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52 posts from July 2009

The fateful order: ‘Continue loading copra’

Rev Neville Threlfall

MS_Herstein The failure to evacuate civilians on the Norwegian freighter Herstein [left], in port at Rabaul in January 1942 just ahead of the Japanese invasion, occurred because of an order that the ship was to "continue loading copra".

It is usually stated that the Curtin Government made this heartless response to the request by Harold Page, Deputy Administrator at Rabaul, that Australian civilians, except for some essential personnel, be evacuated on the Herstein.

But who was actually responsible for that order? Prime Minister John Curtin had his hands full with the 8th Division fighting a losing battle in Malaya and other Australian troops fighting in North Africa, where Tobruk had just been relieved.

It is extremely doubtful that he knew about Page's request. The request was sent to the Department of External Territories, which passed it on to the Treasury because of the commercial importance of the copra waiting to be loaded at Rabaul.

Again, it is doubtful whether Treasurer JB (Ben) Chifley saw it. Some Commonwealth departments were located in Melbourne and some were in Canberra. Cabinet ministers were kept busy shuttling between the two cities (costing the lives of three ministers when their plane crashed near Canberra in 1940.) More likely a public servant in the Treasury made the decision, for that is where the reply originated.

My authority for this is an interview with the late Jim Burke in 1981. Jim was employed in the Public Service of the Mandated Territory in 1941 and, when Australian women and children were evacuated from Rabaul on the Neptuna and the Macdhui on 22 December 1941, he was posted to the Neptuna as welfare officer for the evacuees.

When he reported to External Territories in Australia he was told not to return to Rabaul and was seconded to the Treasury for the rest of the war. While working there Jim saw the original of the telegram: “Continue loading copra”.

Page’s first telegram was sent on 16 January 1942. He repeated his request on the 19th, while copra loading continued. But the only answer came from Japanese dive-bombers, which on 20 January set the Herstein’s cargo ablaze and reduced her to a total wreck.

Harold Page was a very correct public servant and had obeyed orders.

Weeks later he confided to his fellow-prisoner Gordon Thomas that he now wished that he had acted on his own initiative and carried out the evacuation without official permission; but it had not entered his head to do so at the time.

Page himself would have remained in Rabaul in any case, with a few others to maintain order; but in the end he joined the other Rabaul civilians on the Montevideo Maru who paid with their lives for the demand to “continue loading copra”.

History Channel commissions MvM documentary

Movie On the 67th anniversary of Australia’s greatest maritime disaster, the History Channel announced it has commissioned a two-part TV documentary to commemorate the sinking of the Japanese POW hell ship, Montevideo Maru and, the publicity claims, “uncover the mystery behind it”.

The series will premiere on the History Channel in late 2009. Entitled The Tragedy Of The Montevideo Maru, it will tell the story of how, on 1 July 1942, the Japanese was torpedoed in the early hours of the morning off the Philippines’ coast by the USS Sturgeon.

What the Americans did not realise at the time was that the ship was in fact a floating prison - holding over 1000 Australian POWs and civilians. Not one of them survived.

Group channel manager for Foxtel’s History Channel, Jim Buchan, said “We’re thrilled to be able to continue our commitment to commissioning vital Australian documentaries for our national audience.

“In the tradition of event television such as The Battle of Long Tan, Beyond Kokoda, and He’s Coming South, we regard the visual documentation of Australia’s history an important part of remembering the legacy left behind by our brave men and women for the next generation.”

Mr Buchan said the documentaries will ensure that the brave Australian soldiers who served on New Britain and New Ireland, and who perished on that fateful night, will never be forgotten.

The documentary is produced by film maker John Schindler.