Bougainville in World War II (3) – Talk of War

Apart from the setting up of the coastwatching service and issuing plans, there were no preparations for war in the Mandate before the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939. Australians were inhibited by the conditions of the Mandate and by their inability to make basic decisions about whether New Guinean police could be called upon for service in the event of war. But as the Australians made few preparations in Darwin, Broome or Thursday Island either, those factors peculiar to New Guinea probably had slight influence. The actions taken to protect Bougainville were much the same as those taken on Manus, New Ireland, and more than was done for Lae, Madang and Wewak. A grass airstrip was built south of Kieta near Aropa, but it was boggy, the connecting road to Kieta was poor, and it was never used by the Australians. The only other airfield was on southern Buka, parallel to the Passage and it had been levelled by Bougainvilleans with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. Planned to become a forward operational base, by the end of 1941 Buka was just an emergency field. But during 1941 the waters off Soraken plantation, always protected from wind and swell, were exploited as a base and refuelling point by the Catalina crews making long reconnaissance flights over the south-west Pacific. The Catalinas usually arrived in the afternoon, and often two aircraft waited there to take-off at dawn. Overnight some of the crew stayed on board to monitor the radio, but most went ashore where Rolf Cambridge, the Soraken manager, invited them to sleep on the verandah and add bananas, pawpaws and pineapples to their air force rations.

Australia’s most obvious commitment to the defence of Bougainville was just one section of No. 1 Independent Company. Shipped north in July 1941, the Company was stationed in Kavieng and then, in August, sections were sent to Manus and Buka. In October Lieutenant John Mackie and 25 men of 3 Section replaced the nine men who were on Buka previously. At first deployed to defend the airstrip, the men camped behind Chinatown where they could buy themselves a beer and a feed at Chin Yung’s, Laurie Chan’s or Wong You’s. Their ‘idyllic life drifted along’ with only one aeroplane, an obsolete Wirraway from Rabaul, landing on the strip. But Mackie soon realised that if they were to fight as they were trained, even survive, they would have to have bases on the main island and know the country. In the New Guinea islands it was only on Bougainville that Australia deployed a force that was trained in guerrilla warfare and had the country in which they could operate effectively.

Soon after the outbreak of the war in Europe the Administrators in Papua and New Guinea wondered whether they should advise white women to leave. Australian policy changed from not dissuading those who
wanted to leave to one of encouraging all those not in essential occupations to go, and warning those who stayed that in the event of hostilities the government might not have the transport to help them. Those women who went to Australia found it difficult to obtain permits to re-enter the Territory, but the urgency felt by some government officers was blunted because they were told to ‘avoid anything in the nature of a panic’. By mid-1941 the Territory Administrations had listed the total numbers of women and children to be evacuated: Papua 669 and New Guinea 1,714. In the Kieta District alone there were 66, including 30 working for the Marists and two for the Methodists. Four days after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Cabinet ordered the evacuation of European women and children from Darwin, New Guinea and Papua. The prepared plan for the combined use of aircraft and ships was issued immediately. On north Bougainville police runners took written notes telling women that they were to pack two suit cases, and provide their own blankets and food for a schooner voyage to Rabaul. The Methodist mission schooner, the Bilua, picked up the women and children and brought them to Buka Passage where they met the Asakaze. As the women picked up further south had taken the only bunks in the captain’s cabin, all other women and children camped on the deck. The Asakaze ploughed through a storm for two days before reaching Rabaul and there the sick and sorry passengers boarded the Macdhui for the voyage to Sydney. Fourteen women, one elderly man and six children were evacuated from Bougainville. Four nurses working for the Marists agreed to leave, the 24 Sisters exercised their right to stay, and Mrs Huson, Mrs Falkner and Mrs C. Campbell refused to leave. Huson and Falkner had both been in the Solomons for 20 years, and their lives and livelihoods were on their plantations. Mrs Campbell at Raua plantation said that she had a sick husband and would not leave him. Even when the government offered to evacuate both, Mrs Campbell still would not go. In New Guinea there was no attempt to evacuate Chinese or other foreign women until a few weeks later, and then some of the Chinese from Wau and Bulolo reached Australia, but it was too late for those Chinese in the islands already occupied by the Japanese.

Some planters chose to leave of their own accord and, as a result, by the end of 1941 Bob Stuart was managing three plantations as well as running Tenakau. The Japanese government quietly informed Japanese residents in the islands to leave, and Tashiro Tsunesuke and Osaki both left. The Japanese who remained were interned immediately after 8 December. Ishibashi and Ikeda and their families and Kikuchi, a Korean fisherman, were imprisoned on Sohano, until they could be shipped to Australia. There appeared to be no resentment between the parties. The Japanese were allowed to buy beer (perhaps because they shared it with their guards) and, when they went on board the Malaita, Bob Stuart called on Ikeda to have a last few words. Ikeda and Ishibashi’s boats were seized, but their agents were credited with hiring fees.

The Australians in New Guinea were not prepared for war, but they certainly expected it. Pacific Islands Monthly frequently warned that Japan would ‘launch an attack upon us in the Pacific, without warning and without mercy’ [PIM March 1942]. On Bougainville, Bob Stuart said:

We planters discussed the possibility of War many times, and had all agreed that the Japanese would take these islands and possibly Australia too. All that remained to be seen now was how and when …

Senior Australian military officers shared the fears expressed in the press and on plantation verandahs: five months before the Japanese landing they informed the commanding officer in Rabaul that he could expect an attack of the ‘heaviest scale’ — and that it would be one that would overwhelm his force. The chiefs of staff, with nearly a division at risk in Singapore, three divisions in north Africa and the Middle East and attacks threatening on the Australian mainland, decided they had ‘tasks of a higher priority’. The Australian servicemen and civilians in the New Guinea islands were known to be in danger, but they were going to have to look after themselves.

In November 1941 Assistant District Officer Jack Read was posted to Buka Passage. Read had entered the government service as a cadet in 1929, and had been a kiap on the mainland and New Britain, but this was the first time he had been to the Solomons. Later he would say that his lack of knowledge of the country and people were handicaps for him. The Australian troops, who had got to know and like his predecessor, Ken Bridge, regretted Read’s appointment. With Read were Eric Guthrie, from the Department of Agriculture, and Frank Green, medical assistant — kiap (government field officer), didiman (agricultural field officer) and likkik dokta (medical assistant) — the tripela masta of the field service. At Kieta, J. I. Merrylees, who had served as an officer in the British forces in the Great War, had long familiarity with the district officer’s residence on the point above the harbour. With the shortage of staff following the enlistment of men for the war in Europe, George Stevenson, the patrol officer at Kangu had been shifted, and Buin was without a kiap.

The wireless reports of the bombing of Rabaul on 4 January 1942 increased apprehension on Bougainville, but it was not until 10 January that six Japanese float planes were seen flying down the east coast. There were, one of the soldiers at Buka said, more Japanese in the air than Australians on the ground. On 21 January a float plane flew low and slow across Buka airstrip and the troops began their war, firing with all their weapons — revolvers, 303 rifles, sub-machine guns, and one Vickers medium machine gun. They thought it a triumph when they forced the plane to climb away. By then they knew that Rabaul had been bombed heavily and that a Japanese invasion fleet had been sighted off New Ireland. The Catalinas had left Soraken, taking much of their gear with them. Read and Mackie decided it was time for them to escape the confines of Buka for inland bases on Bougainville where they already had ration dumps. On 23 January, the day that Rabaul and Kavieng were captured by the Japanese, the Australians abandoned Buka Passage. As the Australians left, Japanese aircraft bombed Soraken, Sohano and along the Passage and riddled a few buildings with machine gun fire. The Australians decided — quite reasonably — that the Japanese were about to land. Labourers fled and the troops trudging to their new camps had to carry their own gear. Jack Read, in the government schooner, made his first trip down the north-east coast of Bougainville.

At Kieta, Merrylees had hidden stores at Kupei, but on 22 January he told Read that he was going to commandeer a vessel and sail for Woodlark Island. The 10 or so Europeans had all voted to go and they planned to leave at 4.00 p.m. the next day. The sense of unease among the Europeans increased the following day when they were unable to raise Buka and Rabaul on the radio, and Bougainvilleans brought reports of explosions at Buka Passage. At midday H. Dougherty, the operator at the AWA station at Kieta, saw a lone Japanese plane drop behind Pok Pok Island and thought it had landed. The Australians decided to sail immediately on Wong You’s Herald, the one small launch available. Carrying a full load of fuel and fearful of venturing out of the harbour in the overloaded Herald, the Europeans told the New Guinean crew to take the launch down to Toberoi plantation. Telling the police to ‘go bush’ and leaving the burnt AWA radio behind them, the Europeans crammed on to Doyle’s truck and went by land to meet the Herald. Read said that as they were short of space they discarded luggage, and a couple of men who missed embarkation rode down the coast on bicycles. At Toberoi they heard reports of two Japanese soldiers landing and raising the Japanese flag, and of a Japanese ship-of-war standing off Kieta. They decided that the Herald would take half of the assembled 14 Europeans to Buin, and then come back and collect the rest, but on the first run they met Luxton sailing north on the Bilua, commandeered his boat, gathered the rest of their passengers, seized Tom Ebery’s radio, and told the reluctant Luxton, the only one with a master’s certificate, to take them to Woodlark. Off Woodlark they decided they would go to Samarai and then, after a difficult and dangerous voyage, they arrived in Port Moresby on 4 February. Luxton wanted to turn around and go straight back to Bougainville, but the navy now claimed the Bilua. Four of the men from Kieta immediately joined the Australian Army. With the sailing of the Bilua, the Seventh–Day Adventist pastor, Pascoe, had gone, and Alley was the one remaining European Methodist missionary. The only government officers were those in the north, and another three planters had escaped. Some planters — from Tom Ebery at Toimonapu to Percy Good at Kessa — were still on their plantations or had taken to inland havens. Stuart was over a day’s walk inland from Tenakau where he had a ‘marvellous view of the coast’ and where he was determined to stay. But most of the planters were still uncertain whether it was better to stay or make a dash to the south or west by small boat.

Read and others made fun of the panic among the white community fleeing Kieta: ‘varied and vivid’, he wrote, were the tales of the ‘jockeying for a place on the little vessel’. But the Australians in Kieta had to make an immediate decision, and they believed that Kavieng, Rabaul and Buka had fallen and the Japanese were at the entrance to the Kieta harbour. The slight evidence that they had confirmed that the Japanese were at Kieta, and that was what Merrylees announced when he reached Port Moresby. Had the Japanese landed at Kieta on 23 January then the men would have been congratulated on their fortunate escape and their courageous voyage. But the Japanese did not occupy Kieta then — the escape with seconds to spare became the escape with six months to spare.

After the government officers left Kieta, ‘Hundreds of natives from nearby villages flocked into the town to join in an orgy of looting and destruction. They smashed every store and laid waste its contents’. Sergeant Yauwiga, from the Sepik, and the few police left in Kieta were powerless, and anarchy continued until Doctor B. Kröning of Toberoi plantation and Brother Henry, a New Zealander, combined to assert a new authority under a white flag. Kröning had served with the German administration, and according to Read ‘made no secret of the fact that he was a staunch believer in Nazism’. Read and some of the Independent Company came down to Kieta, and for the second time a reluctant Kröning lost power to the Australians. The Australians recovered some of the loot, calaboosed (jailed) many Bougainvilleans and then used them as carriers and labourers. The fittest of the deserted lepers on Pok Pok island were sent home and the rest given into the care of the Catholic mission. The patients at the Native Hospital, abandoned by white and then black staff, had saved themselves or been rescued by relatives — except one who had crawled a short distance and died. At the end of February planters and miners came in to Kieta, drank the last grog on Bougainville, and about eight of them sailed for the Solomons. A few days later the soldiers arrested Kröning and put him and his wife on a schooner with another two planters on their way to Tulagi and Australia.

In March a Japanese fleet appeared off north Buka, Japanese soldiers came ashore and placed Percy Good (Kessa Plantation) on parole. Fred Archer, further down the coast, radioed Read who passed the message on to Tulagi and to Australia. Wireless stations in Australia, the United States and Great Britain told the world that a Japanese force was off Buka. The Japanese, assuming that Good must have provided the information, returned to Kessa Plantation, murdered him in his home, buried him in a shallow grave and left. The killing of Good told all peoples on Bougainville of the new, dangerous forces that had arrived.

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