Donald Joseph Bell – Recruiter and Schooner Master
I wish I could remember him, but I was only three at the time of this photo of my uncle Don Bell and Elizabeth (Bet) Herrington Carruthers, taken in Sydney about the time they were married, 2 October 1941. No prizes for guessing who is the little bloke with very tidy hair.
Elizabeth was born 22 years earlier in Apia, Samoa, and in 1941 she worked as a stenographer and lived in Kings Cross (from marriage certificate). Don, then a 29 year old A.I.F. private, was born in Herberton, North Queensland in 1912, the youngest of four sons to John William Thomas Bell and Ethel Harriet Victoria Bell.
Sadly, nor do I remember Don’s wife, but recall as a child being told she was beautiful and was born in Samoa. So in my young mind, she became ‘the Samoan Princess.’
Don’s three brothers had left North Queensland during the 1920’s for the Territory of New Guinea, as it was then known, and in 1931 Don joined them. He went to Kavieng, New Ireland where he worked for a while with his eldest brother Les in his engineering workshop.
Over the next several years, like many others, Don worked on copra plantations, boats, and spent some time transporting goods to the Edie Creek goldfield. For a time he was chasing gold in that area.
In his book ‘New Guinea Engineer’ by Gillian Heming Shadbolt, Don’s brother Les Bell said “Don won a name for himself as the only driver of transport trucks up the Wau to Edie Creek Road who stuck at it for any length of time.” He describes his youngest brother Don – ‘…stood 6 feet 3 inches – the tallest in our family. He was a fun-loving harum scarum devil may care sort of lad…”
Don worked for a time for W.R. Carpenter, on boats and on plantations, and went recruiting labour in mainland New Guinea for plantation work. Some areas he went into were not yet under official government control.
Later he moved to the Sepik River, shooting crocodiles for their skins. In ‘New Guinea Engineer’ his brother Les adds “…he settled on some land in the Sepik and started growing cacao.”
On 18 April 1939 Don sold the motor ketch ‘Manuan’ to his brother Stan Bell, for three hundred and fifty pounds, I have the original receipt, stamp duty affixed, witnessed by my mother, signed by Don. He’d bought the vessel some time previously, and had skippered it commercially. ‘Manuan’ was once owned by my mother’s father, and it was in this boat that he pursued my mother when she eloped to marry my father Lincoln Bell.
Time passed and the world slid into war.
Les’s book again – “Near the Atobe River… Stan, Don … and Don Waugh were gold prospecting… began following the river to its source. Their first find was a two inch nugget and from then on all they had to do was pick up nuggets and fill buckets. Stan described his brother Don standing there … saying ‘I can’t believe this. I’ll wake up and find it’s all a dream.’ They pegged claims… Stan and his wife were working the area when the Japanese invaded.” She was evacuated and Stan guided a party of civilians on foot over the mountains to escape.
8 July 1940 Don enlisted in the NGVR in Madang, his address shown as Lower Ramu, Bogia, Madang District. He’s listed as Rifleman NGX 126. (source: ‘The New Guinea Volunteer Rifles NGVR 1939-1945 A History.’ by Ian Downs.) That same book shows there were 19 NGVR enlistments from Madang between the outbreak of war and 10 July 1940, part of 520 enlistments in total from the Territory of New Guinea.
On the Attestation Form when enlisting, Don showed his occupation as “Recruiter and Schooner Master.” Army records show his unit as 2/19 Battalion A.I.F., rank private, number NGX 126. Transferred to 22nd Inf. Brigade 23 September, and in October taken on strength 2nd Rec. Rec. Bn. He was classified in January 1941 as Trade Group II Signaller. On 12 March 1941 he embarked for Singapore as part of the military build-up.
Struck down by illness, he was transferred to 10 A.G.H. Malacca, and returned to Australia where he was “Discharged medically unfit for service not occasioned by his own default” 22 October 1941.
A whirlwind romance and Don and Elizabeth were married.
They went to New Guinea, where Don managed Teripax Plantation on Tabar for Carpenters.
It seems they both were in Kavieng for Christmas Day 1941, because in his New Year’s Eve letter to Les, his father mentioned that “your mother…and Bet (being Elizabeth) and Don were collected by lorry on 25 December 1941” for evacuation from Kavieng by schooner. The women continued on to Australia, while Don stayed in Rabaul.
As with his father in Kavieng, Don must have been feeling lonely on New Year’s Eve 1941, and wrote to his brother Stan, then on the mainland coast. He wrote “I’m … now waiting for transport to the Solomons,running a boat for Carps. I have been running Teripax for Carps.” He continues about having to get some money together now that he is married.
The bulk of his letter comprises a detailed explanation of how to properly prepare crocodile skins for market, as he thought his brother was intending to do some croc hunting. He includes a drawing of a crocodile, topside and underside to illustrate the points in his letter. This is the only letter I have of his, it’s faded and the writing is hard to read.
He mentions that brother Lincoln (my father) was at Powell Harbour, getting out timber, but had problems because “transport is just about out.”
He closes with “Please give my cheers to any of the old Sepik crowd you strike, Stan. You know, although it’s the most uncomfortable place in the world to live in, I still hanker to get back to that dirty old river. It’s got something that no other place in the world has and I guess I won’t be really satisfied until I get back there. …. Hoping to see you before very long.”
Several weeks later, with Don still in Rabaul, the Japanese invaded. He was taken prisoner. Years later, his name appeared on the manifest for the Montevideo Maru.
Searching the government archives, details of Don’s service record emerged. An accompanying note adds, referring to attachments … “A copy of the ‘Form of Information of Death’ submitted in relation to Don Bell in 1946. This document is contained in the official file of civilians lost on the ‘Montevideo Maru.’”
The note continues – “…interesting to note that no entry appears in the Cause of Death section. Virtually all other forms specify death resulting from the loss of the Montevideo Maru.”
I could find no expansion on this comment. Why was Don’s official record different from others on the MVM list? A logical answer would be that Elizabeth completed and signed the form, and at that time perhaps she did not know the cause of death, therefore did not insert one. Or did she, like Les, have doubts? Another attachment from the same archives (described as a copy of the original Japanese listing of the civilians on the Montevideo Maru) shows Don’s name on a list headed “PERSONS LOST ON MONTEVIDEO MARU.”
Was he on that ship? I believe we will never know.
Don’s eldest brother Les always maintained that he did not believe Don was on the MVM. His belief was that his youngest brother died in the caves near Rabaul. He believes prisoners were herded into the caves and the cave mouths blown. In ‘New Guinea Engineer’ he says, referring to the list – “I don’t believe it. … The names of my father John Bell and Ray Heming are on the official list of the dead along with Don’s. Dad and Ray did not sail in the vessel. They were prisoners in Kavieng and were garrotted there with the others…I reckon he (Don) died working in those caves in Rabaul with the Indians….”
The book recounts the following anecdotes. “Don was a constant menace to the Japanese guards, so apparently clumsy he often slipped and dropped cases of tins to the ground so they would spill, and somehow, one or two tins would slide through his bottomless pockets into his tied-at the ankle trousers.”
And another “In a cargo shed, a Japanese guard tried to slap Don’s face. Ignoring the guard’s rifle, Don laughed, grabbed the Japanese, lifted him high and set him down on a tower of tinned meat cases so their heads were level and the Japanese could more easily slap his face. Instead of putting a bullet or bayonet through Don as everyone expected, the Japanese went red in the face and made off out of the building.”
Les concludes “In my bones I feel Don never left Rabaul. Others’ remains have been found in the caves and identified. I believe his are there, too.”
Les held that view right up to his death. He acknowledged that he had no hard evidence, no corroboration. He “just knew it.”
Included in the note we received from the official archives – “An article entitled ‘A very Long War – the Families Who Waited’ by Margaret Reeson has been included to highlight the difficulties in confirming beyond doubt the fate of the military and civilian captives…believe to have perished on the Montevideo Maru.”
So what of Bet – Elizabeth – Don’s wife? About whom I knew nothing. The war shattered the family unit – two parents, four sons, their wives. And one grandson. So I don’t have memories of my grandfather, father or uncle Don. I met my two surviving uncles and aunts when in my teens. Sadly, I never again met Elizabeth, or hear anything about her.
During genealogy research on my family by my wife Carol about ten years ago, she came across a published eulogy, the contents of which sparked her interest. On examination, it turned out to be a eulogy to Elizabeth by her son to her second marriage. She had, of course, remarried after the war. Tentatively, I made contact with her son, and so began a wonderful correspondence.
I only wish we had tracked her down earlier, while she was still alive.
- Certified copy marriage certificate 2 October 1941 registered in New South Wales
- ‘New Guinea Engineer’ by Gillian Heming Shadbolt
- ‘The New Guinea Volunteer Rifles NGVR 1939-1945 A History’ by Ian Downs
- Form of Information of Death – Territory of New Guinea
- Australian Military Forces – Attestation Form
- Army Form B103 Service and Casualty Form
- Letter 31.12.41 from Don to brother Stan