The fateful order: ‘Continue loading copra’
01 July 2009
Rev Neville Threlfall
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
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
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
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
When he reported to External Territories in Australia
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”.