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A Lark Force track visualisation exercise

BY PETER NOWLAN

RECENTLY I WAS a member of a group of trekkers who completed a trek along the Lark Force wilderness track on the Island of New Britain.

I have done a number of walks in New Guinea, and always have cause to reflect on the last paragraph of the book In the footsteps of Ghosts by Bill Spencer, which traces his war experiences in the Middle East and New Guinea.

“Will the Australian Soldier’s battles in Papua be freshly remembered and never go by from their day till the ending of the World”. Will their legacy – the still young, vibrant and evolving Australian society, embarking on new directions and challenges, be inspired by these Ghosts? I dearly hope their will.”

In the course of walking this track we were retracing the route taken by members of the 2/22 Bn in January-February 1942 after the Japanese invasion of Rabaul on 23 January. After the order “every man for himself” was given by Colonel Scanlan, the force split into small subgroups at Malabunga Mission and made their way to the north or south coast, where they hoped to be picked up by flying boats.

Four hundred soldiers eventually got to Australia. However at least 850 soldiers were rounded up and taken back to Rabaul and another 150-180 executed by the Japanese at Tol and Waitavalo Plantation on 4 February. Most of these men together with 208 civilians later died on the Montevideo Maru.

In the course of our trek, we had a minute’s silence on 1 July to remember the victims of the Montevideo Maru and had another short service at Tol, where there is a small memorial cairn. The area around Tol-Waitavalo is now a logging camp. As you look around it is hard to believe that this area was the scene of a major massacre of Australia soldiers. Seventy years on, we can only imagine the experience of these soldiers.

Prior to trekking the Lark Force track, we were all given a packing list of what to bring and we all packed creature comforts: muesli bars, lollies, Staminade. Imagine what it must have been like to be a soldier in Rabaul during the Japanese invasion. Every man for himself. We are leaving in half and hour. The soldiers may have been able to fill haversacks with bully beef and biscuits. Many didn’t have basic camping equipment, groundsheets, tents or mosquito nets. They didn’t know how long the walk would take.

They were tired, having been waiting in battle positions since 22 January. Consider the impact of a large body of soldiers on the local villagers. During the course of our trek, we visited a number of villages. We all commented on how friendly the people were and how they were prepared to share fruit and vegetables with us.

In our group there were seven trekkers plus a support party with their own food supply. With Lark Force there were small and large groups of soldiers without food walking through various villages. In the accounts by survivors of Lark Force, some groups of soldiers spent too much time resting in villages, killing more chickens and pigs than they needed and taking vegetables and fruit. One can understand why some villagers got tired of groups of Australians continually passing through.

Two other points worth considering. The first is group dynamics. In a modern trekking party, you have a leader and fast and slow walkers. You are dealing with a number of personalities. Consider the group dynamics 70 years ago in a small Lark Force unit. Large groups split into smaller groups; some groups decided to surrender, while others continued walking.

Consider how you feel after walking four days in a jungle environment. You’re tired and dirty but you know there is no more walking to be done. Imagine what is must have been like for a member of Lark Force back in 1942. They had been walking for weeks and even if they got to Tol Plantation prior to the massacre, they were still faced with the prospect of getting to Karlai Mission and a further walk to other points such as Jacquinot Bay. A daunting prospect. Many were hungry and sick. One can understand why some of them made the decision to surrender to the Japanese.

As I looked from Tol across to Karlai Plantation, I was pleased I was going across by boat. I could only imagine the number of days it would take to walk around Wide Bay to get to the plantation let alone what problems would have been faced by the Lark Force soldiers in 1942.

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