IT WAS one of the most callous atrocities of the Pacific war.
Seventy-five years yesterday, 160 Australian prisoners were bayoneted, beheaded, shot or burned alive by Japanese troops – on what was then Australian territory.
So horrific was the Tol Massacre on the island of New Britain that the Australian government suppressed details for 47 years.
That this tragedy is barely remembered and rarely commemorated blights Australia’s national conscience and to this day rankles the distressed families of the victims.
Few Australians know of the carnage at neighbouring Tol and Waitavalo plantations - nor that it came soon after one of the most shameful episodes of our war when 1,400 diggers and civilians were abandoned as ‘hostages to fortune’ ahead of the Japanese invasion of Rabaul on 23 January 1942.
Rabaul was the capital of Australian-mandated New Guinea and was protected by a tiny garrison consisting mainly of the 2/22nd Battalion Lark Force.
The town was quickly routed by a massive Japanese fleet of carriers, destroyers, submarines and fighter and bomber aircraft.
When the order “every man for himself” was given, soldiers and civilians fanned out over New Britain looking for escape routes through the most rugged terrain imaginable.
Some endured an epic trek through dense jungle – battling malaria, dysentery, tropical ulcers, leeches, exhaustion, malnutrition and crocodile-infested rivers – to eventually reach points where they were able to escape on small boats.
But this was not the majority, including those who reached Tol Plantation hoping to be rescued.
To their horror, five barge-loads of Japanese troops were on the beach to meet them.
There was no option for the starving, exhausted, virtually unarmed Australians but to surrender. At first it seemed they would be treated as normal prisoners of war. Then an order to execute the prisoners was given.
Red Cross brassards were ripped off medics. Men were trussed together in small groups with fishing line or ropes and taken into the jungle and slaughtered.
They stood or sat listening to their mates’ death cries – awaiting their own fate by blade or bullet.
The few survivors told of grinning Japanese soldiers emerging from the bush wiping blood from their bayonets and beckoning their next targets.
Some victims - asked if they wanted to be shot or bayoneted - chose the gun only to be stabbed. Two wounded men found alive in Waitavalo Plantation homestead had been smeared in pig grease to be burned alive in the house.
Requests for final cigarettes were refused. Some men prayed, some begged for their lives, others said cheerio to their mates.
They were covered in palm leaves and left to die. Incredibly, several men feigned death and survived to tell the story.
Private Billy Cook of the 2/12 Field Ambulance survived 11 bayonet wounds. He wrote:
“The first stab knocked us down. The Japs stood over us stabbing madly. I received six wounds in the back, two just missing the spine, two more breaking ribs…
“As the Japanese were moving off, the man next to me groaned. One of the Japanese soldiers came running back and stabbed him once more. By this time I could hold my breath no longer. When I drew a deep breath the soldier heard me and inflicted four more bayonet wounds.
“The last thrust went through my ear into my mouth, severing an artery on the way. Seeing the blood gushing out of my mouth, he assumed that I was at last dead, he covered the three of us with coconut fronds and vine leaves and left.”
Cook somehow crawled off into the jungle – as did five other survivors – and eventually was evacuated from New Britain to Port Moresby with 156 soldiers, sailors and civilians aboard the overcrowded government yacht, the Laurabada.
An estimated 1,053 of the troops and Rabaul residents who remained in the town or who were captured would eventually perish as prisoners when their prison ship, the Montevideo Maru, taking them to Hainan then occupied by Japan, was sunk by mistake by an American submarine off the Philippines.
So, too, is the shameful way in which the Chinese population under Australia’s protection was left behind along with indigenous workers employed by the colonial administration.
But this weekend we remember the 160 poor souls who died such unspeakable deaths at Tol and Waitavalo 75 years ago.
Many were just boys – the average age of Lark Force soldiers was 18 and a half – while some of the civilian volunteer rifle men were granddads in their fifties and sixties.
Some remains were retrieved post-war and buried at Rabaul’s beautiful Bita Paka war cemetery - but the bones of others rot still in the jungle soil of a place whose name most Australian have never heard.
They deserve better.
Lest We Forget.