Death cries in a ‘sea of indifference’

*An adaption and update of an article first written 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 more than 80 years ago, on July 1 1942. (*updated)

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 16 nations) 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. More than 100 of the Japanese crew and guards 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 including Andrea Williams and Liz Thurston. 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 77th anniversary approaches (*written in 2019) 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 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.

Tank Man: When Willie Phua recorded images for the ages

It was the moment ABC News cameraman Willie Phua captured one of the most influential images in history: Tank Man.

We were on the balcony of our Beijing Hotel room filming a convoy of tanks rumbling out of  Tiananmen Square on the day after a massacre which claimed an estimated 10,000 lives*. It was June 5, 1989.

“Max, come and look at this,” said Willie suddenly and softly, calmly gesturing me to look through his view finder. And there he was: a man holding shopping bags, and holding up the might of the People’s Liberation Army as he stood defiantly in front of the lead tank.

Hairs stood up on my neck as I stepped back quickly to let Willie focus. Only minutes before, we’d filmed as people scattered and fell in one of the random volleys of automatic fire from troops in the square, to clear Changan, ironically named the Avenue of Eternal Peace.

Yet this lone protestor was clambering onto the top of the tank, remonstrating with the commander and another crewman who emerged from another turret. He could have been picked off by sharpshooters along the route or from within the tank itself. Or simply crushed, like many before in the horrendous prequel.

We watched as he stepped off the tank and stood to one side, vigorously waving the tank backwards towards the square. But with a belch of smoke, the tank started lurching forward several metres. Tank Man – he’ll forever be known as that – darted back in front of the steel monster. We held our collective breath. The tank stopped. More gesticulations came from the protestor. Then followed a feint and parry as the commander tried to steer his machine around him.

Just as it seemed this would be his dance of death, several bystanders raced across and bundled Tank Man to the other side of the boulevard and out of danger. He disappeared out of Willie’s lens frame and from sight forever.

Because we (ABC News Australia) were in a pool arrangement with the agency Visnews and the BBC and NBC among other networks, our footage would be disseminated widely and used by others. For decades, Willie  would not receive due credit.

How we got the footage out is a different heart-in-mouth tale. The Chinese authorities had pulled the plug on satellite dishes in Beijing. The only way to get the footage to the ABC in Sydney was to find a ‘pigeon’ carrier to take it to Hong Kong for satelliting from the Visnews office.

But we had to get the tapes to the airport first. The city was in martial lockdown. If we went ourselves, we’d almost certainly be held up and have our footage confiscated. Selecting what we hoped was a sympathetic local (Willie talked to him first) on a bicycle pedicab, we gave him our labelled brown bag package and a note. Our note was a plea to the recipient to get the footage out. We told him to cycle to the airport, go to the Qantas counter and give the bundle to someone in the check-in queue.

We gave our pigeon five hundred US dollars and off he pedalled. It worked!

The image of Tank Man has become one of the most recognisable in history. Time magazine included it in the 100 most influential images of all time.  Tank Man’s stand has become an international symbol of freedom and courage.

Willie was one of only three television cameramen to capture the Tank Man drama. The others were NBC’s Tony Wasserman and CNN’s Jonathan Schaer, who’d locked off his camera on his balcony. Several snappers took iconic stills including Jeff Widener (AP) , Stuart Franklin (Time/Life) and Charlie Cole (Newsweek) whose image was included in Life: 100 Photographs which changed the World.

On that balcony with us over those dreadful nights and days of June 3-4-5  – and with us in lead-up drama – was ABC radio’s Peter Cave, who filed riveting Walkley award-winning reports for both news and current affairs, and Willie’s nephews Sebastian Phua, Joe Phua and Jone Chang.

The doyen Willie Phua (centre) with his nephew Sebastian and Max Uechtritz when things were quiet a week before the massacre

The Phua clan was all based in ABC’s Singapore bureau.

Like generations of young, green ABC correspondents, I was guided through the drama by Willie, a legendary cameraman who himself had been inspired by the late, great Australian photo journalist Neil Davis. 

Willie’s efforts for the ABC and for Australia itself would eventually bring him an Order of Australia. This was no small achievement given that he is a Singaporean national! It happened because of determined efforts by a group of his old ABC colleagues. 

Willie was recognised for helping Australians understand the region with his footage from all the pivotal moments in Asia for more than 30 years. For many of us privileged to win Walkley awards and other gongs, we owe it to the dignified, modest little bloke on the other end of the camera. 

Willie is 91 now and still going strong. He loves nothing more than a ‘pork chop’ (in-house lore for a beer) with his Aussie mates.

ABC Radio’s award winning correspondent Peter Cave captures gunfire on his microphone as Max Uechtritz records a piece to camera filmed by Willie Phua.
The streets of Beijing in June 1989

  • source for 10,000 dead : recently declassified cable by UK ambassador June 5, 1989 with his source from inside China State Council

***Footnote: Sadly, we’ve lost Sebastian Phua to cancer but his brother Joe has become a legend in his own right with the BBC and, appropriately, will be filming Tiananmen Square anniversary events in Hong Kong this week – with former ABC correspondent now with the BBC, Stephen McDonnell.

‘People’s Power’ army turn back a false dawn for Tiananmen hopes

They were images that would have frozen the blood of China’s hardliners.

A 10,000-strong contingent of the People’s Liberation Army humiliated – by the people.

The fate of the Tiananmen Square protest was sealed in a sea of ‘victory’ signs overnight of June 2-3 in 1989 – caught in my small camera snapshots (photos above) of the so-called People’s Power turnback and the footage of our ABC cameraman Sebastian Phua.

The soldiers were brought to Beijing from the distant Sichaun province in China’s southwest and forced to march for hours to the city’s outskirts. They were unarmed. Their goal was to take Tiananmen Square.

We’d raced out into the night and the commotion. Large chanting crowds had blocked the troops just short of the square. There was no violence. The dishevelled young soldiers – many with sweaty tunics, caps  and even boots discarded – looked busted, bewildered and beaten.

Some were carrying their comrades too foot sore to continue on their own.

Protestors were clapping the retreating troops and calling out : “Long live the People’s Liberation Army” . “The people are the same as you” . “You have been used; you are innocent”.

Sebastian had a small footstool and climbed up to get some of the most memorable scenes recorded that night. It was an intoxicating atmosphere and all of a sudden it got even more heady as the people started singing The Internationale. Some might find this odd given that it’s the socialist anthem and was the de facto China communist party song. Democracy was the demand. But the core message of enslaved masses making a stand was a good fit, they explained.

Sebastian panned across the line of young, glistening faces as they sang the chorus. I’ll never forget that scene. It gives me chills every time I play it back, even now. If anything sums up the idealism that would be shattered within 24 hours , that piece of vision does.

Another image from the night that resonates so sadly: A protestor triumphantly holding up his trophies for the night – a pair of soldier’s boots and an army cap. 

Terror, not trophies, lay ahead.

The Goddess of Democracy … the flame of Tiananmen Square

From our ABC footage May 30, 1989

Thirty years ago today – May 30, 1989 – the Goddess of Democracy changed everything in China when she was erected in Tiananmen Square.

We were there; right at the very front with the students as they hauled the four giant pieces of plaster – head and torch segment in front – from the Beijing Technical College down to the square. People surged out of the darkness from all points. The procession became one million plus. Heart, hope and torches lit the route. 

We were ten days into martial law.

But rebellion, idealism and democracy fever cut through the air.

Chants went up: “People of China stand up” “Long live democracy”

The students began singing The Internationale. Spine tingling.

Doing my PTC as students sing The Internationale while hauling the Goddess to Tiananmen Square

ABC cameraman Sebastian Phua and cousin Chang on sound quickly motioned to me to do a PTC – trade for Piece to Camera. Reporting down the barrel of the camera. (*Their uncle and head of the ABC crew the legendary Willie Phua in coming days would film the Tank Man on June 4).

I did my PTC – which will be part of ABC Four Corners 30thanniversary special this coming Monday, June 3 – and Sebastian panned off to a rousing chorus of The Internationale anthem.

Sebastian Phua on camera with his cousin Chang

Everyone had thought the weeks-long Tiananmen protests had fizzled out. But the Goddess made sure it wasn’t – and made sure the end, when it did come, would be bloody. They erected the 10-metre high statue right in front of the portrait of Chairman Mao. Wise old Willie told us: “The Generals will not like this at all.” How right he was. For Sebastian – our talented, exuberant friend who we’d lose so damn early to the cancer curse – and for Chang and me, there was something surreal about the Goddess taking form in the square. Piece by Piece. You could almost smell the Politburo’s collective chagrin.

We filmed her with a giant rosy sun, almost an encouraging flame around her torch, as student sculptors clambered quietly on the scaffolding making the finishing touches. The crowds came back. Young mums and dads pedalled in, with their babies and toddlers in baskets in carts behind their bikes. It was quiet. Too quiet.

Photo: Max Uechtritz
The Goddess brings back the crowds


“Guadalcanal saved the Pacific, and the Coast Watchers saved Guadalcanal” – American Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey

Australians rightly are proud of the famous Coast Watchers for changing the course of the Pacific War  in WW2 – but too few know that some of the bravest of that illustrious group were Papuan New Guineans.

On ANZAC Day, let’s not forget Paramount Luluai Golpak MBE , Sir Simogun Pita MBE and their fellow PNG heroes.

Australians and Americans owe them a massive debt. Many owed them their lives. We all owe it to them to never forget.

Golpak and Simogun risked their lives – and that of their families – operating behind Japanese lines, fighting the enemy and gathering critical intelligence for the Allies. Between them they’d saved Diggers escaping the Fall of Rabaul and numerous downed US and Australian airmen.

They’d been recruited by legendary coast watchers Malcolm Wright, Peter Figgis and Les Williams.

Photo by George Oakes: 1961 unveiling the Memorial to Paramount Chief Golpak

Golpak was from Sali Village in Pomio (New Britain) where there’s a school named after him. In 1961 one of the pilots Golpak rescued, Wing Commander Bill Townsend, was on hand as a special memorial was unveiled in Sali. Townsend is pictured below with Golpak’s son Kaolea .

I am indebted to former Pomio Kiap George Oakes for these marvellous colour photos of that event.

Photo by George Oakes. Wing Commander Bill Townsend with Kaolea, son of the man who rescued the airman, Golpak.

Author Peter Stone (Hostages to Freedom, the Fall of Rabaul) wrote about Golpak: 

 “Golpak showed tremendous loyalty, initiative and ingenuity in resisting the Japanese, and in assisting downed airmen and Allied Intelligence Bureau units in East New Britain.”

The incredible bravery of men like Golpak and Simogun is highlighted in various other books including Patrick Lindsay’s excellent The Coast Watchers, Malcolm Wright’s If I dieand this special tome on the two men by Eric Johns.

Forged under fire, the bond between the Papua New Guineans and Australians was unshakeable and the latter group ensured the courage and service of their brothers-in-arms was not forgotten higher up in the army and establishment. Both men were honoured as Members of the British Empire.

Simogun was born at Bargedem in East Sepik and had connections to Salamaua. He’d joined the mandated Territory  of New Guinea police force and was a sergeant at Nakania in New Britain at the outbreak of the war. 

In December 1942 in Australia Simogun joined a coast watching patrol destined for West New Britain and led by the naval officer Malcolm Wright. After preparations near Brisbane, on 30 April 1943 the patrol was landed from the submarine USS Greenling at Baien village, near Cape Orford. An observation post was established, from which Japanese aircraft and shipping movements were reported. In October 1943 the party crossed the rugged interior of New Britain to Nakanai, where they operated as a guerrilla force. Simogun led local men in attacks on Japanese troops. About 260 were killed for the loss of only two men. The party was withdrawn in April 1944. Simogun is credited with having maintained the morale of the group under often very difficult circumstances. Warned that the operation would be dangerous, he had replied: ‘If I die, I die. I have a son to carry my name’. He was awarded the BEM for his war service. Later he entered politics.

Simogun was the only Papua New Guinean to serve on all four Legislative Councils, from 1951 to 1963. Elected to the first House of Assembly (1964-68) for the Wewak-Aitape electorate, he was an active and influential member and under-secretary for police. Dame Rachel Cleland observed that he was a natural orator, whom no one could equal in style.

Appointed MBE in 1971, Simogun was knighted, recommended by the government of Papua New Guinea in 1985. He had married three women: Wurmagien from Alamasek village, Wiagua (Maria) from Boiken, and Barai (Bertha) from Kubren village at Dagua. Wurmagien had two children, Wiagua one, and Barai eight. Sir Pita Simogun returned to Urip in the 1980s and died on 11 April 1987 at Wewak. He was buried with full military honours at Moem Barracks army cemetery.

Ah Chee: Gentleman hotelier and Gem of the Pacific

A rare photo of Ah Chee (centre) outside his hotel with two Australian friends who no doubt benefited from his famed generosity. Photo kindly supplied by Adam Peripatus Liu.

If Rabaul in its halcyon days was the pearl of the Pacific town, then the human gem of the Pacific was its famous hotelier Ah Chee.

A small man with a large heart, Ah Chee’s innate kindness, generosity to those in distress and quiet dignity made him deeply admired, respected and befriended across racial lines in a time when that was sadly uncommon.

On his death in 1933, The Pacific Islands Monthly published an extraordinarily moving tribute – titled A Chinese Gentleman – saying he would ‘be mourned around the world’ and on reading it (see below) you can understand why.

It’s the stuff of potential documentaries and feature films about one of the most colourful destinations in one of the most fascinating eras of Pacific history. Ah Chee (Chee Jour Chee) should be better known. He sits easily among the pantheon of early settler characters in New Guinea including Emma Forsayth, Richard and Phebe Parkinson, Ah Tam, Governor Albert Hahl, George Brown, Rudolph Wahlen, Jean Baptiste Mouton, Bishop Coupé and Peter ‘the island king’ Hansen.

Credit CHM Group, Papua New Guinea

But like Ah Tam (himself an inspiring story for another time), Ah Chee had a tougher path to success than the others, simply because the overt racism of the time against Chinese who’d been brought to the islands as ‘coolies’. Rather than harden his heart, this discrimination had the reverse effect on Ah Chee, who opened his doors and, by default through his generosity, his wallet … to all and sundry.

*Ah Chee was decorated by Germany for his kindness to Germans awaiting deportation during WW1 and honoured by Chiang Kai-shek for his many donations to Chinese causes. Many down and out Australians benefited from the generosity of the man who started life in Rabaul as a cook. He’d served as a boy steward with the British Fleet before being brought to Rabaul in 1912 under indenture to the NGK.*from author Peter Cahill Needed but not Wanted, Chinese in Rabaul 1884-1960

Ah Chee’s Hotel eventually became the Cosmopolitan Hotel and the establishment under both names spawned generations of experiences and legends. Errol Flynn was but one of the colourful guests.

Here is the PIM article, which appeared in ‘North of Twenty-Eight’ column, probably authored by RW Robson who later wrote the Queen Emma book.

A   Chinese   Gentleman  

“The   last   papers   from   Rabaul  tell   of   the   death   of   Ah   Chee,   who   will be   mourned   round   the   world.   Old   Germans,   of   the  Hasag- Hernsheim   era,   grieving   in   Hamburg   for   their   lost   estates   in  the   Mandate,   will   pause   sadly   to   remember   him,   and   hundreds   of   Australians  who   knew   him   will   join   them.  

 “‘Ah   Chee   kept   the   hotel   opposite   Ching  Hings  in  Rabaul,  on   the   corner   of  Chinatown.   Other   hostels   came   and  went.   The   new   post-war   Mandate   Administration   formed   three   clubs   and   a  “white”  pub   opened   its   doors,   but   “Ah  Chees’   survived.   

“There   was   a   large   bar  on   the   ground   floor   and   a   dining-room   in   which   an   old   German   musical   box   with   a   peculiarly   sweet   voice   played   “When  Irish   Eyes   Are   Smiling”   over   and   over  again. 

 “The   hotel   of   Ah   Chee   was   built   of  wood   and   set   on   volcanic   ground,  so   that  every   sound   in   it   was   amplified.   The   walls  of   its   bedrooms,   which   opened   through  French   lights   on   to   a   broad   verandah,  had   been   cut   off   a   foot   or   so   from   the   ceiling   for   ventilation.   Each   room   was  furnished   with   a   specklessly   clean   bed   with  a   sheet   and   a   mosquito-net,  a   washstand  and   one   chair.  

“Bed   is   the   coolest   place  in   Rabaul,  and   to   lie   there   in   the   evening   a   decade   ago   was   a   cosmopolian  adventure,   for   nothing   was   hidden   in   Ah  Chee’s.   You   could   hear   every   sound   in  the   bar—the   “prosits”   of   the   sad   expropriated,   the   “Ludwig-two-bottle-beer-he come”   of   the   Civil  Service,   the   arigatate  kamisen   of   the   visiting   Jap   skipper,   the  lusty   “Whisky   soda  along   King   George—  quick-time”   of   the  arrogant   police   in   for  their   free   “nine  o’clock”;   the  whispered   love   tale   on   the  verandah  ;   the   domes  tic   discussion   three  doors   down   ;   the   sage  debate   between   committeemen   as   to  whether   the   salary   of  you,   a   stranger,   would  be   £6OO   a   year,   which  would   make   you   eligible   for   membership  of   the   Rabaul   Club.  Somebody,  perhaps,  would   be   playing   a  concertina   round   the  corner,   not   loudly  enough   to   mute   the  malarial   sobbing   of   the   sick   Teutonic  planter   just   bereft   of   the   results   of   his  life   work.

 “Above   all   the   medley   song   would   rise.  

 “German   voices   in   the   dining-room   lifted  the   roof   with   “Ein   Pflanzer   auf   ein  Kiistenreis ”   The   musical   box   did   its  best;   the   picture-show   gramophone  across   the   road   blared   “Susie”;   the  stewards   off   the   Norwegian   boat   shouted  “Ja,   jeg   elsker   dette   landet”   without   blotting   out   the   insistent   “You   did,”   “I  didn’t”   of   two   Cantonese   engaged   in   a  long-drawn   quarrel   in   the   street   against  a   background   of   native   sing-sing   wafted   across   the   hot   kunai   grass   in   the   moist  square. 

 “Through   all   the   babel   and   turmoil  moved  Ah   Chee,   never   disturbed,   always  gentle,   kind   and   smiling.   When   the  young   Australian   girl   next   door   fell   ill  of   fever   and   the   oppression   of   the   tropic  atmosphere,   the   little   man   was   there   in  person   with   cool   drinks   and   comfort.  

 “When   the   drunken   sailors   on   the   steps  at   3   a.m.   were   moved   to   wrath   because  you   threw   water   on   them   as   they   sat  singing   “Ma,”   it   was   Ah   Chee   who  arrived,   placatory,   pleasant,   unruffled,  and,   looking   smaller   than   ever   in   a   pair  of   loose   pyjamas,   persuaded   the   outraged  mariners   not   to   knife   you   and  burn  the  house   down.  

 “Fights   in   the   bar,   attempted   suicides,  gurias   which   seemed   likely   to   shake  Rabaul   into   the   sea,   oppressive   ordinances,   cheeky   locals   —none   of   them  rattled   Ah   Chee.   

“And   the   poor   were  always   with   him.   The   German   deprived  of   his   property   by   the   fortune   of   war,  the  shell-shocked   youngster   ruined   by   high  living,   the   gambling   fool   with   the   empty  pocket,   the   weakling   taken   in   crime   and  in   search   of   bail,   the   hungry   and   the  thirsty,   deserving   and   undeserving—all  patronised   him.   Paper   and   pencils   were  cheap.   One   more   chit   would   be   added   to  the   pile   in   his   little   office   with   a   gentle  “Some   time   you   will   pay   me.”   But  nobody   ever   did.  

 “Ah   Chee   was   a   legend   through   the  Pacific.   He   even   got   into   the   songs   of  the   colorful   Bismarcks   in   the   days   when  “Willst   du   reich   werden”   was   still   sung:  

Will   you   be   wealthy?   Down   to   Rabaul   flit,  Stay   at   Ah   Chee’s   for   months   and   pay   by   chit;  

Fill   up   your   sleeves   with   ace   and   king   and  joker,Then   start   indulging   in   a   little   poker.  

Produce   those   jokers   from   your   sleeve—be  stealthy,  And   then   if   you   aren’t   caught   you’ll   soon   be  wealthy.  

 “A   fortnight   after   Ah   Chee   died, his  flowerlike   wife   and   his   fine   young   son  did   something   on   Christmas   Eve   which  must   have   pleased   the   spirit   of   the   little  hotelkeeper.   They   gave   a   banquet   in   his  memory.   Eighty   people   came   to   it.   Men   of   the   old   German   time,   civil   servants,  white   traders,   Orientals   joined   in   a   party  which   only   needed   the   Absent   Guest   of   Honor   to   make   it   a   representative   human  historical   gallery   of   all   Rabaul’s   past. 

 “But   I’ll   wager   that   a   good   many   of  the   guests   owed   Ah   Chee   a   lot   more  gratitude   than   is   represented   by   sitting  at   a   man’s   dinner-table   as   the   guest   of  his   estate. ” 

Ah Chee’s legacy continues to this day through his descendants in Papua New Guinea.

His son Chin Hoi Meen became a pillar of society, famous photographer and war hero who helped rebuild his beloved Rabaul after its destruction in World War Two.

*The hotelier’s son was given official recognition for his wartime bravery in 1949 when he was awarded the King’s Medal for courage and service in the cause of freedom.  This medal is intended to acknowledge those who perform “acts of courage entailing risk of life or for service entailing dangerous work in hazardous circumstances in furtherance of the Allied cause during the war.”

In 1954, Chin Hoi Meen was presented to the Queen as a war hero in Australia for his services to the Allied Forces and for risking his life to rescue two American pilots who were shot down. * courtesy Noel Pascoe

Ah Chee should be remembered as a Legend of Rabaul.

Photo courtesy of Adam Peripatus Liu

Shakespearean tragedy in Rabaul: the Earl of Chichester’s secret son and the famous priest who dared.

Arthur Savage (far right) and my mother Mary Louise Harris (fourth from left) taking their bows after performing in the ‘Ghost Train’ play at the Rabaul Dramatic Society in 1952

Few knew the secret of popular former Rabaul character Arthur Savage: he was the son of English nobleman, the Earl of Chichester.

Fewer people still knew that one of Rabaul’s most beloved identities – Father Bernard Franke – ignored strict Catholic rules to give Arthur a proper funeral and burial after he committed suicide thinking he had cancer.

He didn’t have cancer. But tragically his “all clear” medical advice arrived a week after his burial.

The revelation about Arthur Savage being of noble blood and his tragic end came from my mother Mary Louise Uechtritz before she passed away last year.

Arthur Savage (left) and Mary Lou Harris, engaged that night to my father Alf (right)

Arthur was a close family friend. He’d had walked Mum down the aisle and given her away at her wedding to Dad (Alf) at Rabaul’s Francis Xavier church on April 26, 1952. He was godfather to their first child, my eldest brother Peter. In a favourite family photo, a grinning Arthur is pictured with Mary Lou and Alf at the Frangipani fancy dress ball. Typically, the passionate art lover and thespian dressed as a French artist at Montmartre .

Arthur also wrote plays and performed in them for the Rabaul Dramatic Society. The production pictured in the title photo above was ‘Ghost Train’ and features Arthur (far right), my mother , Keith Armistead in the group.

My mother Mary Lou Harris (second from right) in the Ghost Train play produced by Arthur Savage

“He was extremely well educated and had a real love of literature and the fine arts,” Mum told me. “Arthur was the ‘illegitimate’ son of the Earl of Chichester, who was very fond of him and insisted he had the very best education.”

Arthur went to Beaumont College and then the famous Ampleforth College in Yorkshire (left)

It’s not certain how he ended up in New Guinea but he eventually ran the plantation Asalingi on the north coast for my Dad’s stepmother Rita (Uechtritz then Roberts ) and her second husband Tex Roberts.

Mum recounted with great merriment – for a lady herself raised by nuns in  a French convent in Wales  – how Arthur and his great friend Ned Shields were particularly fond of a drink and stayed up all night imbibing and carrying on.

“He and Ned would be up at dawn, whiskies in hand, wandering down the beach and into the sea fully clothed quoting Shakespeare,” she said.

Then came tragedy. Arthur contracted cancer of the oesophagus. I am not sure whether it was a false diagnosis, or he had an operation to remove the cancer. Anyway, Mum said Arthur couldn’t bear the thought of dying a slow, horrible death with chemotherapy and took his own life. His ‘all clear’ message from Sydney sadly arrived in Rabaul a week later.

Father Bernard Franke, beloved by generations of people of all races and religions in Rabaul and the islands 

Father Franke was in every sense the ‘people’s priest’. He ignored the Catholic ruling that those who had committed suicide were unable to be buried on sacred ground or receive a funeral Mass. He performed what can only be presumed was a clandestine funeral and Arthur was buried in Rabaul cemetery.

Arthurs father was the Sixth Earl of Chichester, Jocelyn Brudenell Pelham (correct spelling) who died in 1926. He was awarded an OBE in 1918. It is unknown whether Arthur maintained correspondence with him during his New Guinea years. Given Mum’s account of him, somehow I think he did.

More from Ghost Train. My mother Mary Lou third from right.
Rabaul Dramatic Society: Photo on the right is labelled ‘Norma” but no surname. No label for man on left.
Rabaul Dramatic Society: Both these photos are labelled Wally Fishwick, so either father and son or a mistake