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Was there a Rabaul atrocities cover-up?


Page_harold I READ with interest the article on the loss of the Montevideo Maru and wish to share the following regarding one of those presumed to have been lost on the ship - Harold Hillis Page [left] who was acting Administrator in Rabaul at the time of the invasion.

I was a kiap from 1968 to 1981 in a range of positions across the country. I went there to see what my father had done during World War II with the 2/14 Battalion.

As secretary of the Battalion’s post-war Association, I was contacted by Albert Speer, formerly Deputy Director of Health in the pre-Independence administration. He was enquiring after the verification of facts behind a wartime photograph of a temporary cemetery of 2/14 Bn soldiers at Gona.

Albert had been a medical orderly required to visit the coastal region after the Lamington eruption to investigate possible resettlement sites for survivors of the eruption. He came across a cemetery similar to the one in the photo that he was advised contained the bodies of approximately 12 Europeans who were alleged to have been brought over from Rabaul with the initial invasion fleet.

Whilst it is well known that many Rabaul nationals were brought over to act as carriers for the Japanese troops, Albert's source who was one of the survivors and had become a policeman, advised him that there were about a dozen Europeans brought across as well to advise the Japs on conditions, tracks and locations on the route to Port Moresby.

One of these was alleged to be Page. Apparently they refused to cooperate and were executed at Gona and their bodies left in the bush. The Gona villagers then quietly buried them for the duration of the war until the Japanese were defeated and then formalised the cemetery.

 The various temporary military cemeteries in the area were mapped when created and, at the end of the war, the bodies disinterred and relocated to Kokoda first then Bomana by the War Graves Commission.

Our Association could not help Albert as my father considered the photograph was that of the military cemetery it claimed to be. He had very vivid memories of Gona and the cemetery.

As a military historian, I have read much on the fall of Rabaul and it is well considered that the Japanese used the loss of the Montevideo Maru to cover up many of the war crimes committed in the weeks after the fall of the town.

 It is alleged that many soldiers and civilians executed at Tol and other locations had their names added to the manifest of the ship after it was sunk in an attempt to cover up the war crimes.

Harold Page is alleged by Albert to be one of those names due to his belief in the veracity of what he saw and was told after the Lamington eruption.

Photo: Major Harold Page (Pacific Islands Monthly)


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Basil Peutalo

The wreckage could have been truly covered by sediment. A loose part of its fuselage made a good musical instrument for us school children at that time.

The mission jetty was some 500 yards from the estuary of the Kavu River, opposite Ruach village. I was not sure if anybody - Australian, American or Japanese - came around inspecting it, unless after I had left for high school in Rabaul.

I was born 1 June 1952. Started my schooling in 1961 under a 4-Corner fruit tree in front of the Parish Priest House at Kavu.

George Oakes

Hi Basil - I do not recall ever hearing about a plane crash during the war near Uvol. Do you know whether it was ever reported and the wreckage examined? Is it a Japanese or Australian or American plane?

Perhaps someone reading this will know what to do in regard to checking it out if it has not already been reported. Unfortunately, several of the kiaps who were at Pomio around my time have now passed on.

From what you are saying, you must have been born between about 1955 and 1963. Is your Village Book still in existence? This might help you identify it more accurately.

I know when I was there I did regular annual census patrols to what we called Coastal Melkoi.

Thank you for your reply.

Basil Peutalo

Hi Mr George Oakes - And very privileged to meet you albeit electronically.

I must have been either in my mother's arms or standing among my siblings in attendance at the village roll calls on regular patrol by the Kiap to Uvol then.

An uncle of my mother was our village Tultul during those times till he died in 1965.

Thank you for the information on the death of Fr Culhane. His cemetery is still on the beachfront outside the Uvol Sub-Health Centre.

And thank you for correction of the killing of some men from our village by the Japanese. Indeed Golpak senior is a historical figure in Pomio and on New Britain Island.

By the way, have any of you Kiaps of Pomio at that time been told of a plane wreck lying on the bank of the Kavu River some distance up from the Mission Jetty? We used to go bathing on its wings when swimming durng school lunch breaks.

Good to have met up with you who have walked our land in those days.

George Oakes

Hi Basil - I know your area quite well. I was the kiap at Pomio from 1959 to 1963. Father Culhane's death is recorded in the civilian list of expatriates who died in the New Guinea Islands which is on website.

Father Harris of Malmal was also killed by the Japanese. I never heard of any Pomio or Melkoi people being killed by the Australians but I do know that quite a few were tortured and executed by the Japanese including Paramount Luluai Golpak's son-in-law; and his daughter was imprisoned by the Japanese and raped.

Golpak did a very good job in the war saving Australian and American pilots who were shot down over New Britain. For his bravery he was awarded an MBE and the Loyal Service Medal. We erected a memorial to Golpak at Pomio in 1961.

Uvol is in a lovely part of New Britain. I visited your village on a number of occasions. Perhaps some of your older folk may remember me. I was known as 'Kiap Okis'.

Basil Peutalo

I am not an historian let alone having any substantive understanding of historical events that took place in New Britain Island during the WW2.

However, I have heard from our people in the village (Uvol in the Melkoi LLG Area of Pomio District, ENBP) of some killings some of our village men by the Japanese or Allied Forces on the beach of our Uvol Village.

I guess a killing that may have been officially recorded was that of the Irish Parish Priest of Uvol, Rev William Culhane MSC.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Rabaul may have some notes on this particular killing.

What about the killing of civilians from Uvol village?

George Oakes

I also agree there was a cover up of war crimes committed in the weeks after the fall of Rabaul.

I have proof that two New Ireland civilians whose names are on the Montevideo Maru list were killed near Kavieng.

I have prepared a list of all civilians lost in the New Guinea Islands during the war, who lived there before the war, totalling 275 and this list is recorded on web site. The list does not show where the people died.

I also have an article 'Are the Montevideo Maru Lists of Prisoners Correct?' on the Lost lives web site under Places - Memorials. A majority of the civilians on the above list are shown on the Montevideo Maru list.

The Montevideo Maru was going to Hainan where the prisoners may have been going to work in the mines. Would the Japanese be wanting to take people to work in the mines who were over 40?

A look at the civilian list mentioned above shows the majority of civilians on this list were over 40. Did they go on the Montevideo Maru?

Peter Kranz

From the Australian Dictionary of Biography -

"His (Harold's) son Robert, a captain in an Australian commando unit, was captured and executed by the Japanese in Singapore in July 1945 after attempting to repeat a daring raid on shipping in Singapore harbour in September 1943, for which he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order."

Peter Kranz

Was Harold the brother of the Australian Prime Minister Earle Page? It appears so.

Correct - KJ

Helen Earle Page Snyders

Thank you for this. I am a great-niece of Harold Hillis Page and am relieved to read this.

We also believe there was a cover up of the war crimes committed in the weeks after the fall of Rabaul.

Very sadly, there was a similar cover up of the death of Harold's son, Robert Page, executed by the Japanese three weeks before the end of WW2 at Bukit Timah, Singapore.

I wished to express my appreciation.

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