PNGAA Library

Sentimental journey to Rabaul: Janet Johnston

Friday 24 April 1997 was such a significant day for me. My husband, Ian, and I flew to Port Moresby, fulfilling a promise I had made to myself that I would spend my 60th birthday in the town in which I was born, Rabaul. I was born on 8 May 1937 in the Namanula Hospital and had never returned.

The last time I flew across the coral sea was on my way to Australia on 28 December 1941 with my mother, Rita Anderson, who was eight months pregnant. We were evacuated from Rabaul because of the imminent Japanese invasion.

We were living on Pondo Plantation, where my father, Dudley (Andy) Anderson, was a Clerk/Accountant with W.R. Carpenters and Co. He had been working in New Guinea since 1928, with Burns Philp and then with Carpenters. After marrying in Melbourne in 1935 my parents lived in Rabaul, then moved to Kavieng, before Father was transferred to Pondo.

Mother and I travelled to Melbourne by steam train. Her only possessions were in one small suitcase. We stayed with her sister in North Brighton where my sister, Barbara, was born on 25 January 1942.

My father stayed on Pondo plantation, together with other civilian men. We were reunited in Melbourne in April 1942.

Ian and I arrived in Port Moresby on 24 April 1997. The next day was Anzac Day and we attended the Anzac Day Service at Bomana War Cemetery. It was a short Ceremony but very moving, so full of sorrow and appreciation.

Back in Port Moresby we found the original Burns Philp Building shown in an old photo of mine taken from a wharf in the 1920s. It is now dwarfed by high rise buildings, but still there.

From Port Moresby we went to Goroka where we visited neat and tidy villages with flowers and vegetables surrounding the round, thatched roofed houses. Scarlet poinsettias were everywhere. We also attended a performance at the Roun Roun Theatre and visited the Mud Men. Then it was on to Mt Hagen, Madang, Kavieng and, finally, Rabaul.

Flying in to Rabaul we could see the smoking crater of Tavurvur. I could hardly believe that I was actually seeing the harbour with the volcanos I had heard so much about. The Bee Hives were clearly visible and we glimpsed Rabaul in the distance. Mother and I (three weeks old) were among the women and children evacuated when Tavurvur and Vulcan erupted on 29 May 1937.

On the way into Rabaul, Tavurvur roared and belched and spewed out a cloud of steam and dust. A wonderful greeting after 56 years! We were shocked to see the complete devastation. Tree stumps, bare trees, broken branches, some tall palms waving in the warm gritty breeze, rubble, the remains of buildings covered in metres of ash, roads undefined. Everything was grey, including the water.

We walked up to the site where the old Namanula Hospital, where I was born, used to be.

On Thursday 8 May, my birthday, we visited the sights of Rabaul: the devastated town, the Vulcanologist Observatory, hillsides where the Japanese dug tunnels during their occupation, Submarine Base and Nodup beach.

After dinner a Birthday Cake arrived, Happy Birthday was sung and Champagne poured. My wish had come true. I spent my 60th birthday in the town where I was born: Rabaul.

Jan wrote the following about the Japanese Memorial in Rabaul:

I was so interested in the feelings of the Rabaul residents about the building of the Japanese Memorial. As I mentioned, it was interesting and a surprise to see it sitting up there but I must admit I did wonder how they were able to get approval to build it and in such a prominent position after the terrible acts they committed during their occupation of the country during the War.

I am reading Patrick Lindsay’s book The Coast Watchers at the moment. He describes so well the history and events of those terrible days during 1941–45 and the people who were involved. Such hardship and how brave and committed they were.

I looked at the web site of the Rapopo Plantation Resort and was amazed! Has it been built on the original site of the plantation home where Ian and I had morning tea all those years ago with Gail and Mike Luxmore? If so, what a beautiful position. I have a photo taken then, standing on the lawn, white coral beach in front looking out over the harbour with the two volcanoes in the distance. Smoking Tavurver on the right, Vulcan on the left. The house and plantation were behind me.