The government's insensitivity to the widows and children continued long after the war until, in 2009, a small group from the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia formed a task force to do address the long official silence
NOOSA – The family of Philip (Hooky) Street, who died recently in Sydney aged 91, was among the small Australian population of Rabaul just before the Japanese invasion in January 1942.
Most of those families lost their husbands and fathers, who stayed behind while the women and children were hurriedly evacuated.
It was a mass tragedy that influenced the rest of Hooky's life, eventually becoming a public issue that resonated through the corridors of power.
The men of Rabaul, troops and civilians alike, were subsequently murdered by the Japanese or lost their lives in the tragic sinking of the prison ship Montevideo Maru in July 1942.
Some 1,053 men were drowned in what remains Australia’s worst maritime disaster.
Hooky’s father, James Lee Street, was killed in the Tol Plantation massacre in February 1942 while trying to escape from Rabaul.
However, the family did not know this until a telegram arrived at their home at 6pm on Christmas Eve, 1945, a moment irrevocably burned into Hooky’s mind.
Hooky was to write many years later that the families who had been returned to Australia without their men were treated with disgraceful callousness and indifference by the then Labor government.
This insensitive attitude continued long after the war under both parties until, in 2009, a small group from the PNG Association of Australia (PNGAA), including me, formed a task force to do something about it.
We were able to initiate action that eventually led to the construction of a memorial in Canberra and a resolution in federal parliament recognising the sacrifice of the men and apologising to their families for the many years of official silence they had endured.
“The treatment received by my mother as the widow of a man who had served in the 1st AIF at the Somme [in World War I] and gave his life in World War II as a member of the 2nd AIF, was vindictive and lacking in compassion,” Hooky wrote.
Before the war, his father, James, had been solicitor-general of the mandated territory of New Guinea administered by Australia
"The last time I saw him was Christmas 1940. I was only 11 years old,” Hooky told John Huxley of the Sydney Morning Herald.
Hooky had left Rabaul to attend boarding school in Sydney and his mother and sister wee to follow as the Japanese forces approached New Guinea.
His father, along with the other men of Rabaul and the islands, stayed on; James had taken uniform again and joined the Australian Imperial Force shortly before the town was invaded.
Hooky remembered his father as a decent, scholarly and rather other-worldly man, who had topped New South Wales in the State’s Latin and German exams, dressed as a clown at parties and saluted the dying of each day with a rendition of Red Sails in the Sunset.
When the war ended in 1945, after years of waiting, hoping and praying for James’ safe return, his family was told he had died on the Montevideo Maru.
Later the official report changed to disclose it was more likely he had been bayoneted to death by the Japanese along with a large group of men trying to escape Rabaul who were captured at Tol Plantation.
Hooky - the nickname came from his favourite pirate in Peter Pan – eventually returned to the home of his idyllic childhood in Rabaul with his family after resisting doing so for many years.
He also joined the PNGAA as a committee member and, according to a good friend, “brought so much passion and compassion and drew a lot of comfort from sharing his experiences in a close, supportive environment”.
His son, James, said a memorial service is planned to honour Hooky in a few months’ time.
James asked me to convey his good wishes to the PNGAA “and to all the people Dad made friends with in this great organisation over the last years.
“It was very cathartic for him and allowed him to face a lot of demons he had been carrying all his life.
“The compassion and understanding made it especially easy for him,” James said.