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Remembering the 'Herstein' scandal

Peter Jackson

I'm reading a book on the history of Australia and New Zealand troopships from 1865 through to Vietnam. The suffering many of the troops experienced on these ships almost makes you want to weep and is something that has, like the Montevideo Maru tragedy, received very little publicity.

Herstein There were several ships sent south from Rabaul in the lead-up to its fall in January 1942 that could have carried civilians. You may know the story of the Herstein, a Norwegian freighter that, after unloading military supplies in Port Moresby, went on to Rabaul to load a cargo of copra. It arrived on 19 January 1942. The deputy administrator, HH Page, sent a request to Canberra that the ship be used to remove civilians immediately.

Incredibly, he was told that no personnel were to be evacuated, and the ship was to be loaded as planned. Accordingly, instead of boarding 300 or more civilians and leaving the danger area immediately, Herstein remained at Rabaul overnight loading copra, and was still there next morning, 20 January, when Japanese bombers raided the town.

Herstein was hit repeatedly by dive-bombers and set on fire. It drifted across the harbour, ran aground and burned all night. I assume no one was ever brought to account for the missed opportunities (manslaughter really) in evacuating civilians from Rabaul.

By the way, I was unaware of the complete cock-up with the first convoy (Aquitania the troopship, Sarpedon and Herstein, freighters) to Port Moresby. The covoy carried 4,250 troops of the 39th and 53rd Militia Battalions and 10,000 tons of equipment and supplies. As a judicial commission later found, due to "gross carelessness and incompetence" in Sydney, all of the camping equipment needed by the troops was stowed at the bottom of the cargo holds. Thus, when landed the troops had no tents or other basic facilities.

To quote from the book: "Without tents, beds, mosquito nets, sanitary and cooking facilities, the men were in a very poor state, and even when the equipment was unloaded it was discovered that there were insufficient sanitary pans and mosquito nets. Many men came down with fevers, and there was general discontent, leading to an outbreak of lawlessness and a complete breakdown in discipline."

Much blame was placed on the unit commander, Major General Morris. But Morris was strongly defended by General Blamey who in turn put some of the blame on the "lamentably poor quality and discipline of the troops". These were the same blokes who went up to the Kokoda Trail.

‘Across the Sea to War’ by Peter Plowman, 2003, 504 pp, Rosenberg Publishing, Dural NSW, ISBN 1877058068


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