A pilgrimage to Rabaul: Ken Hayes
As a small boy I was aware that my uncle, John William Hayes, went to war and I remember having my photo taken with him in uniform on what would have been his last leave home to Hamilton, Victoria, in 1940. My grandmother received official notice of his death from the War Department in October 1945, after wondering for three years what had happened to him as a POW of the Japanese.
My grandmother was very anti–Japanese but, before she died in 1961, she suggested I visit Rabaul. I learnt much later that two of my mother’s cousins, brothers Basil and Rex Wythe, were also part of Lark Force 2nd/22nd Battalion and were on the Montevideo Maru with John. It has taken me 54 years to make the Journey to Rabaul.
My wife, Barbara, and her family also have connections with men who were captured or escaped from New Britain and New Ireland. Her father, Cecil Diprose, owned a property near Cavendish, Victoria, and the next door neighbours were the Saligari family. The eldest son of the family was Edward (Ted) Saligari, a member of Lark Force who escaped.
We have also come into contact with other people who have Rabaul connections, many of them children of Missionaries who were victims of the Japanese. Since 2008 I have been the Almoner for the Brighton RSL (SA) Sub-Branch and have met many men, such as Bruce Reid, who had connections with Rabaul and listened to their stories.
When flying to Canberra in June 2010 for the announcement by the Federal Labour Government of the Contribution to the Montevideo Maru Memorial I sat near Norm Furness, who noticed my RSL badge. Through conversation we established that he had enlisted with my uncle John at Caulfield. Norm stood in front of John in the queue. Their enlistment numbers were Norm VX23557 and John VX23568. They were great mates but lost contact on 23 January 1942 when the Japanese invaded Rabaul. In Canberra, I met Lois Newman from Bendigo who heard me mention the name Wythe. She said her friend, Jan Myers, was the daughter of Basil Wythe. Lois said her friend was not aware she had any living Wythe relatives. In 2011 we made contact with Jan and her husband Ron and they were very excited to learn she had many Wythe cousins.
Our Journey to Rabaul
As a result of Andrea Williams’ visit to Adelaide in October 2014, we finally decided to visit Rabaul. As suggested by Andrea we made contact with Susie McGrade and arranged to stay at the Rabaul Hotel. Both were most helpful in discussing an itinerary and transport.
On Monday 13 July our guide, Albert Koni, with his driver and assistant took us to the 2/22nd Lark Force and Montevideo Maru Rock Memorial, at Simpson Harbour. The loss of the Montevideo Maru is still today Australia’s largest maritime tragedy with over 1053 men and boys who died in Subic Bay off the island of Luzon on 1 July 1942. We then visited the ‘Hot Springs’ past the original airport site, where the water temperature is up to an amazing 100°C. Next we went to Yamomoto’s underground Bunker and across to the New Guinea Club, now the Rabaul Historical Society Museum, where we had a brief stop to look at the many items of WW2 memorabilia. The New Guinea Club was the last bastion of Colonial Rule in the islands. Originally a Gentlemen’s club with strict guidelines, it was destroyed in both world wars, was rebuilt in the 1950s to its former glory, only to be destroyed again by fire in 1994 with further damage by the 1994 volcanic eruptions. It has since been partially restored by a few staunch members who wish to preserve Rabaul’s history.
On to the Japanese plane wreck ‘Big Betty’, partly covered by pumice and jungle growth, and then up to Tunnel Hill and the Volcano Observatory and Lookout. This is where seismic activity is monitored and it provides a magnificent view of Rabaul and Simpson Harbour.
On Tuesday we learnt about the activities of the Japanese and visited many of the underground tunnels, which included the underground Hospital and Barge tunnels. There are an estimated 500 miles of tunnels and caves. The hospital on three levels covers a huge area with many steps and stairs cut into the rock. We were provided with torches and moving around was quite a challenge. The barge tunnels go deep into the mountain side and three barges are available for public view. Bruce Reid, one of our local veterans, clearly remembers the site of the rail lines and the Japanese barges from his days there in 1945/46.
A Japanese Floating Crane has been left on the shore line as a reminder that the Allies were able to bomb it before it could be used.
A major highlight was the visit to the Bita Paka Memorial War Cemetery, where we found the names of Ken’s relatives on the Missing In Action panels. In the June edition of Una Voce there is an informative article about the site written by Don Hook.
On the third day we visited a United Church Technical High School in Rabaul and met the Chaplain before going to the Mask Festival in Kokopo. This is an annual event which attracts people from all over the world. Papua New Guineans wear colourful national costumes and perform dances. Stalls sell crafts and food and sponsors advertise their businesses. The evening program was a Fire dance.
On Thursday we travelled to the Village of Malmaluan, high on the ridge, to visit the Principal, Rev. Abraham Toroi, at his United Church School for Skills and Leadership. It is a very happy and beautiful place, badly in need of improved resources. We then went on to Tung Naparau Memorial Reserve which commemorates the death of the first Christian Missionaries of 1878.
We went to the Historical Society Museum with Susie and daughter Rosie and met with the Curator and David Flynn. They are working very hard to obtain resources to preserve the local history.
We enjoyed a visit to the local markets with the Hotel ‘Girls’ to buy supplies. All were very friendly and helpful.
We were also reminded of the WW1 sites and visited many of them including the HMAS Berrima landing site.
Much of Rabaul has not been rebuilt since the severe 1994 volcanic eruption. Most of the major business and administration has been moved to Kokopo, which is now the capital of East New Britain Province.
We enjoyed a very busy and memorable visit.