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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HAPPY NEW YEAR!

HAPPY NEW YEAR to all my readers and followers.

As the sun set on 2016 and another magical Whitsunday evening brought the year to a suitable close, I sat ruminating on the current project, Book 4 in my Williams series which is occupying much time.

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So it was a great thrill, and a confidence-boosting start to 2017 that on flicking through a weekend  paper I read a pleasing review by prominent Townsville journalist and reviewer, Mary Vernon, of Book 3 MELTED WAX.

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Thank you Mary for taking the time to read and review this work with a positive and pleasing review (and of course stimulating sales!)

The three books I’ve  published to date – PAYBACK, PURI PURI and MELTED WAX – are available in printed copy directly from me via my website www.johnbellbooks.com or by download to your digital reader from Amazon www.amazon.com/author/johnbellbooks.

Print-on-demand copies are also available from Amazon.

And Home!

We enjoy a whale and calf near Square Reef, then a 15 knot bobsled ride inside the reef towards Mackay and the setting sun.20160824_175510_hdr

By nightfall the wind swings from north westerly to a cold 20 knot south easterly, bringing with it rain, sometimes heavy. We push through the sharp chop in the shallow water approaches to Mackay from the north, finally getting into the marina just after midnight.

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Next morning, we clear back into Australia through immigration and customs, and take on fuel.

Then out through the entrance and head north for the Whitsundays.

Hardly any wind at all, calm all the way.

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20160825_172936_hdrOff Cape Conway another whale with calf.

Overcast conditions, the light fades quickly and we work through passing showers.

Too dark to locate the mooring, we anchor overnight in Funnel Bay … and home!

Brian delivers us by dinghy to our doorstep – literally – and disappears into the rain to Drumbeat and Linda.

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Blue Water at its best

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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.

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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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Ah, yes – the best laid plans …

20160820_055321_HDR.jpgSetting moon below the clouds of an early morning departure. Glassed off water farewells us, sky looks much better than yesterday. But at 2 a.m. the rain bucketed down, must’ve been a passing squall, with wind across the deck of 25 knots plus for about half an hour. Just to let us know there’s still some weather about.

20160820_061614_hdrWe cross fingers as we skirt the reef guarding the entrance. A hundred or more metres off our starboard bow a big marlin tail walks across the water, leaving us behind as he falls back into his element. I’m not quick enough to get a pic of this fitting farewell.

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We swing to port to run down the western side of Rendova Island, leaving Kolambangara off astern to starboard. Kolambangara, part of the scene of the naval battle in “Payback.”

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Blue sky above, but the horizon not promising, we sail fast in the protected lee of Rendova.

20160820_065825_hdrAn hour later, Kolambangara has disappeared into the base of a storm that comes chasing us.

Drumbeat slips along in light winds under full main and heads’l.

Instruments show 7.3 knots wind speed 8.6 knots boat speed. We continue like this, sailing faster than the wind, which is coming from just ahead of our port beam, slowly strengthening.

Now we’re parting company with the southern end of Rendova, 8 miles to port, lifting to the ocean swell. The sea is still relatively calm, nice fast sailing.

20160821_115806_hdrLunch on the run, puffy clouds over the slowly disappearing islands. The horizon ahead gives cause for concern, by mid afternoon we know why – a line of storms the full width of our horizon.

Soon conditions deteriorate.

We reduce the main to the third reef, and small heads’l as the wind quickly picks up – 25 knots, then 30, then 35 knots, worsening  While still daylight we take the decision to run from the storms. This means instead of heading south west to Gladstone, we go northwest towards PNG. It’s a wild trip for many hours until we get behind the limited shelter of a 30 mile long reef, Pocklington Ridge. By now a combination of distance between us and the storms and the reef shelter made conditions easier.

Well after midnight we reach the northwestern end of the reef, about 80 miles from the Louisiades, and gingerly turn again to the south west. The reef drops away to the Pocklington Trough, some 3000 metres deep. Serious water.

Daylight sees us in much calmer conditions, now heading for Mackay.

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M2MvM – the last of Burma … Rangoon (now Yangon)

Whoever said all good things must come to an end is probably correct, but I wish right now he wasn’t. I don’t want to leave Burma, and hope to return to this wonderful country.

From Heho and the fabulous Inle Lake, we fly to Yangon, founded in 1755, renamed Rangoon when the British annexed the country in 1885. Tree lined avenues, lakes and parks and a bustling city centre. A wealth of Victorian architecture, including the famous Strand Hotel, sister hotel to Singapore’s Raffles.

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We visit the must-see Shwedagon Pagoda 2,500 years old, on Singuttara Hill, the most sacred Buddhist site in Burma and one of the wonders of the religious world. Complex geometry and many structures, up to 110m high, the lower stupa claims 8,688 solid gold bars, with another 13,153 in the upper part. The tip of the stupa claims 5,448 diamonds, 2,317 rubies, many sapphires and other gems, 1,065 golden bells and at the very top a single 76 carat diamond. It’s like Burma kept the best pagoda for the last.  For us, at any rate.

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Looks like a job for Ocean’s 11!

 

 

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We have lunch on Inya Lake, within 200 metres of Aug San Suu Kyi’s house where she spent 15 years under house arrest.

All too soon, it’s goodbye to fabulous Burma/Myanmar as we fly to Singapore and then home to our own Mandalay.

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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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