People - David Ormond (Mick) Smith

Lieutenant - A.I.F. 2/22 Battalion

Born: 9 October 1918  Carlton, Victoria, Australia

The Japanese Invasion of Rabaul 23rd January 1942

by D.O. Smith

I write this as a reminder to those not familiar with the Japanese invasion of Rabaul in 1942, and to the memory of members of Lark Force who died during the campaign that followed.

The 2/22 Battalion was part of Lark Force, a composite body of troops consisting of the 2/22 Battalion, supported by Field Ambulance, Anti Aircraft, Anti Tank, New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, Fortress Artillery, Engineers and Signals, Medical Detail, No 24 Squadron, RAN Detachment, and 1st Independent Company.

6 Nurses were part of the Field Ambulance unit.

Most of the equipment of Lark Force was antiquated. There were for example no Bren guns, only Lewis guns as used in WWl, and WWl 3" A/A guns. Air cover for Lark Force troops was 6 Wirraways and 4 Hudsons.

Prior to the Japanese invasion the Australian Government decided 'they must be regarded as hostages to fortune; they will not be reinforced, withdrawn or re-equipped.'

The total number of troops of Lark Force was approximately 1350 of which the 2/22 numbered approximately 950.

In 1940 the Brunswick Salvation Army Band enlisted in the A.I.F. and was posted to the 2/22 Battalion. Sadly only one member of the Band returned to Australia.

With no air cover and no artillery the Japanese Invasion Force simply sailed into Simpson Harbour and 20,000 Japanese Marines effected a landing opposed by elements of Lark Force. The landing took place at 0200 hours on 23rd January, 1942.

With such a long coastline to defend it transpired that A Coy of the 2/22 Battalion took the brunt of the landing. Aided by the 4" mortar platoon A Coy accounted for many Japanese casualties.

The Commanding Officer of Lark Force summed up the hopeless position his men were in and gave the now famous command 'Every Man for Himself'.

The writer enlisted as a private soldier on the 7th of June 1940, and on 31st December 1941 was promoted 'in the field' to Lieutenant just 23 days before the Japanese invasion and had 30 men under his command.

After the Japanese invasion a decision was made to attempt to escape from New Britain via the north coast, and to keep together the 30 troops under command. Japanese planes bombed and machine gunned the Australian troops. One half of Lark Force decided to travel down the north coast of New Britain and the other half decided to go via the south coast.

It was not long after the invasion by the Japanese that 600 troops and 205 civilians were captured in and around Rabaul.

While trying to escape down the north and south coasts the various parties or troops were constantly evading further landings of Japanese marines attempting to capture more troops.

On the north coast the Japanese marines were assisted by coloured collaborators familiar with the coastline and they were able to take prisoners, some 200 odd troops plus a family at Lassul known as the Harveys. Mr and Mrs Harveyand their 10 year old son were captured and taken back to Rabaul and executed.

On the south coast the Japanese marines made a landing at Tol Plantation and captured 143 troops. On the second day after capture the troops were bundled into parties of 10. Their hands were tied behind their backs and they were shot or bayoneted. Six troops pretending death managed to escape and eventually got back to Australia escorted and cared for by other south coast escapees.

Meanwhile an Assistant District Officer, Keith McCarthy, stationed at Talasea, learnt by Tele Radio of the Japanese invasion of Rabaul. McCarthy then travelled up the coast by pinnace, made contact with the then small parties of troops, and their leaders and evolved an escape plan. He returned by pinnace to Talasea HQ and gathered together a small group of men who had lived in PNG most of their lives.

These men assisted greatly in getting the escape parties to Talasea and then to Iboki Plantation, only about 30 miles from the western end of New Britain. The physical condition of the escaping troops was poor, their morale was low and it was only the constant urging of leaders of small parties that some troops survived.

McCarthy meanwhile had learnt of a inter-island ship of 250 tons holed up in the Witu group of islands 60 miles north of Talasea. The ship was the Lakatoi and McCarthy soon made arrangements to commandeer the vessel.

Arrangements were then made to transport the escapees to the Lakatoi by pinnace. Provisions were obtained from deserted plantations to help feed the troops for the voyage to Australia.

Headquarters in Port Moresby had advised McCarthy not to attempt to get back to Australia because of intense Japanese sea and air activity but having put up with great hardship the troops supported McCarthy in deciding to 'give it a go'.

Six days later the Lakatoi moored in Cairns with 170 troops sick with malaria and malnutrition, after two and a half months and 250 miles of hard walking. On arrival back in Victoria the majority of troops spent 5 months in Heidelberg hospital. Those fit enough joined other A.I.F. units and served with distinction.

Meanwhile another tragedy was soon to unfold, this time in Rabaul. On the 22nd of June 1942, 853 soldiers and 205 civiliians who had been captured in and around Rabaul were put aboard the Montevideo Maru which set sail for Hainan. The 1058 prisoners were put into the holds of the Montevideo Maru and the hatches were closed.

On the 1st of July 1942, when off Luzon the Montevideo Maru was torpedoed by an American submarine and sank in 20 minutes. There were no survivors. It was a great tragedy.

Prior to the Montevideo Maru leaving Rabaul the officers and nurses of Lark Force were segregated from the troops and put aboard the Naruto Maru. This ship arrived safely in Japan and all aboard survived the war and were returned to Australia.

It could be said the authorities were right in deploying 3 Battalions of 8th Division to 3 different islands, namely, Rabaul, Ambon and Timor. The remaining 6 Battalions of the 8th Division went to Singapore and eventually were taken prisoner.

The Japanese had to capture Rabaul, Ambon and Timor before heading south to Australia via Port Moresby. This gave the authorities time to move troops to New Guinea where they met the Japanese head on at Kokoda, Buna, Gona etc.

As at 20 July 2001, there were 34 surviving members of the 2/22 Battalion.

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© D.O. Smith, Bateau Bay, New South Wales 2002

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