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.

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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 … admin@pngaa.net—www.pngaa.org/site—www.memorial.org.au.

 

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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these kids – the true King Solomon’s Treasure

 

 

 

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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M2MvM – Beautiful Burma! Bagan

WOW! 

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

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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.

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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.

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AUTHORS NOTE – Thank you PNG

John BellA special ‘thank you’ to those hundreds of people from PNG who have ‘liked’ my book blogs, and those who’ve clicked on www.johnbellbooks.com 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

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