The magic of photos and memories – 67 years on from Rabaul 1952.

It’s an image woven into our family tapestry of memories, stories and personal lore.

A special guard of honour by girl guides for our parents’ wedding in Rabaul, New Guinea, nearly seven decades ago.

Mum was “Miss Harris” to the guides she led and those she taught at Rabaul’s Sacred Heart School, before becoming Mary Louise Uechtritz by marrying Alf Uechtritz at Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church on April 26, 1952.

Except for her own mother who then lived in Rabaul, none of Mum’s family or friends from her homeland England had been able to make it to the wedding – so she had everlasting fondness for those who helped ensure her special day was indeed special.

Now, sixty-seven years later, I’ve had a pleasant, surprise catch-up with two of those whose smiling young faces have been peering out at us for all those decades.

Last Sunday I was a guest at the PNG Chinese Catholic Association Christmas gathering in Sydney. PNGCCA president Dr Dennis Chow organised a delightful family ‘reunion’, introducing me to Eulalie (Woo) Chow and Helen (Lee) Yun.

The girl guides visiting our family plantation Sum Sum

I was thrilled that Eulalie and Helen both remembered that day well and also the visit by the girl guides to our family plantation Sum Sum on the south coast of New Britain (see photo). Also, that they were able to name most of the other girls in the picture. Some of them are still with us and perhaps they will see this post.

Mum taught on and off for many years in PNG and eventually became deputy commissioner of the PNG Girl Guides – but she always reserved a special favouritism for those first Rabaul roles in the country she came to love and cherish. 

Mum’s previous teaching role – her first after university in London – was at the British Council in Prague, Czechoslovakia. She went straight from ice skating on Prague’s frozen river to being wooed on the Beehives on tropical Rabaul’s harbour by Dad.

She passed on last year and recently, in September, we laid hers and dad’s ashes to rest in our family cemetery at Kuradui, near Kokopo.

It would have been lovely for her to meet Eulalie and Helen. It’s a nice thought, however, that she’ll have joined in heaven others in the photo including the guides head girl, the late Philomena (Ning) Seeto, picturing standing next to my father in the photo.

The wedding photo identifications include Mary Rose Chan (kneeling left next to bride), Eulalie Chow (kneeling right next to bride) and Rita Chow (kneeling far right). The three standing in the second row on the left , left to right, are Doreen Woo, Lucy Chee and Louisa Chan. Behind them in the back row are, left to right, Rosemary Chow, Josephine Woo and Philomena Seeto. On the bride’s shoulder at far back is Clare Chee, unknown, and Helen Lee. In the second row standing on the right are Dorei Chan, Margaret Woo and Dorothy Chan. It would be good if the correct names could be also added to the photo at Sum Sum.

From mud pies to Plutonium: Yalinu Poya, the little PNG girl who went on to blaze a world trail in chemistry.

She was the curious little girl from Lae, PNG, who experimented with mud and cordial mixtures. 

Now Yalinu Poya is one of the world’s most exciting young science talents whose trailblazing chemistry research has won plaudits from the United Nations, a string of international prizes and has made her the face of Plutonium on The Periodic Table of Younger Chemists.

In the German Parliament in Berlin on Thursday, Yalinu will be honoured as one of 25 international Green Talents award winners in the field of sustainability. 

She becomes the first Papua New Guinean, Pacific Islander and student from the University of Glasgow to receive this global recognition.

The judging panel of high-ranking scientists assembled by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research described Yalinu as a standout among 837 applicants from 97 countries, writing:

 “Above all, it was Yalinu’s fresh perspective on addressing the UN Sustainable Development goals and global challenges, such as food and energy security, climate change, and energy generation from renewable sources, that made the jury’s choice easy.

More later on the technical intricacies of Yalinu’s research – she makes catalysts for ammonia synthesis – and her ambitions to help feed the world with her science.

Condoleezza Rice the catalyst

But first, she made time during a two-week whistle stop tour of German research hotspot cities to tell me how it all started with a newspaper reference to the first female African- American Secretary of State. Note she was reading international politics when aged eleven.

My parents were supportive of me while growing up, especially my father. The passion to do a PhD begun when my father pointed out a newspaper article of Dr. Condoleezza Rice”, said Yalinu. 

“Being 11 years old I asked, ‘how can a medical doctor be the US Secretary of State?’ My dad told me the title Dr comes from a PhD. And there I was, instantly attracted to becoming a doctor. I made a pact with my dad that before or at the age of 30 I would receive a PhD.”

Yalinu is on target to fulfil that pact by gaining her PhD in two months.

The quest began her school in Lae, Morobe Province PNG, where her first rudimentary experimenting began.

“While growing up I had a curious mind, I loved science very much and did mundane things like mix water with dirt to see how much was needed to make muddy, then very muddy and liquid muddy textures.

 I mixed different coloured cordials to see how colours changed, I would dry corn kernels and see if I can make my own popcorn, etcetera.”

Yalinu did her BSc in Chemistry at the University of Papua New Guinea and her Master’s degree in Inorganic Chemistry from the Northeast Normal University in China. Now she’s in her final year PhD student in Chemistry at the University of Glasgow specialising in Heterogeneous Catalysis under Prof. Justin Hargreaves’ supervision.

Eight awards have come her way. In May this year she collected her first international award from two world bodies: The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the International Younger Chemists Network (IYCN). 

IUPAC is the world authority on chemical nomenclature and terminology, including the naming of new elements in the  periodic table. To mark 100th anniversary the body joined with IYCN to announce the creation of a Periodic Table of Younger Chemists.

Yalinu Poya – who mixed mud and cordials in primary school in Lae  –  was one of 118 chemists across the world to be selected. She was awarded the element Plutonium.

 

Despite all this, humble Yalinu has a twitter handle that describes herself as “small girl from Papua New Guinea”. She loves her country and is devoted to her family, her father from Pangia in the Southern Highlands and mother from Banz, Jiwaka province.

Small in stature maybe, but that’s where it ends. To continue the size analogy. Yalinu is a giant in her field and a wonderful role model for all young people, especially from PNG.

I never had any local role models while growing up, as I never saw female PNG scientists,’ she said. “I am working hard trying to please my parents, but I did not expect a lot of young people looking up to me.

It’s overwhelming and I am doing my best to inspire them, showing them that nothing is impossible if you work hard, drown out negativity, and persevere through difficult times, not only in science and education but basically everything. Wherever you find your passion, just do your best, run your race and be self-disciplined.”

Yalinu’s long-term goals are simple to try to better the lives of people and society.

“That is all. I have a passion for people, I love helping people.”

Her aim is to do that via her science: “Ammonia is used to make synthetic fertilisers that feeds 40 % of the world’s population. The Haber-Bosch process is the one that makes ammonia and is an amazing one, however it has many disadvantages that are not suitable to the environment. I am trying to look into this by make a catalyst that is able to make ammonia at a small scale plant to be used for farming using renewable energy sources such as wind.” 

This writer hopes that the media in PNG celebrates this talented young woman and her message.

The extraordinary European odyssey of tribal chief Pero ToKinkin – from New Guinea to Berlin in 1896

The story of Pero ToKinkin is one of the most extraordinary in South Seas history.

Fascinating new details have emerged about this astute, adventurous tribal leader. More on those revelations, and the extent of our very personal family connection, later. But it all started 123 years ago in what is now Papua New Guinea.

The unlikely tale takes the Melanesian chief of tiny Raluana village in the newly-colonised New Britain to the ‘World Expo’ in Berlin in 1896, opened by the Emperor and Empress of Germany and attended by seven million people over six months.

Pero ToKinkin dons suit, tailcoat and hat to attend dinners with titled German blue-bloods and composes a fabled birthday letter to a billionaire banker who boasted friendship with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and a peerage from the Kaiser for financing of the Franco-Prussian war.

The New Guinean (Papua was then separate) visits Berlin’s high fashion houses to buy a dress for his wife, enlisting the help of a young East African woman to model the prospective outfits.

He is the first of his tribe to be baptised and accrues enough wealth to order two boats from a Chinese shipbuilding artisan, for 1000 Marks. This proud leader – Luluai as it was known – is later handpicked by the German Governor of New Guinea to be the first *native to establish a European-style commercial coconut plantation.

Pero ToKinkin has many descendants and some, including world-renowned musician George Telek, were also trailblazers in PNG history.

Pero ToKinkin has special significance for me through a unique family connection.

My Danish great grandfather Richard Parkinson was the person who took ToKinkin to Berlin.

But it was his wife Phebe Parkinson who convinced ToKinkin it was safe to take his nine-year-old son Topalankat and six other Tolais on this unheard-of odyssey across the globe. The Parkinsons were among the first settlers in New Guinea and along with Phebe’s sister, later to be known as ‘Queen Emma’, established the first plantations there. Great grandmother Phebe was a multi linguist who acted as a judge in the local community. Respect and trust for Phebe led to the Tolai group’s audacious trip to Berlin.

There they constructed their own huts – made from materials shipped by Parkinson from New Guinea – on the expansive Expo site and demonstrated their skills in fish trapping and netting, spear-throwing and canoe craft on the adjoining lake.

As an ardent family historian charting my ancestors’ involvement in PNG since 1879, I have long known of the Berlin event but had limited detail of the involvement of ToKinkin and the Tolais. But now I’ve come across an extraordinary account of it all – including the details in my opening paragraphs above – in a German publication from 123 years ago. It’s an 1896 edition of Nachrichten aus Kaiser Wilhelmsland und dem Bismarck Archipel with an article titled ‘The New Guinea Company at the German Colonial Exhibition in Berlin 1896.’ It was translated some years ago and sent to me in 2009 by German historian Karl Baumann. Somehow I overlooked the email at the time while working in the Middle East but recently stumbled across the archived message and its treasure trove attachment.

The find led me to further research and revelations, including the breakthrough discovery of photographs of ToKinkin’s funeral and family in the PNGAA collection in Queensland University’s Fryer Library.

The formal name for the World Expo was The Great Industrial Exposition of Berlin 1896 (in German Große Berliner Gewerbeausstellung 1896).

It was opened on May 1 that year by German Emperor (Kaiser) Wilhelm II with his wife the Empress (Kaiserin) Augusta Victoria. 

The above photo of the pair – who also carried the titles of King and Queen of Prussia – shows them posing in front to the New Guinea exhibition with other distinguished guests on opening day. A Tolai fish trap can be seen in the background.

It is quite an intriguing possibility that around this moment the royal pair met Richard Parkinson and he, in turn, presented to them the leader of his Tolai group Pero ToKinkin.

Intriguing in more ways than one, because Richard Parkinson was the uncle of Danish-born Empress Augusta Victoria.

Remember, my great grandfather Parkinson was Danish. He was a son of Christian August II the Duke of Augustenburg, second in line to the Danish throne.

Parkinson’s half-brother was Frederick VIII, the future Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg. This Frederick was the father of Augusta Victoria who married the German Kaiser.

An interesting side note is that on the island of Bougainville in PNG, a mountain range is named after its discoverer Parkinson and a prominent bay is named Empress Augusta Bay in honour of his niece.

At the bottom of this blog is a link to an article explaining how the Dane Richard Parkinson came to have such an English-sounding name.

The Nachrichten article reveals the names of all eight Tolais who travelled to Berlin, something which will be of intense interest to members of the East New Britain community today:

The small group left Kokopo early in March 1896 and arrived at Berlin two months later. Luluai ToKinkin, thirty-five years of age at the time, was party leader.He was accompanied by his son Topalankat, nine years of age, as well asToVagenge, ToValut, ToValuna, ToValanglagur, ToKulap and Tinai. Several were ill on arrival at Berlin and were treated at the Charitee Hospital. Unfortunately forToVagenge, he was too sick to participate in the Exhibition and was immediately returned to German New Guinea.

The Expo was something of a propaganda exercise for the thrusting German empire. The colonial section also included exhibits and people from German East Africa colonies. The New Guinea section included a Haus Tambaran “genuine down to the last spar” and next to it “a tabu house on stilts” from *Seleo Island (in today’s Sandaun Province).

The paragraphs below are all from the 1896 Nachrichten with some clarifications and additional notes in brackets from what I gleaned from Baumann’s footnotes.

Villages were erected in the styles of the various participating colonies and were comprehensively furnished with artefacts so as to provide spectators an understanding of native life in distant parts of the empire. Additionally, in the German New Guinea exhibit ToKinkin and his fellows demonstrated their competence in spear throwing, rowing and fish trapping daily to curious Berliners. Two canoes and a range of fish traps and nets accompanied the Tolais to Berlin for the purpose as well as comprising exhibits in their own right.

The German New Guinea village exhibit included a range of structures drawn from around the Protectorate. Included were a tree house from Finschhafen, plus money and death houses from Neu-Mecklenberg (New Ireland). Luluai ToKinkin and his men constructed their own huts under the tree house and lived in them for the duration of the Exhibition, just as if they were back at Raluana.

Richard Parkinson of Ralum…had loaned his collection of diwarra (shell money commonly used on the Gazelle Peninsula) together with the tools used in its preparation. Luluai ToKinkin demonstrated how to make and wear the costume of the Duk Duk society, a feared male cult.

Carl von Beck, a director of the New Guinea Company and senior employee of Adolph Hansemann’s Disconto Bank, met ToKinkin in Berlin. ToKinkin explained to the sophisticated German that his Melanesian world was very different from that of the German’s: his moon travelled in a manner quite unlike that of the northern hemisphere and that his ocean was located elsewhere. ToKinkin was a wealthy manby Tolai standards and he was proud to relate to Herr von Beck that he had placed two orders with Ah Tam, a ship builder on the Gazelle Peninsula, for two craft thatcost him a total of one thousand Deutschmark (sic). Luluai ToKinkin also informed Herr von Beck that he was a man of considerable repute in his own society, possessing as he did a large amount of diwarra.

The Tolai team at the 1896 Colonial Exhibition was all male and ToKinkin undoubtedly missed his wife who remained at home. He decided that while in Berlin he would buy her an expensive dress as a present. However, he found the great variety of female clothing available in Germany’s capital city confusing and was unable to select one. Eventually he hit upon the idea of asking someone to modeldresses for him. Obligingly, an eighteen-year-old Wasuahel female with the German East African contingent, Misiki, agreed to act as a mannequin. One particular dress she modelled featured puffed sleeves. The Africans and Pacific Islanders attending the Exhibition all agreed that it was a magnificent garment, and with that heartening endorsement, ToKinkin purchased the dress and took it with him back to his village for his undoubtedly delighted wife.

On another occasion ToKinkin and his fellow Tolais were invited to a dinner hosted by Carl von Beck. All seven appeared perfectly apparelled in white shirts, ties, dark suits and hats. Their grooming even extended to liberal applications of Eau de Cologne and hats were dutifully removed before entering the premises in which the dinner was held.

During the course of an after-dinner speech, ToKinkin learned that Adolph von Hansemann, head of both Disconto Bank and the New Guinea Company, had turned seventy years of age that day, i.e., 27 July 1896. It was suggested to ToKinkin that a brief expression of birthday good wishes to the grand old man would be appreciated.

The concept of “birthday” was unknown to ToKinkin, and neither could he comprehend someone reaching such an advanced age. Once such phenomena had been explained to him ToKinkin resolved to write a “big fellow book” to von Hansemann. He did so in his native Kuanua. His companion, ToValut, then converted the “place talk” into English. The English language text was then translated into German for the benefit of Herr von Hansemann. The English language version of the letter read as follows:

Mr. von Hansemann, good morning!

I write a letter and give it to you. I, Tokinkin, 35 years old, and I have three brothers and two sisters and I am the oldest. In my land I am a Sir, all people call me Luluai which means King. That is the end what I have to tell about me. Furthermore, I tell you, we all went on a steamer5 to Kokopo and Bukadschin (Bogajim) and Toroboi (Surabaya). After 9 days we reached Toroboi, after 2 days we came to Matawa, 2 days later Singapore. Here we had to wait for a week and changed then on an other steamer (SS Stettin) , after four days we came to Colombo, after 7 days we came to Arab(Arabia or Aden) , after a further 7 days we came to a kind of land Tariki (Eygpt) , after six days we saw another land Italy, one day later we saw Genua (Genoa) days later we arrived Gibraltar, after some days we arrived at Hamburg, the number of days I don’t know. And now all countries are finished and we are here (in Berlin) and I say furthermore the whole journey lasted 2 months and a half and now we stay here for 2 month and a half.

Sir, I continue to tell, I want to go in the month October at home, because it becomes cold again, and in my land, it is always warm, and cold is not good for me, and Berlin is too long cold, and if someone stays too long at this place, he possibly can die.

Step by step Franke (company official)  will tell me, when we all can return. Now my speech about these months is at an end and I will tell you some other things.

But I have forgotten to tell you, that I wish some great knifes for work as well as asoldier cap with a red stripe and my salary. I want in objects from a store in Berlin to take them with me in my land. 

We all which came over here, have our women and children at home, and if we would stay too long they would believe we died. My father is died, but Mr Pagison (Parkinson) wanted that I should travel to Berlin, if he hadn’t wanted that, I would remain at home, and if I wouldn’t come to Berlin, all the others wouldn’t come, therefore I came finally. And when I return to Ralum I wish to obtain a second box.  (ToKinkin refers here to the standard sized trade box supplied to indentured labourers in German New Guinea on completion of their standard three-year contracts. Normally, each labourer would fill it with trade goods purchased with his accumulated savings).

I continue to tell, we all came here for nothing, but Parkinson told us, when we return from Germany to Ralum, he will give us diwarra, that is money in our country. (Tolais would not accept German currency at the time, insisting on being paid for goods or services in either diwarra or kind).

And now good morning Mr. von Hansemann and I wish you that you will still live many years, and I wish you many good things on this day.

ToKinkin

My friend the late Gideon Kakabin, a wonderfully-talented Tolai historian of Kokopo, also was fascinated by ToKinkin and the other Tolais who went to Berlin.  Gideon actually tracked down a descendant of another member of the group and wrote: 

Their leader was the big man Pero ToKinkin from Raluana. He was also a good friend of Governor Hahl. Amongst the group was a 12-year-old boy. He was from around Balanataman near Maulapau and his name was Tinai. He was still alive in 1961. Salisbury records that although he was by now, a 90-year-old man and partly deaf, he could still remember the Masai and Cameron’s dance in Berlin. He could remember all the ports to Naples. He remembered also the Quality of German beer”. 

I understood from Gideon that a descendant of Tinai, a singer-songwriter, is collating material for a book about this man.

It was Gideon’s passion to chart the lineage of ToKinkin and I hope this article will spur his descendants to complete Gideon’s initial research.

Gideon would have been excited with my discovery in the Fryer Library of Queensland University a series of photographs relating to ToKinkin and his funeral. They were in a donated collection by Rev. Neville Threlfall.

One shows ToKinkin as an elderly man in front of his village home. Another shows a large group of his sons and descendants after his funeral.

Then there’s a culturally significant image labelled “Tubuan about to burn down Pero’s house after his death, according to custom.”

The signature photograph at top of this blog is from my collection and was  taken by Richard Parkinson in 1902. It  shows ToKinkin, now 41 years old, with members of his family. His military style cap and staff are symbols of his office as an administration-appointed Luluai. Next to him is his son ToPalankat then aged 15. He is wearing clothing he bought in Berlin. The woman in the foreground would presumably be his senior wife, the one for whom ToKinkin bought the blue satin dress with puffed sleeves in Berlin, Perhaps that is the very dress she is wearing in the photograph. 

A copy of this photo seems to have been flipped the other way in Baumann’s article. The author Baumann or his translator notes:  “Perhaps the uniformly serious facial expressions of the family members reflect the fear that their souls might be stolen while being photographed”.

The Baumann article finishes:

ToKinkin was an exceptionally able man and he and members of his family caught the eyes of Europeans residing in the vicinity of Ralum-Raluana.

Helmuth Steenken mentioned ToKinkin in his book „Lebensläufe aus dem Paradiesder Wilden“. In it he refers to the diaries of Johanna Fellmann, whose husband Heinrich, succeeded George Brown at the Wesleyan mission at Raluana. Frau Fellmann mentioned in her diary that ToKinkin and a man named ToBolo were the first Tolais to be baptised at the mission. A formal photograph of the two men circa 1900 appears in Governor Albert Hahl’s memoirs, Governor In New Guinea. 

Her diary entry for 25 June 1897 reads as follows: Today I went for a walk to our neighbouring village to visit ToKinkin, the chief who was a member of the Colonial Exhibition at Berlin. One should see him in his rig out. Usually he has on a black tail coat but without trousers, only with a so-called lavalava cloth, additional a stiff collar with a tie.

Today in the morning he and his wife participated in Heinrich’s preaching at Raluana.His wife was dressed in a sky-blue satin dress with a lace collar. She looks like a Queen with a fan in her hand.

Governor (Albert) Hahl subsequently made mention of ToKinkin’s positive response to his request that he engage in European style coconut production despite it being totally counter intuitive to Tolai farming culture.

A final note to acknowledge that, even then in 1896, the colonial exhibitions at the European Expos were seen by some as controversial and have since been labelled ‘human zoos’. That’s understandable and can be deliberated elsewhere. What can’t be argued that the adventure by Pero ToKinkin and the Tolais was breathtaking and commendable. Europe had only recently come to New Guinea. But these New Guineans ventured undaunted to Europe. Certainly there would have been apprehensions, but these were assuaged by a woman they trusted and who, in turn, cared for them: Phebe Parkinson.

That bond continues today.

Scores of Parkinson descendants next month will travel from Australia, the UK and USA to a special event in East New Britain, PNG. We all inter the ashes of our parents Alf and Mary Lou Uechtritz and cousin Chris Diercke in the Parkinson family cemetery.

A stone’s throw from where Pero ToKinkin grew up, the Raluana clan and Kuradui landowners will perform traditional mourning and burial ceremonies to honour them.

As I was preparing to publish this blog, I came across an illuminating article by a talented young Papua New Guinean writer named Watna Mori working at Australia’s Lowy Institute.

Ms Mori made a reference to the biography of PNG pathologist and politician Sir Albert Maori Kiki and wrote it … “conveys the exhaustive and mind-boggling experience that was his life – and continues to be the lives of Papua New Guinean people: cramming 10,000 years into one lifetime.”

Immediately to mind came Pero ToKinkin.

https://asopa.typepad.com/files/parkinson-legacy-1.pdf

Death cries in a ‘sea of indifference’

*An adaption and update of an article by Max Uechtritz in 2017.

Their end is ghastly . A thousand Australians screaming as oil smothers and scalds them, seawater gushes into their lungs and flames steal their oxygen and does what fire does to bodies.

Many are teens. Little Ivor Gascoigne only 15. There are granddads. Fathers and their sons. Brothers. The three Turner boys: inseparable in life – now death.

A witness is haunted.

“People were jumping into the water.

Thick oil was spreading across the sea.

There were loud noises…metal wrenching, furniture crashing, people screaming.

“I have not been able to forget the death cries.”

The witness tells of spirit which sears the soul. A few Australians in the sea clinging to bits of firewood from their doomed vessel started singing.

“I was particularly impressed when they began to sing Auld Lang Syne as a tribute to their dead colleagues.

Watching that I learned that Australians have big hearts.”

The ship heaves upright, vertical. Its bow points briefly toward the stars. A flame spouts from a chimney with a loud bang. The giant metal coffin slides quickly beneath the water. It’s gone in eleven minutes. 

It takes with it the brother of an Australian prime minister, the uncle of a man who nearly became prime minister, the grandfather of an international rock star, six Australian government administrators and a famous Wallaby rugby player.

They are but a few of the nucleus of an Australian capital and community that disappears without trace. 

It’s nearly four years until their families are told. Yet Australia’s officialdom and political classes turn their collective back on entreaties for more information. Even then the list of the dead is incomplete. Decades of formal indifference follow and doubt torments the bereaved. They can’t get facts let alone recognition.

Three quarters of a century on, that recognition is still sparse.

So far fetched it all could be – must be – a move script. Surely?

It’s not. It happened in WW2 – and 1053 Australians perished. Most of them were entombed on the bottom of the South China Sea off Luzon in the Philippines.

In fact it was – and remains – Australia’s greatest maritime catastrophe.  The greatest loss of Australian lives at sea in war or peace.

It happened 77 years ago next Monday, on July 1 1942.

Twice as many Australians died in this one incident than were killed in the entire Vietnam War. Significantly more were lost than in the sinking of the HMAS Sydney (645) and the hospital ship the Centaur (268). 

The losses accounted for 15% of all Australian POWs who died in captivity in WW2. 

Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than this tragic saga is that most Australians have never heard about it or the name of the death ship.

Montevideo Maru. There. I’ve finally introduced it. Doesn’t have that familiar, clear conventional ring to it like the HMAS Sydney does it?

Granted, it is initially confusing: a Japanese ship carrying the name of the Uruguayan capital carrying Australians from New Guinea to China, sunk by an American submarine off the Philippines.

That’s why after years of writing about it, this time I’ve reversed reportorial convention and concentrated firstly on the raw basic fact: more than one thousand Australians died horrifically in our worst disaster at sea – and most Australians don’t have a clue about it.

The Montevideo Maru was a Japanese prison ship carrying 845 Australian soldiers and 208 civilians from what was then the capital of Australian New Guinea, Rabaul. They’d been captured when Rabaul fell to a massive invasion fleet that took New Britain and New Ireland five months earlier in January 1942.  

Their destination was occupied Hainan Island, China. Their fate meant to be slave labour. That changed when an American submarine, the USS Sturgeon, sank the Montevideo Maru. The Sturgeon’s skipper had no way of knowing that the target in his periscope carried a thousand helpless allies.

As inferred earlier, one of them was the uncle of former Australian Opposition leader Kim Beazley. Reverend Sydney Beazley was a Methodist missionary who’d devoted his life to helping others and had been building houses for the natives in Rabaul when war broke out.

Also on the doomed ship was plantation owner Tom Vernon Garrett, grandfather of Midnight Oil singer-turned-politician Peter Garrett. Like the younger Beazley, Peter Garrett grew up with the family loss and even penned a song for the Oils which opened with the soulful line “My grandfather went down with the Montevideo…the Rising Sun sent him floating to his rest…”

The brother of Australia’s former prime minister (1939) Sir Earl Page was also in the shuffling, hungry and tattered group roused at bayonet point from their Rabaul internment camp nine days earlier. Harold Page was the acting Administer of Australian-mandated New Guinea. Five other administration officials were herded along the foreshores of the town previously known as the Pearl of the Pacific then shoved into the putrid hold of the moored prison ship. The cousin of former Senate President Kerry Sibraa was another who embarked that fateful day.

In the group, too, was Kenelm “Mac” Ramsay, a tough and talented rugby star who’d scored the only try in the last pre-war Test against the NZ All Blacks in the third Bledisloe Cup match on the 1938 Test series.

Of course the lives of these men, whose blood connections or status, then or now, resonate in the public realm, were no more precious than the others and they were grieved no more or less by loved ones. But their very presence among the victims reinforces the oddity and frustration that the disaster has left such a faint footprint on our national narrative and psyche.

There could not have been more of an eclectic mix of Australians. The POWs were variously members of the 2/22nd Infantry Battalion, 1st Independent Company, New Guinea Volunteer Rifles along with civilian internees – officers of the Australian Administration, businessmen, bankers, planters, missionaries and merchant seaman.

Cyril Gascoigne was a Rabaul auctioneer. In late 1941 – post Pearl Harbour –women and children were being evacuated and the Gascoigne family packed. Ivor Gascoigne, 15, begged to stay behind and continue his first job as an office boy. He’d be safe with his Dad, he said, and his mother finally relented. But to the Japanese, Ivor was an enemy adult. Ivor’s mum lived with the decision the rest of her life. His sister sill does.

The Turner brothers of Willoughby, Sydney had always been inseparable. The two eldest Sid and Dudley had always been protective of the youngest brother Daryl who was barely 17 and had just left school in 1940. The older boys had promised their father they’d always look out for Daryl. So, when they enlisted, they all falsified their birth dates so they’d be inducted together into 1 Independent Company. They embarked for New Ireland where they later tried to escape the Japanese on a small yacht but were rounded up by the invaders. They died together. 

Jesse Turner received a government-issue small silver badge with three stars, one for each son killed, and wore it each day till she died.

Rex Wythe and John William Hayes went down on the Montevideo Maru

The first eyewitness account of how the Gascoignes and Turners, Syd Beazley and Tom Garrett and all those others died finally came six decades later. An old Territorian and amateur historian Bert Speer had put me in touch with the author of a book on Japanese merchant ships who said he knew where we could find the last surviving crew member of the Montevideo Maru. Some 17 of the crew had escaped on lifeboats. Most were subsequently killed by Philippines insurgents.

As then Director of ABC News and Current Affairs, I was able to assign Tokyo correspondent Mark Simkin to the story and he tracked down and interviewed Yoshiaki Yamaji.

Yamaji’s poignant recollections were aired on The 7.30 report in 2003.

Though his description of the “death cries” of the men caught in the hold was heartrending, it gave some sense of closure to families to finally know what had happened.

The men in the water singing Auld Lang Syne for their mates still chills all these years later. Yamaji said while the bulk of prisoners were caught in the hold, some had been travelling on deck presumably to manage the ship’s firewood. They were never heard of again.

The Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society was formed in 2009 with Keith Jackson as its indefatigable initiator and campaigning president and equally energetic member Andrea Williams who lost a grandfather and great uncle on the ship. I was privileged to be on the founding committee of the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee with my cousin Chris Diercke and other committed folk. Kim Beazley and Peter Garrett successively became our patrons.

The Society was formed to represent the interests of the families of the Montevideo Maru families and its purpose was to gain national recognition and greater understanding of the tragedy. 

There was an historic breakthrough on June 21 2010 when the Australian parliament for the first time debated then offered its regrets for the Montevideo Maru tragedy. It was a hugely emotional day for some 350 attendees.

The 67thanniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru was marked by the unveiling of a memorial plaque at the Hellships Memorial, Subic Bay, the Philippines

A major objective was to have a national Rabaul and Montevideo Maru memorial erected in memory of those lost, and that happened at the Australian War Memorial on the 70th anniversary on July 1, 2012.

Guest speaker Army Chief Lieutenant-General David Morrison said this was one of the most tragic events of Australian military history and was the culmination of a chain of disastrous strategic and tactical decisions. 

”Far too many brave young Australians paid the ultimate price for it. The dead of the Montevideo Maru silently rebuke Australia and remind us some 70 years later of the consequences of neglect of the nation’s defence,” he said.

Now the 77thanniversary approaches next Monday, July 1. The Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial that day will feature a Montevideo Maru victim. 

By coincidence it is the day that many of our politicians will attend the Last Post, to mark the resumption of parliament with a mark of respect for Australia’s war dead. The gathering has become a new tradition after being introduced some years ago.

Descendants of victims, all those others who lost family friends or those who simply know and care about this dreadful, massive loss of Australian lives, hope the parliamentarians will take the opportunity to learn more about it – and help inculcate the tragedy into our national narrative.

Because the institutions of parliament and the media in Australia have many decades of neglect and apathy to redress. Even the large and moving 75thanniversary commemoration at the AWM in 2017 received a paucity of attention from most pollies and media.

Ditto for a 75thevent in Rabaul. A large number of family descendants – many elderly and frail  – made the pilgrimage to PNG for the moving ceremony organised by the Rabaul Historical Society. Australia’s High Commissioner to PNG Bruce Davis was one of the guest speakers. Singer Kyle Adams-Collier, whose grandfather was on the ship, performed her original dedication song to the Montevideo Maru.

Not one Australian media organisation thought it worthwhile to cover on the day. Yet again, a sea of indifference.

Little Ivor Gascoigne and 1052 other Australians deserve better.

Lest We Forget

Insiders marinated in instinct – how the ABC show began

Insiders’ beginning was soaked in instinct and alcohol. It was the easiest decision I was to make as ABC Director of News and Current Affairs –  in fact it was very first one, on my first day in the role.

To continue the bad culinary metaphor, it was easy because the idea had marinated in professional chagrin for years. It was to simmer for a many more months due to then managing Director Jonathan Shier (more on that later).

But on that day – June 23, 2000 – this most Australian of shows was eased into the world by Italian beer and French wine in a Turkish restaurant in London. Over lunch – then dinner.

I was based in London for the second time as a Europe correspondent and Barrie Cassidy and Heather Ewart were in ABC’s Brussels bureau when my appointment to head Aunty’s NewsCaff division – as it was known – was announced the previous day.

By phone we quickly agreed Barrie and Heather would come to London – by train or plane, I forget, post-haste  – for serious discussions. We all knew what was on the menu (sorry!).

They arrived in time for lunch next day at Efes 2, a longstanding favourite for ABC types in Great Titchfield Street, tucked in behind the ABC bureau at Portland Place in W1.

The Peronis were soon in full flow and so was the discussion about a national political show. Barrie had thought about it a lot. He had a willing audience. We’d previously discussed the absurdity of the national broadcaster not having such a platform.

Clock rewind: when I finished up my first stint in London (1990-94) I’d returned to Sydney and taken up the role in 1995 of second banana network editor, overseeing the day-to-day production of ABC TV News bulletins. My roster was the back end of the week and weekends.

Sundays infuriated me. The first story usually was labelled Canberra; today’s date. Senior  pollies inevitably would be interviewed by the indomitable Laurie Oakes on Nine’s Sunday program. We (and every network) dutifully recorded Sunday. So that night we’d have Keating and/or Howard or others in our lead story, complete with Laurie, clipboard and big Sunday logo. It was branding triumph for Nine and an embarrassment for the ABC.

Worse still, other stories in the bulletin covering other issues of the day or week would also feature interview excerpts from the Nine program . To our huge national audience it looked like we’d surrendered Sundays to the power of Packer – and the ABC had.

Fast forward – through Washington stints for both of us in some form – Barrie was political editor of Kerry O’Brien’s 7.30 Report and I was national editor of TV news. During this period, Barrie would bring up the idea of a Sunday political program for the ABC. It’s safe to say that the idea burned in Barrie for a long time.

So, really, it was a pretty bloody easy decision that day in June 2000.

But, of course, it was a serious discussion and we needed to mull it very seriously and what better aid for such rumination than the excellent French wines that Mine Host at Efes used to hand pick from the speciality bottle shop on Little Portland Street. Perhaps cognacs figured as well. Then, still throwing ideas around, we segued from lunch to dinner.

Not the London session, but a warm-up nine years earlier in Washington DC .

Barrie and I shook hands on a show. But we hadn’t factored in Jonathan Shier.

Long story short, after my return to Sydney, the controversial MD kept stalling me on the political show as the ABC was engulfed in unprecedented upheaval and NewsCaff had become his bête noire. I learned that Shier was planning to give the show to the television division and was considering a prominent print journalist to host it.

Ringing Barrie in Brussels to reassure him it would happen in the end wasn’t always fun

Then the resignation of Television Director Gail Jarvis shocked Shier – who’d sacked four other directors – and gave us a golden opportunity. I’ll never forget a meeting with the deflated Shier, who threw up his hands and asked what he’d say at the Senate Estimates that week.

“You need to give them some good, positive news,” I said as Shier visibly perked up. “And that good news would be to announce Agenda (our working title ) as a new Sunday political program .”

He did. There was another national show announced, perhaps the arts show Coast but don’t hold me to that. I rang Barrie in Brussels. The rest is history. Well, almost. We had to change the name because Sky News already had a show called Agenda. In a funny little twist, the anchor for Sky’s Agenda was a bloke called David Speers, the very same talented host who will take over Insiders next year.

After such a long mental gestation, we had something like five weeks to get the program on air with set, graphics, format and a little detail like staffing. Our Head of NewsCaff Marco Bass in Victoria nominated Kate Torney as the inaugural Executive Producer and a gun logistics specialist named Jeremy Custance was hauled in from Canberra as 2-I-C*.

The title caused the usual to-and-fro debate. There was a suggestion of The Insiders which didn’t convince some of the executive team. It was Greg Wilesmith – a man of few words anyway – who suggested we prune “The”. Insiders it was, not THE Insiders. Nuance. 

It was head of national coverage Wally Hamilton and national editor John Cameron – not me – who worked with Barrie and Kate on the nuts and bolts of the format and look in that mad countdown flurry. Cammo would enjoy joining the Insiders weekly editorial huddle for years, including after he took over as News Director.

Wally remembers: “One of the great knock-ons from Insiders was the pride instilled in the Melbourne newsroom, having a national live-to-air news and current affairs program in their stable. A great deal of work went into the set design and mapping the camera moves, particularly at the head of the program, taking Barrie to the screen and later to the couches. These moves look simple to audiences, but they have to be pulled off perfectly every week, and the crews did very well. I remember the ‘buzz’ in the control room, and Kate’s calm, authoritative demeanour.”

We all look forward to at least another 18 years of Insiders. It shouldn’t take another 10-hour lunch-dinner to mull that decision, but I’m always up for the challenge.

*Jeremy Custance would go on to an international career as producer with Al Jazeera and then a media executive in Asia while Kate Torney, of course, would succeed John Cameron as News Director.

Aunt Ruth: Bletchley Park hero’s D-Day Enigma role

Our codebreaker grand aunt, Ruth Harris, had an important role in the success of the D-Day Normandy landings – as a secret Enigma operator at Bletchley Park during World War Two.

WRNS Petty Officer Ruth Alison Harris was recruited to work in ‘Station X’ and was a supervisor in the famed Hut 11 which housed Alan Turing’s ‘bombe’ machines. By cracking the codes of intercepted Nazi signals, the bombes and their operators are credited with saving countless thousands of lives and shaving years off the war.

Bletchley Park compiled vital intelligence for Allied commanders in the 18 months leading up to D-Day then, critically, throughout the invasion as they monitored threats to the fleet at sea, the Germans’ reactions and troop movements.

Aunt Ruth and her many colleagues were decrypting 5000 messages a day.

The bombe in Hut 11, where Aunt Ruth worked at Bletchley Park . This machine was restored as part of a major exhibition.

In those tense final days before the invasion, Bletchley Park gave the Combined Chiefs of Staff extraordinary detailed reports of German deployments in Normandy, including numbers of troops, vehicles and tanks – even serviceability and maintenance information.

The codebreakers also confirmed that the Enemy High Command had swallowed the deception structured in Operation Fortitude – that the Germans belief was complete in an expected invasion in the Pas de Calais area… not Normandy.

Ruth was a favourite aunt of our mother, Mary Louise Harris ,and the closest in age.

She was the youngest sister of our grandfather Gordon Harris, pictured far right in wedding photo.

In that photo you see teenage Mum (second from left) as part of Ruth’s bridal party when she married Peter Gell.

Ruth is listed as being a supervisor in Hut 11 and a brick bearing her name has been unveiled in a commemorative Codebreakers’ Wall.

Ruth was among a select group of WRENS – more formally the Women’s Royal Naval Service(WRNS) – brought into Bletchley to work on the bombes in 1941.

They intercepted all sorts of German messages – too many to list here – but notably those to and from the U-boats. It’s estimated Enigma saved one and half million tonnes of Allied shipping (350 ships) and turned the tide of the war after several years of massive and demoralising losses to U-boat wolf packs.

Because of the Official Secrets Act, Bletchley operators until recently never talked about their critical role. 

Winston Churchill had visited Bletchley in September 1941 and dubbed the codebreakers “…the geese that laid the golden eggs ..but never cackled.” The women of Bletchley Park were unsung heroes of the war. They took their vow of secrecy so seriously that more than half a century went by before a few spoke publicly of their experiences.Ruth died without doing so. I was lucky enough to meet this lovely lady in England in the early 1990s but unlucky not to then know her incredible war service

Aunt Ruth didn’t even discuss it with her son Paul who recently visited Bletchley Park to see his mum’s commemorative brick.

Ruth lost one of her brothers, secret service (SOE) agent Bob Harris when he was assassinated serving in Persia. Another brother Paul was a medic hero at Dunkirk assisting wounded before his own evacuation. Her oldest brother, our grandfather Gordon, ran guns to the Free French and briefly was also in SOE. Other siblings also served.

Mum loved her Aunt Ruth dearly and it was wonderful they were able to catch up every now and then over the years when Mum visited the land of her birth.

Mum (left) with Aunties Zoe (middle) and Ruth (right) in one their UK catch-ups.