Recruiter and Schooner Master

Donald Joseph Bell (1 May 1912 – 1 July 1942)

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.”

Montevideao 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


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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


Sailing the Solomons

Right now I can 20160816_103004_HDR.jpgthink of nowhere I’d rather be. A bit of sun’d be nice, and those showers can go elsewhere, but motoring down the Diamond Narrows between New Georgia and Kohinggo Island takes some beating.

The barge hauls off to somewhere else, and we’re passed by a local ferry as the narrows open up into a huge lagoon area dotted with islands and reefs.

The dull sky tries, but can’t hide the beauty.  We pass a canoe with fishing detail – how many can they fit in one of those things? A lunch stop near the fishermen, and feeling pleased we have an enclosed cockpit and bridge deck as rain showers pass through.



20160816_113717_HDRWe work southwards along the eastern side of Rendova Island, heading for an anchorage at Egholo. If a sailor wanted to design the perfect anchorage, this is what he’d come up with. Deep water, plenty of protection, reef across the front, friendly villagers, laughing kids. Heaven on a stick.


Drumbeat at Egholo

We drop anchor right where shown on the map. Not because of the map, but because the village chief met us in his canoe as we came through the narrows and guided us to that spot. Completely enclosed by jungle, except for the entrance – and a transverse reef guards that. The anchorage is watched over by a mountain shrouded in cloud. Misty rain falls on glassed off water. We mightn’t see the near full moon coming up due to cloud, but we’ll get a good night’s sleep on this calm water. How could we not nickname this delightful place “the egghole?”


The village chief – a great man

The headman, Gnana, welcomes us to his village, and we become the centre of attention for the village kids in their canoes. Shy, polite and gentle, with flashing smiles they are born to canoes. Little ones 4 years old, even.






Overcast and rainy, the forecast is  not excellent. 25kts ESE blowing harder outside, and weather seems to be deteriorating. We decide a few days here might be nice, as we close up for the night.

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Not exciting weather

A break in the rain and it’s all kids and canoes.


these kids – the true King Solomon’s Treasure




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King Solomon’s Treasure – pictorial

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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 even more beautiful! Inle Lake

20160314_075737_HDRA short flight from Bagan puts us into Heho and we transfer to the fabulous Aureum Palace Hotel. This is a stand-out accommodation resort on the shore of Lake Inle. In the restaurant one young waiter learned that my name is John, and he became so excited, calling me “Johnny” because he was Johnny, too. He epitomized the friendliness of the people of Burma. The Aureum Palace would be my favourite Burma resort; if you go to Myanmar, you must stay there.


We spend a couple of days on the huge lake (116 km2) in high speed long-tails, visiting villages around the shore, marvelling at the floating gardens. These gardens are staked to the lake bottom, replenished continually by boat loads of vegetable matter hauled on those small boats then stacked on top of the garden beds when the previous crop is harvested. Inle provides the bulk of Burma’s tomatoes and many vegetable crops. Reminiscent of the floating island dwellers on Lake Titicaca.




Some 70,000 people live in these water villages. One small group still follow the ancient practice of rings (actually a long spiral) around the neck and legs of the women. We’re told that it’s not a beauty thing. It’s actually intended to make the women seem ugly to invading marauders. The practice h20160314_103943_HDRas nearly died out. Fascinating.

The fishermen on their long-tail canoes use “leg paddling” to manoeuvre their canoes. The long paddle is held against the body, one leg wrapped around it propels the boat, leaving both arms free to handle their conical fish traps and other gear. Against the setting sun, they look like so many ballet dancers performing an elegant and ancient ritual. I hope this fishing system never dies out.

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The lake is surprisingly shallow. Much of it is about 2m deep in the dry season, and crystal clear. Dense growth on the lake floor, in places reaching to the surface, provides a home for a large fish population, predominantly a species of carp. Boats zip around on it all day dragging rooster tails, people travelling, harvesting lake weed, fishing – a multitude of pursuits all based on this massive water resource.


Villages around the lake provide homes for craftsmen of all types. We watch silk weaving on handlooms, visit the ringed neck women, have lunch in a restaurant on stilts, see beaten silver ornaments. Surprise, surprise, we acquire a couple of paintings. They’re now on our kitchen wall, a constant reminder of a wonderful month in our lives.

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At the end of another wonderful day we return to our rooms – yes, plural; our unit is probably as large as our own house – hoping that somehow we could stay here for a much longer. But as the man said, tempus fugit, and so must we, tomorrow, to Yangon our departure city.

Book, you say? What book? It’ll have to wait.

John Bell Books

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M2MvM – Beautiful Burma! Bagan


How many times am I going to say that?           WOW!


Bagan, on the banks of the majestic Irrawaddy, dates back to 849 A.D. The former capital of the first Burma empire, embracing some 42 km2. There are literally thousands – someone said 4,000 – of ancient pagodas, stupas, shrines, ordination halls and monuments.

sunset dancers Irrawaddy River

sunset dancers Irrawaddy River

More gold leaf than I could imagine. Is it real? We’re assured that it is. I wonder how it survived the years of Japanese invasion, then political instability and struggles.

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I manage to lose another pair of thongs at the Ananda Temple, a whitewashed masterpiece of Mon architecture, with four standing Buddhas. Fabulous. It deserves another “wow” but I can’t keep saying that.

With my brand new longyi  (Burma laplap) – I think mine was designed to fit a Sumo wrestler – wrapped over a pair of shorts, and bare feet, the locals have reason to stare in bemusement. No pics of me so rigged will be permitted in this blog!

I can’t help but ponder how it is that Australians dress to local custom when travelling, yet some immigrants to Australia refuse to do so in our country. Maybe our politicians need to embrace Swiss immigration legislation, where one of the precursors to citizenship is proof of assimilation into Swiss culture. In all its forms. No assimilation, no citizenship. Simple. Sounds reasonable to me.

By late afternoon we’re pretty much pagoda’d out. At one collection of temple buildings about 2000 years old, and now crumbling, in disrepair, being overtaking by trees and vines, we meet a bunch of young girls selling beautifully colored material, and Carol can’t resist.


Up early next morning for one of the trip highlights, a dawn flight with Oriental Ballooning Myanmar. Stunning. Several companies operating multiple balloons create a visual feast drifting silently above several thousand pagodas. Breathtaking.

I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.

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I’ve about given up on progressing my next book while in Burma. Too much to see and do, feel and experience. Hopefully all of this wonder will recharge my author batteries for when we get back to ‘our’ Mandalay.

John Bell Books

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