A New Guinea tragedy in two acts.


Place:  Rabaul, capital of the Australian controlled Mandated Territory of New Guinea. This prosperous, beautiful town, strategically situated in the South West Pacific on the island of New Britain, had  an excellent, defendable harbour and port, two air fields, and good communications with the rest of the world. Time;  morning 23rd January 1942.


 ACT 1



From shadows came the words “I’ve made contact. The colonel's orders are that each man is to fend for himself.”  (1)


The soldiers sitting well concealed in thick undergrowth beneath palm trees did not stir.  Overhead a Japanese military plane circled low searching for men such as these.  Another explosion vibrated along cliffs to the east.  The Japanese army had landed in strength at several points along the coast. The words spoken by their officer were repeated  "Each man is to fend for himself." (Only a few weeks before the Colonel in command of the Rabaul garrison of some 1400 men, made up mainly of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) 2/22 battalion had posted the order ‘There shall be no withdrawal’. (2)


These Australian soldiers, six men and a lieutenant, were then to struggle and stagger for several months over inhospitable mountains, through unbridged crocodile infested rivers, along enemy held coastal  land, away from the shambles that was to become known as the Fall of Rabaul.  Finally they reached Australia, home.  Most of their comrades - over eight hundred from the garrison - did not.


Also through this same country of twisting vine and jungled bush went Australian civilians, deserted by that very Establishment that was supposed to have protected them.   Often middle aged – some were WWI veterans - many had lived and pioneered in the Islands for years.  These civilians had not even heard the order “each man is to fend for himself”.  They realized though on being told the military had abandoned the town that as a community they were on their own.  Several groups decided to try and escape.  Many of their friends remained in the Rabaul area.  Some of these men thought it their duty to stay, others were unable or unwilling to leave the township.  About 80 civilians made it back to Australia from New Britain, a few more from surrounding islands.   Several hundred did not.


Well over a thousand men, civilian and military, and a few women, were to die one way or another in the years following that order from the commander of the garrison, Colonel Scanlan, “Each man is to fend for himself”  If that order had actually been carried out probably not one European – including Scanlan – would have lived to tell the tale. Certainly the survivors helped or had been helped by others, their comrades or New Guineans.   


It seems probable that none of the military, including Colonel Scanlan, or the civilians had any idea that in December 1941 a cablegram had been sent from Canberra to the Australian Minister in Washington  ‘It is considered better to maintain Rabaul only as an advanced air operational base, its present small garrison being regarded as hostages to fortune’.(3) 


All these men, civilian and military, had of course families, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters.   Many of the civilians, and some of the army garrison, were married men with their own families.  Young adults, teenagers, children, babies, all became involved to a lesser or greater degree in the turmoil and distress that was born at dawn on the 23rd January 1942. 


The families who belonged to the New GuineaIslands, particularly the Bismarck Archipelago, be they settled in the townships of Rabaul, Kavieng, Kieta, or working on outlying plantations as managers or owners, suffered the most.  They lost everything, husbands, fathers, sons, friends; New Guinean, Chinese, European; homes, possessions, a way of life.


Almost no news from the Rabaul area came to those who waited during the war against Japan.   Those few women whose husbands had returned safely to Australia gave as much material help as they could but they too had lost homes, possessions, friends.  For three and a half long years the debacle at Rabaul was known about only by those directly connected with it, the Australian government censoring the truth to a wider public.


Within the New Guinea communities however the order “Each man is to fend for himself" became a symbol for the whole tragedy.  Bitterness, anger, resentment were kept under control by the hope that those missing men would be found alive when the war was finally over.  Ironically, life would have been even more difficult for these families if Scanlan's order had been followed. THEN, like many of the men trying to escape the islands  in January 1942, most of those who were in any position to, supported their friends.


The words though "Each man must fend for himself," were repeated, remembered.  Children, teenagers heard.  Perhaps the constant refrain repeated in homes with a missing husband, father, son let the phrase grow an emotional life of its own. In my opinion at some time in the following decades the words became separated from their original meaning, changed from being used as a way of remembering the sacrificed missing, a mantra for grief, applying only to a situation after the fall of Rabaul, Kavieng, the whole Bismarck Archipelago.


 Perhaps it began when the war ended and the men did not return.  When the wives did not see their husbands, or the children ‘dad’?  Was it when the parents did not welcome home their young soldier sons?  Or had a sickness been carried with angry disbelief in the heart of the women whose men had been left behind and the few men who had escaped, carried and then passed by word and spirit to the surviving families since January 1942.


Rabaul was freed from Japanese occupation in September 1945 . Only four of the pre war European civilian population were alive. Sheltering in caves outside Rabaul were also European missionaries and mixed race families under the protection of the German Roman Catholic Bishop.  Thousands of Chinese and New Guineans had been killed or displaced. The township was totally destroyed the magnificent harbour a graveyard of twisted steel.


Colonel Scanlan, 39 officers, 18 civilian, army and  missionary nurses, and one civilian woman of Rabaul were found alive in Japan.  It is stated in official records that the rest of the garrison and the civilian population, about 1,200 - the number varies depending on what official record is read – ALL drowned on the 1st July 1942 when the Japanese cargo ship ‘Montevideo Maru’ carrying POWs sunk after being torpedoed by a US navy submarine.  If this is true it would be one WW II Japanese ship that sunk during the war after being torpedoed, and had no allied POW survivors.


After the war the Liberal/ Country Party Opposition spurred on by their individual constituents tried very hard, and failed, to get the Australian Labor Government under Prime Minster Ben Chifley to hold a formal inquiry into the Fall of Rabaul.  One excuse made then – and in 2009 – that if there was an inquiry in Canberra about Rabaul, there would have to be others for Singapore, Ambon, Timor, is not valid. There is no comparison to be made between the Mandated Territory, Singapore, Ambon, Timor.  Australia had been given the mandate for New Guinea from the League of Nations; it was the governing power. Australia had no authority in Singapore, Ambon, or Timor.


 Most of the families of the missing men, civilian and military, outwardly accepted the official explanation that the men had drowned on the ‘Montevideo Maru’. Only a few of the women, mainly from pre war Rabaul, openly refused to accept this explanation for the loss of their husbands  - of so many men - and tried to discover the truth. They were faced with official hostility, obfuscation and veiled threats.  The small number of European men still alive who had survived the Japanese invasion kept, for one reason or another, an almost silent witness.


Years came and went.  The young adults married, teenagers left home, children grew up. The women struggled on, many grieving in silence. Several of the younger widows remarried.    Communities scattered.  A generation passed.  "Each man must fend for himself." The children of that grotesque tragedy, especially the younger ones had inherited a nightmare.  Some deliberately blocked it from their conscious life, their childhood memories of that time and the aftermath of evacuation to Australia becoming a blank.  However the past is always with us.  Such suppressed memory behaved in a variety of ways with these evacuees.  At times - unrecognized - it festered and grew, destroying or handicapping individual lives.  A few of the children were to glamourize events creating acceptable myths from unacceptable defeat.  Others began to concentrate on their own work, marriage, children.  There had been too amongst some on reaching adulthood at the end of the war a desire through youth’s lack of concern for the previous generation, to ignore their parents' suffering.

A few of the youngest children with no conscious memory of their fathers were told nothing about them, the manner of their disappearance, or even New Guinea.  Spirit though has its own laws and time scale, facts remain whether any one speaks about them or not.  Surely something passed from mind to mind as some of those who had been told almost nothing about their fathers or even New Guinea were later to be intensely involved in personal activity on the subject.

In the first decades after 1945 several books about the war in New Guinea were published.  The Official Histories of Australia in the WW II contained good outlines of the Fall of Rabaul.  Several books were written by men who had been involved in the tragedy.  These were also good, factual accounts. (4)  However by the mid-1970s, after Papua New Guinea independence, the debacle, the cover up, the long poignant aftermath for so many families, became a non-subject.  Superficially too it seemed as if the families involved in the original catastrophe had forgotten it.


I was born in Rabaul, evacuated as a baby, my father escaping in January 1942. (5) Thirty years later, in 1971, I began researching and collecting primary source material on the Mandated Territory of  New Guinea.   In 1978 this book was finished.  It had detailed chapters on the events of 1942 and its aftermath.   No one would publish it.   Colonies and colonials were very much out of fashion.  Few knew - or cared - about New Guinea or the communities war destroyed.


And so we come to


of  ‘Each  man is to fend for himself’.

Through the 1960s Empire bashing, often based on ignorance, and a deliberate political manipulating of facts, grew in governments, universities and the media.  This affected Papua New Guinea.  The MandatedTerritory was not an acceptable, ‘nice’ thing to talk about.  Some even amongst those with relations involved appeared to think that as the men lost during the war were only colonials, they probably deserved all they got.  It was much easier to ignore someone like me than stand against the tide of loathing for all things of Empire.


Feminism, then called ‘woman’s lib’ had also been a strident feature of life in the 1960s.  In the 1980s a fresh wave of this movement began.  As there was really very little for western women to complain about, subjects had to be discovered and if necessary massaged into respectable grievances.  Academia was in the forefront of this upsurge.   Several women with some connections to the old Mandated Territory of New Guinea, seized upon  'woman's'  history of the Territory with predatory glee.  With most of the European male and older female population dead and not a great deal of primary source material available - most having been lost during WW II - here were ripe pickings indeed.  The woman of pre-WWII New Guinea could be and were used as fodder by feminists skilful in misrepresentation.  New Guinea became ‘in’.  The Fall of Rabaul with all the tragic consequences became a way to personal advancement. 


Feminists had now joined with the older antagonists of Empire.  The outcome of this politically correct interest in New Guinea worked to the advantage of those in official circles who for a varietyof reasons wished the truth about WWII in the Islands to remain hidden as surely as it also worked to the advantage of those who detested everything to do with the British Empire.

At the same time as the feminists were busy rewriting history the pre WWII civilian population of New Guinea as a whole, New Guinean, European, Chinese, was being denied due recognition.  The fine pioneering achievements of the majority of Australians in the 1920s and 30s and the good relationships that had been established and proved so strong during those savage years of Japanese occupation between black and white, were either unknown or ignored. Few people for example knew about Stan McCosker’s New Guinean ‘bossboy’, Rombin.  Rombin hid close to a Japanese camp, thus risking being tortured and killed, an American airman for six months before safely leading him to an Australian Intelligence Bureau (AIB) camp. Is there any similar such feat anywhere in WWII? Yet how many Australians know about Rombin or are proud of this loyalty based on his friendship with a colonial Australian.  (6).

The only book published in the last decades other than Masked Eden that mentions Rombin has deleted the sentence that clearly connects - in primal source material - Stan McCosker and Rombin. This has been done one assumes because it does not fit the written academic statements that there were no good relationships between the Australians and New Guineans until soldiers during WWII began talking to Papua New Guineans.  And a book written by a well known academic on the AIB, published after Masked Eden does not even mention Rombin.

My book Masked Eden, a History of the Australians in New Guinea was published in 1998. (7).


The genie in its bottle, the ‘each man must fend for himself’ heritage dormant for so long began to rattle the glass.  Those words that at first were a symbol of a tragedy began to take on a life of their own and started quite literally, to be acted out. ‘Each man must fend for himself’ became in my opinion ‘each man [and woman] must fend for himself, [herself].’

For THEN, after Masked Eden was published and enthusiastically being read by ‘Beforers’( pre WWII civilians) there could have been an outcry from the children of pre WW II New Guinea, now many retired in their sixties and seventies, which might have changed attitudes towards the colony, forced academia for instance to acknowledge my existence, use my work in reference.  These people knew as I did that since I had started collecting my material several people closely involved in pre war New Britain and the Fall of Rabaul had either died or lost a reliable memory.  No one spoke out.  Ignorance, misinformation, misuse of copyright, character assassination continued even though it was often Beforers’ own parents and friends condemned.

About the Millennium the genie exploded out of its bottle. There began:

ACT  2,  SCENE 2


The feminist determination to write history in accord with its own theories, created an environment in which women (not though me) were encouraged to write - about anything.  A second wave of books was published about the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, written for the most part by women with very little or no historical training.  These women though had lost their fathers during the war.   (It is interesting to note that as far as I am aware no man has published a book about his lost father). That infection bred amongst the ashes of Rabaul, Kavieng, Kieta, and developed year after year in memories  - conscious and unconscious  -  of bungalows, neglected graves, crippled families, now reached maturity and spread itself around the European community with pre WWII connections to New Guinea.


These women wrote from an almost total lack of background knowledge of the subject.  They also imagined themselves to be the only ones writing about the tragedy.   Did this situation arise from that sense of isolation formed from years of either little or no knowledge of their fathers' lives in New Guinea, or any acknowledgement from the wider Australian public of their history?

Guilt and resentment also resurfaced and almost obliterated me.   Some, whose men folk  survived, realizing I had tried for decades to tell the general public about the Fall of Rabaul (which they themselves should perhaps also have done) resented me for making them feel guilty, while others whose fathers were lost resented me because my father had survived.  One can sympathize with both the feelings of guilt and resentment in members of the New Guinea community in the late 1940s and 50s, but by 2000 plagiarizing of my work in order to give credit to themselves (I have been told Masked Eden helped trigger guilty feelings in some ‘Beforers’), and deliberate misuse of my work because my father survived, is surely unacceptable.


All those antagonistic to me have interesting, personal and sometimes important material.  If we could have combined our information we would have had a much greater chance of success. I could have helped them.   However almost no one it seems is prepared to accept - as the military and civilian survivors did in January 1942 - that there must be co-operation under knowledgeable leadership if anything is to be achieved. For me there has been no help from small groups of soldiers or civilians, no loyal love, no sense of any shared purpose.  People would write in private giving me and my work much praise, in public there was almost total silence.  Book after book has appeared without even mentioning my work in its bibliography yet writers happily use and misuse my material if it suits their purpose.  And so Australians in general in 2010 still know very little about the abandonment in 1942 of Rabaul and the tragic aftermath.


In the years since 2000 there has also been increasing attempts to discover the truth behind the ‘Montevideo Maru’. It is difficult to judge just how much praise can be given to this activity -  how much research has been motivated solely by a wish for personal gain, to be THE ONE to find out, and how much by a genuine desire to discover the truth. All my primary source material on the ‘Montevideo Maru’ and war time Rabaul has been ignored in T.V.programmnes, current newsletters and web sites.  ‘A Submission to the Commonwealth Government’ in 2009, organized by some members of the PNG Australian community is mostly a rehash of academia from the early 1990s. Masked Eden is not mentioned.  All this recent activity, some involving members of the Rudd Government and earlier Labor Oppositions, has deflected attention away from facts behind the loss of Rabaul – (under the Australian Labor Prime Minister John Curtin) which is the main reason why Australians might have been on that ship.


ACT   II   of   ‘each man must fend for himself’ seems to me to be in many ways worse as regards the human spirit and soul than the original catastrophe.  In 1942 the betrayal and abandonment of the population and the tragic aftermath was mitigated by the extraordinary courage, loyalty, integrity, personal sacrifice and honour of many of those men and women involved.  Not so now.  The lack of cooperation and intelligent use of and willingness to share knowledge, has been a major factor not only in the generally distorted view of Australia's colonial heritage but is perhaps the main reason why there is so little awareness nationally and internationally, of what is known as the Fall of Rabaul. With so little primary source material available because so many of the pioneer Australian men of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea died during WWII and almost all government and private written records were destroyed, it was obviously imperative any one  with primary source material and personal knowledge should be publicly supported and  encouraged.


However sixty-eight years on the wider implications of this tragedy are still not given the prominence they deserve in Australian history and  the pioneers, black and white, of  the Mandated Territory of New Guinea forgotten or mocked.  Colonel Scanlan, he who gave the original order 'each man is to fend for himself’ would surely have approved of the New Guinea scene in the last decade.





1              Hell and High Fever   p.24  David Selby 


2              Ibid    p.43

3              Cablegram , Australian Archives Documents series A2671/1, File 333/41, War Cabinet Agenda Files.

4              Australia in the War of 1939-1945.  See particularly; The Japanese Thrust, Lionel Wigmore; The Final Campaigns , Gavin  Long; The Government and the People,  Paul Hasluck.

Hell and High Fever, David Selby; The Coast Watchers, Eric Feldt; Patrol into Yesterday, K.J. McCarthy; Escape - A Thousand Miles to Freedom, M Murray;  This Crowd Beats Us All, Bishop  l. Scharmach;  Fear Drive My Feet, Peter Ryan.     

5              A six page REPORT written by three civilians who had seen the Japanese landing at Kokopo near Rabaul and escaped,  Stan  McCosker, Tom Targett, Bert Gaskin, was written on the 6th February 1942 in Brisbane and sent to the relevant authorities. The Australian Government appears to have ignored it.  There is a facsimile of this REPORT in Masked Eden

6              EVASION OF CAPTURE IN NEW BRITAIN Gordon R. Manuel, Australian Archives, Victoria,          CRS B 3476. AIB. Rombin’s war time exploits are told in detail in Masked Eden.

7              Masked Eden   A History of the Australians in New Guinea.  354 pages.   NOTES page 315 to 349;   containing names and dates of author’s conversations with pre WWII New Guinea residents, material from letters, diaries, articles, short stories, photos in the author’s possession; primary source material from national archives.   Maps, Photographs, Selected Bibliography. 


Anne McCosker went to school in Brisbane, Queensland.   She has a B.A. History Honours degree from University of London.


Anne McCosker     2010


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