They Also Served – Ethel’s Story

Ethel (standing) with husband John and daughter-in-law Peg (seated)

Ethel Harriet Victoria Bell.

Still no word.”

A poignant diary entry. My grandmother’s diary. Year in, year out from 1942. Three words concealing heartache, despair and loss. Her private reaction to the Japanese invasion of New Guinea and its aftermath.

Still no word.”

My grandmother Ethel and her three sisters were born at Nigger Creek near Atherton, where their parents had settled after her father’s full-rigged sailing ship foundered in Trinity Bay, Cairns. In 1903 Ethel married John William Thomas (Jack) Bell, born at Craiglee. They moved to Chillagoe where he was editor of The Walsh and Tinaroo Miner, then around the Atherton Tablelands owning/working/typesetting on several newspapers, until he contracted lead poisoning. They owned the Kairi store for about 7 years, then in 1933 followed their sons to The Mandated Territory of New Guinea.

Life for my grandmother in New Guinea was good. The family established copra plantations south of Kavieng, and followed many other pursuits. Not a big woman, but physically strong and mentally tough, she loved this time in her life.

Her four sons – Les, Stan, Lincoln and Don – all married. I was born at Kavieng in 1938 to Lincoln and his wife Joan, the only child of that generation in our family.

1941 – World War 2 raged. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour as their forces raced through S.E. Asia towards Singapore.

My grandmother’s world disintegrated. The Japanese were coming. Invasion imminent, evacuation urgent. My grandfather didn’t leave, saying one old man wouldn’t be a worry to the Japanese, that he needed to look after his workers and families. He’d grow food for the invaders during the occupation. He thought that if an invasion did eventuate, the Japanese would soon be pushed out by Allied forces.

Women and children evacuated on short notice, allowed up to 30lbs of personal possessions. Somehow my grandmother managed to bring with her two pearl shells, oil painted with full-rigged sailing ships by Otto Herterich.

Before the family could sit down for dinner on Christmas Day 1941, she was collected along with son Don and daughter in law Bet from the plantation by lorry to be sent south. Within a month the Japanese invaded Kavieng and Rabaul. My grandfather Jack disappeared, swept under the tide of conquest.  Ethel could learn nothing of him, nor could she get any word of two of her sons. Lincoln stayed behind as a Coastwatcher. Don was in Rabaul when it was invaded.

Still no word.”  A world of pain in three little words. Words that don’t convey the reality she suffered for many years.

New Year’s Eve 1941 must have been lonely for my grandfather Jack, waiting alone for the expected invasion. He wrote a letter that night to his eldest son Les from Penipol Plantation.

Extracts…

“…your letter materially assisted to drive away the bloos (sic). Since the recent exodus, though I move around a good bit, I see very few. When you meet your Mother she will undoubtedly tell you of the rotten time just passed through – I am anxiously awaiting now to get a word from her or Bet or Don, who went in the schooner with them; they were all ready for Xmas dinner when they had to bustle into lorry and get going. I feel at times, until I wake up to reality, that I am the last man out here in this little old world of ours…  extra work with Bolegela since Mrs Stanfield went, it keeps me from growing old and mouldy. 1/1/42    Will make another start. Just finished my N Y’s dinner – plate of new yellow kau-kau (the first from new planting up on Panyon) and a basin of nicely stewed dried apples; would have liked a shandy but no one but boys about so it may stay on the ice ’til a later day. Copra Board still buying copra; may it continue to do so. Should they cease I will cut the lines down fine, store what I can and pray for good days to come. I regret to say we have had none of the papers you sent yet; hoping for them tomorrow. Pleased to hear you are feeling fit but I (lost nearly two stone) after the last fever and pleurisy … your photo never reached us – still in hopes of it coming. As there is a squall coming up will bring it to a finish. Wishing you, Bertha, Mother and Bet a happier and brighter New Year. From your loving father, J.W. Bell.”

That was the last communication from him. How many times would my grandmother have read and re-read that letter?

She went to Sydney, sharing accommodation with two of her daughters in law, and began a many-year endeavour to get information from the government on the fate of her husband and missing sons. Silence. Her attempts to access government entitlements were endlessly bogged down in bureaucracy, despite her involving lawyers.

Still no word.” Diary pages otherwise mostly empty.

Years not knowing what happened to her husband. Or two of her sons. Years struggling to survive in a country at war, stripped of all but 30 lbs of her belongings..

At the war’s end, she moved to Cairns. My mother and I joined her in a flat in Sheridan Street, later a house in Lake Street.

Me with my mother and Grandmother – Cairns show 1946

Still no word.”

 Even though the war was now over, nothing about her husband Jack. She knew by then that Lincoln had been killed. She drew consolation that her two eldest sons survived the war.

She was always strong. The only indication I ever had of how she must have felt in those post-war years was when she’d take me to the movies. If Movietone News came on with the war in New Guinea, she’d grab me by the arm and rush out of the theatre.

In an era when little boys were to be seen and not heard, she told me nothing about her life, how she felt, how she coped. I didn’t know about her diary until after she died. Never a personal story, no indication of feelings or heartache. It was a different time. You didn’t talk to children about such things.

Or elaborate upon your repeated diary entry “still no word,”

I believe she didn’t know whether my grandfather had been captured or killed until late 1944 (nearly 3 years!). It was only then that his internment in 1941 was confirmed.

She did receive word from the government some time after the war. But the word was incorrect. It told her my grandfather was on a Japanese p.o.w. ship (not the Montevideo Maru) that was sunk by Allied forces, no survivors. This was an attempted Japanese cover-up to avoid possible war crimes trials. He was not lost at sea.

That incorrect word from the government was a lot better than reality.

I’m glad that she didn’t know that her husband, her life partner, father of her four children, was one of the victims of  “…the 1944 murder by Japanese sailors of a large group of Australian male civilians and German Catholic priests at Kavieng…” (from ‘The Kavieng Massacre, A War Crime Revealed” by Raden Dunbar, an excellent book, meticulously researched).

Chapter 13, “The Vision of Hell,” details the executions, the Japanese involved, the names of the victims. I quote “W.O. Muraoka had prepared a noose of a thin cord taken from Japanese kitbags, this was placed carefully over the head of the unsuspecting and blindfolded prisoner so as not to alarm him.”

Execution details follow, which I won’t quote here. Too disturbing.

Dunbar’s book continues “For three long hours the sequence was repeated again and again… However, the plan to kill silently and secretly was proving to be time consuming and untidy…  At some later point when the slowness of proceedings began to frustrate the now impatient Suzuki, faster methods of killing… were resorted to…” End of quote – even more disturbing.

The book describes how the bodies were taken by barge, attached to cables and concrete, were “dropped overboard in the deep black waters of Eikstedt Passage in the middle of a triangle formed by Nago, Edmago and Usien islands..”

The prisoners had been told to pack their belongings for their transfer to Rabaul. This was a lie, a cover-up.

Dunbar again “Planters, ex-diggers and priests – all had died utterly alone in horrible circumstances, with just a few wild and awful moments to comprehend what was happening to them. The story of their survival in the internment camps, their sudden and violent deaths, and the location of their watery gravesite would remain unknown to their families and wives and children for a very long time to come.”

I’m so glad my grandmother never learned the real story. She died before the truth became known.

She did learn that Don’s name was on the Montevideo Maru manifest.

Grandmother Ethel, with ‘Blinky’, Cairns 1946

Although Les and Bertha went back to New Guinea until 1951, and Stan and Peggy lived half way down Queensland, leaving my grandmother in Cairns, she drew great support from them.

In all the time I knew her, she never slipped, never weakened, was always there to support me and my mother. A wonderfully strong woman. On the outside, she hid all the fears and worries she must have felt. Now I wonder how she must have felt inside, how she coped so well.

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