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John May, Lark Force chaplain, dies in Hobart

A GREAT Australian died today.

Rev John May OBE, chaplain to Lark Force in Rabaul at the time of the Japanese invasion in January 1942, died peacefully this morning in Hobart Private Hospital after a severe stroke last Wednesday. He was 95.

John was one of two padres attached to Lark Force and, after being captured, was sent to Japan on the Naruto Maru and was imprisoned in Zentsuji POW camp.

After World War II, as a survivor, he became an important link between the relatives of the men who died and the events on the Gazelle Peninsula in the early months of Japanese occupation.

For many people, he was able to bring the last account of their loved one's life in captivity.

He was to write of those days:

After the first day or so the nurses were able to come down from the mission, under guard, morning and afternoon and spend most of the day at the hospital (Vunapope).

Before long the guard was given up and they came and went quite freely. We were afraid that they might be molested, either at the mission or as they went to and fro.

They told us that on three occasions at night some soldiers (Japanese) probably drunk, did try to get into the convent, but were kept out. They also told us that they complained to the authorities and the nuisance was stopped.

No one could adequately tell how much the nurses (Australian) did for morale. Their quiet competence in treating the sick, with only a meagre supply of the usual medicines, the mending and the other things they did--making two shirts for me from the BR cloth--their steady concern and cheerfulness, meant that we managed to keep up our spirits.

Each day we got two large loaves of bread and some other items. One rather tricky task was to cut the bread-- some 35 to 40 slices from each loaf, so that each person got one slice and there was not one left over.

There was of course a demand for tobacco. Our meagre supplies did not last long. The mission people were generous in sending us some of the cigars made at the mission. These we cut up and shared. We acquired also sticks of trade tobacco, Beaconsfield Twist which we washed, cut up with old razor blades, dried in the sun and rolled in any sort of paper we could find.

We had no reliable source of news. If the Japanese were particularly pleased, they would make a big announcement, as when Singapore fell, about three weeks after we were captured. We heard an occasional report about some of our people from stragglers who came to give themselves up.

On 28 April 1942, the last of the staff and patients were taken into Rabaul. The nurses were kept at Vunapope. On 5 July they were brought to join the officers aboard the vessel Naruto Maru, and go to Japan.

The story of their subsequent privation and humiliation is yet another indictment of the behaviour of the Japanese towards the men and women who they took as prisoners.

And in another letter he wrote to a bereaved family, the Oakes:

I was in Rabaul POW camp from 29 April to 22 June 1942, during which time I frequently saw and spoke to Mr Oakes. Early on the morning of Sunday 22 June, the whole camp was roused and all the civilians and military personnel (except officers and eight civilians) were later marched out of camp. I saw Mr Oakes march out with them.

The Japanese told us that they were being taken to a ship [which was the Montevideo Maru]. Later we heard that they had left Rabaul and the Japanese report was that the ship had reached its destination, a journey supposed to be covered in 4 or 5 days.

None of us saw the prisoners march on to the ship because the camp was not visible from the water, but there is not the least doubt in any of our minds but that the men sailed on that day.

While I was in Japan a certain camp official Lieut Hosotani told certain prisoners that the ship carrying the Rabaul personnel had been sunk. (This was not official, nor was it public in the camp.)

From a personal standpoint, may I add that there has been no doubt in my mind that all those fellows have gone. It has been a grievous shock, especially when there has been so long a period of anxiety and uncertainty preceding it.

I knew Dan (as we called him) and can speak of the great help he was in a number of ways to his comrades. His health was good and his spirits of the most cheerful.

Please accept my sincerest sympathy. This has been a distressing affair, but we can be glad in knowing that the end must have been swift and clean, and they are now at rest. God be with you and yours.

Soon after he returned from captivity in Japan, John spent some time at Oxford in England and later he became chaplain at Royal Military College Duntroon.

He is survived by his wife, Mary, and family members. Mary has asked that donations be made to the Montevideo Maru memorial fund instead of flowers at the funeral.

The fund's bank details are: Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee. BSB 082-401 A/c No 16-083-2367 [NAB, Neutral Bay NSW]. Could you please drop an email to the Committee here if you do make a donation in this way.

In what was to be his last contact with me in November, shortly before he became ill, John wrote:

“I have been talking about the forthcoming Montevideo Maru broadcast with Stan Cooper. He and I are the only Tasmanians left who were from Rabaul and ended up in Zentsuji POW camp in Japan.

“Otherwise there are only Lex Fraser in Ingham and Lorna Johnston in Auckland, who did not manage to escape Rabaul.”

Our heroes may be fading, but let’s keep their light shining.


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Marian May

Kevin - Sorry not to respond earlier. I do know of a couple of Zentsujians still alive as of April 2011. Perhaps you could contact me via the website. Keith Jackson has my details.

Thanks to everyone for their condolences and comments. I am getting a wonderful picture of my father and his contributions to people's lives. He was a wonderful dad as well!

Kevin Menzies

My father a NZ coast watcher was in Zentsuji with John May and the others mentioned in the above eulogy. Are there any other Zentsujians left, if so how can I contact them? They are all honoured and remembered in this family

Sue Pascoe

Thank you for passing on the news about Rev John May.

It is a sad time for his family but he has gone 'home' and been reunited with the mates from whom he was parted in Rabaul.

I am so grateful to him for assuring me that he remembered my father and for the friendship which he extended to him so many years ago.

George Oakes

Edna and I were very sad to hear of the passing of the Rev. John May. We only met John once near Hobart in 1986 when we spent a pleasant time with him and his wife. Following our visit he prepared for us a cassette describing what happened in the Malaguna camp leading up to the prisoners going on board the Montevideo Maru on 22nd June, 1942. This tape was played in 1988 at the Uniting Theological College, North Parramatta, rededication of a plaque to the 10 Methodist missionaries lost on the Montevideo Maru. I still have the tape and will transcribe his comments to paper and hopefully they could be published. In Keith's comments above is quoted part of a letter John May wrote to my grandfather, Rev. George Johnson, in 1947 in regard to what happened to my father, Rev. Dan Oakes. We will always remember John as a quietly spoken man who was always there to help people.

Patrick Bourke

Thank you for the information about the death of Rev John May, chaplain to Lark Force in Rabaul, and for passing on our condolences to his widow & family.

Today I deposited $50 in the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee's account.

The young male teller at the bank enquired about the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee. I told him about the sinking of the ship during WWII and that the Committee is raising funds for a memorial in Canberra.

Reginald Renagi

I am impressed by Rev John May's story in what he did for his fellow war prisoners in Rabaul during the war, and was very sad by his recent passing. He will always be remembered for his work during a difficult period and I send my condolesence to his family through this blog.

James Hook

Very sad news about Rev. May,

I was reading David Selby’s book “Hell and High Fever” recently. On page 13-14, he wrote of his friendship with Padre John May:

Young and unsophisticated, his youthful enthusiasm communicated itself to these youngsters (ie AA Bty, Rabaul) and with his shy diffidence he appealed to them in a way which no older and more experienced man could have done.

Later Selby writes:

One Sunday as we were grouped between the guns and the Padre stood facing us at the end of the service, we heard the sound of aircraft engines behind us. I could almost feel the neck muscles of the men stiffen, trying not to turn their heads as the Padre recited the Lord’s Prayer. He must have sensed our anxiety. “Lead us not into temptation” he was saying, and went on, “It’s all right boys, they’re Wirraways – but deliver us from evil …”

As for Peter Jackson's comments on the Montevideo Maru photo ... my knowledge of ships is limited to reading the name on the bow.

I also have a postcard of a Montevideo Maru, and that is clearly a different ship ... more of a cruise ship than a cargo ship.

And yet, in a brochure published in April 1935 by the shipping line (Osaka Shosen Kaisha) promoting its world cruise fleet of Buenos Aires Maru, Rio De Janeiro Maru, Santos Maru, La Plata Maru and Montevideo Maru, there is a photo of a ship (name unreadable) in New York which looks very similar to the "cargo ship" photo of the Montevideo Maru.

I will scan the photos and send them to the website.

Jennie Cooper-Penrose

Thank you keeping us all up to date. I think we have adopted all 2/22, or Lark Force, personnel as we dig into the history of our lost relatives, and it is truly saddening to hear that another great member has passed. Hoping Rev May can now rest in peace.

Margaret Henderson

I wrote down a Celtic blessing by delivered by Canon John May at the commemorative service in the Botanical Gardens in Ballarat on Friday 6 February 2004 for those who died on board the Montevideo Maru on 1 July 1942.

Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining star to you
Deep peace of the Son of peace to you

Peter Jackson

Sorry to hear of the passing of the Rev John May. As with so many of his generation, the war had a major impact on his life. He must have experienced some absolutely dreadful times but I'm sure he provided much succour and support for his fellow prisoners.

I went from your email about Rev May to PNG Attitude. It really is a gem, with something for everyone - the environment, arts, political skulduggery, history etc.

One story, or should I say photo, caught my eye: the Montevideo Maru. I'm sorry to be a killjoy but the photo James Hook bought on eBay is definitely not of "the" Montevideo Maru.

The MM sunk in 1942 was a steam ship, essentially a liner but also a cargo carrier, built in 1926. The Hook photo is of a motor vessel built circa 1957 (a quick Google search shows its sister ship, the Hamburg Maru- see

It carried a few passengers but, as can be seen from the various derricks, it was mainly a cargo ship.

Andrea Williams

This is particularly sad as John May was one of the few remaining links with the men who became prisoners in Rabaul for those few months before they went to their fate.

Whilst I did not know him personally, he was a wonderful support to the men and greatly supported their memory.

What a wonderful gesture of the family to ask for donations to the memorial fund.

There is some poignancy in that it is just over 68 years since many of the men became captives.

Our special thoughts are with the family.

Margaret Henderson

Both Scott and I felt very sad to read the news of Rev. John May’s death in Hobart today.

Thank you for conveying condolences to the family on behalf of us all.

I met Rev May at the MVM service in Ballarat. I spoke to him about my father, Rev Thomas Simpson, hoping for some news but he said he did not see him in Rabaul.

I was so impressed with this man and his story.

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