Bill Yarrington

Return to Lost Lives

William Maynard Yarrington
by Ruth Woodward

In January 1942 Bill Yarrington, a bachelor aged 55 years, was employed in a clerical position at the Rabaul office of Burns Philp and Company Ltd.

Following the Japanese invasion of Rabaul on 23rd January 1942, family members in Australia lost contact with Bill and were never to learn of his ultimate fate despite many inquiries at the end of World War II.

The youngest of eight surviving children, William Maynard Yarrington was born in 1887 to schoolmaster Albert Yarrington and his wife, Margaret. Bill's father was then teaching at the small country school, Clarkson's Crossing (now Nabiac) on the mid north coast of New South Wales. A few years later in 1892, this schoolteacher was to transfer a little further north to the Dingo Creek school situated at Ashlea, near Wingham. The family remained there until Albert's retirement in 1902, moving then to the Sydney suburb of Stanmore. Those of the family still living at home, including Bill, settled with their parents in Stanmore, where Bill aged fifteen no doubt completed his schooling.

After some clerical training it would seem likely that Bill began work in the office of a Sydney firm and remained in the city for quite a number of years. Bill was said to be artistic and must also have had an adventuresome streak and a desire to travel.

By February 1925 Bill had secured a position with Burns Philp South Seas Company Ltd, and had been posted to Levuku on the island of Ovalau in the Fijian Islands. This was a small island adjacent to the main island of Viti Levu where Suva, the capital, was located. Classed as a senior stenographer, he remained at Levuku until mid March 1934. A downturn in trade due to the Great Depression saw him retrenched and back in Sydney for a short time.

Obviously Bill enjoyed life in the tropics as by September of that same year, 1934, he had secured another position with Burns Philp South Seas Company Ltd. as an accountant at Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. With little work available in Sydney at the height of the depression he may have been enticed to apply for a position beyond his skills, or maybe he just wished to get back into the tropics. It would seem accountancy was not his forte, as a year later he transferred to Vila in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). A report from Tarawa says 'This man is a stenographer, not a book-keeper.'

Though Bill remained in Vila for slightly less than a year before transferring again, this time to Rabaul, he was back in his own depth again, as the report from Vila says 'very good typist stenographer.'

Arriving in Rabaul in September 1936, Bill was to become the private secretary to the Burns Philp manager, Mr. Coote until he disappeared in January 1942, one of many lost in the Japanese onrush - 'a hostage to fortune' in government statistics.

Rabaul, a former German colony, had after the first World War become Australian Mandated Territory and was governed by Australia. It was a beautiful, tropical township, with a hidden, but ever-simmering sinister threat. An active volcanic area, its terrors were never far from the surface. Bill would have been in Rabaul on 29th May, 1937, when the sleeping giant awoke. In a catastrophic, earth-shaking eruption, Vulcan, a flat island in the harbour, suddenly rose up to become a 600 feet volcano, spewing death and destruction in the form of rocks and molten lava over the immediate area. Rabaul was evacuated when a thick, choking, black cloud of smoke, pumice and dust spread over the town. Accompanied by violent storms, this cloud then turned into devastating mud, which fell from the sky, blanketing everything beneath it.

One would think that Bill must have written vivid descriptions of this terrifying event to his Australian relatives, but nothing seems to have been retained.

For a while life settled back to normal in Rabaul. However the next dark cloud, already looming on the horizon, was eventually to cause untold grief and suffering in the next few years to all residents of New Britain and their distant family and friends.

Though military build up by the Japanese in the Caroline and Marshall Islands to the north was a well known fact, concerns of residents of New Britain went unheeded by the Australian Government. Australia complied implicitly with the terms of its mandate which prohibited any military build up in New Britain and New Guinea.

In 1939 after the outbreak of World War II with Germany, the Australian Government's one concession was to agree to the formation of a voluntary defence unit, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles. At some stage Bill Yarrington became a member of this unit. His name is listed in the Nominal Roll published in Dr. Ian Downs book N.G.V.R. 1939-1942 and is included in a similar list published in the Pacific Islands Monthly, in November 1947. Family members in Australia were also well aware that he had joined the N.G.V.R. as it seems to have been believed by relatives that this was the reason he stayed in Rabaul. It would appear that they did not know, at least until after the war, that no civilian men had been evacuated. At this time it has not been possible to find a record of his number, so possibly this was amongst the many records destroyed before and during the Japanese invasion.

Records from Burns Philp in Rabaul also seem to be a bit short on the ground. Bill is included on regular Annual Reports on Staff from all other places where he was stationed. However the archives revealed just one short Staff Service Record regarding Billís time in Rabaul at the bottom of which is typed the ominous query '... ? P.O.W. ?'

At the conclusion of hostilities, those who waited in vain for any definite news of Bill were brothers Harry and Stanley and sister Dorothy, plus an extended family of nieces and nephews. Bill was predeceased by siblings Arthur, Ethel and Frederick, and Selwyn had died in 1943.

In 2002 an inquiry to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra revealed some information which had not been made available to Bill's brothers and sister prior to their deaths. This said that 'information from a witness confirms the death of William Yarrington, private secretary to Mr. Coote of Burns Philp and Co., in about February/April at the Vunapope Mission after being taken prisoner by the Japanese. He is buried at Vunapope presumably in an unmarked grave.'

No cause of death is given. If one can presume he was buried in the Vunapope Mission cemetery, it is disturbing to read in Bishop Scharmach's book, This Crowd Beats Us All, that this cemetery was later desecrated by Allied bombing, receiving seven direct hits.

New Britain still clings tightly to many secrets, hidden beneath its lush tropical growth. May William Maynard Yarrington rest there in peace.

Previous © Ruth Woodward 2003 (A granddaughter of Harry, Bill's brother) Next