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.


  • 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.


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 …——


John Bell Books

John Bell Books on Amazon


M2MvM – China’s One Child Policy

Met an impressive Chinese bloke, mid-30’s probably. So proud of his country. If he’s representative of the new China, then hang on world for the China Century.

He told us that the 35 year-long one child policy is no longer in force. But the hangover continues.

imagesHis wife was the second daughter of an ordinary Chinese family. As such, she was illegal.   Her parents were fined much more than they could afford for having more than one child and took decades to pay it off. They had to get their daughter away from easy reach of authority, so they moved to Inner Mongolia.

Such children could not get passports, I.D. cards, any sort of official recognition that they existed. Like the black economy, they were called “black” people.

The young man’s marriage to his “black” wife could not be officially recorded. Their children could not be officially citizens.

There were ways.  Many years and a lot of money, years of petitioning authorities, while the wheel was slowly turning, official attitudes softening. The repeal of that policy enabled our friend to “legalize” his wife’s very existence, their marriage, their children. They now live in Beijing. With passports, ID cards.

He spoke with an openness on matters political that surprised me. His love for and his pride in Mother China so evident. China’s future rests in the hands of his generation, and I hope there are many like him.

Very impressive.

A perfect template for a character in a novel. I’ll work on it.

John Bell Books

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PAYBACK – by John Bell – Book 1 | Williams Series


“He leaned on an old bamboo cane, its carved handle smoothed by the years.  A sharp eye might pick out the Sepik River motif, but only a wantok could explain.  Eyes wet, the old man looked up to where the crows hunched … the movie suddenly stopped, then began to roll forwards … Ben Williams was once again seven years old.”

Paradise is shattered the night Lu, niece of a respected and proud Chinese merchant family, was brutally raped.  Such an act cannot go unpunished.  Payback is required, is expected.

And so begins the feud …

Ben Williams – The serious eldest child of Harry and Victoria Williams, leader of the pack, as wild as his adopted country.  From an early age Ben proved a quick study, displaying a raw toughness beyond his years.  While still wet behind the ears, he mastered knife, gun and explosives, not for sport but survival.  His strong business sense expanded the family’s interests beyond copra, into gold, crocodiles, timber and shipping.

Jack Williams – Ruggedly handsome, untamed and competitive.  His vivid blue eyes miss nothing over the bow of his schooner, Garamut. As formidable as his brother Ben in the art of weaponry, the glorious Jane Bifold presented his greatest challenge.  Spiriting her away at high tide against the furious protestations of her father, Jack and Jane find themselves caught up in a war that this tiny nation is ill prepared for.

Josh (Joseph) Williams – Highly competitive, his blue eyes would flash in challenge at his older siblings as he strived constantly to be the best.  Josh quickly discovered that quality crocodile skins were a much sought after commodity, and one he could produce well. He wasn’t prepared for Khanitha, the poised and elegant daughter of the merchant Wong Yuk Chong.  Were his skills enough to win the love of this most magnificent creature as well as the respect of her formidable family.

George Williams – The youngest of the William’s clan.   Born after the tragic death of sister Ethel, he grew up to be a solemn and quiet young man often shadowed by the imposing Ben, passionate Jack and impetuous Josh.  It was the freckle faced young Margaret who would be the one to crack the shell and bring him to life.  A life sadly cut short when captured somewhere in New Ireland, then lost at sea with over 1000 others with the sinking of the Japanese p.o.w. ship Montivideo Maru.

Gustav Hart – With a German father and Tabar Island mother he found himself despised by the Germans and disowned by the Islanders … he grew bitter as he aged.  This bitterness flowed on to his five sons to three mixed-race women.

Karl Frederiksen – A product of Gustav’s brutal parenting, his upbringing created a thug. Blond, cunning and clever.  He is forced to flee Lavongai in the darkest hour of the night following the discovery of his involvement in the rape of the Chinese girl.  Payback is heading his way.  He does not want this exile – for those who forced it upon him their time for payback would come.

Praise for John Bell

“Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.  A real page turner. Congratulations.” KL, NSW

“Payback is a great read, I couldn’t put it down.  A heartbreaking story especially knowing it is based on a true story.” LB, TVL

I have just finished my reading of Payback last night. This was a book equal of any that I have read … it was a novel that was hard to put down, and for some the epic would be seen as being profound in the history of Australia.” GB, QLD

“Outlandish, but has a ring of truth.  Payback is a true story disguised as a novel.  Based very closely on Bell’s family history, it is set in New Guinea … The temptation for the reader in this book is to try and work out what is true and what is fiction, but this is a fruitless exercise … Bell has produced a great read – tragic, funny, engaging and throwing a new light on our nearest neighbour, PNG.  In a word: ENGROSSING.”  Excerpt of review, Townsville Bulletin’s Weekend Extra

Purchase by following the links below:

AMAZON – John Bell Books

John Bell Books


John, where and when can I buy your books?

I’ve been asked this question a bit of late.  Yes, the sequels to Payback have been written and published!

FB cover copy

Payback, Puri Puri & Melted Wax are available in ebook form through Amazon – download directly to your Kindle or via the Kindle app on your iPad or similar device – or purchase and read the ‘old fashioned’ way.

I also have a supply of print books if you’d like to contact me.

Follow the links below:

AMAZON – John Bell Books


EMAIL – John Bell Books


UNBELIEVABLE? … Probably. TRUE? … Definootly! MELTED like WAX? … Absolutely!

1968, a bumper Gulf of Carpentaria prawn season prompted “gold rush fever” for 1969. More trawlers, new players, a Russian super trawler. A small syndicate from a little Queensland town  saw an opportunity and went for it, sparking an unlikely adventure in international shipping.

A great Aussie yarn? Fanciful plot line?  NO! Amazingly – TRUE! 

MELTED WAX is a fictionalized version of that story.

Others invested in trawlers or processing plants. Z - men on deck looking into hold - uuinions shut downOur heroes decided on a vessel to shuttle between catching grounds and processing plants. Frozen prawns one way, fuel and supplies the other.

Great idea, good plan.

Found a ship in Europe, borrowed from a Dutch bank, incorporated a company in Holland. Brought the ship around Africa to newspaper headlines “Million dollar prawn ship in Townsville!”

Huge learning curve. Massive cost differential, slipping out to the reef for a spot of fishing and running a real ship half way around the world.

Big problem – 1969 was a season disaster. Only two prawns in the Gulf. One caught by the CSIRO for research, the other died of loneliness.

What could they do, no prawns and a 500 ton ship? Dutch flag meant it couldn’t operate on the Australian coast. Our heroes were desperate.

Money flowed out like a 4 metre Whitsunday tide.

Months of twisting, turning, ducking, hoping. Not opening window face envelopes.

Almost accidentally, they secured a charter to shuttle between Bougainville and Sydney, transporting food for the Conzinc Rio Tinto copper mine.

The charter was lucrative, but the syndicate was not skill-equipped to manage a foreign flagged ocean going ship. Or the sudden inflow of big money.

Z to slip for paintingWhen the opportunity for another ship, another charter, they succumbed to the 1970’s… More money from the Dutch bank? No worries.

Another Dutch company? Easy peasy. Repaint the new ship to match?   Yeah, why not.

So now they owned a fleet. Well, two. One 500 tons, one 1100 tons.

Pretty impressive stuff for a few blokes from a tiny rural town. And there’s more…

To find out how they made it to that point, and what happened after, read the third book in my Williams Series, MELTED WAX.

About the only facts are those above. Please read and enjoy as fiction.

MELTED WAX, and all my Williams Series, available from:

Kemphaan kids

Kemphaan rusty





















They’ve Arrived!!

The PAYBACK, PURI PURI and MELTED WAX print books have now started to arrive!


I’m underway signing and fulfilling the initial round of orders.   Simultaneously humbled and thrilled at my underestimation of demand for signed copies.  Further supplies of books are on the way to cover orders now coming through.

If you’d like to confirm your order, or place an order for one , two or all three books in print version, email me at:  or go to:

For signed book prices go to:

To order e-books and print versions via Amazon, click here:  John Bell Books – Amazon

As an avid lover of printed books – the smell, the feel, the look – I find it almost disloyal to say that the advantages of e-book over hard copy are overwhelming, becoming more so.

I probably read more e-books than print nowadays.  Might have something to do with old(er) eyes and the ability to enlarge the font, read in poor or no light by varying screen brightness, etc.  And being able to carry in electronic form so many books when travelling.

Due to the exorbitant postage costs, especially within Australia, buying the books as e-books via Amazon – John Bell Books – Amazon – makes enormous sense.  Instant gratification/delivery, and of course much cheaper!  Amazon delivers books via Kindle, this app is available and free to download on Apple and Android devices.

I look forward to hearing from you with comments and reading your reviews … and I trust that you’ll enjoy reading these tales, some taller (quite a bit) than others, as much as I’ve enjoyed scratching them out.

Contact me with any queries at:

John Bell