People - Joan Gerstad

Wife of Plantation Manager and Owner

Joan Gerstad describes the early years of her marriage to Norwegian plantation manager, Christopher Gerstad in The Jungle was our Home. The couple married in the spring of 1938 on New Ireland, and then set off to start married life at Bula. They were transferred to Friedhaven near the Sepik and then on to New Britain and the establishment of their own plantation before the war arrived.

Joan Gerstad describes her evacuation from Rabaul (page 204 - 206):-

Rabaul was in a ferment when we arrived there two days later. A storm had been brewing since the previous night, when we had spent most of the time in our deck-chairs listening to the wind and watching the black cloud formations in the sky swaying to the rise and fall of the ship. It gave us a curtain-raiser as we left the taxi at the foot of the steps at the hotel by sending forth a roar of thunder and spraying us with heavy drops as we ran up.

All that day the rain grew in volume as the evacuees grew in number. The next day the sun held the stage more firmly than ever; and it held for the next two weeks. Then, with a snarl the rain ousted it and took over completely.

The last evacuees were being flown in from the mainland. Children slept on mattresses in hallways; and those on the verandas had to be found new beds as the rain set the floors awash. Babies cried in the bedrooms as the thunder crashed and the lightning played around them. Several giant casuarina trees in the main street crashed across the electric wires.

The Government was working in conjuction with the military authorities, who had established a garrison and an aeroplane base some months before. Everywhere in the pouring rain were airmen and soldiers with water running off their rubber capes. Very few of them were to be alive in three weeks time, had we but known it then.

On the third day of the great rains we could hear our reconnaissance planes overhead, and - again, had we but known it - the engines of the Jap planes that they were chasing away. The Japs were not quite ready, and it was the unspoken prayer of all that the rain would continue, in case they should strike before we escaped.

That night the two big ships, which had slipped from Salamaua harbour to Rabaul under cover of the storm, pulled into the wharf and loading began. The next day at four o'clock we were ordered on board under cover of the deluge; and while the drone of the planes that we could not see continued, we steeled ourselves to say goodbye to our husbands. For most of them chose to stay behind. But it was midnight before our captain considered that the ship had enough ballast to weather such weather safely: and by this time the steel in Chris and me was in danger of softening.

We faced each other in the tiny cabin after I had placed Tig on the bed. I found that I had nothing to say - and I felt a dull sense of surprise when Chris pulled me to him and said chokingly: 'Goodbye, darling'.

It was indeed very nearly goodbye. But Chris lived through the holocaust of Rabaul and the invasion of New Britain and turned up penniless, semi-starved and nearly naked in Cairns, Queensland, several months later. The story of his escape is fit to be placed with the old Viking legends.



  • Joan Gerstad, The Jungle was our Home, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London, 1957, 206 pp.

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Created by Joanne and Jenny Evans, July 2002. Updated 29 May 2011