Don Bell – Recruiter and Schooner Master

IMG_5213Seventy five years. A life time for many.

A life time denied to 1053 – mostly Australian – soldiers and civilians,  locked below decks on the Japanese ship Montevideo Maru, torpedoed and sunk on 1 July 1942 by the US submarine Sturgeon.

The Papua New Guinea Association of Australia (PNGAA) team have published a superb book, When the War Came which addresses the personal issues of loss in a collection of stories by relatives and friends, humanising this important piece of Australia’s history.

I am proud to have several personal stories included in this publication.


Don Bell

The first of these I’d like to share with you commemorates my uncle, Don Bell, whose name appears on the manifest of the sunken ship Montevideo Maru.  Please click on the link to be directed to John Bell Books – Don Bell

The Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society, and the PNGAA have worked tirelessly to have this bit of Australian history included in the nation’s education syllabus.

The Japanese freighter, en route Rabaul to Hainan, bore no markings to indicate its cargo. Just another enemy vessel. A legitimate target.

Wartime censorship and perhaps a government – successive governments – wanting to not publicize the sinking has clouded Australia’s worst maritime disaster.

MONTEVIDEOweb1Largely excluded from school history curricula, that sinking and the Australian planning for and response to the Japanese invasion of New Guinea don’t reflect well on the government of the day. Successive governments appeared similarly reluctant to admit to the poor and inadequate planning, the atrocious decision making that sent an inadequate force of ill equipped military personnel to face a massive invasion force, and left civilians stranded in a hot zone.

Even when the Administrator in Rabaul tried to organize emergency evacuation using a ship then in harbour, permission was refused. The ship had to stay and load copra!

And was bombed and sunk.

John - - Don

The author with Elizabeth and Don Bell, 1941

If you would like a copy of the PNGAA’s publication “When the War Came” (with over 460 photographs and 540 large format pages)  go to …——


John Bell Books

John Bell Books on Amazon



Blue Water at its best



Don’t get me wrong …  blue water sailing is mostly enjoyable.

Now out of the storms and in the sou’east trades, Drumbeat skips along, eating up the sea miles.

20160822_180139_HDR.jpgWe enter the shipping lanes between east coast Australia and east of New Guinea. A lot of ships traverse this bit of ocean. At one stage we have seven ships on our AIS screen. On sunset we pass the Chang Wah, 900 feet long. We’d been on collision course, until he turned to port and we did the same to our port.



You can see why they call it blue water when you check the escape hatch out in the hull below waterline … this really is a loo with a view!



Brian plots our course through the Reef to our new clearance port of Mackay.

By the time we reach the Reef, the wind has eased, and we ghost along between the reefs. Flying fish and seabirds – one booby hitched a full night time lift with us, perched on a rail.

We stream a couple of lures, but no success.



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Life to the beat of a different drum

The beauty of this place isn’t diminished by the overcast sky and misty showers. We join Brian and Linda on Drumbeat off Noro, on the island of New Georgia, anchored inside a shallow reef separating us from the channel. I eye off the pass through the reef, and automatically compare the width of our boat. Hmmm…

A visitor drops in by canoe for a bit of “story”.  And maybe a bit of bartering.


Soon it’s  dusk and the sun shows momentarily below cloud as it waves goodbye for the night.


Tomorrow is another day, and the local market calls.

20160816_080638_HDR.jpg20160816_080558_HDR.jpgOur last chance for fresh stuff, so we stock up. Jakfruit? Yes. Coconuts, pawpaws, bananas, all types of fruit and veg.

Market bartering done, we dinghy out past a line of big fishing boats that supply the local tuna cannery, and back to Drumbeat after clearing customs and immigration. That took a while, lik lik longtaim, but hey – who cares? They certainly don’t and that’s a contagious attitude.

20160816_082648_HDR.jpgWe swing out past Noro houses, slide through the narrow gap in the reef and turn to follow the barge that just left the Noro wharf. It seems to disappear into the jungle as it turns into Diamond Narrows. On my last trip through here in a Beneteau 44, maybe ten years ago, it seemed too tight for boats to pass. Not so – deep water to the banks, and sufficient room as it twists and turns westwards. Overcast and windless, we motor on calm water.

Trying to pictur20160816_095137_HDR.jpge racing down this channel on a stormy night with a squadron of wartime US Navy torpedo boats. It was much easier to fictionalize in Payback than it could ever be in real life.


These pics don’t do the narrows justice.

Check ’em out some time on Google Earth, it’s Diamond Narrows in the Solomon Islands, near New Georgia.

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M2MvM – Burma! At last … Mandalay

I’m pleased the traffic and parking at ‘our’ Mandalay doesn’t resemble that of this Mandalay.


Patience needed… no road rage here


How do you get your scooter out of that mess?

Once its capital, Mandalay is now Burma’s second largest city, with some 1,250,000 people. Not an old city, dating from the mid 1800’s, it’s been revitalized by the relatively recent influx of Chinese, who make up over 40% of the population.

The British influence on design is evident from the streets’ layout and numbering. I listen carefully, can just hear the ghost of Rudyard Kipling reciting On the Road to Mandalay

“Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;

For the temple bells are callin’, and it’s there that I would be –

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea;

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin’ fishes play,

An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!”

So of course we had to go to the old Moulmein Pagoda. Burma is Pagoda Central, there are so many of them. One town has over 4,000. Kipling’s pagoda is beautiful, covered in gold leaf and rich colours.

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The world’s biggest book has its home in the Kuthodaw Pagoda, with 729 stupas, containing marble slabs each engraved with pages from Tipitaka, the Buddhist equivalent to the bible. It’s claimed that added together the pages/slabs, 1460 of them, reach over a two storey building.

The largest Buddhist monastery in Burma has over a thousand monks. We watch them line up for meals, silent, in their colourful robes.


Again, we visit the markets, stroll the streets, marvel at the parking.


Carting sugar cane – Burma style

We’re attracted by loud hammering to a small shop. There fit men swing long-handled hammers, creating a rhythmic, musical beat. We learn later that the beat is not accidental. They’re actually composed.


The men swing those hammers all day, beating gold into gold leaf for the temples. The leaf is so fine that the slightest breath of air sends it fluttering. I manage not to sneeze.

Time is flying, so we head to Taungthaman Lake to catch sunset over the U-Bein Bridge.

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We hire a boat to take us on the lake and under the longest teak bridge in the world, all 1.2km of it.







Perhaps I’ll get into my next book tomorrow… too tired tonight. Too much to see. The swimming pool has the usual signs telling you what you can’t do, including “No back rubbing.” ??


View from our room. Mandalay Hill behind.

John Bell Books

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John BellA special ‘thank you’ to those hundreds of people from PNG who have ‘liked’ my book blogs, and those who’ve clicked on to check the books out.

Your interest provides fuel to the fire that keeps me writing. I’m now on Book 4 of my Williams Series, again a big PNG connection – no name yet – and all of you provide more incentive for me to push through the barriers that all authors encounter in their craft.

And let me talk for a moment about PURI PURI, Book 2 in the Williams Series

Being Kavieng born I know, as you do, that I’ve stretched author’s licence by linking ‘puri puri’ to an inherited gene. I’ve done so because it’s that deliberate bit of fiction on my part that lies at the very heart of the story.

It’s all about suspension of disbelief, and rolling with the concept.

On another point, I’m in the process of establishing a distributor in PNG for print copies of the books, to reduce the very expensive Australia Post cost of sending books to PNG.

All of my books are also able to be bought through Amazon, both as print editions, and as e-books, as well as print copies direct from me.  Click on the links below to find out more.

Thank you all once again, and for me now it’s back to the desk with renewed inspiration.

John Bell

FB cover copy

John Bell Books

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M2MvM – Border Crossing … China/Burma

Image result for old burma road

Dali lies on the fabled ‘Old Burma Road’ (Chinese: 滇缅公路)  (South Silk Road) and we drive along this ancient route, crossing the Mekong headwaters.

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It may be an ancient route,but it’s now a very modern superhighway. Four and five lanes each way, 110 to 140 kmh. What an eye opener … And they claim, with considerable pride, that China now has more first class highway kilometres than the USA .

Straight through or over … Chinese road builders motto

Built in 9 months, this superhighway runs 1154 kms from Kunming to Lashio in Burma. 200,000 men employed, working 24/7. Very hard not to contrast that with roadworks here in Australia that take months and months and months for a few hundred metres.

We drive all day to Tengchong through and over valleys farmed in every conceivable corner. Wind turbines dot the ridge lines. Power lines everywhere. Even secondary roads look good – concrete or wide bitumen. All so impressive, clean and tidy.

Tengchong, like many places, looks like it’s been built in the last six months. High rise towers in groups of 6 to 30 dot the landscape. Cranes work everywhere. A lot of unoccupied new buildings.

20160302_092304We have a look at the Rehai Hotsprings Park, where despite the wonderful signs, I manage to get a bit lost in the mist. The water is hot enough to boil eggs. Eggs are for sale by entrepreneurs taking advantage of the mist. The bloke with these eggs scarpered, maybe he thought we’d report him for selling eggs. Signs tell you not to boil your egg! Carol contemplated Eggs Benedict, but obeyed the sign.       20160302_100126

Near Tengchong we see Heshan, a walled settlement with 1,000 Qing style houses, connected by cobbled streets and courtyards. And its library holds 70,000 books…


Colour, movement and fresh food.

Tengchong to Ruilli, the ‘Oriental Jewellery City’ on the China/Burma border. A furiously busy city, new buildings everywhere, dust and construction. We see Chinese, Burmese, Thais, Malaysians, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis – a melting pot of cultures. Nothing here for us, no time for jewellery shopping, Ruilli is a border town.

Clocks now run on Burmese time … which is apparently a much, much slower time.

Nearly four hours to get through the border. Interminable forms, paperwork, all done by hand. In quadruplicate. People of all nationalities and dress codes trying to bully their way past the border officials. More like ‘bored officials.’ Like, who cares about time?

And at last – beautiful, mystical, magical Myanmar.  Will always be Burma to me.

Old Burma Road (6)

Maybe I should get to work – still haven’t written any words on the next book. How can I, when this is outside, calling.  There’s always tomorrow …. isn’t there?

AMAZON – John Bell Books