IN OCTOBER, 2003 Julius takes Dad back to New Ireland to try to find remains of his granny Phebe Parkinson. They are met there by great friend Mick Kuerschner. The plan is to return to where they have been told Phebe was buried in 1943 after her death in a Japanese prison camp.Gordon had found the location when he and Dad earlier visited New Ireland for a plaque ceremony honouring those lost in WW2. Gordon had located an old man called Das Das, who had looked after Phebe’s grave for 60 years. It would turn out to be the most important discovery of our family history.
Julius wrote a little diary for the two days, October 24 and 25 and took photos. The first day was the finding Phebe .. and the second the erection of a plaque to forever commemorate the spot. Here are Julius’ thoughts and some of his pictures from those days and, soon after, at Kuradui cemetery where the family would return Phebe in January 2004.
An emotionally charged day.
Get up early in the morning, get packed, go to the Rabaul airport, check in and wait an hour.
Spend the hour worrying if everything going to work out? Forgot anything? Discuss the possibility of finding nothing, long silences.
Finally take off, anticipation building but soon forgotten, seduced by the scenery… volcanos all in a line on the left, small one puffing, blues and azures below contrast sharply with the lush green of the islands.
Again anxiety asserts itself as you are reminded of that grave in the jungle, waiting 60 years…..
Before you finish thinking, the plane banks and turns, lands. Mick, good old reliable Mick is there, with a car and shovels.
We want to go straight there but nobody sure of the road, go to Xavier’s get a guide. Go, go…
We find the place, park on the road, walk in between cacao and grass, houses, kids, women, some young boys. Das Das is dead, a month now, can see the disappointment. All now thinking..how will this affect things.?…who is in charge?….will agreement with Das Das stand?
Yes, no problem. Daughter of Das Das speaking, we have been looking after the grave…… “you can go ahead, over there, some young men to help”. Kids run off to find them..
We walk through the house-line clearings, notice a number of new buildings going up, through copra and cacao, some grass long, barely distinguishable path.. kids scamper, we follow. Constant chatter.
The grave is there, exactly as imagined. Aslight depression in the jungle floor, surrounded by green-tinged coral stones, everything damp…mouldering…a very tangible dampness…
No prayer is spoken but everybody has their few words with God privately. We tell Phebe we are there, to take her home.
We dig..and dig and dig…endless…all eyes on the next shovelful of ground, nothing…nothing….unbearable. Walk around a bit, drink water, go and see a man about a dog (Alf’s words)
Heart is getting heavy. New ground being dug where the feet should be so go back the other way, dig, dig, dig…. Where is Das Das with his confidence, with his “mipela plantim em long hia.?”
Suddenly something…what is it, dark…steel? No, timber. A little block, gingerly take it from the grave, look closely. It’s a bit of timber with brass door latch attached. Alf says door, they carried her to the grave on it, buried her on it.
Then some white pieces of ….yes it is bone, finger-nail sized pieces, soft..crumble very easily almost like ash, but very few, not what is expected.
Then a cross, green with time, bronze or brass. From the rosary beads says Alf, buried with them around her neck, like a necklace.
Then a small broch, like a butterfly or two leaves, and then …nothing. Why? how come? Where are the bones? Dig, dig…
Excitement, the skull !! Just a hole in the ground where it was bumped, hollow clearly shows, but again very soft.
It comes out in pieces, just like the other bone soft , crumbly, but definitely the skull.
We look and look, dig and dig more but nothing much else – some rusty nails, brass screws with bits of door attached, but no more bones.
We finally accept the obvious, Dust has gone to Dust, all gone, enough to allow us to affect a transfer of remains…very few but are all that remains.
Then a weight is lifted. We came and we did find what is left. Das Das was right and we found him at the right time.
In evening, we did not shower at the guest-house, we drove down the road to a spring, Halis Spring, and immersed ourselves in it, in the clear cool water
We washed away the dirt and sweat, the anxiety and the uncertainty.
Tomorrow will be a bright day.
Woke after a deep sleep, momentarily lost …but yes, Namatanai.
Feel happy, we have something of Phebe’s to transfer……. get up.
No water running, no power, bucket water to the toilet, brush teeth with bottled water- why do we stay here ? It is the only place in town, that sort of place.
The only good thing about the guest-house, it is across from the beach, Alf goes for a walk, stands on the beach and looks across the water, the low tide exposing the reef and familiar smells.
Alf is transported to Sum Sum, he is there again..
As he was last night. A young boy again, with Granny, her presence peaceful, comforting, safe. “Thankyou Alfred” she said, “I couldn’t find Kuradui before, but I can now”.
Was it a dream ? Can a dream be real? It was too vivid to be a dream…
Had a leisurely breakfast, no toast (no bread) but cake and miniature pikelets instead, nice paw-paw.
Went back to the grave, is it a grave now, still? All the Das Das line is there, small brother whitehaired and rheumy-eyed, looks very like Das Das.
Post with the plaque is planted, everybody gets their picture taken with it, small Elizabeth in front, hiding the plaque. Mick asks her to move in a funny way, the tension in the air disappears in peals of laughter from the children. Cannot help but feel Phebe is smiling, bathing in the laughter of young children.
Back under the fruit trees, the car in their shade, Alf thanks the Das Das line and gives some money to the daughter, to distribute accordingly, as a token of his appreciation for keeping Phoebe’s relics.
We depart waving, knowing we will never see that place again. We have what made it important to us.
Next, it was back to Kuradui to restore the Parkinson family cemetery (matmat), which was severely damaged by American bombers in raids on the Japanese occupiers. in WW2. The cemetery had been ‘lost” and ignored by decades. Julius and Mick and their Nawae equipment and workers slowly but surely restored the scared site.
The family – of which you are, and always will be, a special part of , Julius – will be forever grateful for your love and support of our Mum/Dad/Grandpa/nana, Alf and Mary Lou.
Thank you #8