They Also Served – Joan’s Story

 

Joan Mary Bell

My mother was very different from my grandmother. And hers is a different story. Yet again a story of heartache, despair and loss, exacerbated by the Japanese invasion of New Guinea in January 1942.

Her antecedents are clouded; born to Molly, an unmarried mother in Cottesloe, W.A. in 1914. The circumstances of her birth haunted her in later life. When she met my father she was Joan Mary Ifould of Boram Plantation, T.N.G., adopted daughter of plantation owner Tom Ifould, a WW1 veteran of Gallipoli and France, Military Medal for gallantry. Prior to that she’d been educated in Sydney, studied art and drawing, enjoyed the social whirl of the big city.

Tom Ifould didn’t appreciate the attention being paid to his only daughter Joan by then schooner-master Lincoln Bell. His consent to a marriage was violently refused. So Joan eloped with my father.

Not quite as easy as it sounds.

Bilola

In about 1981 I received a handwritten note and photograph, given to a friend of mine for me from an old bloke in a local pub “just passing through”. Part of it reads, referring to the photo of a schooner in a bay –

“Lincoln Bell’s ketch Bilola at Sib Sib (Sek Island off Alexishaven) after he eloped with Joan Ifould from Boram.

Tom Ifould chased them in the Manuan but Manuan was too slow.

 

Lincoln married Joan and Franz Maeder, a quarter caste, married Maliss a native girl who was brought up European style with Joan. Both eloped….Sorry photo so small.”

Repercussions of the elopement and the chase, armed with guns, reverberated. Tom Ifould cut his adopted daughter off and never spoke to her again, would have nothing to do with any of the Bell family.

So at 22, still haunted by her birth and traumatized by her father’s reaction, my mother’s life changed again. From the plantation to a schooner. Some good and exciting years, years that must have softened the pain – until I arrived!

So now we have a young mother in Kavieng, where she and my father made their home.

But the drums of war were beating. Japan was swarming over S.E. Asia on its way to Singapore. Its attack on Pearl Harbour brought home the reality. War was coming to my parents’ piece of paradise.

All too soon, invasion was imminent. Evacuation orders were received and like other women my mother left New Guinea on short notice, with few possessions, one three year old and little money. We went to Tasmania, first to Sandy Bay, then to Oatlands where Joan’s mother Molly and her then husband Nick Carter operated the Midlands Hotel.

My father, Lincoln Bell, and I at Kokopo, PNG

Not a good move. Molly eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver and Nick enjoyed a glass or two. My mother’s vulnerable state succumbed to alcohol. She must have felt very alone in Oatlands.

Her husband’s family was geographically shattered, her home taken over by an invading enemy, her father wouldn’t talk to her, stories of Japanese atrocities were circulating, her husband Lincoln was somewhere in New Guinea as one of Eric Feldt’s coast watchers, eventually prominent in Feldt’s iconic book “The Coast Watchers.”

To add more stress to the separation, she could learn nothing about my father. She didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. No government department could or would let her know where he was, how he was. Bureaucracy in the form of the major in charge of paying allotments to wives of servicemen initially refused to pay her Lincoln’s allotment. Why? Because he hadn’t signed the form! Of course… No matter that he was in mostly Japanese occupied territory.

All these pressures must have combined with the other stresses in my mother’s life.

My mother and I in Tasmania @ 1942

I remember one day in the Midlands Hotel kitchen. My mother was leaning back against an open green metal breadbin. The telegram boy came in, handed her an envelope. The kitchen went deathly quiet as she tore it open. It was, of course The Telegram, the one nobody ever wanted to receive. My mother passed out and fell backwards amongst the bread, feet in the air. She went to her bedroom for a long time, days. At the time I had no idea what had happened.

My mother took me to Cairns in 1945 to be with my grandmother Ethel, both women coping with loss and lack of information. We lived in a flat in Sheridan Street opposite the old Polar Star Iceworks, later a house in Lake Street. Money must have been very tight for them, both battling government departments for their entitlements. Both wondering what was going to happen.

In Cairns my mother learned the fate of my father. I quote from Eric Feldt in “The Coast Watchers” –

“The natives were impressed by the Jap numbers and terrified by the savage punishments meted out to those … who disobeyed. A few remained loyal to the Coast Watchers…but some openly assisted the Japs. Bell, Laws and Shultz…left (Saidor) for Bena Bena on 2nd May 1941. Bell and Laws had come through much more dangerous situations, and this, merely to walk out to safety (from the Rai Coast to Port Moresby! -Ed.) appeared to be the easiest assignment they had yet been given. For a year however, nothing more was heard… after the reconquest of that part of the country, it was learnt that natives had treacherously killed them. The natives met them in friendship and were carrying their equipment, when…they turned on the three and killed them. The loss of Bell and Laws was a severe blow. Bell was of the courageous, self-reliant breed of whom there never could be too many.”

From the Pacific Islands Monthly, September 1945 –  “…(Lincoln Bell was caught in an ambush, and was killed by a shower of arrows at close range.”

This was too much for my mother. She became addicted to alcohol and slowly disintegrated, physically and mentally.

With increasing alcoholism came a change I didn’t as a child understand. I often had to help my grandmother roll my mother into bed, but my grandmother bore the brunt of the clean-ups, the irrational tantrums. My relationship with my mother deteriorated. It had no chance – a traumatized woman sliding into alcoholism and a boy old enough to be aware but too young to understand or provide much-needed support.

She told me several times I had a sister younger than I, but the baby was taken by a crocodile. She had a photo of where it happened. I can’t confirm this; it may have been an alcohol generated delusion. But whatever, it was real to her. Yet another demon for her to struggle with.

In Cairns, my mother and grandmother learned of the loss of Don on the Montevideo Maru. He’d been captured in Rabaul. More pressure on my mother’s foundering psyche. Many years later, after my grandmother died and my mother was beyond caring, the true story of the Kavieng Massacre and the war crimes trials came to light.

My mother’s condition deteriorated in Cairns until things reached the inevitable climax. I was sent off to boarding school. Only communication by letter, and of course in her condition she didn’t write anything. She was involved in an accident, breaking her hip. Later she was court certified, her belongings confiscated by the State and she was confined to a mental institution where she died some 15 years later. Another victim of the trauma of war.

I was the only attendee at her funeral.

My other and I at Kokopo, PNG

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SOURCES:

  • ‘The Kavieng Massacre – A War Crime Revealed’ by Raden Dunbar
  • ‘Pacific Islands Monthly’ September 1945

Contact: John Bell Books

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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.

DNBELL_3

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.

 

John Bell Books

John Bell Books on Amazon