, not one building was left standing. The Japanese had moved their occupation forces into the deep valleys of the jungle. The remaining civilians were rounded up and herded into concentration camps deep in the jungle. The native population went deeper and deeper into the bush.
The mental anguish and physical fear were terrible on the people. There was practically no one who had not experienced a bullet or rocket exploding within five yards of them or a bomb exploding within fifty yards. The daily rituals of running for the air raid shelters at the sound of approaching aircraft and the strain and suspense between the dive of a diving aircraft and its exploding bombs and bullets were a terrible mental strain on the people. Food gardens were neglected and the crowded conditions in the damp air raid shelters created havoc with the health of the people. Medical supplies were short. This, coupled with food shortages and mental strain, sickness and disease ravished the people and many died.
The toll by sickness and disease on the native people was heavy. In fact more people in this area died from sickness and disease than from actual acts of war.
By the time hostilities ended in this area the town of Rabaul was overgrown with jungle. With the return of the Australian Army the authorities decided to use the area known as Matupit Farm for the temporary re-settlement of the civilian population. A tent town was built for the people; later on it was replaced by kunai huts. By 1948-49 people started to rebuild the old township of Rabaul.
During the intervening years between the end of the war and now the re-building of the town has become part and parcel of our history and we think that we, the people of this town, can be justified in being proud of the way this town has been rebuilt and developed.
Today we, the people of Rabaul, join this commemorative service with the relatives and friends of those who perished on the Montevideo Maru. Today we thank them and remember them because they have given the supreme sacrifice in defence of this town against invasion. We, the people of this town, are sincerely proud to inherit and become guardians of their heritage.
Next month this town will take another leap in its forward development by officially taking over from the Administration the management of the functions required to run and maintain this town. With the lessons learnt and experiences suffered through hostilities in this area, the new Rabaul Town Council is very sensitive to the needs of the people, and will make every endeavour to use all available resources and influences to make this town a good place in which to live by all its citizens.
Transcript provided by George Oakes.
Image of Rabaul, 1945 AWM #096796 with permission of the Australian War Memorial.
Image of Rabaul, 1971 with permission of the National Library of Australia.