Three of us were tied together and we stood up. It’s funny to walk down to your death with two fellows whose names you don’t know and never will know. We walked three abreast down the hill and I could see three Japs waiting for us at the bottom. The man on my right was praying quietly and the chap on my left was saying over and over to himself, 'God, what a way to die! What a way to die!'... The Japs were coming up to meet us and as they got in behind us I knew suddenly we weren’t going to be shot. My stomach shrivelled and muscles went stiff, waiting for something to happen. Then it hit me, a stabbing burning pain in the middle of my back, and I fell forward on my face, dragging the other two on top of me. The Japs stood over us, lunging at us, and I felt the blade another five times in my back. I felt like screaming but my mouth was buried in the dirt, my head pressed down by the weight of the man on top of me, and no sound came.

Private William 'Bill' Cook, 2/10th Field Ambulance, Tol Plantation massacre survivor. Read more about his experience.

Strategic situation

The US officially entered the Second World War after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Japan wanted to expand its territory across South-East Asia and the Pacific. The Allies—especially Australia and the US—wanted to prevent Japan from cutting Australia's supply line with the US. The Allies knew it was likely Japan would attempt to take the Australian Territories of Papua and New Guinea.

The fall of Rabaul

Australia expected the Japanese to invade Rabaul. They evacuated Australian and European civilian women and children. But men weren't given the option to leave.

On 4 January 1942, Japanese aircraft began bombing Rabaul. This was followed by a full-scale invasion on 23 January by around 5,000 troops. The small Australian force was quickly overwhelmed. Around 1,300 soldiers and civilians were captured or surrendered. Around 400 Australian soldiers evaded capture and fled into the jungle.

Within six months of the invasion, at least 1,200 Australian soldiers and civilians were dead. Some were killed in battles and 160 were killed in the Tol Plantation massacre. More than 1,000 Australian military and civilian prisoners died when a US submarine sank the transport ship MV Montevideo Maru. Others simply vanished. Thousands of New Guineans, Chinese and people of other nationalities were also killed.

The fall of Rabaul led to the end of Australian civilian government in Papua and New Guinea. The territories were placed under military rule.

Lark Force

Lark Force was a small group of Australian soldiers sent to defend Rabaul in 1941. It comprised:

  • the 2/22nd Australian Infantry Battalion
  • the local unit of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles
  • a coastal defence battery
  • an anti-aircraft battery
  • elements of the 2/10th Field Ambulance and 17th Anti-tank Battery.

In total, there were around 1,400 troops, including six Australian Army Nursing Service nurses.

24 Squadron RAAF provided air support to Lark Force with four Hudson bombers and 10 Wirraway general purpose aircraft.

When the Australian government evacuated women and children before the Japanese invasion, Lark Force was ordered to stay. But they knew they would probably not be able to defend against an invasion force.

When the Japanese landed on 23 January, Lark Force was quickly overwhelmed. Later that morning, Colonel John Scanlan, commander of Lark Force, was rumoured to have ordered a withdrawl on the basis of every man for himself. Those who could, fled into the surrounding jungle. Many others, including civilians, surrendered or were captured or killed.

Rabaul nurses

Among the Lark Force soldiers in Rabaul were six Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) officers:

  • Captain Kathleen Parker
  • Lieutenant Lorna Whyte
  • Lieutenant Marjory Anderson
  • Lieutenant Daisy Keast
  • Lieutenant Mavis Cullen
  • Lieutenant Eileen Callaghan.

They had been sent to Rabaul in April 1941.

The AANS nurses weren't evacuated before the Japanese invasion. Other female civilian nurses and a group of missionaries also stayed.

The Camp Hospital had been moved to the Catholic Mission at Vunapope just before the invasion. Interned there under appalling conditions were:

  • the AANS nurses
  • seven civilian nurses from the Rabaul Government Hospital
  • four Methodist missionary nurses
  • a civilian housewife

The group remained at the mission until July 1942.

On 5 July 1942 they were transferred on the Naruto Maru to Yokohama, Japan, as prisoners of war.

In July 1944 they were moved from Yokohama to Totsuka, where they remained, under extreme conditions, until the war ended. Captain Parker and Lieutenant Anderson were both awarded Red Cross awards for their "outstanding devotion to duty and disregard of personal danger".

The nurses were among the longest-serving Australian prisoners of war in the Second World War. They spent more than three years in captivity.

Tol Plantation massacre

Following the Japanese invasion, many Australian soldiers headed south, alone or in small groups, away from Rabaul. After crossing the Bainings Mountains, some headed towards Tol and Waitavalo on the east coast. Others continued further south.

On 3 February 1942, Japanese forces attacked Tol Plantation. They took around 160 Australian soldiers prisoner. The prisoners were divided into small groups, then taken into the jungle and shot, bayoneted or burned alive.

Six men survived the massacre. With help from local New Guineans, they made contact with 150 other Australian survivors of Rabaul, who were now at Palmalmal Plantation in the area now known as Jacquinot Bay. This group was evacuated from Palmalmal on HMAS Laurabada on 12 April 1942.

Others made their way to neighbouring New Ireland by boat. They then trekked to the south of the island before escaping, together with others fleeing the Japanese invasion of Kavieng in the north of New Ireland.

Individual sad stories emerged after the fall of Rabaul. Having escaped Rabaul, RAAF Warrant Officer Neale Eustace Evans died of malaria on 20 March. He was buried next to the copra shed at Metlik Plantation at the southern end of New Ireland. Though the location was known, his remains were never recovered.

Some of those fleeing the invasion acquired a vessel, the Quong Wah, from a Chinese trader, Chin Pak. Chin Pak was the father of future Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Sir Julius Chan.

Sinking of the MV Montevideo Maru

On 22 June 1942, the Japanese transport ship MV Montevideo Maru set sail, unescorted, from New Britain to Hainan Island, off southern China. It was transporting approximately 1,000 Australian servicemen and civilian prisoners who had been captured on New Britain and New Ireland.

Eight days into the voyage, on 1 July 1942, the Montevideo Maru was spotted in the Philippine Sea by a US submarine, the USS Sturgeon. The Sturgeon's crew was unaware the ship was carrying Allied prisoners. The Sturgeon fired its torpedoes, two of which struck the ship. The Montevideo Maru sank by the stern in just 11 minutes.

The Japanese crew abandoned ship, but the prisoners were trapped. Of the 88 Japanese crew and guards, only 17 survived.

Although the exact number and identity of Australian prisoners has never been confirmed, it's estimated that 845 military personnel and up to 208 civilians were killed. This makes it the worst maritime disaster in Australian history. The National Archives of Australia now holds what is thought to be the most comprehensive list of Montevideo Maru prisoners of war and internees.

Papua New Guinea
23 January 1942
Image caption
A group of nurses and civilians in Manila, Philippines after their release from internment at Yokohama, at a prisoner of war (POW) processing unit on their way home. 4 September 1945. The group is made up of Australian Army nurses, civilian nurses from the Rabaul Government Hospital, Methodist Missionary nurses and a civilian, Mrs Bignell, all captured at Rabaul, and Mrs E. Jones, an American school teacher captured in the Aleutian Islands.

Left to right: civilian nurse Grace Kruger; civilian nurse A. Beaumont; civilian nurse Joyce McGahan (back); civilian nurse Jean McLellan (front); Dorothy Beale, Methodist nurse (back); Jean Christopher, Methodist nurse (front); Dora Wilson, Methodist nurse (back); civilian nurse Dorothy Maye (front); Matron of the Rabaul Government Hospital, Joyce Oldroyd-Harris; Mrs E. Jones, an American school teacher; civilian nurse Mary Goss; Mavis Green, Methodist nurse; Mrs Kathleen Bignell, civilian housewife; Lieutenant (Lt) Lorna Whyte, Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS); Lt Mavis Cullen, AANS; Lt Daisy (Tootie) Keast, AANS; Captain Kay Parker, AANS
Image attribution
Australian War Memorial. AWM 019146. Photographer unknown.

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