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Obituary: Alf Uechtritz, an epic PNG life

PNG pioneer Alf Uechtritz dies at 82

Alf Uechtritz, who died yesterday at the age of 82, was a member of one of PNG’s great pioneering families. He was the grandson of Phebe Parkinson, daughter of a Samoan princess and sister of ‘Queen Emma of the South Seas’. When Emma was establishing her trading empire in New Britain and New Ireland, she asked Phebe and her husband Richard to join her, thus establishing a famous PNG dynasty. In 2003, Alf wrote this memoir of his grandmother.

My parents parted in 1930 when I was four. So it was that our Grandmother Phebe Parkinson spent a lot of time with us at Sum Sum Plantation (New Britain). Granny Parkinson ran the household and was still there when I left for boarding school in Australia at the age of seven in 1934.

Everyone, black, white, and brindle loved Gran. She was a happy person, gentle and soft spoken but a great organiser with a twinkle in her eye. All the piccaninnies and the labour line would always run to her. They would do anything for her. I loved to listen to stories told by Gran about the early years in Samoa as well as the early years of settlement at Kuradui and Ralum, Malapau and also about Gunantambu, my Aunt Emma's place.

She described her trips with Grandpa into the bush and down the coast to gather artifacts and get material for the book my Grandfather later published Thirty Years in the South Seas. Grandfather spoke German, Danish and English but Gran could also speak the local Tolai language and was able to pick up enough of other dialects to translate for Grandpa.

I last saw Gran in Christmas 1937. By that time Granny had left Sum Sum and was living with her eldest grandchild Rudi Diercke on a plantation near Kokopo, which Rudi was managing for Carpenters. She still had a small block of land near Raluana Village with a small house and stayed there at times. When we returned for Christmas 1938 Gran had moved, with Rudi, to a plantation in New Ireland.

In December 1942 we had a knock on our door around midnight. It was a Seventh Day Adventist from Kambubu who told us that all women and children had to be in Rabaul the next day to be evacuated on the Macdhui to Australia. We hurriedly packed and left in their workboat for Kambubu to collect the women and children there and then proceed to Rabaul. We arrived in Rabaul at daybreak and headed for the Macdhui which was berthed nearby. The Australian administration was supposed to have notified all families about the evacuation. However they had not notified us - probably because my stepmother was married to a German. Phebe and Rudi also had not been informed and so it was that Phebe missed out on being safely evacuated.

Parkinson_Phebe After the Japanese occupation Phebe and Rudi were allowed to stay on Komalu plantation as they were classified as German. However, in late 1944 an American bomber was shot down by a Zero. The pilot, Lt Byron Heichel, belly landed the aircraft on the reef off Komalu homestead. Three men on the plane were dead and three others were seriously injured. Rudi and his boys brought the injured men to the Komalu homestead and Granny tried her best to save them. Rudi said that Gran's bedroom was a mess of blood and torn sheets to use as bandages. Unfortunately these three airmen also died and Rudi had a large grave dug on Komalu and the six dead airmen were buried there.

The next day Japanese soldiers landed and took the rest of the crew prisoner. The Japanese accused Rudi and Granny of harbouring allied airmen and took them to a POW camp at Bo just out of Namatanai. Rudi, with the help of some bois, built a small bush house for Granny and himself to live in. Food was very short. The Japs gave them nothing. There were many Chinese and mixed race people in that camp. All had to make their own gardens. With not enough food and no medicines Granny Parkinson died. She was 81.

In July 2002 I attended the Memorial Service, in Kavieng, for all those who had been killed or died under the Japanese in New Ireland. We did not know where her grave was. Unbeknown to me, my son Gordon had made some enquiries. Gordon set out for Namatanai and approached an old native named Das Das and when asked 'wanpela missis I die pinis na planimnabout' said he knew and led Gordon about 500 yards from his house to the grave site of Phebe Parkinson.

Gordon noticed a Tanget bush planted at the head of the grave and asked Das Das whether he planted it there. Das Das said that he had planted it there because, when the missis was buried they could hear her voice, very unhappy, crying out that she wanted to be planted in her own ground. That evening at the Memorial dinner in Kavieng, Gordon returned and told me he had found Gran's grave!

Source: Extracts from a memoir by Alf Uechtritz


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Kim Barbagallo

I was actually there at the time Phoebe was found. This was not the first time her family had looked for her and it was pretty miraculous how everything came together to find her on that day.

It was such an emotional time for the whole Uechtritz family and it was such an honour to see Alf's lifelong dream of finding Phoebe come to life.

I think of Alf every Anzac day. He was one of the most amazing people I've ever met. I would listen to his stories of Rabaul and his family and was in total awe.

He would be over the moon about the latest finding of the Montevideo Maru. He told us all about that story and how the ship was sunk. Fascinating man and incredible human being.

Anne Wong

I saw the movie Finding of Phebe (Australian Stories)and enjoyed that. My grandmother who was a Caroline Schmidth (nee Thiel) has told us many years ago that she was raised by Pheobe. I am interested to find out more information on this.



Dietrich v. Uechtritz

I happened to meet him in Germany several years ago and I wish I could´ve heard more about his exciting and very interesting life. The movie "Finding Phebe" (Australian Stories) is a short and and personally for me unsufficient hint of these probably numerous stories which should be kept in memory.

Diane Bohlen

Good stuff, I like reading biographies.

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