History Channel commissions MvM documentary
Australia should pause and remember: Minister

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”.


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Chris Diercke

From the National Archives of Australia:

Department of External Territories
Canberra ACT
10th December,1945.


1. Following on the outbreak of war in the Pacific area, War Cabinet approved on 12th December,1941 that immediate steps were to be taken for the compulsory evacuation to Australia from the Mandated Territory of New Guinea and Papua of all women and children other than Missionaries, who might wish to remain and Nurses. The evacuation was commenced on 18th December 1941, and approximately 1,800 women and children were brought to Australia.

2. On 15th January,1942, the Deputy Administrator at Rabaul requested that urgent consideration should be given to the position of the civilian population remaining in the Territory and, if necessary, their evacuation. The matter was placed immediately before the Prime Minister and the Defence Authorities. War Cabinet considered the matter on 19th January,1942 when it approved of the following recommendations of the Chiefs of Staff.

(i) It is undesirable that any unnecessary civilian personnel should remain in Rabaul and adjacent islands and such personnel should be evacuated as and when transport is available. As a preliminary step, the Deputy Administrator, Rabaul should provide information as to the numbers of the civilian population that could advantageously be evacuated.

(ii) It is important that civil administration in all Territories controlled by Australia should be maintained as long as is necessary and possible,and the withdrawal of administrative officers, so long as there is work for them to do, is deprecated.

This decision was sent by radio to Rabaul on 20th January,1942, but it is doubtful whether the message was received. A heavy enemy attack on the town occurred on that day and the only vessel that could have been used for evacuation purposes was completely destroyed in Rabaul Harbour. At 4pm on 22nd January wireless communication with Rabaul ceased, and the enemy landing occurred on the morning of 23rd January.

Don Hook

The Montevideo Maru has had great coverage today in the ACT and surrounding NSW.

The Canberra Times has given my story a full page in its magazine section with pics of the ship (AWM 042334) and Australian Army nurses - with PNG troops in the background - laying wreaths in Rabaul to mark the fourth anniversary of the sinking (AWM 124109).

The article itself is headed: ‘Tragic tale of torpedoed ship’ with a sub heading: ‘The sinking of the Japanese prison ship Montevideo Maru 67 years ago is Australia's greatest maritime disaster and a number of outstanding issues remain unresolved, Don Hook writes.’

Breakfast presenter Ross Solly from the ABC's 666 did a Q&A lasting about three minutes leading into the 7.45 am news. It seemed to flow well.

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