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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Eighty Years, Bookended by Kavieng … Part Two

Lissenung Island, Kavieng … continues

One late afternoon two boats took us to a spot in “Eickstedt Passage in the middle of a triangle formed by Nago, Edmago and Usien islands” (from ”The Kavieng Massacre” by Raden Dunbar).

My grandfather John William Bell was one of the survivors of the Kavieng PoW camps garrotted by the Japanese, their bodies weighted with concrete and dumped in this deep water. Convicted at eventual war crimes trials, the camp commandant who issued the execution order was duly executed, others involved sentenced to varying gaol terms.

I wanted our family’s younger ones to be aware of their family’s history in PNG from 1926 to 1951, encompassing the destruction of WW2.  Too few Australians have much awareness of Australia’s close involvement with the country so near to our north.

A quarter century of family history, the wartime deaths of three out of five male family members, the dislocation of so many lives by the Japanese invasion, all given impact and immediacy by being where it all happened.

 

 

 

 

 

Dietmar and Ange organized two wreaths, one frangipanis, the other heliconias weighted down with bits of shell and coral collected by our group.

Under a dramatic sunset sky, clouds changing from pink to purple, we lowered the wreaths into the glassed-off darkening sea. I said a few words covering the Japanese invasion, evacuation, my grandfather’s incarceration, and the massacre.

I touched on the Montevideo Maru, and the loss of my uncle Don Bell on that ship, as well as my father Lincoln’s role as a Coast Watcher, his work in the evacuation from Rabaul, and his death behind the Rai Coast in 1943. Bruce played The Last Post on his bagpipes, the plaintive notes setting a sombre mood, then followed with a bracket of pipe favourites. An emotional time, a poignant history lesson. Wet eyes all round, even the boat boys. A history lesson to be absorbed and remembered.

 

 

Kavieng markets saw a visit. A new experience for the younger ones – and some of the older – who checked out the local artifacts and produce, especially buai. And of course that night at dinner everyone inspected the day’s haul of carvings and ornaments.

We’d booked for a week, but when Dietmar and Ange mentioned a gap before the next guests were due to arrive, we didn’t hesitate. Unanimous decision to stay a few extra days.

Unfortunately, Stuart and Sharyn with Maggie and George, as well as Lucie and Dan, had work commitments, so couldn’t stay over. They left us in the middle of a blinding rain shower, perfectly timed for a wet trip in an open boat. A trip they will remember.

I’d arranged to catch up with Jim Ridges, and he kindly joined us for a half day bus trip. The bus was ours, and headed off down Boluminski Highway after Kavieng, with Jim pointing out where Les Bell’s engineering (read “New Guinea Engineer” by Gillian Heming Shadbolt) had been, where the hospital I was born in had been until the devastation of war, and other landmarks.

And oral history, delivered from Jim’s extensive store of knowledge, the best way for young (and old) people to absorb. We visited and paid our respects at the memorial to civilians, which includes the names of my grandfather (Kavieng Massacre) and uncle (Montevideo Maru).

We called in on the eels, still run by the same lady as in 2002. Cathy, once a senior air hostess for Air Niugini, had flown all over the world until she came back to New Ireland to raise children village-style. Sixteen years and the eels don’t seem to have changed!

At a stop for lunch, our bus owner driver John Knox (see Knoxies Place Kavieng – accommodation, bus etc) had a razor sharp machete fall on his foot, cutting deep into his big toe.

Our in-house nursing sister Penny had a supply of bandages and medications, and she operated, while Carol held the skin together, and the uncomplaining Knoxie stoically stood there using his mobile phone to photograph the damage.

On our 2002 visit we’d stayed at the Kavieng Hotel and remembered that the food then had been excellent. So on our overnight stay at Kavieng Niu Lodge for the return trip, we booked into the hotel restaurant. Again, the meal was excellent. A lot of changes to the hotel in sixteen years.

 

We flew out of Kavieng for Rabaul the next day at 0630. Not without drama – again just to remind us that this is, after all, PNG – when Carol and I, Lincoln and Diana presented our confirmed tickets at the counter we were told “you aren’t on the manifest” and so couldn’t board the aircraft. After a lot of talking and telephoning, they waved us through.

This was repeated in Port Moresby, where time was an issue due to a 55 minute connecting flight and a busy terminal. Jacquie left us to the luggage and ran to the ticketing counter where she talked us onto the Cairns flight. We made it onto the aircraft well after boarding was called. Not so lucky were Stuart and Sharyn, Maggie and George, when they left a couple of days earlier. On the return trip their plane was diverted to Lae, causing them to miss their Brisbane flight. They were able to get a later flight to Cairns before continuing.

So that was my 80th birthday. Very emotional, and so very satisfying to see all the family enjoying themselves, their company, and the island.

Every night was a “Happy Birthday” night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sayonara to the Land of the Sakura

From Niigata we catch the bullet to Tokyo, passing snow clad mountains and many tiny farms.

Big improvement weather wise from our inward journey. The elegant old Tokyo Station is visible from our hotel, so we can’t get lost here. Can we?

We lashed out to hire a guide for 6 hours. A lovely young mother of two, Yuka speaks perfect English, knows her city, and we have a whirlwind of alleys, fish market, subways and an old park.

 

 

 

In the middle of a major metropolis, the park struggles to compete with some of the more regional ones we’ve seen, but still manages to produce cherry blossoms and carefully manicured eye-scapes.

In an open area, hundreds of plastic markers are being laid out to control queues expected for the afternoon brief baby panda viewing. Poor panda, patient patrons.

Nothing to her, Yuko walks deceptively quickly, and I wonder how she can take such long steps. We go through the very old and soon to be relocated fish markets, the biggest in Japan, where motorized trolleys driven by formula-1 drivers hurtle around the congested walkways.

Authentic sushi for lunch – every item delicious.

Then through a maze of narrow streets and old buildings. Everything clean and neat. So many people.

Left to our own devices the next day we succeed in getting lost, but delightfully so, in the centre of this busy city. Navigation technique…let’s  go this way, that way, every way, look at it all, then when weary grab a cab home.

Tomorrow it’s back to Oz, and we’ll  see how Cyclone Iris treated us.

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Sakura of Kanazawa!

Wow. Wow. And more wow! These cherry blossoms keep coming.

They say this is a bumper year for flowers, and as we’ve travelled north we seem to be following the peak of the short lived blooming.

Truly Sakura! The cherry trees here are densely flowering and stunning.

 

 

 

Smell-free Omi Cho  fish markets with huge quantities of quality seafood.

How can the oceans provide so much, so continuously?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lacquer ware, Kutani style pottery, silk kimonos and gold leaf workmanship. Even gold on ice-cream and in drinks.

 

 

Kenruoken 11.4 hectares of beautiful and unmistakeable Japanese design, the tea house was operating anout the time Captain Cook discovered (blundered into) Australia.

 

 

 

 

A bit of a side trip to the geisha district with its old wooden buildings, then a flag waving goodbye to beautiful Kanazawa.

 

 

 

 

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Magnificent Miyajima (Itsukushima)

Still in the Inland Sea, we anchor off the tiny island of Miyajima, population about 15,000.29893621_754637861401186_86831860_o

A bit like Airlie Beach, the approaches are shallow so we Zodiac into a sandy beach at high tide, and walk along the foreshore.

Around a little headland we are presented with an absolutely beautiful little town, cherry blossoms blazing.

Its main feature is an open winding wooden structure built over the water (at high tide) used for functions, weddings, and just wandering around.

A traditional wedding is under way as we walk around.

At low tide fresh water bubbles up through the exposed sand, forming small ponds.

The gate leads to the Itsukushima shrine, so we climb up to this old structure and its incredibly detailed gardens.

The buildings are reminiscent of Bhuddist shrines in Tibet, and prayer wheels form central handrails to the stone steps.

Known as The Shrine Island, Miyajima boasts one of the three most beautiful views of Japan, the floating Tori Gate, dating back to the 6th century.

Built of camphor wood from huge trees, it presents a maintenance problem because every old camphor tree in Japan that’s  big enough for the job is separately heritage listed.

 

And the cherry blossoms…

Moji, Japan – Cherry Blossoms AND a Toilet Museum!

A calm run from Busan and we enter the country’s inland sea.

Our first stop is Moji, once an important international trading port – Korea, China and the outside world. Historic buildings line the waterfront, but our interest is the cherry blossoms, now peaking into full flower. This is why we came to Japan. We know we will see more in the coming days, but these specimens are fabulous.

 

We’re here to see stuff, so we make a beeline for Kokura Castle, originating from the 1600’s. And its renowned gardens.

Nobody does gardens like the Japanese, and when spring is sprung and the ‘chelly brossoms’ burst into flower it’s 100% visual beauty overload.29893810_754637038067935_1167899125_o

 

 

Then, the last thing you’d  expect to do, we go to the Toto toilet museum! As we all know, Japan creates the most ingenious toilets, things of wonder and not a little trepidation as you wonder what’s  going on down there. So we see a hundred years or so of toilets… riveting stuff, no?

I’ll  share with you my favourite, a must have for the Harley aficionados.

toilet on motorbike 2

Just like life, time runs too quickly and we are warmly sent on our way with a rousing number by the school band and a balloon release.

 

So,  farewell to Moji, its cherry blossoms and dunny museum.


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Jeju Island, South Korea

A remarkably calm run across the Sea of Japan takes us to the South Korean holiday island of Jeju. Several weeks ago I checked sea conditions – it showed a 40 knot nor’wester blowing out of Siberia. We are lucky.

Expecting a small undeveloped island we arrive at a large island, some half a million people, huge modern waterfront facilities including an elevated promenade complete with see-through decking, ships and ferries everywhere, an obviously very busy airport with big jets landing one aft r the other. 50 million tourists a year!

The island is noted for its black stone carved statues, originally constructed to scare off potential invaders.

Obviously the sculptors had more in mind.. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from the pics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A visit to the Bonte museum, with works by Dali and Picasso as well as local artists.  And a wonderful room of mirrors and a changing kaleidescope of coloured lights.