COMMENTS on A Very Long War by Margaret Reeson.
Melbourne University Press, 2000.
This book is offered on behalf of those whose lives were shaped by events in the islands of New Guinea in 1942-45 and who feared that those losses and their aftermath in the lives of their families would be devalued and forgotten.
Thus writes Margaret Reeson in her Preface to the above book.
Masked Eden, A History of the Australians in New Guinea by Anne McCosker, was published, June 1998. The Foreword was written by John Leeuwin-Clark. Anyone with knowledge of the history of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea will know the above two surnames have some importance in that history.
Masked Eden was, as legally required, given to the National Library, Canberra, at the time of its publication. Soon afterwards copies were acquired and people aware of this book’s publication in libraries such as ANU, Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, Australian War Memorial - all in Canberra where Mrs Reeson lives. By the following year, 1999, there would have been few pre WWII Australian residents of New Guinea who were not aware of Masked Eden’s publication.
However Margaret Reeson stated September, 2000, she had not ‘sighted’ Masked Eden.1 Considering the claim she and Melbourne University Press (MUP) have made, offering their book to those whose lives were shaped by events in New Guinea during WWII, many might think this an unsatisfactory acknowledgement.
In A Very Long War, Mrs Reeson, discusses and dismisses my work in one paragraph, page 167. As she has chosen to do this in a published work I will now respond.
She first quotes one line from a letter I wrote to her while in Canberra, March 1995, telling her the [name]‘Montevideo Maru’ had ‘echoed throughout my childhood and ever since’ She has acknowledged receiving my letter of the above date in her NOTES. In this letter I also said that New Guinea Waits was in the National Library, Canberra, having seen it that day myself. She had previously implied in a letter, February, 1995, it was not there.
I suggested again – in this Canberra letter - she read this booklet. My first letter to her, February, 1995, also suggested she read New Guinea Waits. However in September, 2000, she stated she had not ‘sighted’ New Guinea Waits. There is obviously some confusion here as she quoted from it in her February, 1995, letter to me. She was interested in my comments about the ‘tragic consequences for the Australian women caused by the death of so many of the men of Rabaul.’ This was taken from my review of Chilla Bulbeck’s book, Australian Women in Papua New Guinea in the magazine ‘Una Voce’. AT BIRTH I HEARD THE DRUMS, the review in question, was from New Guinea Waits. A fuller extract of this article was later printed in ‘Una Voce.’ (Mrs Reeson and I were then members of the Retired Officers Association of Papua New Guinea whose magazine is ‘Una Voce.’)
After quoting the lines ‘echoed throughout my childhood ’ Reeson then writes the following, ‘as a young child she heard her father’s account, told with pain and passion’ This information she has taken from my poem THE TRACK TO MATALA. I enclosed a copy of that poem with a letter to her, September, 1995. Why could she not acknowledge this poem, called by Hank Nelson‘ timely’? I quote some lines from it.
[Stan McCosker ]
In Queensland he recorded facts
And passionately told
The anguish of that day.
I - a small child – heard.------
And I, heir to my father.-----
I hear the silence of those men
Bear the burden of their voices
Shouting in a void.
Margaret Reeson claims to be offering A Very Long War to people such as myself. She has given space to other lines of poetry. Why not to any of mine?
She has also ignored the prose material at the beginning of THE TRACK TO MATALA.
In 1976 John Gilmore wrote to the poet
Officialdom will never admit they refused to let these people leave Rabaul and virtually gave them to the Japs. They were non combatants and largely ancient… I suppose it was better for all of them to go at once than…(the families find out) they were whittled away over a long period.
Did she not think Gilmore’s words of any interest? John Gilmore is an important figure in any discussion on the Fall of Rabaul and the ‘Montevideo Maru’ controversy. If she had responded to that material I could have given her details of the quotation from John Gilmore. See Masked Eden. NOTES page 338. Chapter 13. Part 1. Note 3. She might also, if she had responded, kept in touch, and known of Masked Eden’s publication.
I return to Mrs Reeson’s muddled discussion of my work in A Very Long War. page 167.
She next gives a vague, inaccurate description of Masked Eden. Some of the information is taken from my two letters, mentioned above. Surely also some is from material printed in ‘Una Voce.’
The poem MEN OF RABAUL was first published in New Guinea Waits.
On the fiftieth anniversary of this [Rabaul] invasion, the poet placed flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey.
Fifty years fade into stone
That crafted arch by arch
Lead to an altar.
Time is silenced, distance inched
Spheres meet in vaulted order. -------
A sea of blue is red
I kneel now beside poppies
That guard a grave.
Yet my parents knew those men betrayed.
Did Margaret Reeson read this poem? She certainly had the opportunity to do so. Or did she brush it aside as of no value?
Towards the end of her paragraph regarding me, page 167, she writes: Anne McCosker believes that the perpetuation of the story of the ship is ‘a sick fairy tale’----. This is quoted from my unpublished letter to Quadrant (also enclosed in the letter to her, September, 1995). The words ‘a sick fairy tale’, taken out of context, give a very distorted picture of what I actually wrote. I quote now from this letter.
I agree with Carl Bridge when he writes ----. I would add that honesty about WWII is needed not only between Australians and Japanese but between Australians and Australians.
On the 1st July a plaque commemorating the men of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles was unveiled in Anzac Square, Brisbane . This plaque states, amongst other things , that the men’s final resting place is the hull of the Japanese ship ‘ Montevideo Maru’. It is not. ------
Throughout the 1970s I collected written and oral evidence from survivors of the Japanese occupation, liberators of Rabaul and New Guinea residents who returned there immediately after the war. Records in state archives also suggest clearly the men were not on that ship [the ‘Montevideo Maru’] For the first six months of this year  I again tried ---[to have] my evidence at least recognised by interested organizations and persons.----
To write out of hand, ignoring all the evidence to the contrary----
Whilst pleased ‘something’ has at last been done to recognise this, perhaps, greatest disaster in purely Australian history—that ‘something’ is only continuing the betrayal.----
No small group of people has any right to manufacture history to their own design. The leaflet distributed during that service has an element of a sick fairy tale about it. [Underline now added]
I said the LEAFLET had an element of a sick fairy tale about it. This leaflet credited the NGVR with such grandiose achievements (Few families connected with Rabaul knew beforehand of the service.) Can one not have a little more scholarly attention shown to written words, especially when dealing with such sensitive matters.
It is establishment figures – not private persons such as myself - that are dogmatic on the whole subject of the ‘Montevideo Maru’. It knows many of the men were certainly not on that ship when it was sunk. Why can it not say “we do not know what happened to most of these men. Let us place on our memorial plaques words such as ‘The manner of their death remains a mystery.’ ”
My short letter to Margaret Reeson that September, 1995, included the following words ‘ As you are doing a thesis on the subject and have been badly mislead in the past I think you should at least be given the chance to decide where you stand on the subject.’ Having written thus and enclosed several documents of interest, I find now she has misused them. She has also ignored my efforts to help her. One naturally wonders how much material in A Very Long War has been inaccurately recorded and information from knowledgeable people rejected if it did not fit into her designed thesis.
After her sick fairy tale Margaret Reeson then dismissed me from her thoughts and A Very Long War. None of my published work appears in her Bibliography. And in spite of telling me, September, 2000, that New Guinea Waits is mentioned in A Very Long War, I cannot find it. However she thanks me in her Preface! In view of the way she has treated my published work, information and material sent to her, I find this unfortunate . (I did not fill in her Questionnaire.)
I drafted a poem in Canberra during the days I was there in 1995.
In the 1990s academia allowed a little study on the Fall of Rabaul, 1942, and its ‘hostages to fortune’ inhabitants. The poet’s work of over 20 years continued to be ignored.
So all that suffering is to be
Tidied away in some degree.
It has been decided
Betrayal is fit for study –
But not by me.
Theses may be written
Books printed, published,
Facts brushed aside –
The dead about my childhood
They cannot be dismissed,
Live in my art –
Twice now expendable.
Any one interested can study my book Masked Eden and A Very Long War. They can judge for themselves the quality and quantity of the original, written material published in both books. They can see the amount of first hand material I have from the period under discussion - always of course the most valuable to a historian. For example there is first published in Masked Eden original material from three people who lived in Rabaul during the Japanese occupation. None of this is, of course, in A Very Long War. MUP have stated, September, 2000, they were previously unaware of the ‘existence ’of Masked Eden. Do they feel no responsibility towards their readers?
Those concerned to find out the truth about the Fall of Rabaul and subsequent events may also be interested to study the way Reeson and I have handled our material, in particular documents from state archives, for example, the facsimile on page 279, Masked Eden. This document is not mentioned in A Very Long War.
In her book Mrs Reeson gives a list of names, mine included, of people she has decided have researched the Fall of Rabaul and its tragic consequence. Page 110. One wonders what value there is in presenting a list of names such as that with no yardstick as to why they have been selected.
In the paragraph below this list she writes ‘each has assumed that they were the only ones interested in the subject’, This statement could apply to the writers of books published in the 1990s. Most of these people appeared to see the Mandated Territory of New Guinea as a means whereby they could achieve further academic or financial gain. (Could one perhaps include Margaret Reeson among these.) However none of these books were from the core pre WWII New Guinea families.
Reeson continues, ‘It also appears that families tend to be more likely to have read Scharmach or Mary Murray than historians Wigmore, Sweeting, Hasluck and Nelson.’ Who exactly did she have in mind when she makes that statement? If I was one of that number I suggest she read the NOTES in Masked Eden, all 35 pages of them, my SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY and RECOMMENDED READING. However I hazard a guess that many pre WWII residents have read her named historians.
Many ‘beforers’ knowing facts from personal experience and private information knew and know the inaccuracy of much academic work on the subject. So often mistakes are just repeated in the next book. Until academia finds the generosity to accept I do have valuable original material and am a historian and poet in my own right, they will continue regurgitating inaccuracies over and over again. Margaret Reeson’s and MUP’s ignoring of my work confirms ‘beforers’ suspicions.
I write this article well aware of what some readers might say. They may tell me I have missed the point of A Very Long War. Perhaps I have. But I do not believe anything of value; spiritual, mental, emotional, physical, can be achieved without basing it on facts. One has to understand the Fall of Rabaul before one can understand the controversy of the ‘Montevideo Maru’. Only then can one began to make sense of, and heal, traumas of a life time. Margaret Reeson’s book is continuing that trauma.
I give three examples from A Very Long War.
Page 17. In one paragraph Reeson has used material from both the Navy Dept. and the Managing Director of Burns Philp. The Burns Philp letter was sent to the Prime Minister’s office. It was eventually forwarded to the Navy Dept. Reeson quotes from the Navy Dept. reply of the 14th February [to the Dept. of Defence Co-Ordination ] and misquotes from Burns Philp. The Navy Dept. reply she includes states ‘as no one knew where any escapees might be located’. She does not quote the Burns Philp words, ‘it seems reasonable to suppose that they [escapees] would make their way to the South Coast of New Britain in the general direction of Wide Bay.’ See Masked Eden pp.209, 210. This was exactly what happened. There was much first hand knowledge available to would-be rescue forces. During this same period an unknown number of civilians and soldiers were murdered by the Japanese while waiting for rescue - in the Wide Bay area. See Masked Eden. Chapters 10. 11.
Readers may like to compare the two sets of NOTES. Masked Eden pp. 332,333. Chapter 11 Part 1. Note ll and A Very Long War p. 173. Note 14. Reeson gives the date of the Burns Philp letter as the Navy Dept. letter date. She gives no details for the Burns Philp letter. I used the documents to show just how out of touch and uninterested the authorities were, in regard to New Guinea, in early 1942. It apparently took over two weeks for any response to that most important of New Guinea companies, Burns Philp. Reeson has mishandled this material, brushing away one of the most contentious aspects of the Rabaul debacle.
Page 28. Reeson writes, ‘military intelligence collected information from each survivor as he arrived.’ [ in Australia after escaping from New Britain.] They did not. See Masked Eden. Chapters 10. 11.
Page 95. Reason writes ‘If the government had granted an inquiry into the events of Rabaul 1942, they would have been obliged to offer the same courtesy to the relatives of Australian victims of Timor, Ambon, --- Singapore, Malaya and other places’---. There is no comparison between the Fall of Rabaul and the loss of Australians in places such as Timor, or Singapore. Rabaul was under Australian administration, governed from Canberra. The other countries were governed by different nations from different capital cities. It would have been pointless having an inquiry about them in Canberra. These countries were not Canberra’s responsibility! Rabaul though was.
In the mid 1940s men such as Stan McCosker, John Gilmore, Keith McCarthy, Rombin, would have gladly testified. Gordon Thomas and John Murphy would have been questioned in open court. It was, and still is, a monstrous scandal there was no official inquiry into the Fall of Rabaul.
A Very Long War is based on a M.A. thesis supervised at ANU, Canberra. In this thesis/ book Margaret Reeson has ignored my published work and manipulated the material I personally sent to her. Was she trying to discredit me and destroy my reputation as a serious historian? See Masked Eden.
I suggest that the Canberra establishment to which Mrs Reeson belongs, is continuing to behave to those most involved in the Fall of Rabaul much as it has ever since 23rd January 1942. A Very Long War has not offered us anything. Words must have Truth to have any power or meaning. We may be a ‘wounded people’ but we will not be mocked and patronized by others, who, fearing facts, play with our history.
John Leeuwin-Clark has ended his Foreword to Masked Eden with the words. Anne McCosker has most fittingly dedicated Masked Eden to ‘All who have loved New Guinea’ and in their hearts and minds there will always be a memorial.
I suggest too that Australia will only face the facts of the Fall of Rabaul when it is understood what actually happened. In this respect the following poem may help.
Two WW1 veterans, and friends of many years, met for the last time on Namanula Hill the afternoon before the Japanese invaded Rabaul, capital of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, in 1942.
R.L. (Nobby) Clark, M.L.C., Chief Civil Warden, hoping to protect civilians left behind, formally surrendered them to the Japanese in Rabaul, 23rd January 1942. The manner of his death remains a mystery. Stan McCosker escaped to Australia. He, and many facts regarding the Fall of Rabaul, were for long ignored by the Australian nation.
I’ll stand and guard Australia’s soul,
You, Mac get away.
We’re surrounded by stupidity,
Australians should be told.
Years of work destroyed.
Our plans for Rabaul
Killed now by a few
Men who have no vision.
The army’s gone, the airforce too
Much of Administration.
Mac, you must leave,
Record all this confusion.
I’ll stand and guard our nation
In the dreadful hour before me
Some one must face these Japanese,
With pride and dignity.
Go, Mac, get away,
Remember what you see
Word this into the future,
Keep faith in Memory.
Were two men with one will,
For country and kin
On Namanula Hill.
1. In a letter to Anne McCosker.
Poems in this article taken from Witch Doctor published 2003.
Copyright © Anne McCosker 2000