The Japanese Invasion of New Ireland 1942
The 23rd of January 1942 is well known as the day the Japanese forces captured Rabaul at the beginning of the Pacific War and established a major base there, only seven weeks after the sneak air attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 which brought America into the war.
Ignored by most historians, in fact almost never mentioned at all, is that Kavieng, the main port and commercial centre of New Ireland, was invaded and captured on the same day. The consequences were dire for the small number of Australian commandos stationed there, the missionaries who remained and those European public servants, planters and employees who had not already gone to Australia to join up in the Australian military forces, usually because of their age or ill health.
The wives of Europeans had been evacuated to Australia just before Christmas 1941 but no arrangement was made for the Chinese and Mixed Race women to go, and the men were expected to stay in New Ireland. They suffered many hardships and death, either at the hands of the Japanese or as a consequence of the Allied bombing, or ill treatment, as did many hundreds of New Irelanders and other New Guineans working contracts on the plantations who were unable to go to their home districts.
After aircraft from six Japanese carriers had attacked Pearl Harbour Hawaii they disappeared into the Pacific supporting the Japanese rapid advances in Asia. By 21 January 1942 four of those carriers were close enough to New Ireland that in the early morning about 60 bombers and fighter planes from the Kagi and Akagi attacked Kavieng, concentrating on the wharf area, Chinatown, and the recently built Kavieng airstrip, but strafing everything else.
At least one Chinese, Tung Sing, died that day and was hastily buried and others were injured, some seriously, including five of the commandos from the 1st Independent Company who were taken to the Catholic Mission hospital at Lemakot, after treatment at Kavieng hospital.
It was obvious to everyone that Japanese ships were nearby and invasion was imminent. The decision was made by District Officer MacDonald to evacuate all civilians from Kavieng, and Major Wilson withdrew most of his small force to near Kaut on the west coast, where separate camps for civilians and military had been prepared.
The small Australian commando force, the lst Independent Company, had arrived in Kavieng in July 1941. Comprising only about 250 men it had its HQ in Kavieng but was required to have small units also stationed at Manus, Namatanai, Buka, Tulagi, an island near Honiara in the Solomon Islands, and Vila in the New Hebrides. Its effectiveness was minimal, spread as it was over thousands of kilometres, and it was in effect sacrificed, being unable to resist any determined Japanese force of any size, and in fact not one of the men stationed in Kavieng survived the war, only the officers who had been sent to Japan.
By late afternoon of 21 January 1942 Kavieng was almost deserted, the population en route to where ever they felt they would be far enough away from Kavieng and the impending invasion. Only a small group of commandos remained to destroy installations useful to the enemy and a group of 16-17 Europeans preparing to escape on five schooners, the largest, the Navanora and Shamrock, owned by Frank Saunders and others owned by Bill Box and Col Mackellar. Phil Levy, manager of Burns Philp store, also remained.
By the time they had loaded up with provisions from the abandoned stores in Kavieng in anticipation of a voyage, perhaps to Australia, it was late. The most credible of the several stories told after the war, about what happened to them, is that one of the smaller boats broke down and all stayed in the narrow Albatross Passage separating New Ireland from Baudissin island, attempting to repair the engine of the one boat, instead of abandoning it.
The advancing Japanese invasion force found them late on the evening of 22 January. They were returned to Kavieng and were seen imprisoned in the Kavieng jail until a number of weeks later most were sent to Rabaul. They did not survive 1942.
On 22 January 1942 only Levy and the small group of commandos under Major Wilson were in Kavieng. They planned to defend or demolish the wharf and airstrip. During the day however five Europeans returned to the town. Harry Murray and 'Dusty' Miller, plantation owners and businessmen, Murray Edwards the Assistant District Officer, Bill Livingstone the Police Master and 'Peter' Griffen, a Burns Philp auditor temporarily on Lemus Island who arrived during the day to sell eggs and unexpectedly found the town deserted.
Later Edwards and Miller left separately in their boats, Edwards to return to the civilian camp near Kaut but he did not arrive. There are conflicting and unreliable reports of what may have happened, but he did not survive 1942. Murray and Levy were literally surprised by the landing of the R Invasion Detachment about midnight on the Kavieng waterfront and ran for their lives towards the airstrip and the few Australian commandos. Griffen at some point drove a car down the East Coast road and several weeks later met a surprised Murray escaping on foot from Kavieng.
The Japanese War History says the invading forces, arriving from the Japanese administered island of Truk, north of Kavieng, had captured the airfield by 3.35am on 23 January 1942 encountering no hostile infantry or inhabitants and that the 13 holes blasted in the airstrip were filled in five days allowing fighter planes to operate from it.
This conflicts with Australian reports that there was a fierce firefight as the commandos retired from the airstrip leaving an estimated 300 Japanese dead.
There was so little opposition that only two days later, on 25 January, the Mai No 2 Special Infantry which had participated in the landing went to Rabaul and destroyers with infantry and air support visited places on New Hanover, Mussau and Emira on 25 and 26 January looking for hostile military facilities, but found none.
It was discovered from captives that about 150 troops had fled from Kavieng after the 21st January air raid. On 28 January Japanese troops on the Goya Maru landed at Namatanai and searched the station and Namatanai village but found no Australian troops and re-embarked. Namatanai was not permanently occupied by the Japanese civilian administration until 5 June 1943 and ten days later Leong Cheung was publicly shot there.
In the meantime units of Japanese Naval forces occupied Kavieng, and the airstrip was used as a base, together with Rabaul, for the prolonged Japanese air attacks on the critical American landing at Guadalcanal after 7 August 1942.
Harry Murray, Levy and the commando unit blowing holes in the Kavieng airstrip retreated through the mangrove swamps at the back of the airstrip towards the camps near Kaut. A track through the swamps, which was purposely cut for this eventuality, could not be found in the darkness and confusion and it took two days to wade through the crocodile infested mangroves. Harry Murray so narrowly escaped the advancing Japanese that he had to cross the swamps in his pyjamas, barefoot and without his false teeth. They could not use the East Coast highway, assuming correctly that the Japanese would also land in the Maiom (now Utu) school and Panapei plantation area, cutting the road and isolating Kavieng.
Arriving at the camps near Kaut the military and civilians joined their companions who had left Kavieng on 21 January and went their separate ways, although it was the civilians who had the only workable radio transmitter.
Corporal Birtwistle died at Kaut when he triggered one of the booby traps protecting the perimeter from intruders. A couple of days later the civilians were surprised to find the 1st Independent Company had departed on the MV Induna Star, requisitioned for their use when they first arrived in Kavieng, and on which most of the injured commandos had been wounded in the air raid on 21 January. After the raid it had been sent to Kaut.
Of the five seriously wounded who went to Lemakot, two recovered, Privates Tole and Carter, and were sent by the Japanese to Rabaul in March 1942 with Sister Dorothy Maye, the Government nurse who had stayed on in Kavieng after other women were evacuated. Two others, Privates R B Smith and R J Munro were taken back to Kavieng hospital by the Japanese for operations but died soon after, and the fifth, Private George Anderson died at Lemakot on 6 February and was buried there. Sister Maye was sent to Japan from Rabaul in July 1942 on the ship with the officers and survived the war.
The MV Induna Star, without her skipper Julius Lundin, but with John Morell, a Djaul island planter who was familiar with New Ireland waters, slipped away down the west coast in darkness on 30 January. It hid from the planes during the day, and successfully evaded warships in the St George's Channel until spotted on 2 February by a Japanese seaplane and bombed, killing four commandos, Privates Eddy, Curtis, Lamont and Lowther. The ship was escorted back to Rabaul and all were imprisoned.
Meanwhile the civilians near Kaut, led by Harry Murray and Jerry MacDonald, decided to attempt to escape by walking down the West Coast. At that time the road only went as far as Lamernewai plantation and one, Caulfield Kelly, decided not to go. Others dropped off at plantations on their route when they met managers still working undisturbed on their plantations, while others joined the escaping party which was desperately looking for some kind of boat to allow them to leave New Ireland.
After long delays the group crossed from Ulaputur to the East Coast with the help of Father Neuhaus, the Namatanai parish priest, and stayed for a while at Muliama where they met nine Australians escaping from Rabaul. Eventually an escape was made possible by going to Tanga Island and forcefully requisitioning a small boat the Quang Wha belonging to Chin Pak, and returning to Muliama. On 30 April, over three months after the Japanese invasion, and overcoming many difficulties, they left New Ireland and on the afternoon of the 5th of May made a landfall at Mi-Mi on the North coast of Papua and on the 6th were at Buna.
At the time of the Japanese landing in Kavieng two other attempts to escape were made. When radio messages from Kavieng stopped, the six commandos of the 1st Independent Company stationed at Namatanai, together with A.D.O. Bill Kyle and Patrol Officer Greg Benham, hotel and Halis plantation owner Joe Kenny, Methodist missionary Gil Platten, Mageh, Samo and Metlik plantation owners Bert Brereton, Alf Priebe, and Axel Eylitz and Hilalon plantation manager Pasley wanted the small and old Matankuk plantation boat called the Gnair belonging to Tong Ko, a Chinese businessman and plantation owner. It had been hidden, as well as the fuel supply and engine parts.
Physical violence had to be used to obtain these and at 7pm on 2 February 1942 the Gnair sailed for Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, arriving on 8 February, under the 'command' of Helmuth 'Bubi' Schultze, a German using a small map out of the National Geographic magazine. Also requisitioned with the boat was the engineer, a Namatanai native Raymon, who was left at Tulagi when the civilian escapers just caught the last boat to Australia before the Japanese landed. He joined Mackenzie the coastwatcher and was at Guadalcanal during the battle and later joined the Australian Infantry and served with the coastwatchers in New Guinea.
The other less successful attempt to escape was from Mussau island when S.D.A Pastor Arthur Atkins, Trevor Collett, a sawmiller working for the mission, and Charles Cook, a plantation manager on Emira island, successfully passed through St George's Channel but when sailing down the east coast of New Britain were forced ashore. Cook finally escaped but as Pastor Atkins felt unable to continue, Collett stayed with him and both gave themselves up to the Japanese and went to Rabaul. Neither survived 1942.
When the Gnair finally departed with the Namatanai escapees Bill Kyle and Greg Benham were not with them. They had agreed to stay behind enemy lines as coastwatchers reporting enemy movements by radio. They had a second chance to leave with Murray on 3 April but stayed. Others had also remained as Coastwatchers including Cecil Jervis on Nissan, C.J. Mason on Tanga, J.L. Woodruffe on Anir and Con Page on Tabar islands. None of them survived 1942.
After the war 13 bodies were found on Nago Island near Kavieng where they had been executed. Seven bodies were identified: Kyle, Benham, Page and Jack Talmage, a German 'Sailor' Herterich and Father Michael Murphy from Tabar and Father Karl Martin from Ulaputur who were all executed in 1942. The other six bodies were not identified.
In fact of the 12 priests, 2 brothers and eleven sisters in New Ireland at the time of the Japanese invasion, most of whom were German and therefore allies of the Japanese, only 2 priests, and 9 sisters survived the war. Of those Father Stamm, a Brother and 4 Sisters were evacuated from the leper colony on Anelaua island near New Hanover in June 1944 by an American patrol boat based at Emira island which had been made into an American base when it was occupied on 2 March 1944. It was bombing by the Americans which forced their departure from Anelaua, as up until then they had been undisturbed by the Japanese.
Two old time residents of New Ireland, 'Skipper' Charlson and Harry Spanner, had sought refuge on Anelaua. Charlson died there and Spanner was evacuated to Australia with the missionaries.
The two Sisters from Namatanai who died were Climaka and Ambrosia, but they died at the predominantly Chinese and Mixed race internment camp at Lakuramau where they had been sent in 1944 with everyone else from Lemakot Mission. Others to die at Lakuramau were Fatt Hong, Leu Keu and Ah Young, the leading Chinese merchant in Kavieng, who died on 14 February 1945. Only one week earlier his nephew Leslie Foon Kong had died at the HQs of the Japanese Kempetai police at Luburua as did many other Chinese, Mixed race and New Ireland men.
The two Methodist ministers remaining in New Ireland, Daniel Oakes at Pinikidu and Thomas Simpson at Ranmelek, were both dead before the end of 1942.
At another internment camp at Bo Pire near the present Namatanai High School on 28 May 1944 Phebe Parkinson, the sister of 'Queen' Emma and wife of the scientist Richard Parkinson, died. She was an old lady but had been forced to leave Komalu plantation where she had been living with her grandson Rudolf Diercke who survived the war. Her niece Caroline Schultze, owner of Lamangan plantation outside of Kavieng, also died at that camp just before the Japanese surrender. It was her son Helmuth who was in command of the escaping Gnair with the group from Namatanai.
A lucky survivor was Richard Hermann, manager of Numanne island plantation. He was caught smuggling goods to the prisoners in Kavieng, but a friendly Japanese he knew prewar had him sent to Kokopo in September 1942 where he planted vegetables for the Japanese to the end of the war.
Apart from individual deaths like that of Leigh Lightbody, the Burns Philp manager at Kalili who died of natural causes at the camp for Europeans at Panapai planation and was buried on 3 March 1943 at Lemakot Catholic Mission after a funeral at which the Japanese allowed the other white planters to attend, and the executions on Nago Island, the two major causes of death were the sinking of the MV Montevideo Maru off the Philippines on 1 July 1942 by the American submarine Sturgeon and the executions on Kavieng wharf on 17 March 1944.
The torpedoing of the Montevideo Maru from Rabaul with the loss of 1053 mainly Australian servicemen prisoners of the Japanese, including about 200 civilians, was one of the worst disasters of the war. Little is known of this outside New Guinea. The 133 survivors of the 1st Independent Company of commandos from Kavieng captured on the Induna Star and sent to Rabaul were drowned. Perhaps 26 of the civilians who had been sent from Kavieng to Rabaul, including most of those who had attempted to escape in the five small schooners the day after the first Japanese air raid on Kavieng, were also drowned. The officers of the 1st Independent Company were sent on another ship to Japan and survived the war.
The 17th of March 1944 is the date stated in appeal petitions at the War Crime Trial in Hong Kong in 1947 as the date 23 unnamed Australian civilians were murdered on the Kavieng wharf. At dusk they were led, blindfold, one at a time, from the road to the edge of the wharf and garroted with wire, including 14 year old David Topal. The bodies were put in two small barges, with concrete blocks tied to their feet, and thrown overboard between Nago and Edmago islands.
The order to kill all the European prisoners in Kavieng if an imminent invasion by Allied forces was expected, was given by Rear Admiral Ryukichi Tamura, commander at Kavieng, and he was on trial with 5 of his subordinates.
Allied forces had landed in the west of New Britain by Christmas 1943 and air attacks had increased on Japanese positions. Kavieng suffered heavy air raids from American Mitchell bombers in the third week of February 1944 and the large Japanese base at Truk, north of Kavieng, was destroyed about the same time. The small Japanese base on Manus fell at the end of that month and an invasion of New Ireland was expected, and in fact, unbeknown to the Japanese, was planned for 2 March 1944 but cancelled.
A subordinate decided the time had come to execute the prisoners and this was done in great secrecy, but in fact it was 32 or 33 who died. The law for War Crimes permitted only British deaths to be prosecuted and the others, some German priests and other non British civilians were not mentioned. While many of the names can be guessed at, it is not known exactly who died on the day. The Register of Civilian Deaths in New Guinea for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission even uses a different date, -the 18th of February 1944. Several statements given after the War said the Europeans disappeared immediately after a heavy naval bombardment which occurred on 2 March 1944 in support of the American landing on Emira island. Kavieng and the airstrips were shelled by fifteen destroyers, two escort carriers and four old American battleships, the New Mexico, Mississippi, Tennessee and Idaho. 1079 14 inch and 12,281 five inch shells were fired.
Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945 but it was19 September when the Australian warship HMAS Swan arrived first at Namatanai and then at Fangalawa Bay to accept the surrender of Japanese forces in New Ireland and pick up the survivors of the estimated 87 European civilians still on New Ireland. Rudolf Diercke was picked up at Namatanai and Father Gerard Peekel and five Catholic sisters at Fangalawa Bay. Of the remaining eighty, with a few exceptions, there was no trace, and to this day there is no memorial in New Ireland to the civilians of all races who died, although there are hopes that this may happen in July 2002, 60 years on.
The catastrophic events and upheavals for everyone in New Ireland in those 43 months of occupation are largely unknown and not recorded save for a few oral histories told and retold.
Raymon from Bakan village, the reluctant ship's engineer of the Gnair and later soldier and coastwatcher, returned on the HMAS Swan as a Warrant Officer and official observer to the surrender of the Japanese on New Ireland. He died in 1970 and is buried in the Namatanai town cemetery. The Returned Serviceman's League produced a bronze plaque for his grave.
Lest we forget.
Jim Ridges Box 86 Kavieng January 2002.
Online edition created by J & J Evans, August 2002