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

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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 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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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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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.

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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

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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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AMAZON – John  Bell Books

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