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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Eighty Years, Bookended by Kavieng … Part One

June 1938 – I first arrived in Kavieng via the hospital, aged 0.

June 2018 – I last arrived in Kavieng via Air Niugini, aged 80.

Where did all those years go?

Early this year several family members decided to celebrate my big 80 in Kavieng. Seventeen were able to attend, a formidable logistical exercise. Transport, accommodation, activities, meals for three generations, only a few of whom had ever been to PNG.

 

Lissenung Island – www.lissenung.com – is 15 minutes by boat from Kavieng. A dedicated dive resort on a stunningly beautiful island, we took over all its accommodation and booked the island for a week. Then the planning began, ten coming from Queensland (two flying out of Cairns, two out of Townsville, seven Brisbane), four NSW, one Victoria , one from the USA and one from Tahiti.

Jacquie shouldered the unenviable burden of coordinating all the flights into POM and on to KVG and return, making sure everyone had their travel documents in order. The ladies at Air Niugini were so helpful in their friendly laid-back manner, and assisted with accommodation in Kavieng pre- and post-Lissening. But this is PNG after all, and the inevitable few hiccups added to the sense of adventure for the younger ones.

The staff at Kavieng Niu Lodge were excellent, collecting us from and returning us to Kavieng airport without fuss and within time. Arriving on the daily late afternoon flight, we stayed there overnight. Next morning they delivered us to the wharf to be collected by the Lissenung boats.

Despite confirmed tickets, Penny, Matt and Bodie didn’t make that flight, being bumped in POM, unlucky enough due to baggage delays to be at the wrong end of the queue to board the onward flight. They had to overnight Moresby, so arrived at Lissenung in the early dark of the following evening.

  

 

Delivered by the boat boys from Kavieng wharf to the island’s beautiful sand beach and crystal water, we were welcomed by Dietmar and Ange, the resort owners, who proceeded to spoil us for the next week. Accommodation was clean, cool and tropical. Elevated and flyscreened, native materials, ensuites, we could not have wished for better. Each hut has two bedrooms and is separated from the others for privacy. Thankfully no television and only limited internet. Sand paths, raked continually, link the huts and the restaurant, office, other buildings.

Everyman’s idea of a tropical island paradise, Lissenung is a jungle covered atoll, surrounded by reef and sandy beaches. You can swim around it, snorkelling over beautiful coral and masses of coloured fish, or walk around it, stepping into the sea here and there to negotiate leaning jungle trees festooned with orchids, ferns and Ant Plants. Every day a large school of Big Eye Trevally patrolled the main beach and the house reef, maybe a thousand (you ever tried to count fish?) or so. A pet Eclectus parrot flits unrestrained through the trees, drops into the office to say hullo and cadge something to eat.

All those suitably qualified went diving, everyone snorkelled every day, Dietmar organized a fishing trip for those keen, and even a crabbing expedition.

All the younger ones had dive tickets, and their excitement after each dive was contagious. Crystal clear water, ship and aircraft wrecks, glorious coral, colourful fish and streamlined sharks, what more could a diver want?

I’ve spent a lifetime diving, and watching the next generations enjoying the pastime in such a setting made a special birthday even more so.

The kids decided that “Lissenung” means “Paradise.” Fabulous setting, hosts and staff wonderful, weather perfect – blue skies, calm water, occasional afternoon showers, breezes came and went. Evenings delightfully cool for a group including third, fourth and fifth generations born north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Clear water. And no stingers! No Irukandji, no Chironex Rex. Nor any sandflies, and we struggled to find a mosquito. Paradise indeed.

The sand floored dining room is a great setting for a party…  every night! Our hosts turned on a magnificent birthday dinner, complete with chocolate cake and candles.

All meals surprised us in quality and variety, especially considering the remoteness of the island and the logistics of feeding so many. Lobster, fish, crab, salad, veggies – we have two vegans, yet they were catered for too.

Every meal was excellent. The shy kitchen girls must have been on a mission to fatten us up, because second helpings appeared unrequested for the insatiable 20-year olds.

There wasn’t one meal of the nearly 400 that deserved any form of complaint. And my chocolate birthday cake disappeared like snow on the beach.

A visit to nearby Enuk Island, the home village for Lissenung staff, enabled us to meet and mingle. Holiday time, many locals had gone to Kavieng to watch the football, so the school was closed.

We didn’t get to meet the kids in their classroom, but touch footy games were running, and we joined the watchers.

We’d brought with us some fifty-odd tennis balls, eagerly caught by laughing children. We’d tested our AirNiugini baggage limits with a heap of school supplies – books, pencils, erasers etc – and left these with our hosts for later distribution.

In 2002 Carol and I and son Lincoln went to Kavieng for the PNGAA memorial establishment. While there we took a banana boat with Scott and Margaret (also Kavieng born) Henderson, to Enelaua where my liklik dokta father Lincoln Bell as district GMO in the 1930’s established a leper station. I’m indebted to Jim Ridges for his research paper detailing this. Then over to Ranmalek on Lavongai, where Margaret’s father Tom Simpson (“Yours Sincerely, Tom” written by Margaret) ran a mission prior to WW2. We passed Lissenung back then, never imagining we would one day stay there.

Sixty-eight years separate me from grandson George. With no one else in our group under twenty, he busied himself creating a video from edited stills of his sand-built race track, and struck up a friendship with Elijah, the young son of Boston and his wife Margaret from Enuk.

 

Both parents work at Lissenung, Boston on the boats. He was in charge of our mudcrabbing expedition. “Women’s work,” he claimed.

 

 

 

 

Peni, another of the island’s boat/diving crew, ever helpful, kept everything running smoothly during tank dives.

Possessed of a wonderful ability to calm the over excited nerves of our newbies – and some not so newbies – for the deeper dives, his natural air of calm confidence turned each experience into something magical.

 

 

 

 

continued in Part Two …

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HIROSHIMA

An evocative name in 20th century history.

The first atomic bomb obliterated this city. August 1945 changed the world, and wiped out thousands upon thousands of people in a few seconds. The blast, the enormous heat and destructive shock waves was a turning point in man’s history on this planet.

The Peace Park provides a sombre reminder, the museum details the orgy of destruction, while everything is hoping for a future without nuclear weapons.

An admirable  wish, shared by millions the world over, but seeming more unlikely by the day as more nations acquire the technology, and men with no thought for history – when will they ever learn – poise their fingers over nuclear buttons.

Buttons that can summon weapons hundreds of times more powerful that the two that finally halted the carnage of the Pacific war.

This blue white sign, in origami cranes, means “peace”

 

 

Sombre. That’s  the feeling Hiroshima left with me.

Yet the cherry blossoms still burst forth every spring for their 7 to 10 day life, while young families putter along their river in curious circular outboard powered boats. The word “boat” doesn’t seem to fit these strange craft.

By the way, pronunciation is optional. The Japanese alternatively use it with the accent on the “o” or on the “i”.

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Atomic Bomb and Cherry Blossoms

Nagasaki. What an emotive name. Steeped in history as Japan’s only gateway to the outside world during this nation’s closed period, this delightful city – by local standards small (nearly half a million) – surrounds a beautiful deep water and protected harbour, ringed by steep hills.

After the dramatic high speed journey of the bullet train, we emerge next morning to a beautiful but cold day.

Our accommodation is perfectly located near the rail station and trams right outside. After breakfast we set out to walk “only 15 minutes” along the wharf precinct to check out the boats and visit the Prefectural art museum.

We listen carefully to a tourist lady as she earnestly gives detailed directions… turn right, then reft, the two turns right. So off we go! An hour later, no water, industrial area, so retrace our steps.

Moral – when setting off with clear turn directions, you gotta make sure you’re facing the right way when you start!

Anyway, eventually we get there, great waterscape, much shipping. A square rigged paddle steamer does a harbour cruise as we sit at lunch, watching from inside – still coolish outside.

Next day we catch a tram (learning now) to the Atomic Bomb Hypocentre.

73 years on, but the memory clearly still raw.

We check out the whole site which includes exhibits, statues, from many countries in memory of those who suffered.

(A few images taken at the peace memorial)

 

 

 

 

 

The Australian contribution adds reference to the effects in our country of the British nuclear tests at Maralinga.

with the survivor of the blast referred to above

After a sombre few hours we jump on a tram, back for lunch and a cold Kirin.

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Cherry Blossom Time!

Tokyo …  cold, drizzling rain, completely grey.  I thought this was the Land of the Rising Sun?

We braved the rain for a shivering walk through the Imperial Palace gardens. Immaculate and oh-so-ordered, huge stone walls reminiscent of Inca ruins, cherry blossoms just beginning their yearly ritual.

 

 

 

However, our stay in Tokyo at this leg of the journey is brief …

Buffeted by the “whump” of northbound bullet trains our Shinkansen Nozomi streaks southwards from Tokyo.

Hard to believe we’re doing over 200 kph. But yes, we get to Hakata, some 1100 k’s, in five hours including about half a dozen brief stops.

Barely an hour into the  journey we race through a light snowfall as the weather outside our cosy bullet cocoon deteriorates.

 

 

 

 

Time for lunch!  We delicately open our ikebana bento boxes – ikeben – almost too perfect in their fantastic packaging.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Change trains at Hakata, then the relatively sedate Limited Express delivers us to Nagasaki after dark.

We walk to our hotel and look forward to what tomorrow may bring.

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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.

SOURCES:

  • 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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