The Retreat

The Track to Matala

Rabaul to Bita Paka, Kokopo between,
Shadows moving up and down
Men are walking fast.
Through Ralabang and Londip
Silhouettes are seen
Faces hurry past.
Footsteps must not falter
The enemies all round.
How long will this last?

Rain is falling, planes are curving,
Men stumble around trucks
Abandoned at the river,
Flotsam of an army
That fled leaderless with fear.
Old and sick civilians
Must escape as best they can.
Now the Warangoi to cross
Then Put Put and Matala.

All along that track, the track to Matala
McCosker sees his friends
Resting, walking, talking,
He pauses in his stride to say
"The Japs have landed mate,
We saw them at Kokopo,"
Then resumes his bushman’s pace.
For he must walk to Matala
Live to tell this tale.

In and out of palm trees
Forms gather, disappear,
Anger sweeping some along
Like fronds within a storm.
While others lean exhausted
Within cacao rows,
Office men uneasy
Amongst these dripping leaves.
No one seems to know.

McCosker, he is angry, desperately aware
The ‘old school tie’s’ to blame.
As he splashes through the Murrumbu –
No ‘puk puks’ ' here today,
Questions jump and jerk
In, around, his brain.
(He must fight rage with reason.)
Is it incompetence
Or calculated treason?

Here is Put Put House
Already men malarial
Lie along verandahs,
Others sit confused
Will-less to continue.
Rugenhaven empty
Kiap² and schooners gone.
But across the water, Matala
And McCosker’s home.

There Klearwat and Rombin wait,³
Watching white men run
And trample masta’s gardens as they go.
One Australian officer
Has already pulled his gun,
The labourers edge to panic
What is to be done.
Pym barks, the masta’s coming
Along the track that climbs the hill up to the bungalow.

Soon his ‘line’4 is listening
Masta ends all marked contracts.
"I will return" he tells them, "but now go bush at once."
He looks about and understands
Law has snapped before defeat.
His storerooms have been pillaged,
Rombin treated with contempt.
Complacency when terror comes
Turns instantly to chaos.

McCosker went from Matala.
He, my father, walked away
Long years of work undone.
His honour though untarnished
His spirit strong and free.
In Queensland he recorded facts,
And passionately told
The anguish of that day.
I – a small child – heard.
  1. ‘puk puk’ crocodile.
  2. ‘kiap’ patrol officer.
  3. ‘Klearwat and Rombin.’ Matala plantation overseer Rombin and his wife.
  4. ‘line.’ Gathering of the plantation labourers.

Extract from The Track to Matala, published in Witch Doctor by Anne McCosker, 2003



To Papua New Guineans who disappeared during the War against Japan.

Most were presumed murdered by the Japanese

In early February 1942 at Tol Plantation, New Britain, the Japanese massacred, some after torture, well over a hundred Australian soldiers and civilians. Native New Guineans were also tortured to death. In 1995 the poet read the WEBB REPORT that investigated this atrocity.

‘Beaten to death’ the records say
‘Kus Kus’, of Kokopo.
He might so easily have been
One of McCoskers’ staff,
Protected by the white man
Since his childhood days,
Trusting, trusted, unafraid.

Japan invades, Kus Kus stays,
Carefree and confident
He knows the white man’s ways.
A joke is shared, he helps, he guides,
As round the coast by Tol
Soldiers and civilians hide.
Kus Kus, with friends, remains.

The shooting and the tying,
The burning and the stabbing –
And the dying.
Brother of white men
Kus Kus is caught.
No photo though to frame
Kinship in blood.

Who could have visualized
Affection lead to this,
Or see how care would end
In broken bones and death.
Loyalty given, taken,
Between two races
Was used for devilment.

Peace - brave souls - Peace, Peace.

Published in WITCH DOCTOR, by Anne McCosker, 2003.

A detailed account of the Retreat can be found in  MASKED EDEN  chapters 10, 11 and associated notes.



 [Only infrequently does a particular date fall on a given day of the week.  This year, 2004, the 28th January falls on a Wednesday as it did in 1942.]

"Stan McCosker arrived in Cairns on Wednesday 28th January.  He had left Rabaul late afternoon of 22nd January.  This man in his early forties, who had fought on the Western Front in WWI and was still in theory in the NGVR, who had been a civilian coast-watcher at Matala, and whose plantation was on the direct route south for any fleeing army, was not interviewed by any Intelligence Officer in Cairns.  Yet some order must deliberately have held back his telegram to Marjorie for four days.  And he arrived in Brisbane – unable earlier to board a train south – seven days after he arrived in Queensland."

"On the same day, January 28th, that McCosker arrived in Cairns, a letter was written by the Managing Director, Head Office, Burns Philp & Co Ltd, Sydney, to the Secretary, the Prime Minister’s Department, Canberra:

As you would appreciate, we are very anxious regarding the safety of members of the Company’s Staff in New Guinea, particularly the staff at Rabaul branch.

We believe that the Government and Civilian population of Rabaul would endeavour to get away following on the landing of Japanese Forces, and it seems reasonable to suppose that they would make their way to the south coast of New Britain in the general direction of Wide Bay.

It was decided to address you and ask you to communicate with the responsible authority suggesting that something should be done to determine whether residents of Rabaul and the surrounding district did make their way along the coast, and if so, to ask that the situation be examined and that consideration should be given to ways and means of providing for their evacuation.

It is realised that some move such as has been suggested may have already been made and we shall be glad of any information..

This letter, with a memorandum attached stating ‘...I shall be glad to receive advice…’ was then sent on the 4th February to the DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE CO-ORDINATION, Melbourne. It was then ‘forwarded for urgent advice’ to the Secretary, Department of the Navy.

On 14th February, a SECRET MEMORANDUM was sent back to the DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE CO-ORDINATION.  It stated  ‘at the present moment it is impracticable to contemplate an expedition to evacuate civilians from New Britain."

Letter of Managing Director, Burns Philp & Company Ltd. 28/1/42.
Memorandum from Prime Minister’s Department, 4/2/42.
Memorandum from Dept of the Navy 14/2/42. Australian Archives, Victoria. MP 1049/5 File 1855/12/21.
Extracts from MASKED EDEN Chapter 11, pp 209, 210,  Note 11, pp 332, 333

If Stan McCosker had been interviewed by intelligence officers on 28th January in Cairns, he could have given them not only information regarding Rabaul, but also details of the whereabouts of escaping Australians, civilian and military.  This of course corresponded with the suggestions in the Burns Philp  Managing Director’s letter.  If the information from  these two sources alone had been correlated and acted upon, many Australians would surely have been saved.

The trip McCosker had made by sea-plane from Wide Bay, Tol, to Samarai could, if repeated even a few times, have rescued hundreds of Australians.

Of course, by 14th February, when a memorandum was finally sent back to the Dept of Defence Co-ordination, nearly three weeks after Rabaul was attacked, it was too late.  The men had been massacred at Tol, Wide Bay, and Japanese control over Rabaul and surrounding islands had consolidated.

Unfortunately the above material has been ignored or mis-handled beyond recognition in recent books, and the tragic consequences of this further incompetence unrecognized.


"Brisbane,  6th February, 1942

"Regarding the lack of wireless communications with Rabaul, we have learned per medium of Mr. F.J. McKenzie that a number of sending sets were in possession of Captain Denny in a Signal Truck, somewhere in the hills behind Kokopo, probably in the vicinity of TOMA and that these sets were discarded and thrown into the bush by Captain Denny without destroying same, although at the same time, heavy rain was falling and it is doubtful if the sets would be of further use. We have been informed that the Naval Section had instructions to open a station beyond Kokopo but it is known that no transport was available for this section, therefore the suggestion is offered that the Navy set was on the Signal Section truck."

"Perhaps the most serious aspect of the whole position was the breakdown of the R.A. Signals (the nerves of the army) who evacuated to the South Coast well beyond the possible battle area, many hours before any landing and discarded all the equipment.

"The Battalion Signal Section was ill equipped and under strength for the tasks they would have to perform to maintain communications. We were informed that the Force Headquarters was located at TOMA, many miles from the only armed party seen on the North Coast beach. 

"We, personally, on a number of occasions, supplied the Battalion ‘I’ Officer with information which he acknowledged was valuable but as action was seldom taken as a consequence we are of the opinion that possible higher formations did not appreciate the true value of the ‘I’ Section. We respectfully submit that with such a Force as was stationed at Rabaul there should be some trained operational Officers attached thereto who would be competent to dissect the information that is available from so many sources."

Extract from REPORT  6TH February  1942.  Written by A.J. Gaskin,  S. McCosker,  T.H. Targett.
Published in full in  MASKED EDEN   pages 202 to 207.



"In view of the present uncertainty as to the actual position on the Gazelle Peninsula, the suggestion is offered for what it is worth, that a small force properly equipped for speed and with a radio set, could penetrate into the jungle behind where it is assumed most of the civilians are sheltering and thus gain contact with the Army. It is thought that there would be little difficulty in obtaining at least six volunteers from among those members of the Territory of new Guinea Field Staff who are at present training in A.I. F. camps or are in Australia on leave form New Guinea. The majority of these men are young and all are experienced bushmen, having a thorough knowledge of the natives and are competent to converse with them."

"There are at least 60 civilians, who served with the 1st A.I.F. in the back country, probably inland from TOMA who we feel sure would not surrender whilst food was available and if food supplies last and they know they have not been forgotten, we express the opinion that the enemy will receive no assistance from that quarter. If some news, say regarding the welfare of their women folk, could be transmitted the morale of all there will be greatly improved."

Extract from REPORT  6TH February  1942.  Written by A.J. Gaskin,  S. McCosker,  T.H. Targett.
Published in full in  MASKED EDEN   pages 202 to 207.