So close was the sibling love that in faraway Kenya Maggie Harris had ghastly dreams that her beloved brother Bob was murdered. Tragically her premonitions came true.
By Max Uechtritz
Our Uncle Bob Harris was a British spy in wartime Persia, murdered by tribesmen on the orders of a pro-Nazi commander who a decade later was installed as Prime Minister of Iran in a coup orchestrated by the CIA and MI6.
Robert Skipworth Harris worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the elite British spy network of World War Two. His job was to prepare tribal resistance groups in Persia (Iran) in the event of German occupation.
His brutal murder in August 1942 along with an Australian missionary and his 10-year-old son indirectly halted German plans to invade Iran and so changed history.
That’s because it was a catalyst for the “surgical” removal from the country of our uncle’s executioner: a man plotting and preparing the way for the Germans, the malignant Persian General Fazlollah Zahedi. He was spirited out of the country in a daring snatch-and-grab raid by British special forces. It was led by none other than the legendary Fitzroy Maclean, the founding SAS soldier who later became Winton Churchill’s personal envoy, parachuting into Yugoslavia to fight with Tito and the Partisans. Fitzroy Maclean also was one of the inspirations for James Bond.
Adding to the intrigue of it all, when Bob Harris and his group were ambushed in remote mountains, he’d been on a mission to recover secret documents from the wreckage of a Soviet aircraft carrying Americans and Russians and, almost certainly, matériel for Stalin’s war against Hitler.
If that reads like a potential gripping and complex movie script, it certainly is – albeit a dreadfully tragic and bitterly ironic one, given the later British support for the murderer General Zahedi.
For his tight knit family, his parents and 11 siblings it was heartbreaking to lose their Bob or “Skippy” as he was known. His murder has reverberated down through family generations. For my generation technically he was our grand uncle but has always been just Uncle Bob to us thanks to family missives from our mother Mary Lou Harris (Uechtritz). She was the daughter of Bob’s oldest sibling Gordon Harris, also an SOE member for a time. Bob’s sister Ruth Gell Harris also worked secretly at Station X , Bletchley Park, where Alan Turing broke the Enigma code.
Ruth was close to Bob, as was another sister Maggie. So close was Maggie that in faraway Kenya in early August 1942 she had premonition dreams of his murder by tribesmen. When she learned two weeks later that Bob had, in fact, been killed just as in her ghastly vision, this daughter of an Anglican minister railed against God and nearly lost her faith. More from Aunt Maggie’s memoirs later.
As this story unfolds it is also important to note the heartache and loss of the family of the other victims, Reverend Leslie Griffiths and his little boy Ian. We know a lot about the Griffiths family and this wretched assassination thanks to the research collaboration by a relative by marriage, Mark O’Brien, with my sister Maryann Uechtritz. Maryann (pictured) made a pilgrimage to Iran in 2010 to find Uncle Bob’s grave. She sourced Uncle Bob’s SOE file. Crucial detail on the murders and aftermath also comes from eminent British historian Adrian O’Sullivan in his book Espionage and Counterintelligence in Occupied Persia (Iran): The Success of the Allied Secret Services, 1941-45.
Robert Harris was called Bob by his family and Skipworth Harris by his SOE friends, hence the use of the latter in formal and historical reports. Bob had a degree in Oriental Languages from Oxford and was fluent in Persian after spending three years there from the age of 19. He‘d been working in the Malay Civil Service from 1931-1941 and served in the reserves there as a machine gunner and coordinator of plans against Japanese penetration. While in Malaya, he’d written of his ambition to serve in Persia.
The SOE didn’t need much consideration. Bob was signed up by what was known as ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ when home on leave from Malaya in 1941. Bob had been shipwrecked on the return voyage and suffered severe exposure before being rescued in the North Atlantic. His niece, my mother Mary Lou, was a schoolgirl of 12 and spent time with him during his recovery. “He was such a lovely, handsome man,” she’d say. She spoke of burns Bob had received when his ship went down. When fit, he was seconded by SOE and made an immediate impact during training.
On November 1, 1941, his SOE commander advised: ”Robert Harris is a highly intelligent and sound type of man. Has an active and enquiring mind. Obviously reliable and inspires the highest confidence as well as being physically tough. An agreeable personality is somewhat quiet in manner. He has entered into the training with evident zest and picked up the elements of demolition work and close combat very quickly. He is already an accomplished map reader.”
Bob was given the SOE identification code of D/N 14, and dispatched to Isfahan, with the cover of Vice Consul for languages in early 1942. Part of his mission was to raise guerrilla bands in the Feridan area for sabotage and counter sabotage during the expected German occupation. He spent seven months in the field doing just that.
That’s where he ran foul of the powerful malcontent General Fazlollah Zahedi, governor-general of Isfahan. Fitzroy Maclean, who would later kidnap Zahedi, wrote disdainfully of the future Iranian prime minister.
Zahedi had even been intercepted by British intelligence saying “it would be a good thing” if Skipworth Harris were killed in Bakhtiari country.
SOE intelligence (later) reported that, after Harris and his party left on their ill-fated journey, Zahedi had visited another pro-German commander in the area. They surmised that was when the ambush plot was hatched. That commander was military governor of the Fereidan region, Colonel Serhang Feruhar. He worked closely with Nazi agents Franz Mayr and Bernard Schultze. Their roles are well covered elsewhere by author O’Sullivan and others. But it was obvious they knew about the murders because it emerged later that, well before the British had even discovered the bodies of Harris and the Griffiths, their killings had been reported on radio in Axis capital Rome.
“Dear maggots….happier than in England”
In a letter posted to his sister Maggie in Kenya from Istfahan on April 17, 1942 Bob Harris was enjoying his Persia post so much he was even advising her about joining him there as a teacher at a girls’ school.
“There is an extraordinary attraction about this place, I really think the time I have spent here has been happier than any period in England,” he wrote.
Isfahan, 211 miles south of the capital Tehran, is the third biggest city in Iran. It was twice capital of the Persian Empire in the 16th and 18th centuries and possesses what some regard as the most beautiful collection of buildings in the Muslim world.
“I am finishing this at midnight on the verandah. The mosquitoes and frogs are deafening me. Every now and then a devout Mohammedoan raises a halloo to the skies. It really is the most attractive country, Bob Harris wrote.
The Church Missionary Society (CMS) had a college in Isfahan and that’s where Bob Harris was stationed as a 19-year for three years from 1926. He and a friend traversed the region on foot, once walking 356 miles in 17 days while climbing spectacular mountains as high as 18,000 feet. He knew the country, became fluent in the language and shared an obvious empathy with its people.
Sadly that counted little when it mattered most. The tribes were split in their allegiances during the war and Colonel Feruhar was known to have been handing out large cash incentives to tribal leaders for loyalty to him and the Germans.
The photograph here is courtesy of Mark O’Brien, the Griffiths relative by marriage, whose forensic research has added significantly to our understanding of what happened on that fateful expedition in 1942. His wife Kathy O’Brien is the granddaughter of Leslie Griffiths. Her mother was Joan, little sister of Ian.
The photo here shows Dr Leslie Griffiths and son Ian, both murdered with Bob Harris, the boy’s mother Phyllis and another sister Rosemary near Isfahan in 1940.
So, why was the doctor Leslie Griffiths and his son along with Harris when he ventured into the mountains? The search for the missing Soviet plane was only part of the trip. It was a hearts and minds journey to keep tribesfolk loyal to British and not join the German cause. Mark O’Brien, the Griffiths descendant in his superb, forensic research account, didn’t see it as strange in terms of the day and situation. Harris needed standing among the tribes, and what better way to help that end was to have a doctor “healing bodies along the way.”
O’Brien wrote that a document in Robert’s personnel file “acknowledges that the CMS had helped the SOE in Iran considerably. The fact that Leslie’s work would also have assisted Robert’s objective of winning over hearts and minds for the British would, I feel sure, have struck the two men as entirely congruent. It wasn’t a question of one using the other.”
Leslie was an accomplished surgeon, a medical missionary. He’d been in Isfahan since 1938. Little Ian was on vacation from Melbourne at the time. He had previously camped with his father in the Persian countryside.
The ambush happened in the Zagros mountains, an event of sheer ugliness in a breathtakingly beautiful setting. The historian Adrian O’Sullivan described it as “some of the finest mountain scenery Persia has to offer, below the perpetual snows of the spectacular Oshturan Kuh (over 4000m) about 48km east of Dorud.
The previous day Harris and Griffiths had located the crash site where Russians and Americans had perished earlier that year. The Soviet plane had been travelling from Basra in Iraq to Tehran when it disappeared.. The “Persia Corridor” was how the Allies were sending planes and armaments to Stalin and his Red Army for their death struggle with Hitler’s forces. The nine victims were given Christian burials and Harris retrieved documents, some “red coloured”, from the wreckage. Obviously.the SOE didn’t want them falling into the wrong hands. Little Ian Griffiths was kept back from the scene.
Next day, August 3, the party set off on horseback towards Dorud passing through Darreh Dozdan – which in Persian means “Valley of Thieves”. For this leg, they had picked up a new local guide, called Sayyid Murad Zahrai. He proved to be a traitor planted to aid the ambushers. Harris rode at the front with Griffiths behind him in front of his son. The servants and ‘caravanchis’ were further back with eight pack-donkeys.
The details of the ambush were provided by surviving servants, almost certainly left alive to tell the story as propaganda against the prestige of the British and a warning to others. Harris was shot first. The bullet passed through his leg into his horse and they both fell. Griffiths managed to fire off one shot from his rifle but was hit in the stomach. As he sat up on the ground, Harris was trying to pull out his revolver when the traitor guide Zahrai seized Griffiths’ rifle and shot him through the mouth. Presumably and hopefully, he died instantly. Little Ian jumped off his horse and scrambled under a bush. That was the last witnesses saw of him. Poor Ian’s last moments would have been terrifying.
Twelve days later a heavily armed cavalcade of horsemen, accompanied by a friend of the victims from the Imperial Iranian Bank, entered the valley. O’Sullivan writes that they found the corpses in a scene “as pitiful as it was hideous”.
O’Sullivan wrote in his book: “There, all three were shot to death in cold blood by a band of 200 Bakhtari tribesmen under Zahedi’s military control and probably bribed by Feruhar on Zahedi’s orders to ambush the British agent.”
British retaliation: ‘surgical’ commando extraction
The murders sent shockwaves through the country. Another SOE Vice Consul C.A. “Johnny” Johnson in a report wrote that “the whole of the region is waiting to see the reaction”. O’Sullivan’s investigation concluded: “The instigators were no doubt were none other than Zahedi and Feruhar”.There was no doubt the British blamed Zahedi for the the murders. If strong action wasn’t taken it would be highly detrimental to British prestige. Worse, more British lives might be lost. Zahedi might realise his stated ambition to “liquidate” the British Consulate. Under his auspices, Persians might aid and abet a German occupation.
The reaction came on December 7, 1942 with the surgical extraction of Zahedi. In what was to become the first a many famous covert operations, Scotsman Fitzroy Maclean was charged with carrying out the audacious kidnapping of the governor-general of Isfahan. He said that that the British spy bosses only gave him two conditions: “I was to take him alive and I was to do so without creating a disturbance.”
Maclean obtained and trained a platoon of Seaforth Highlanders for the operation. It went like clockwork. Zahedi was taken at gunpoint by Maclean in his home, whisked away in a British staff car and driven to a waiting plane. He was flown to exile and imprisonment in Palestine for the duration of the war. The German invasion of Persia never eventuated. Maclean reported that at Zahedi’s home he found a cache of German automatic weapons, correspondence with a Nazi agent, opium, silk underwear and an illustrated register of prostitutes in Isfahan.
Maclean was dubbed the ‘Kilted Pimpernel’. He’d visited Zahedi under the guise of paying his respects. Little wonder that Ian Fleming freely admitted that he partly based his James Bond novels on the martini-drinking debonair and dashing Maclean.
But five years later Zahedi was back in charge of military in Southern Persia, then became chief of national police in 1949 and Iran’s Minister of the interior in 1951. America and Britain didn’t like that Iran’s prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq had pro-communist leanings. The two powers plotted the return from exile of the Shah of Iran.
The New York Times reported that:
“Britain, fearful of Iran’s plans to nationalise its oil industry, came up with the idea for the coup in 1952 and pressed the United States to mount a joint operation to remove the prime minister. The C.I.A. and S.I.S.the British intelligence service, handpicked Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi to succeed Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and covertly funneled $5 million to General Zahedi’s regime two days after the coup prevailed.”
Few, if any, noted the breathtaking cynicism of the British government to ignore Zahedi’s wartime venom.
It was left to the likes of historian O’Sullivan to condemn them, and the man who ordered the murder of Harris and the Griffiths in 1942: “It is of course scandalous and deeply ironic that, barely ten years later, after overthrowing the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddeq in a now notorious coup orchestrated jointly with the CIA, essentially to protect Anglo-American oil interests, the British Secret Service (MI6) nominated none other than the murderous , anti-British Fazlollah Zahedi to succeed Mosaddeq as Persian Prime Minister”.
“One of those people on whom a fairy godmother seemed to bestow all her gifts”
The Harris family, as mentioned, was a large one to Reverend Charles Harris and wife Mary. Various of the 12 children served in the armed forces or secret agencies. They roamed the globe and all corners of the British Empire for adventure or work. Several landed in Kenya including Maggie who married a man called Dudgeon. She had a fascinating life worthy of its own book. The following extracts are from her short memoirs. The early family photograph below shows Maggie and Bob circled.
Maggie was born in 1902, five years ahead of Bob, but they obviously had a special bond.
“Bob was one of those people on whom a fairy godmother seemed to have bestowed all her gifts. He was tall, handsome, very gay with a great sense of humour, had an extremely good brain and was a born linguist and good sportsman.”
Maggie wrote that Bob’s headmaster thought so highly of his potential that he offered to pay half his fees to Oxford.
“But unfortunately Bob came in the middle of the family and there were still many to educate and finances were critical. However, by his own enterprise and initiative, after many interesting jobs which took him to Persia, India and Malaya, he managed to pay his own fees for a course at Oxford, and from there got a post in the Diplomatic Service.
It must have been about 1942 during the second world war, I had a very vivid dream one night. I saw Bob being killed by tribesmen up in the hills. It was so vivid I got out of bed and knelt down to pray for his safety, but I had the strange feeling that my prayers had not got through. So I went back to bed and being very tired fell asleep, when I was again woken by the same dream. Again I got out of bed and again had the same feeling that my prayer was not heard. It was like hitting a stone wall. Three times this happened.
It was just a fortnight later that a cable arrived telling us the sad news. The reason for delay was that there had been some confusion over names in the head office and the information had gone to the wrong address. Anyhow the first intimation that Father had of the tragedy was when a friend rang him up to say how sorry he was to read Bob’s obituary notice and account of his life in the Times, which described his career as ‘brilliant’ and said that he had the potential to obtain possibly a governorship one day.
When the news came through I was stunned. I just could not believe it. It was a damp drizzly day and I remember going out into the grounds, wandering round and literally to my shame railing against God, pouring out loud my bitterness and anguish that he who said he was a god of love and loved us could allow such an evil thing to happen. I never realized till then how weak and fragile a thing my faith was. I felt it could not stand the shattering blow.
How could a God who called himself a God of love and us his children, let such an evil thing happen? Did he not really care, and so I poured out my doubt and distrust and in a shameful denial of him in my bitterness.
And quite suddenly all the anger, bitterness and hatred left me and I just had a wonderful sense of peace. My faith and trust were restored, and then there came to me a lovely feeling that not only was Bob alive but very close. I could not see him but could feel his nearness, just as one cannot see the wind, but one can feel its might and power and reality. I knew without doubt that Bob was indeed alive and in God’s hands. Then a strange thing happened. I do not know how to describe it. He seemed to pervade my life. I found myself thinking in a way he would have thought, not as I would have thought. I saw in the movement of a hand holding a tennis racquet, I heard him in a voice, even the wind blowing gently through the grass as if caressing it, it was as if he was there. Again and again in hundreds of different ways it happened during the next few months, I cannot tell how long. Gradually it faded away but it left me with the peaceful certainty of a life full of meaning after death.
It caused me to wonder if those we love who have gone on, sometimes stay near us for a time on this earth before going on to fulfill God’s plan for them for a future life.
Robert Christopher Skipworth Harris was obviously a special person. Adored by his family, greatly admired by his SOE colleagues and universally respected for his own respect for other cultures and peoples, he was devoted to service no matter the risk. His file shows that, not long before his death, he’d asked to be posted to Russia to join guerrillas behind German lines. In fact he was supposed to meet a Russia-based SOE comrade at the last stop planned for his last trip, a town called Durud.
Bob Harris never married but it was written that he was involved with “a spectacular Persian woman” in Isfahan.Who knows what our cousin lineage would have been if he’d survived the war. We’re so glad Maryann got to his lonely grave in Isfahan and add a photo memento from Mum. It was almost certainly the only such visit from family since 1942.
This blog is to honour his memory and that of my mother Mary Lou (Harris) Uechtritz who ensured her 10 children knew about her beloved hero Uncle Bob. She was determined that his life should not be lost in history. The photo below shows Mum at the age she last saw ‘Skippy’, not long before he departed for Persia (Iran).
By Max Uechtritz
They were the golden bears of a golden era of Queensland Country Rugby League yet recorded history of the game sells them short.
The Burleigh Bears 1979 premiership team boasted individuals who mixed and matched it with the finest players in the game – in Sydney and Brisbane and in a national competition.
They were Garry Thomas (Parramatta, Brisbane Wests), George Moroko (Wests, Cronulla, St George), Peter McNamara (Cronulla, Brisbane Brothers) and Ralph Michaels (Penrith, Brisbane Norths). They were coached by Brisbane Norths legend and former Devils skipper Eric Lilley.
Moroko and McNamara while playing for the Bears were members of the 1979 Queensland Country team which defeated three Sydney clubs – Parramatta, Norths and Newtown – in an extraordinary run to the finals of the national AMCO Cup competition. QLD Country were narrowly and controversially beaten 8-5 by a star-studded Brisbane side in their semi-final. Brisbane’s line-up included the names Lewis, Meninga, Close and Lang.
After finding some old clippings in a box and keen to have a nostalgic trip down memory lane, I tried the internet only to find league’s rich history of the era had a poverty of online records. This blog is an attempt to rectify that in a small way. More later on the other players in the Bears of ’79 but firstly some background on those named above, including Thomas whom I once profiled in Rugby League Week.
Garry Thomas starred for Parramatta in the 70s era that produced many of the greatest names in league. It was pre-Origin when Sydney clubs bought up all the talent in the country, so the annual representative clashes between Sydney and NSW Country were like trials for NSW and Australia. In that environment Thomas was elected in a Sydney Seconds side that boasted nine players who had played, or would play, for Australia.
They included Billy Smith, Max Krilich, Terry Randall, Geoff Starling, Johnny Mayes, Ken Maddison, Bill Hamilton, George Ambrum and Gary Dowling, who would also saddle up for the Bears in 1982-83. The team photo below shows Thomas in rare company. I hope to write separately about Dowling, tragically killed in a car accident coming home from a Bears game against Beaudesert.
Garry Thomas would move to Brisbane and play in the glamour Wests Panthers sides which won the 1975 and 1976 BRL premierships.
He would also figure in the Brisbane representative team which soundly defeated England 21-10 at Lang Park in July, 1975. Again, this momentous victory against the powerful English team which actually drew 10-all with Australia in their World Cup encounter a week earlier, has somehow escaped historical records. The team photo below shows Garry in company of the likes of John Lang, Harry Cameron, Lew Platz, Greg Vievers, Des Morris, Geoff Richardson and Nev Hornery. It was virtually a QLD state side.
George Moroko would go on to captain the Cronulla Sharks in the early 1980s but it was his year with the Bears in 1979 that put him on the map playing for the Gold Coast rep team and the Queensland Country side which beat three Sydney teams (above) in the AMCO Cup. Yet google search entries on his name omit his Burleigh year. The below photo of him in Burleigh colours was in a clippings box my mother kept which I found in her effects only recently. Yes, time to declare I also played for the Bears in 1979 until a late-season injury that ended my career. I also shared a flat with George which is why I also know that only a couple of years earlier he had played in the Western Suburbs Under 23 team which won the Sydney premiership under the great coach Roy Masters (far right in second photo below).
When Burleigh saw Nerang Roosters recruit a number of stars from Brisbane Brothers and win the Gold Coast premiership the previous year 1978, Bears officials like Pat Toomey went about bolstering the Bears, not just with the likes of Thomas, Peter McNamara (Brothers) and Moroko (Tweed Seagulls). Other local players like hard hitting second rower John Grossi came across from the Surgery Paradise Pirates. Grossi represented the Gold Coast and was as tough as any player I ever came across. And it was the powerful Moroko-Grossi second row combination that shone right from one of our very first games, a match which augured well for the season.
That game was a pre-season trial against the glamorous Sydney Easts side captained by ‘Immortal’ Bobby Fulton. Burleigh shocked the Sydney Roosters by going into the half time break comfortably ahead thanks in part to two tries from the same subterfuge set move featuring Moroko, Grossi and five-eighth Jim Clancy. The second of those was a moment I’ll never forget as George and John came away laughing and incredulous that the Sydney stars had fallen for their ruse a second time. I can’t find the score online but from memory four decades on, Fulton came on and Easts snuck home by one or two points. For the record we won the after-game Moreton Bay Bug eating competition thanks to McNamara!
George’s season with the Bears didn’t go unnoticed and he was signed by Bob McCarthy, the new coach of Brisbane Souths Magpies. The Magpies lost a thriller of a grand final that year 17-15 to Norths and George was snapped back up by his old Sydney team Wests. He played there in 1981-82 then switched to Cronulla for 1983-84 playing 25 and 21 games respectively in those seasons. He was a highly respected captain of the Sharks. George also had some games for St George in his final year in 1985.
As the RLW photo file says, Peter McNamara was a big fella who learned his craft at Brisbane Brothers under David Wright and Bob Cock then flourished into a leader of the pack. Peter was captain of the 1979 Burleigh Bears and led by example throughout. He played for the Gold Coast rep side then, as mentioned, in that amazing QLD Country side in the AMCO Cup that year. To knock over Newtown, North Sydney and Parramatta in succession is an amazing feat and had to come from forward domination. McNamara was central to that enforcer role along with Australian second rowers Greg Platz and Rohan Hancock, George Moroko and fellow Gold Coaster and future Test hooker Jay Hoffman (Southport). In the backs were stars like Colin Scott and Alan Smith along with Nerang’s Ian Dauth.
They were coached by former Queensland, NSW and Test star centre John McDonald who went on the coach Queensland in the famous first State of Origin in 1980 and become one of the game’s leading administrators.
McNamara had three seasons with Cronulla (1981-83), playing under coaches Greg Pierce and Terry Fearnley and alongside Steve Rogers , Gavin Miller and Dane Sorensen.
Big Ralph Michaels – as he was always referred to – came to Burleigh after playing first grade in Sydney (Penrith) and Brisbane (Norths). Ralph was good friends with coach Eric Lilley after their stint together with the Devils. Sadly, both men have passed away. Until being injured, I was lucky to play alongside Ralph in the Burleigh centres for a time or on the wing if Mick Toomey played centre. We swapped around. Ralph and Mick would be the mainstay centre partnership in the finals series and grand final. He played for the Gold Coast and won another premiership with the Bears in 1982.
The man who brought out the best in his handful of imported players and locals including Bears juniors was coach Eric Lilley.
When he died his old club posted a touching tribute which would resonate with the Burleigh club: “Eric Lilley, a champion winger and a champion bloke. Toowoomba born, the Wynnum Manly junior was conscripted into the army and saw service in Vietnam in 1967. He played five seasons of first grade 1970-74, played finals footy in all four of those years (the breathtaking 1970 grand final was a highlight) never missing a top grade game in that time. He played two Bulimba Cup games 1971-72. In 1973 he was appointed the Devils’ skipper. He scored 57 tries. You wouldn’t meet a nicer bloke.”
Eric had an easy manner as a coach which belied his great experience and clever footy brain, characteristics which meant his players would jump through hoops for him. The shot below, supplied by his daughter Jane, shows his sheer elation at winning a game. Perhaps it was moment the Bears sealed the grand final, beating Nerang 16-2. The man with the dark hair celebrating on his right is team manager and great Bears character Pat Toomey. His son Mick is a current day board member of the Burleigh Bears Leagues Club.
The grand final featured tries by classy centre Mick Toomey and flying winger Brian Beazley and five goals to Garry Thomas. Remember, tries in those days were only worth three points. Beazley was a true winger, gifted with extraordinary, pure speed and a great step. When he got a sniff of the line it was almost impossible to stop him. Archie Moore on the other wing was speedster as well and a tall man hard to tackle. I seem to remember him scoring five tries in one game for the Gold Coast at some stage in following years.
One of Burleigh’s best all season – and one of the best of that era on the Gold Coast – was the nuggety five eighth Jim Clancy. He was as tough as they come and extremely talented to boot. He played rep footy for the Gold Coast but could have gone on the even higher honours except that rugby league came second for Jim to his work. From memory he was a dairy farmer and would turn up to training after a 12 hour physical working day.
Mark Newman was a tough-as-teak forward who just never stopped working. He reminded me in that sense of “Mr Perpetual Motion” Ray Price. Mark and I had played together at Nerang the previous year and so it was two successive grand finals and premierships for him. Lock Paul Bugler, hooker Lee O’Neil, Chippy Duncan, John ‘Guru’ Gorry , Gary Adamson and Wayne Homer were other Bears stalwarts along with two blokes who were the essence of the club – Terry Toloa and Joe Tangata-Toa.
No matter where you put Terry or Joe – from front row to winger – they did the job and then some.
As mentioned here and in a previous blog on Mick Argeros who captain-coached Nerang Roosters 1978 premiership team, the lack of available historical record of that era led me to dust off the archives and delve into new ones. Short on money but long on talent, club spirit and organisation, Queensland country teams of that time were helping lay the foundation of the high octane years of dominance by Queensland in the State of Origin.
I hope that pieces like this draw out other photos and stories to recognise the players, coaches and administrators who made silk out of the proverbial sow’s ears.
Meantime a few more relevant images.
***MANY THANKS TO GARRY THOMAS, THE BRISBANE LEAGUE OLD BOYS (FACEBOOK PAGE BLOBS) AND IAN COLLIS AND DAN’S COLLECTABLES AND GETTY FOR SOME IMAGES USED HERE. CREDIT TOO TO STEVE RICKETTS WEBSITE.
*Hopefully one in a series of League Lookbacks, by Max Uechtritz
When you are coached by two of the greatest names in Rugby League, then the odds are that some of their magic will rub off on you – and it did with Mick Argeros who hoisted four premiership cups as captain-coach.
Clive Churchill. Harry Bath. Not a bad couple of mentors. Both legendary players and coaches. The ‘Little Master’ and ‘Immortal’ Churchill coached Argeros in the Gold Coast representative team and Bath did the same at Brisbane Souths. Mick Argeros was probably best known in Brisbane and Gold Coast league circles as captain-coach of one of the strongest ever country club sides, the star-studded Nerang Roosters team of 1978. It included Australian Test forward and UK Challenge Cup winner David Wright and two players who represented Queensland – from Nerang – that year, Ian Dauth and Bob Cock. That trio had walked out on Brisbane Brothers over contract disputes and, along with highly-regarded Brothers teammates John Short, Glen Frahm and Chris Ryan, joined Nerang at the beginning of the 1978 season.
Mick had been appointed to lead the Roosters well before those headline-grabbing signings. He told me in a video I produced for the 40th anniversary of that Roosters premiership – and again recently – how daunting it all was to suddenly be in charge of the Brisbane stars. But it was a measure of his maturity as a person and player-coach to quickly earn the utmost respect and loyalty of the newcomers. To me – a barely-20-years-old centre recruited by the Roosters from Gold Coast rugby union – Mick had seemed very much like a seasoned veteran way back then. I was bowled over this week when he told me he was only 25 at the time!
One of the first games we played had Mick butting heads with another legend of the game John Brass. A dual union and league international and Australian league captain, Brass was captain-coach of Tweed Heads Seagulls. Our pre-season knockout clash was only three years after Brass had starred with two tries in the famous 38-0 Sydney grand final rout of St George then skippered the Kangaroos in the 1975 World Cup match against New Zealand. Our clash with the Seagulls was closely fought with Brass’ team prevailing thanks largely to his massive boot continually getting the Seagulls out of trouble off their own line.
The Roosters went on to beat the Tugun Seahawks 26-5 in a tough grand final but the season was no cakewalk. The Gold Coast competition was strong, peppered with former and future representative players. Mick’s opponents as captain-coaches included former Canterbury and North Sydney star Peter Inskip (Southport Tigers), former English, Manly and North Sydney half Graham Williams (Burleigh Bears) and the tough and experienced NSW country player John Johnson who led Tugun to the grand final in their inaugural season. Former international David Wright says that the 1978 Nerang Roosters side was capable of winning the Brisbane premiership. That in itself reinforces how strong was the Gold Coast league in that era, given how most sides tested the Roosters during the season.
Mick was picked in the Gold Coast representative team and that’s where he was coached by Clive Churchill. Mostly remembered as an ‘Immortal’ and the fullback in the Team of the Century, Churchill was also a great coach. He took South Sydney to four premierships from five grand finals and coached Australia and Queensland. He steered the Maroons to a rare pre-origin series win over New South Wales. Apart from his football nous, Mick remembers a humble Churchill being central to team spirit and culture. On a personal side note, I was thrilled when The Little Master came along and coached our Gold Coast Colts rep side that year.
Mick moved back to Maryborough in 1979 – and immediately won another premiership as captain-coach. It was his third title and second with Maryborough’s Western Suburbs. He’d coached the 1976 premiership team as a 23-year-old. The team photo (below) shows two teammates with big futures, Bob Kellaway and Brad Backer, who both went on to play State of Origin for Queensland. Flying winger Backer was in the Maroons’ fabled first origin team in 1980.
While playing in Maryborough, Mick played for the Wide Bay Bulls representative team and was to figure in one of the greatest boilovers in the new State League competition in 1982. He scored the winning try in the 17-16 win over Mal Meninga’s Brisbane Souths. League journalist Steve Ricketts (whose website is a must for league fans) recorded the wrath of the Magpies coach, legendary Bob McCarthy who was quick to blame the referee (see below). SA highlight for Mick was that this game was the only time he got to play against his young brother Bill, pictured.
Mick wasn’t finished with winning premierships. In 1987, now aged 34, he nabbed his fourth when his Rovers team took out the title. In a small twist his opposite number that day with the Brothers team was former Wallaby prop Tony Darcy. Way back in 1978 Mick and a young ‘Darc’ had played one game together in that Nerang Roosters team. It was after Darc’s UK tour with the famous Australian Schoolboys rugby union team featuring the Ella boys and Wally Lewis – and before him joining Brothers and going on the win Wallaby honours. Darc and I had played together in an Under 19 premiership win with the Gold Coast Eagles and he joined me for that one game as my centre partner against Tugun. He must have used a ‘Micky Lane’ type pseudonym given union was amateur in those days. The photo below shows us both with Greg Wilkins looming. The other is of Mick’s Rovers premiership team.
Mick obviously took a lot from the likes of Churchill and Bath, who he played under at Brisbane Souths. Bath had coached Australia to World Cup glory twice (1968/1970), won two premierships with St George (1977/1979) and also coached Balmain and Newtown. Mick showed his willingness to learn even on the eve of the 1978 grand final when he brought legendary Queensland coach Bob Bax into the Roosters camp for some sage advice.
That anecdote – which Mick also told in the 40th anniversary video – and others in this blog says a lot about Queensland rugby league in that era. It was collaborative. It was robust, full of mavericks and stars of the day and of the future. It was the foundation of Queensland’s soon-to-be dominance in State of Origin. The country leagues may not have had shiny stadia and facilities but were punching above their weight. The best example of that is Queensland Country’s incredible performance in the 1979 Amco Cup, when they beat in succession three Sydney clubs (Newtown, Norths, Parramatta) before just losing their semi-final 8-5 to a star-studded Combined Brisbane. When I say stars, think Wally Lewis, Mal Meninga, Chris Close and John Lang for starters.
Sadly, there is very little digital footprint online about those years. Histories are being lost or forgotten. When I came across a box in the garage with some yellowing clippings from the years I played for Nerang and Burleigh, it led to nostalgia and a bit of unsuccessful googling about some of those big names who made such an impression on me. I was just a kid and my career was short thanks to a crippling knee injury, but even at the time I knew how lucky I was to rub shoulders with the likes of the people mentioned in this blog. When you found references to men who’d played at the highest levels in Sydney – like Inskip and Burleigh’s Garry Thomas, George Moroko, Ralph Michaels and, later, even Test star Gary Dowling- there were zilch mentions of their Gold Coast careers. Ditto for many who’d been top of the tree in the Brisbane competition. So, while I have a little time over the Xmas period, I’ll attempt to put together a few League Lookback blogs to redress that in a very minor way.
Meantime, a few more photos from Mick Argeros’ 1978 Nerang Roosters and the excellent players they took on.
*note by Max Uechtritz: The story below is not mine. It was written in 1954 by adventurous Australian Womens Weekly journalist Dorothy Drain. I just happen to be doing a short film on Drain as one of Australia’s first women war correspondents (Korea, Malaya, Vietnam). I stumbled on this article during research – and was amazed and delighted at the number of wonderful, familiar New Guinea characters in it. She writes how she forged the raging Erap River on a horse to get to our old friend and Markham valley neighbour Tommy Leahy’s place(we then lived at Erap). How she came across the great WW2 ace Bobby Gibbes DSO DFC and bar and his family along with Brian “Black Jack” Walker. Also legendary pioneers like Doris Booth and George Greathead, whose son Dennis was an old school friend. George featured in the escape from Rabaul after the Japanese invasion. Other interviewees include world famous salvage king Johnno Johnstone and goldfields identities Jack Wilton and Terence Powell. It’s all too good not to share with the many people who knew these characters or at least their stories.
Story below written BY DOROTHY DRAIN
One of the things that people often say to journalists is, “You must meet such interesting people.”
In New Guinea it happens to be true. That is because the Territory is still an adventurous country, peopled by adventurous men and women.
Some of them are “Befores,” the Territory label for those who were there before the war. Some, as servicemen, saw the country under the worst conditions, but realised its possibilities and returned.
And some are newcomers looking for wider horizons.
I met all three types one afternoon in the Markham Valley. The newcomer was tall, fair-haired young Tommy Leahy.
A nephew of the celebrated Leahy brothers, explorers and goldminers in New Guinea. Tommy was a schoolboy on the Darling Downs, Queensland, when parachutes were dropping into the now-peaceful valley; when the great Nadzab base there, now head-high in kunai grass, swarmed with Americans and Australians.
Tommy, whose wife and their new twin babies, boy and girl, are due to return soon from Australia, has a rice crop which could put him on his feet. (*twins Peter and Anne, longstanding Uechtritz family friends)
If it doesn’t come good, he says cheerfully, he’ll have to get a job working for some-one else.
The ex-serviceman was Bill Robertson, a New South Welshman who served as a commando in the hills over-looking the valley where he now manages a 5000-acre Gov-ernment livestock station. To-day cattle graze there in green paddocks that could be Australia were it not for the native stockboys.
His wife is a “Before.” She was the widow of a former Administration official when she and Mr. Robertson met at Alice Springs after the war.
To visit the station we had crossed the stony, seven-knot Erap River on horseback. This, as I hadn’t been on a horse for ten years, seemed pretty adventurous to me.
However, a seven-months old baby made the crossing too. The baby’s mother, fair skinned, red-haired Mrs. Jack Lamrock, wife of an agricultural officer, took it as a matter of course. A few years ago, she told me, she waded several miles waist-deep through water to her first home in the Territory.
New Guinea is that kind of country. It is not for softies.
In towns such as Port Moresby and Lae, when you sit in pretty homes over tea, you soon find’ that many of the smartly dressed women have had their share of isolation in the outposts.
It is a country full of people who ought to write books.
You hear stories all the time, tales of the old days, of wartime, and diverting snippets such as that of the man up in the wilds who had been told by his doctor to eat vege-tables for his eyesight.
So he ordered, by telegram, a case of carrots.
‘”Absurd mistake in transmission,” thought the addressee, and forwarded a case of claret.
Some people, of course, have written books. One of them is Mrs. Doris Booth, perhaps the best-known woman in the Territory. Her “Mountains, Gold, and Cannibals,” published in the ‘thirties, told of her experiences as the first woman on the Bulolo goldfields, back in 1924.
Mrs. Booth now lives at Wau. I met her, a fair-complexioned pretty woman, at a dinner party in Lae. She was on her way to Port Mores-by to the meeting of the Legis-lative Council of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, of which she is a member.
At the same partv was Mrs H. R. Niall, wife of the District Commissioner for the Morobe district, of which Lae is the headquarters. Twenty four years ago, when Mrs. Niall accompanied her husband to Gasmata on the island of New Britain, she was the first white woman there. For the first six years of her ma-ried life she didn’t see another white woman except when she went on leave.
At Goroka, administrative headquarters of the Eastern Highlands, I met a concentrated bunch of celebrities, most of them growing coffee.
Jim Leahy has a place there. So does J. L. Taylor, who, with another patrol officer, made the first patrol through the area in the ‘thirties. Both Mr. Taylor, and Mr. George Creathead, who succeeded him in charge of the district, retired from the Administration to grow coffee.
George Greathead laid out Goroka. When he handed over the district in 1952 to Ian Downes there were only nine houses. Now there are about 70 timber houses set in bright gardens in this little township in the Asaro Valley, five thou-sand feet up and an hour’s flight from Lae.
It is a pretty place, surrounded by high ranges, and its pleasant climate gives it a dream-like quality after the steamy heat of the lowlands.
Everything’ in Goroka, from the materials for the huge, newly completed Department of Civil Aviation hangar to the regular bread and meat has to be flown in from the coast.
Maybe that’s why there is such a high percentage of ex-pilots among the Highlands coffee-planters.
Across a ravine from the little hotel where I stayed is the plantation of Jerry Pentland, famous pioneer Territory pilot.
Up the road lives Bobby Gibbes (D.S.O., D.F.C. and Bar).
His pretty young dark-haired wife, formerly Jean Ince, of Melbourne, learned typing and
riband after their marriage in 1944 so that she could help Bobby in his post-war career. She went to Wewak with Bobby in 1946, when it was still full of the litter of war, and when ships bringing fresh food sometimes didn’t call for five months. Now she does his office work for him.
Bobby started an air service from Wewak just after the war. He opened up about 30 airstrips in New Guinea.
He still runs his Gibbes Sepik airways, grows coffee and tea near Mt. Hagen, has founded a co-operative farming venture called Highland Development Ltd., and recently invented a mechanical tea-picker of which he has high hopes.
The day I met the Gibbes’ at Goroka they had with them another famous pilot, Brian (“Black Jack”) Walker, now a test pilot for De Havillands, who hopes to get land on the Highlands and grow coffee too. “This’ll do mc”
“BOBBY sold me this place by remote control,” he said. “I came here three days ago for the first time to test a plane, and I said to myself: “this’ll do me.”
At least two ex-managers of airlines are among Highlands coffee-planters, and there are several former goldminers.
Though gold is declining in importance in the Territory (unless someone should dis-cover a new Edie Creek) it runs like a theme through the New Guinea story.
At Bulolo I met two men who have personally handled most of the £30,000,000 worth that the Bulolo GolDredging Company has taken out of the valley.
In a little room that looked like a pantry, where chipped enamel mugs full of gold speci-mens sit beside a basin of sugar, they let me handle £6000 worth of it, making the cus-tomary joke to female visitors: “If you can pick it up with one hand you can take it away.” .
It was a bar the size of a small house brick, weighing 341b. avoirdupois.
Terry Powell says he has yet to find anything more interesting than gold, and he doesn’t mean what it can buy. He just likes the stuff for what it is.
He and Jack Wilton are the only two men at Bulolo who actually handle the gold. They collect it from the dredges and see it through till it is poured from the crucible, cooled, and despatched by air to Sydney.
And at Lae, while waiting for a plane, I met another man who had had a lot to do with other people’s gold.
He was “Johnno” Johnstone, the famous diver who in 1941 directed the salvage operations that recovered more than two million pounds’ worth of bullion from the sunken Niagara.
He was on his way to Rabaul to look over the sunken ships in the harbor there on behalf of a group of financiers interested in steel. These ships represent the last of the big quantities of wartime scrap in New Guinea.
“Johnno” Johnstone, who says his official age is 56, has retired twice. He emerged from his second retirement to take this job.
“It lasted only three months,” he said. “I couldn’t settle down to carrying a string bag.”
I had breakfast with Mr. Johnstone at the Qantas passenger quarters in Lae. I could have listened to his stories of ships and the sea all day.
“Don’t make it sound too adventurous,” he said, as he left to fly to Rabaul. “When you know your way round you’re safer at the bottom of the sea than you are crossing Pitt Street.”
It used to be said that if you stayed long enough at. the Cafe de Paris, everybody in the world would pass by.
Add the word “interesting” after everybody, and you could say the same thing of a New Guinea airstrip.
By Max Uechtritz
We likened Mick Brosnan to a “caravan postman” – travelling thousands of kilometres collecting and delivering donated caravans as temporary homes for bushfire victims.
Other descriptions fit: Good Samaritan. Godsend. Hero. Humble Mick would shudder at ‘hero’, but if anyone should wear that overused tag then it’s this volunteer charity worker who spends his life helping others live theirs better.
The former schoolteacher is chairman of the Social Justice Advocates of the Sapphire Coast. He’s a heart-warming exemplar of how communities are dealing with the horror, heartache and hopelessness of the 2019-20 summer bushfires. That is, communities helping and healing themselves as victims fall between official cracks in the formal recovery process of governments and councils.
When Ray Martin and I filmed with him near Bemboka in the Bega Valley on the NSW far south coast for our documentary Forgotten Australians on the Prime7 network, Mick was delivering his 49th caravan. He’d picked it up from Newcastle. Since the fires, caravans have come from as far as Melbourne, Brisbane, Wagga Wagga, the Blue Mountains and all over NSW. The recipients had been camping in tents, half-burned sheds or even lean-tos. At best they were in rented accommodation, but for many the rent assistance had run out.
That’s what had happened to the recipient family we filmed – Angus and Stephanie Johnston and their three little girls aged two, four and six, pictured above After losing everything, they’d lived firstly in a garage and then a small rental before Mick delivered their temporary home on wheels to their block in the Bemboka hills.
It’ll be tight living for the Johnstons as their new house is built, but they don’t mind. They are home on their own soil, and that in itself is part of the healing process. Funds ($25,000) for their caravan were raised by a local church group ADRA. A couple of sheds – for a kitchen and kids’ schoolroom – were donated by the local Coates Hire franchise.
However, many of the caravans have been simply donated by strangers – to strangers.
“People were contacting us, giving away their caravans, “ said Mick. “Perfectly good, roadworthy, registered vans, just giving them to the fire survivors.” He told the story of one young couple who phoned to say come and take their brand-new caravan – complete with crockery, cutlery and linen.
“Human nature is extraordinary. It may sound like a cliché, but the human spirit is fabulous. The strength of community, the strength of volunteerism in rural communities, the resilience of people and their ability to smile and grit it through. I mean, that’s quite extraordinary.”
What’s also extraordinary that, nine months after the fires, there is a still a need for caravans as basic shelter.
“One of the images I first had was going to (the small town of) Quaama, delivering a caravan. And the lady is sitting there, the trees are blackened, all that’s left is the iconic brick chimney, blackened and burned and the twisted metal. And she’d been waking up to that for several months, and you just felt for her. She was just waiting for someone to come and clear it all away, to erase that image from her mind.
“ And there was another older couple in a similar circumstance, again at Quaama. And I went there three months later and they were still traumatised, like the fire just happened yesterday. Yet they had waited for months to ask for help.”
After the caravan delivery we went with Mick to his next stop in the Bemboka hills where he helped install a shower for a 75-year-old woman. Jan Reynolds (above) wasn’t eligible for government financial support because her house burned down in big bushfires of 2018. Because this wasn’t part of last summer’s fires, Jan wasn’t eligible for government assistance. Two years later, her own caravan was perched on a bare compound which previously housed her homestead, sheds, orchid garden and three vehicles – all lost – with no running water available.
Mick and his mate Mark Smith from the Social Justice Advocates fixed that. They installed a pump from Jan’s creek, a hot water system and a shed with shower. The look on Jan’s face said it all as the water sprang from the shower nozzle – for the first time on her property in two years.
While Jan is forever grateful, she is also bewildered at why a first world country should be relying on social and charity groups to help victims of natural disasters. She can’t understand how the two billion dollars of federal recovery funds and tens of millions of other funds and donations isn’t covering basic housing.
“For instance the government could provide emergency housing or social housing in these small communities where in an event such as this happens,” she told us. “And there are going to be more such events, this is not a one off. We need to be prepared for the next one. So, where they can just let people have a bed for the night, you know, or a week or two, or more, whatever’s necessary.”
Governments and councils, she says, should also be more proactive in going into communities checking for those who need help.
“People need to be asked, they won’t come out and ask for it,” she said. “Most of us don’t like asking. But when someone offers you, as I was offered the shower, you know, that’s marvellous. But I wouldn’t dream of going and asking for it.”
Mick Brosnan agrees and says the coronavirus has added a dreadful element for those affected by fires and drought before that.
“It is an extraordinary thing for a rural community, “ he said. “Volunteers are overloaded, organisations are overloaded, and the government has to just realise this. And people say, ‘Ah, we’re forgotten now because COVID has taken over from the fires.’ They’re not forgotten. But that triple whammy has trebled the impact of the drought, the fires and COVID.
“You do hear people say, ‘Oh, the government doesn’t care anymore, COVID has taken precedence over everything. That’s all we see on the news.’ It’s not that they don’t want to see and hear about the fires again, but they just want people to remember that, hey, we lost everything in January and, you know, we’re still here. We’ve got no home. Just to be recognised for that and supported.”
The theme of communities rallying together runs through our documentary.
At tiny Dargan, near Lithgow in the Blue Mountains, we filmed 40 people coming together over a weekend to build a barn and shed for the Alexander family. Susan and Nick Alexander and daughter Jessica will move into the barn and live on their block as their house is rebuilt.
In Cobargo, the south coast town that became a byword for bushfires, the Ayliffe family has made the single biggest donation to help the town’s recovery and ensure the tragedy is never forgotten. The Ayliffes have six family members in the RFS, including the current brigade captain Mark and former captain Brian, one of the nation’s most experienced firefighters with 62 years in the RFS.
Brian and wife Helen owned a house – their original family home – and a shop in the main street which burned down. Instead of rebuilding, they have donated the empty land block to the town as the site of a proposed Resilience Centre. As a gallery, museum and archive it will be a permanent memorial to those who died or suffered in Cobargo’s worst event.
Cattle and sheep farmer at Wandella in the Bega Valley, Warren Salway, was blown away by young people who helped him and wife Helen after the fires wiped out sheds, barns, equipment, tools and fences. They donated time and tools to build new sheds and fences.
A Mallacoota on Victoria’s far north coast, depressed musician Justin Brady originally was considering leaving and settling elsewhere after losing everything. But he told us that the way the community rallied around each other had convinced him to stay.
Justin now is a beacon of that community spirit. He often wanders down to the Mallacoota lookout and entertains elderly ladies with his upbeat mandolin and harmonica music.
As our Good Samaritan Mick Brosnan said, human nature is extraordinary.
Postscript: In my view, Mick and many more quiet, grass roots achievers like him in our communities represent everything we should be looking for when selecting recipients for Australia Day awards.
By Max Uechtritz
What could possibly connect two little boys born in New Guinea and China on either side of 1900 and the Olympic Games legend as portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire?
Rugby. The Scotland national rugby team, to be precise.
Those far-flung lads would go on to don the famous dark blue together and link arms as brave hearts before taking on England, Ireland, Wales and France in the Five Nations Championship of 1922.
Hector Forsayth – “one of the finest fullbacks Scotland ever had” – was born at Ralum, Kokopo on what was New Guinea’s first coconut plantation, in 1899. He was the grandson of legendary pioneer known as Queen Emma. His grand aunt was my great grandmother Phebe Parkinson. Hector was my father Alf’s second cousin. At The King’s School, Parramatta in Sydney, Hector was a star of King’s First XV and the combined GPS team. He won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in the UK.
Eric Liddell – “The Flying Scotsman” of Chariots of Fire fame – was born in Tientsin, China in 1902. The son of Scottish missionaries, he was schooled in China until he was five before boarding in England. He went to Edinburgh University and graduated in Pure Science.
Fullback Hector (1921-22) and winger Eric (1922-23) each was capped seven times for Scotland. They both played in their university XVs. Hector also was called up twice to play for the legendary Barbarians FC XV, the most distinguished invitational team in rugby.
Eric’s feats at the 1924 Paris Olympics inspired the Chariots of Fire film which won four Academy awards including best picture. The devout Christian was favourite for the 100 metres but famously refused to run in the heats because they were on a Sunday. Instead he raced and won the gold medal – in world record time – in his less favoured distance 400m on a weekday.
Soon after, Eric returned to China to serve as a missionary. He was interned by the Japanese in WW2 and died in a civilian POW camp in 1945. That’s another albeit sad parallel: three relatives of his former teammate Hector also died in Japanese prison camps (in New Guinea). One was his grand aunt Phebe Parkinson who had raised her grandson, my father.
So, how did Hector, the grandson of an American-Samoan woman who started a trading empire in New Guinea, end up playing rugby for Scotland? Heritage.
His grandmother Emma Coe, daughter of the American Consul to Samoa and a Samoan princess, married Scottish trader James Forsayth in Apia, Samoa in 1869. James Forsayth disappeared at sea soon after, leaving Emma with an only son, J.M.C “Coe” Forsayth.
Emma left Samoa and established a trading empire in New Guinea from 1879. She would become known as Queen Emma and her exploits would inspire books and a movie. Her son Coe was educated at Newington College, Sydney, before helping his mother run the business from the famous Gunantambu bungalow at Ralum, near Kokopo, the current capital of East New Britain in PNG.
J.M.C. Coe Forsayth had seven children. His second son Hector Heinrich Forsayth (middle name later changed to Henry) was born on Dec 18 , 1899, less than two weeks before the turn of the century. Some records have listed Rabaul as his birthplace. This is wrong. Rabaul didn’t exist then and was only stablished in 1910. Hector was either delivered by a doctor in Queen Emma’s Gunantambu bungalow itself or Coe’s house just behind it on the Ralum plantation.
It is unclear what year Hector was sent to boarding school in Australia. It’s most likely that his early schooling, like my grandmother Dolly Parkinson and his other Parkinson cousins, was at the catholic mission school at Vunapope in Kokopo.
But we know he later attended King’s and graduated in 1918.
Hector’s grandmother Emma had sold out her vast New Guinea enterprises in 1910 and died in Monte Carlo in 1913, leaving her vast wealth to son Coe. He moved his young family to a mansion at Vaucluse in Sydney’s establishment eastern suburbs and became prominent in social, yachting and horse racing circles. Probably because of his son’s rugby prowess – for Kings and the Combined GPS schools team – Coe also inaugurated the JMC Forsayth Shield for the annual match between GPS and United (military) Services. The Forsayth Shield existed until the 1950s.
Rugby history records show how Hector chose to play for Scotland over England: “Forsayth moved to Oxford University, where both England and Scottish official sought to woo him. He chose Scotland and played two solid seasons…Playing for Blackheath FC in 1923 critics judged him the best fullback in all English club rugby but, of course, he was now ineligible for England.”
In the book Rugger – The History, Theory and Practice of Rugby Football the authors wrote that Hector Forsayth was “one of the finest fullbacks Scotland had ever had.”
Perhaps his Samoan heritage played a part in Hector’s athleticism. For those who don’t know rugby , Pacific Islanders are the most naturally gifted players in the world and dominate All Blacks and Wallabies line-ups and star for other teams like England. Hector’s father was of quarter Samoan heritage and his mother Ida was part Samoan (it is thought half Samoan).
The famous Barbarians team – called the Harlem Globetrotters of rugby – is picked for flair and entertainment so we can assume Hector was an elusive and dashing running fullback.
A newspaper report from 1921 describes how King George V was present for a game in which Hector starred for Oxford against old rivals Cambridge. One of his 1922 Oxford teammates was Tommy Lawton who in 1929 would captain the Australian Wallabies to a rare 3-0 whitewash series win over the mighty New Zealand All Blacks.
We have no way of knowing whether Scottish teammates Hector and Eric Liddell were close off the field. I’d like to think they would have had a rapport based on their shared unusual backgrounds in comparison to the rest of their team. Eric was an intellectual and would have been fascinated by Hector’s stories of New Guinea, including how one of his uncles (John Coe) was killed and eaten by cannibals and his grandmother Emma nearly suffered the same fate after being hog-tied to a pole and carried away by warriors before being saved by her brother-in-law Richard Parkinson with his own praetorian guard of Buka islanders.
I am still trying to find out more about Hector’s life after he returned to Australia in 1923. We know it was a very different one to Eric Liddell. Both died young. Eric in the Japanese prison camp in 1945 aged only 43 and Hector “suddenly” in Gladstone, Queensland in 1952 at the age of 53. He had served as a signalman in the Australian army in WW2.
Hector was married in 1926:
The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) Thursday 17 June 1926
The wedding of Miss Josie Baker, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Langford Baker, of North Sydney, to Mr. Hector Forsayth, second son of Mr. and Mrs. J. M. C. Forsayth, of Vaucluse Hall, Vaucluse was’ celebrated on Wednesday night at the Church of England Grammar School chapel, by Rev. Davis. The bride wore a bouffant white satin frock trimmed with silver. Her veil was lent by her sister ln-law, Mrs. L. Falkiner. She wore a lace train and carried a bouquet of lilly-of-the valley, orchids, and hyacinths. There were two bridesmaids, Misses Edna Samuels and Ruth Baker. Their frocks were of apricot satin and gold lace, and they carried gold lace fans. Mr. Neville Goddard was the best man, and Mr. Grant Forsayth the groomsman. After the ceremony, a dinner party was given at the Australia (Club).
I began this research primarily because our daughter Isabella is currently studying for her doctorate in veterinary medicine at Edinburgh University – forever linked to Eric Liddell – and am very glad that I did.
I discovered an inspiring Eric Liddell, so much more than a rugby and Olympic ‘hero’. When the war came, he evacuated his wife and daughters to Canada and stayed on to continue missionary work in China before being interned in 1941. It’s reported that Winston Churchill himself tried to get Liddell freed in a prisoner exchange with the Japanese – but Eric refused and gave his place to a pregnant woman.
Conditions in Weihsien camp were harsh. Food supplies were short. Eric himself was emaciated. But he was constantly looking out for his fellow prisoners, providing care and support. He arranged sports events, taught science using a home-made textbook, carried supplies to the old and sick, and ran a Sunday School for the children. He died a prisoner of a brain tumour with complications from starvation and exhaustion in February 1945. He is interred in the Mausoleum of Martyrs in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province.
In August 2008 a poll in The Scotsman newspaper found Liddell was the most popular athlete Scotland has ever produced. Meanwhile, because he was born in China and died there, some Chinese claim Eric Liddell to be that country’s first ever Olympian, something that would no doubt please him greatly.
In 1991 the University of Edinburgh erected a memorial headstone, made from Isle of Mull granite and carved by a mason in Tobermory, at the former camp site in Weifang. The city of Weifang commemorated Liddell during the 60th anniversary of the internment camp’s liberation by laying a wreath on his grave.
The Eric Liddell Centre was set up in Edinburgh in 1980 to honour Liddell’s beliefs in community service whilst he lived and studied in Edinburgh. Local residents dedicated it to inspiring, empowering, and supporting people of all ages, cultures and abilities, as an expression of compassionate Christian values.
There’s a modest plaque for Liddell at Edinburgh university. Isabella can pass it on the way to her lectures and perhaps muse on the connections and achievements of the two little boys from New Guinea and China who wore the dark blue of Scotland.
By Max Uechtritz, President of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia (PNGAA).
It was a very special bond – the PNG army band piper and the Australian Governor-General.
Lance Corporal Michael Pissa was there for two of the biggest moments in the life of Major General Michael Jeffery AC CVO MC (retd), former Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia.
General Jeffery, who died yesterday aged 83, was also co-patron of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia (PNGAA) since 2003. Few stories better illustrate the powerful and poignant connection between the two countries than the tale of the two Michaels.
Lance Corporal Michael Pissa piped the bride down the aisle when Michael and Marlena Jeffrey were married at ‘Haus Lotu’ at Taurama Barracks in Port Moresby.
Forty-one years he was with them again – this time at Government House, Yarralumla in Canberra – reprising the wedding piece in surely the most emotional farewell ever given for an Australian Governor-General.
The moment was recorded beautifully by Fairfax writer Tony Wright.
“AS MAJOR-GENERAL Michael Jeffery and his wife Marlena strolled from Government House, Yarralumla, a small man in the crowd of perhaps 500 well-wishers lining their path pumped his bagpipes and blew into the chill Canberra air the strains of that most haunting of farewells, Now is the Hour.
He primed his pipes again, and that other great tune of endings and beginnings, Auld Lang Syne, floated into the afternoon.
As the Governor-General and his wife finally forged their way through the crowd, the little man – clearly a long way from home – stepped into their path and led them to their waiting limousine, this time playing the lilting Mairi’s Wedding.
It was the very tune he had played 41 years previously when Michael and Marlena Jeffery were married in a military barracks in Port Moresby.
The piper then was simply a 19-year-old Papua New Guinean (attached to the Pacific Island Regiment, where Michael Jeffery was a 30-year-old officer.
Now that same piper, Sergeant-Major Michael Pissa, 60, is musical director of the PNG Defence Force.
He was spending a couple of weeks on holiday in Queensland when he heard that his old commander was about to retire as Governor-General. He felt it would be his duty and his pleasure to attend the farewell.
He paid his own way to Canberra, taking his pipes with him, and notified General Jeffery only at the last minute. He was treated to morning tea at Government House and then strode through the gates of the vice-regal estate, waiting alone in the crowd to deliver his tribute.“
There has never been a farewell quite like it for an Australian governor-general.
At a function in 2005, General Jeffrey had spoken warmly of Michael Pissa.
“Some of you may be aware that Marlena and I were married in the ‘Haus Lotu’ at Taurama Barracks over forty years ago, when I was posted here from 1966-69 with the 1st Battalion, The Pacific Islands Regiment,” he said.
“Indeed in 2005 the Battalion piper Michael Pissa, who piped Marlena down the aisle of the Taurama Chapel some 41 years earlier, walked from his village for several days, bringing with him his pipes and old green juniper uniform and played the wedding march at a reception held in our honour, evoking many tears of happiness.”
General Jeffrey had two stints in PNG. He served as company commander of 1 Paific Islands Regiment from 1966-69 and then was the last Australian CO of 2 PIR in Wewak in 1974/5.
General Jeffrey continued:
“I returned to command 700 very fine soldiers of the Second Battalion in Wewak, and as a result was privileged to be here at Independence on 16 September 1975.
“In those days we conducted border security operations on the PNG / Irian Jaya border as a battalion and I can say to all of you present here that I would have been honoured to take that battalion to any operational theatre in the world.
“We were a happy, well trained, highly disciplined family with our wives and children living and growing up together in a beautiful barracks environment.
“Last year, I was greatly honoured to be invested as a Grand Companion of the Order of the Logohu by Sir Michael Somare when he visited Australia for the APEC leaders meeting. I have renamed my small fishing boat ‘Logohu’ as a permanent reminder of my association with a country for whom I hold such great affection.”
General Jeffrey felt privileged to be in PNG for Independence in 1975.
“Independence in Wewak was a very special occasion, with, in the words of Sir John Guise, the Australian flag being lowered rather than torn down for the last time and the beautiful Papua New Guinea flag being raised in its stead,” he said.
“It was deeply touching to be personally farewelled at Wewak airport afterwards by Prime Minister Somare, with the pipes and drums of the Regimental Band and a large crowd in attendance.
“The most impressive aspect of Independence was the positive and joyful spirit in which it occurred.
I believe the positive spirit displayed then between our two nations, provided a solid foundation for the multifaceted relationship, based on mutual respect, shared experiences and geo-strategic realities that remain to this day.”
The Canberra Times reported the death of a great Australian yesterday.
Former governor-general Major-General Michael Jeffery has died.
Current Governor-General David Hurley issued a statement on Friday afternoon.
“Linda and I are saddened at the news of Michael Jeffery’s passing,” General Hurley said.
“On behalf of all Australians, our thoughts are with Marlena and the whole Jeffery family. As a nation, we give thanks for Michael’s extraordinary lifetime of service.
“He was, by every measure, a great Australian.”
Mr Jeffery died on Friday, less than a week after his 83rd birthday on December 12.
He was Australia’s 24th governor-general, serving between August 2003 and September 2008.
Mr Jeffery, supported by his wife Marlena, was prominent in his support of Canberrans in the wake of the 2003 bushfires. The couple more than made their mark on Canberra.
The Jefferys, regarded as a strong team, were in high spirits and close to tears when they were farewelled from Government House in September 2008, walking through a throng of school children, staff and other supporters.
During that farewell, a committee member of the Children’s Medical Research Institute’s Canberra committee, Elly Cox, described the Jefferys as the ”most natural, approachable people”.
General Hurley praised the service of Major-General Jeffery.
“After graduating from the Royal Military College in 1958, he served on operations in Malaya, Borneo, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, where he was awarded the Military Cross. He held numerous commands, including of the Special Air Service Regiment, before retiring from the military in 1993,” his statement read.
“His distinguished military career was just one chapter in his lifetime of service. He became governor of Western Australia in 1993 and, in 2003, Australia’s 24th governor-general. After his term in office he became Australia’s first National Advocate for Soil Health.
“Throughout his career – in its many iterations – he worked tirelessly, put others ahead of himself and brought immense intellect, work ethic and commitment to everything he did. Unfailingly polite, he was, quite simply, a gentleman.
“He was also a husband, father and grandfather. Our thoughts – as we give thanks and acknowledge a lifetime of service – are with his loved ones.”
As current president of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia and on behalf of the PNGAA family, I pass on the association’s deep condolences to the Jeffrey family.
The pipes will never be silent.
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