The 75th anniversary of Victory in the Pacific (VP) Day on August 15, 2020 is tinged with tragedy for our family. We lost three wonderful women who starved to death in Japanese prison camps. Here is their story.
By Max Uechtritz
DREAD and foreboding gripped Carrie as she helped her loved ones onto a wooden schooner about to make a dash across New Guinea waters to escape the Japanese invasion in 1942.
As her son’s wife and infant scrambled aboard with other evacuees, Carrie took a stunning jade stone necklace from around her neck and thrust it in the hands of her daughter-in-law. In the mist of teary goodbyes, she explained it was for her baby granddaughter.
“Carrie” was Caroline Rosmina (Coe) Schultze of the pioneer American-Samoan Coe family and niece of the legendary sisters Queen Emma Forsayth and Phebe Parkinson who established the first plantations in New Guinea in the 1880s. As a teenager, she famously survived a tribesman’s tomahawk blow to her neck. But she wouldn’t survive WW2.
Carrie died of starvation in a Japanese prisoner of war camp near Namatanai on New Ireland on August 10, 1945, only five days before Japan surrendered unconditionally in what’s known as Victory in the Pacific (VP) Day in Australia and Victory over Japan (VJ) Day elsewhere.
The jade heart is a treasured memento for my cousin relative Carolina “Carol” Schultze, the infant girl on Namatanai wharf, New Ireland, that day in 1942 . It was remodelled as a brooch by her father, and Carol will wear it at a special Last Post at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra on September 6 to commemorate the surrender of Japanese forces at Rabaul.
“I never knew my grandmother, but she knew me. She would have held me in her arms for the first few weeks of my life,” said Carol yesterday.
“My mother and I were evacuated when I was six weeks old due to the advancing Japanese invasion force. My grandmother gave my mother the green jade heart to be given to me when I was old enough.
I treasure that jade heart, as I consider that it’s a tangible link between her heart and mine.”
VP Day and the campaign in New Guinea forever will be tinged with tragedy for our extended family – because three of our grand ladies perished in Japanese prison camps.
The timing of 64-year-old Carrie’s death in the shadow of war’s end was devastating enough. But her beloved older sister Ettie died in that horrid, historical limbo period between VP Day and liberation. In fact Ettie Juker, born Edith Active Coe, succumbed on September 2, 1945 – the very day of the formal Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. She was four weeks shy of her 70th birthday.
If the ailing Ettie had been able to hang on for another 12 days in the dank, canyon camp at Ramale in the hills behind Rabaul, New Britain, she would have had expert medical care from liberating Australian troops. Ettie and Carrie were my grandmother Dolly’s first cousins.
The third of our relatives to die under the Japanese was my great grandmother Phebe (Coe) Parkinson, the woman who raised my father Alf after his own mother left the family home.
This loss resonates deeply with Parkinson families descended from Phebe and Richard Parkinson’s three daughters Dolly (Uechtritz) , Nellie (Diercke) and Louise (Wrightson).
Like her Coe nieces, Phebe wasn’t evacuated in that period between the Pearl Harbour attack in December 1941 and the Japanese invasion of New Britain and New Ireland on January 23, 1942. Phebe elected to stay on and care for her grandson Rudi Diercke on the plantation he was managing. Men at that stage weren’t allowed by Australian authorities to be evacuated from the islands. Also like her nieces, Phebe was originally permitted by the Japanese to stay on her plantation for the first year after the invasion. Then fate intervened in 1943.
An American B-17 Flying Fortress was shot down and crash landed in shallow water off the beach of the plantation. Eight of the surviving airmen struggled ashore, where Phebe ripped up bedsheets and tended the wounded before a Japanese patrol boat arrived and captured them. The B-17 crew were fellow Americans. Phebe and Emma were born American citizens through their father, the US Consul in Apia, Samoa, Jonas Coe. Their mother Joana Le’utu Taletale was from the Samoan royal Malietoa family. Their brother William Coe was briefly the Governor of U.S. Guam. The Japanese commander would not have known their bloodlines but, angered by Phebe and Rudi helping the airmen, he marched them off to a prison camp holding members of the Chinese community and other nationalities.
Elderly Phebe deteriorated in the camp, despite the loving care of Rudi who occasionally found ways to secure for her some meagre rice portions from Indian POWs and fish from locals.
When Phebe died, aged 81, on May 28, 1944 she was buried in a jungle grave, her body strapped to a wooden door before being lowered into the ground clasping her rosary beads.
The location of the grave was lost for 60 years before my brother Gordon was taken to it by an old man in 2002. As a boy this fellow had helped bury Phebe and he had tended her grave ever since. Das Das died a month after reuniting Gordon and our father with Phebe. My father Alf Uechtritz arranged for Phebe’s remains to be disinterred and returned home to the Parkinson cemetery at Kuradui, near Kokopo in New Britain, in 2004.
Our father therefore honoured the recorded wish and vow of Richard and Phebe Parkinson to rest together forever in the soil of their beloved Kuradui plantation.
The deaths of the three Coe women in frightful conditions as prisoners in the land they had adopted was muted or lost in post-war grief by so many who had suffered. But Phebe, Carrie and Ettie had contributed and experienced so much in their six decades in what became a territory of Australia, then the proudly independent nation of PNG, that they deserve to be remembered.
As the late PNG historian, my Tolai friend Gideon Kakabin, used to say: ”Without the Parkinsons we would be strangers in our own land.” He was referring in that context to the anthropological endeavours and publications of Richard and Phebe Parkinson, especially the tome Thirty Years in the South Seas described as the quintessential chronicle of the people of the Bismarck Archipelago and other island locations. Danish-born Richard had his name attached to numerous books and articles for global science magazines, but he could never have written any of them without Phebe’s linguistic and translation skills.
Phebe, too, was as much responsible for the development of agriculture as was her husband. The Parkinsons formed a formidable trio with Phebe’s sister known as “Queen” Emma Forsayth to develop the famous Ralum plantations which dominated early New Guinea. Emma’s so-called empire of course was a diverse trading colossus.
Former PNG Prime Minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu has described the Parkinsons as “the Godparents of commercial agriculture” in his country. Richard introduced a virile strain of coconuts to New Guinea along with flora like the kapok tree and frangipani flower. He was the first person to grow coffee in the country and imported pigs, horses and cattle.
Hired to manage the then German New Guinea Company, he was one of the founders of Kokopo, the current capital of East New Britain province. Phebe’s generosity for and empathy with the local community is fabled and extended to adopting local children orphaned by tribal wars. A learning centre at Kuradui carries her name to this day .
Carrie and Ettie, too, were pioneers who contributed much to the development of the country through their work and industry on plantations. They had a third sister, Emma (Coe) Kapple who was also imprisoned by the Japanese. Emma Kapple survived the New Ireland camp but had to watch the no doubt slow and painful deaths of her sister and aunt.
The three sisters were virtually raised by their aunts Emma and Phebe. That’s because their father William Pritchard Coe had to suddenly escape New Guinea after an incident where he insulted the German administrators of the time. The Coe girls and various American-Samoan cousins and aunts became famous for their hospitality, parties and social activities. Queen Emma’s parties at her Gunantambu residence were famous throughout the South Seas. But the legends and photos of the time belied the tough reality of the era.
In 1902, a young Carrie Coe cheated death in extraordinary fashion at Varzin plantation near Rabaul. Carrie was visiting her young friend Mrs Wollfe when warriors attacked. Mrs Wollfe and her baby were axed to death in front of her. Carrie was knocked to the ground by the same attacker.
“With a back stroke he struck me with the weapon on the back of the neck and knocked me down, and as I was falling hit me again a great blow on the back of my head,” Carrie told a newspaper. “But fortunately, I had my hair in a knot, and it saved my life.” Carrie played dead and managed to creep to safety under the veranda and hid from the mob with the help of a loyal worker from the Buka tribe of Bougainville.
*as an historical side note, Varzin plantation was later owned by Tom Garrett, grandfather of Midnight Oils singer Peter Garrett. Tom was captured by the Japanese and went down with 1052 other men and boys on the Montevideo Maru prison ship in our nation’s greatest maritime disaster.
In 1918, Carrie and her husband Kurt featured in the wedding photo (below) of my grandparents Peter and Dolly Uechtritz at Kuradui. Carrie is at the far left. The Schultzes later moved to New Ireland where they ran the Lamangan plantation.
When war came, Carrie’s son H.L. ‘Bob’ Schultze – husband of Doris – figured in a notable escape. Using only a map torn from a National Geographic magazine , Bob commanded a group of New Ireland settlers and militia aboard a small boat called the Gnair, which dodged enemy patrols in a perilous dash across to the Solomon Islands and then Australia. There Bob met up with Doris and baby Carolina whose schooner had taken them to Rabaul and an escape flight on a Hudson bomber. The family settled in Canberra.
As mentioned, Carrie had decided to stay on New Ireland, along with her Aunt Phebe. Her sister Ettie did the same on New Britain. They felt as elderly women they were no threat to the Japanese and would be left alone in their adopted land. All went to plan – for a while.
Another of the Coe women – Lulu Miller – and my father’s half-sister Anna Uechtritz, then a child, were also interned at Ramale camp with Ettie. Both survived, though Lulu nearly died of ‘dropsy’, the condition brought on by malnutrition which affects the organs.
Ettie’s untimely death was mentioned in the memoirs of the former editor of the Rabaul Times, Gordon Thomas, himself a prisoner.
“As they laid (Ettie) to rest in the small cemetery at Ramale, the frailties of the world were brought home to me: the one-time belle of the islands – forty years ago – was now being buried a broken, old woman” – Gordon Thomas, author of Rabaul 1942-45: An account as a prisoner of war of the Japanese.
Ettie, too, will have a presence of sorts at the war memorial Last Post in September.
Her grandniece Dorothea (Doff) Schultze – younger sister of Carol – will take with her a locket that had belonged to Ettie and was passed down through the family.
Two sisters remembering two sisters: siblings who died separately on two islands, New Ireland and New Britain, in the space of weeks, without knowing the fate of the other or feeling their comfort, love or solace in their last moments.
A jade stone heart uniting them all 75 years on.