by Colin Docketty
As a child, some of my earliest memories were of dad telling me about life on an island not in the normal school atlas with some natives (he called Kanakas*). Kind people who in very difficult times saved his life ! - (* Kanaka is not these days a polite form of address to one of the Tolai natives, although this is what they called themselves 60 years ago)
Slowly, with small stories, often spoken at times of crisis, a picture of a man who had suffered (like so many others) at the hands of his Japanese captors. I was also to learn that he was a very lucky man in more than one respect! First of all, he was one of only 18 survivors out of an original contingent of 600 men taken from the POW camp at Changi in Singapore. He had also experienced the warmth and kindness of natives from a community far removed from his own for many months if not years, so that afterwards his appreciation of life was that much richer.
L/bdr Frank Docketty (about 1946)
In 1990, I sadly lost my father, probably prematurely, due to heart failure. At this time, my son was 12 and only knew his grandfather as somebody to play with and "rough and tumble". It became apparent that if my father's stories were not to be lost in the mists of time, I had to pass them on to my children. Oh, but I hadn't fully understood which order all these stories occurred in and when and why ! So, I began trying to order my mind and to pull things together in a presentable form. Luckily, before he died, dad had teamed up with many of his comrades who also endured the same catalogue of events. One man, Alf Baker, had written a book about it all ! Brilliant! My quest was over. How far from the truth this was, as helpful as the book was, putting everything into chronological order with a great deal of factual first hand information, it was no substitute for actually going to these places and meeting maybe the descendants of the natives involved. Gradually, over many years I developed an almost fanatical desire to set foot on Watom Island and to meet its people.
In the sidelines, at this time, was my mother, who had also experienced my father's stories and his health problems etc. She, at the age of 81, and very fit for her age, was also keen to do the same journey. On the 60th anniversary of the fall of Singapore (and of Rabaul) this desire became a necessity, as I was not getting any younger and the chances of my mother being able to make the journey were diminishing, it was decided that we had to do this trip now! So, with the help of the Internet and flight shops, I was able to piece together a package to suit our purpose. I had made contact with a few people on the Internet who lived in the Rabaul area and who were also very interested about Eastern New Britain in World War 2. These people were able to point me in the right direction for accommodation and boat hire etc. After everything was booked, two weeks before our departure mother hurt her back gardening and was unable to get out of bed ! So, after a doctor's visit then a visit to an osteopath, many anti-inflammatory doses and pain killers she was only just mobile enough to go!
The great day arrived (June 4th 2002) and I waved goodbye to my wife Judy and 4 year old daughter Francesca at Heathrow on the midday Qantas flight to Singapore. The flight was long, but armed with our sense of adventure, the time soon passed snatching the odd hour of sleep in between meals and movies and at 08:30am Singapore time (13 hours later) we touched down. We had 10 hours at Singapore before our connecting flight, so we cleared immigration and caught a taxi to the Changi Museum just a short ride away. We passed the present day prison before being left at the gates of the museum which was not yet open as it was still early morning.
We were welcomed into the museum grounds by one of the staff and were shown a replica of one of a chapel in the original camp. I wrote a message of thanks and appreciation and put it on the board of memorials already crowded by so many other 'pilgrims'. We stood in the hot sun a while and then made our way to the now open museum which was air conditioned and full of artifacts from those difficult times. Many of the exhibits where reinforced with photos from the era which brought a greater sense of realism to the display. There was also art painted by several POWs and a video show at the end bringing to life the memories of several survivors of the infamous Changi Goal. After spending about 2 hours there, we ventured into the scorching midday sun to find a tree for shelter while waiting for a taxi. We wanted to go into the city, but mother's back was the cause of some concern, so we found a local eating house, had a light lunch then returned to the comfort of the airport lounge to send an e-mail home letting them know of our progress.
After a considerable wait, at 20:00 we boarded our flight bound for Cairns, Australia. At this point, I should point out that we could have gone direct to Port Moresby, but as Air Niugini were the only operators on the route the fare was close to extortion (being more expensive than London-Singapore) ! We saved a few hundred pounds by flying Qantas to Cairns then catching the Air Niugini flight from there. This did mean yet another overnight flight and just a few hours sleep in one position, so by now we were getting a little tired. We arrived in Cairns (via Brisbane which surprised us) and were glad (if not surprised) to see our luggage to which we had said "good-bye" at Heathrow. Our pick up was on cue and took us to our hotel before we used the day visiting Green Island on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. This was a truly amazing sight where the waters were so clear that the many fish could be seen swimming along the sand on the sea-bed. We returned to our hotel for an early dinner and to bed for some real sleep, the first in 3 days. However, we had to be up at 4am to leave for the airport to check-in for the Port Moresby 7am flight. Things were now more relaxed as we were using smaller planes and the flight time to Port Moresby only 1 hour 25 minutes, a mere hop!
Again within a degree or 2 of the equator, the heat was very oppressive and Port Moresby being the crime capital of the world was a real worry to me. We were advised to only stay there for as long as it took to connect to Rabaul and to make sure all the luggage was locked. The staff however were very helpful, mum by now in a wheelchair solicited the greatest of care and expedience and short cut all the long queues. We had the undivided attention of a lady to push the wheelchair and a man to sort out the documentation and baggage re-check in. They took us then to the domestic terminal and installed us at the gate ready for boarding on the Rabaul flight which involved about a 2 hour wait. Then after another 1 hour 20 minutes in the now familiar F28 we arrived in Rabaul (Tokua) airport amongst coconut palms and cocoa bushes to be met by our transfer contact holding up the name of the resort for us (Kulau Lodge).
Once in the mini-bus and the air-conditioning blasting out, we were rumbling down badly pot-holed roads at fairly slow speeds, our driver pointing out places of interest to us. There were coconut palms wherever we went, the main plantation areas of land being owned by the church! We made a detour into the Vunapope Mission where the British POWs (599) were first taken. Then a trip down the old street of Kokopo which had a handful of shops mainly general stores and even a 'hole-in-the-wall' bank where there was an enormous queue of locals waiting to get their wages out. Eastern New Britain has between 80% and 90% unemployment which surprisingly doesn't appear to generate crime (to the extent you would expect). The natives appear genuinely friendly even with their customary bush knives in hand. I suppose nobody would be silly enough to start something with all that amoury on the streets. We drove past Vulcan, the active volcano which last erupted in 1994 and before that in 1937. The volcanic ash was still on the roads for about 1 mile around and downwind of the crater which caused a fog where the traffic passed over it. On arriving in Rabaul, we saw frangipani tree lined streets with much volcanic ash still 2-3 feet deep at the edge of the roads. We then took the road out to Kulau Lodge which is about 10 minutes along the north coast road from Rabaul. Very soon, Watom Island was pointed out to us on the horizon (7 km off to the north of Talili Bay). My heart was in my mouth as this is what all the fuss was about and here I was looking at it ! We continued to our destination in silence, just looking at any glimpse of it through the trees.
A Potted History
At this point some details of the 'Rabaul 600' I feel is useful. 600 sick men of the Royal Artillery were taken from Changi, Singapore in October 1942 and put aboard a hell-ship to transport them to Rabaul (via Surabaya). In early November, they arrived losing one prisoner en-route to dysentery. They were taken to the mission square at Vunapope where they were sent out on work parties until in late November 1942, 517 of the fittest sick were sent to Ballalae Island in the Shortlands Group to the south of Bourganville where they were to build an airstrip for their captors. Some died through illness, others through ill treatment or execution and many from allied bombardment whilst completing their task. When the strip had been finished, (and coincidentally the allies were advancing) the Japanese soldiers were ordered to 'dispose' of the prisoners. Some eye-witness accounts confirmed the belief that they were massacred. 436 bodies of europeans with khaki uniforms on were found in a grave on the Island after the war and taken to the Bomana War Cemetery at Port Moresby.
Of the 82 POWs left at Vunapope and subsequently moved to Takubar, 17 died and the remainder sent to a valley near the Tobera airstrip about 8 miles inland in February 1943. During a year at this so called "Death Valley", 44 of the remainder perished leaving only 21 survivors. In February 1944, they were moved to Watom Island where another 3 were to die from disease and ill-treatment before their eventual liberation by the Australian Navy (HMAS Vendetta) on 7th September 1945 at Rabaul.
We were staying at the point on Talili Bay where the prisoners were believed to have been brought back to the mainland, so this was an important place for us psychologically. The first evening, I met a man called Peter Cohen who's father had been a coast-watcher for the Australians during the war and he was very interesting to talk to having in depth knowledge of the locality, also he could speak fluent pidgin. He was born in New Britain and had been there all his life, although he seemed to have a constant battle with the heat on his fair skin.
After a day or 2 relaxing following our journey and catching up with sleep Peter took us in his boat to Watom Island. There was no jetty, so I had to lift mother into the boat as her back was not quite good enough to clamber aboard. The flying fish accompanied us on the crossing with near calm conditions and before too long we were skirting the north-eastern edge of the island (which is an extinct volcano). We came across a boat that had run out of fuel and had probably double the load it was designed for. We asked for directions to Magar (which was the name of the village mentioned by Ken Walker - one of only 2 surviving POWs to date) That was where the boat was going! so we threw them a line and towed them into the next bay at the village of Magar. I lifted mother out of the boat and waded the few steps ashore. The water was almost 'bath-water' hot ! and the morning sun beat down ferociously, even at 9:30. - We were there !
We were greeted by 2 or 3 natives who guided us off the narrow beach, through some coconut palms and into a clearing where we saw maybe half a dozen houses. Peter spoke some words of pidgin and an old man appeared from one of the houses up the hill. His name was John Bakel and was on the island when the British POWs left in 1945. He was about 10 years old at the time and was a member of the choir who sang to the prisoners prior to their departure. He also knew some men called 'Powla' and 'Tokalup' (both now dead) whom my father had spoken about and recalled tales of sharing cigarettes with the prisoners. Peter related a potted history of events as above (but in Pidgin) and their eyes and ears were giving 100% attention. We were the first people since the end of the war to return having any connection with the British POWs and Peter said that this moment would be talked about for months to come ! Each house was built on stilts out of local materials (bamboo and palm fronds) with a covered area in front with no walls where cooking and sleeping was done. The closed in house part appeared to be used for storage and keeping things clean and in the shade or maybe sleeping on the odd cool night. We took photos and gave the men cigarettes and the women sweets for the children. Before too long, the wind had started to blow, so Peter indicated we ought to get back before the sea became too lumpy. They gave us a bag of oranges and we promised to come back later in the week. We departed and made a hasty retreat across the bay to home as the sea started to become a little choppy for our small boat.
Later in the week, I took another man with me called Rolly who could also speak pidgin and hired a boat from a man up the beach to go across to the island once more. We arrived at the same place having more time to look at the clear sea and coastline where caves and grottos could be seen. On arrival at Magar, we were greeted again by the locals and went further into the village. I brought some cigarettes and sweets with some head-scarfs sent by my mother. (she was happy to sit this one out) On this occasion I had come more prepared and had worn heavy boots for climbing and 3 or 4 young natives lead us up a mountain path at a fierce rate. After 5 minutes, Rolly stopped and indicated to us to carry on without him as he had pulled a muscle, so we continued and as a relatively unfit man of 49 I had to slow them down to catch my breath. We walked along a path wide enough only to put one foot in front of another which was sometimes very steep and others flat, but cutting across a steep flank. We were sometimes under trees and others exposed to the full heat of the sun. I kept my hat on, but it was tempting to take it off to get fresh air to my head. Eventually, after about 15 minutes, we came across a flat area under the trees where there was a concrete bunker about 8 feet wide and about 16 feet long sunk into the ground where they told me the Japanese had their camp. The 'lid' had been removed and replaced with wire mesh where there was piled up many half rounds of copra under which there had been a fire started presumably to dry off this product. Next to this 'open' bunker was a sealed lump of concrete of the same size possibly an air raid shelter similarly sunk into the ground although I saw no obvious door.
A torch was lit and a young lad ran into the tunnel with this scaring a colony of bats! I went in and noticed 'rooms' used for supplies and bedrooms before the tunnel continued on its course through the mountain and out the other side. To the right of the large tunnel and the 'spoil plateau' was another smaller tunnel the natives said was used for the prisoners.
This was only short and one had to crawl to negotiate the entrance. We went back to the previous camp area and was told that the flat area under the trees was where the men that died on Watom were buried. (since moved to Bitapaka War Cemetery)
At this point a number of the natives seemed to scatter while I spoke with one called Kevin. He took a catapult which was worn around the top of his head and hit seemingly without effort the subject of our conversation. It was a nut, which he proceeded to cut in half with his 30" bush knife! He then handed it to me to try, it tasted like a peanut but it was the size of a brazil. I watched one of the other boys run up a tree to about 20 feet high then throw down some oranges to his colleague on the ground. Then from behind me there was a terrific crash, as if a tree was being felled, I was told this was a coconut coming down from the top of a palm tree. It was swiftly followed by 3 or 4 more similar crashes and a youngster running back with an armful of coconuts. Another native arrived with a stalk about 3 feet long full of bananas in various states of ripeness. The scene was set for a feast ! I was given a demonstration of how to prepare a coconut to drink the milk, which I then did. Another guy gave me some nuts and a banana. This was indeed high energy food ! I then had a demonstration of how to make a basket from coconut leaves to carry the oranges and coconuts. This took about 3 minutes!
All fed and watered, we set off in another direction and found yet another tunnel which was of the smaller variety. This was located on an exposed hillside and was being used to germinate coconuts and force grow them in the dark. Pigs were supposed to have been kept in this area although there didn't appear to be any ground suitably flat for this purpose. I was brought to my senses by a stinging sensation on my arm, which turned out to be a red ant about half an inch long! I brushed it off with its friends and moved on swiftly! We travelled down the mountain along the same path used for the ascent and noticed a gully to one side of the track. This was apparently dug by the Japanese to channel the smoke from the fire at the cook-house located next to the landing beach up the mountain to a safe distance from their supplies. This was done after it was noticed that the allies tended to bomb the smoke rather than buildings which couldn't be seen under the tree canopy. I then noticed the remains of the old cook-house at the bottom of the gully as described in Alf Baker's book ! It was still there ! John then confirmed the existence of the church near to the beach which was bombed out during the war. I was then given a present of 2 large shells (which from a conservation point of view I was unhappy about) but they were truly splendid specimens and they were probably gathered from the sea for their contents as food and not for tourist trophies! - so I relaxed a little (until encountering the customs officers in Australia!)
Another of the camps which featured heavily in the story was of a valley close to the Tobera Airfield which was built by the Japanese in early 1943 which later became know to the prisoners as "Death Valley". The airfield and the surrounding area attracted the attention of the allied bombers during the middle of 1943 and was therefore abandoned after that time when the airfield became unusable. With the help of Alf Baker's knowledge, Peter Cohen, the owners of the Tobera Plantation and the head of the Kokopo Museum and several natives, a trip was arranged to see if we could find the valley where the British POWs were held. This was not as easy as one may have originally thought. We had a good description of the valley from Alf Baker, but that was 60 years out of date. We also had good local knowledge going back as much as 30 or 40 years.
Alas, most of the natives were moved out of the area at the time of the occupation as this was almost exclusively used by the Japanese military, so there were no known natives old enough to remember the events. After a few sorties into narrow gorges that were heavily choked with vegetation and apparently too narrow for the correct site we eventually found a valley which appeared to have the right dimensions and layout at the top end. There was a tunnel which started back from the valley head and entered the ground on a slope to presumably break ground at the bottom of the valley. Round holes were found in the rocks at the base of one valley where there must have been a structure erected. There was also a large tunnel mouth here with a steel door filled with concrete and lockable only on the inside. We speculated that this could have been the other end of the previously mentioned tunnel, but no proof gained as our torches weren't bright enough to explore. It was thought then that a certain amount of liaison with Alf Baker was required to maybe help to locate other ancillary locations in the area to confirm the site. We also came across an old locomotive upturned on the side of the main road past the airfield. One of the men remembered the fact that there used to be a railway line running along side the main runway and then following the road to distribute materials for the airfield when under construction. If this was the "Death Valley" where the British POWs were held, 43 graves were still there (only 1 being moved to the Bitapaka War Cemetery) - I suspect (after talking to Alf Baker) the reason for this was that the graves were inaccessable due to the swift growth of jungle.
We have sent an email to Duncan MacLennan at the Australian War Graves department, who keep good records regarding this sort of thing and may be able to give us a grid reference of the one body which was dug up at this camp, but we have had no such luck yet.
The local ex-pats were all very excited at finding this 'new' tunnel, which they speculated as possibly being part of an underground hospital. Anyway, watch this space !
The Kokopo Museum
On another occasion we stopped by at the museum, which, although small, had many artifacts pulled out of the jungle. Many different types of gun, large and small with tanks and searchlight equipment. The wreck of a zero fighter was 'parked' outside and in the main display area, pieces of Jose Holquin's B17 "Naughty but Nice" including the nose artwork were shown. Other countless items of interest were displayed in glass cabinets with an explanation bringing their significance to light. There was also a section about the area in pre-war times and explained events back into the 19th century.
We spent 10 nights at Kulau Lodge which was very relaxing. I travelled out on about 6 of the days which left a few days to recuperate after the flight and to gather our thoughts between trips. It was essential that the homework was done before the journey, as any Internet access is extremely tricky in this area. A phone call is difficult enough with about a 3 second delay on speech transmissions. So all bookings and excursions need to be organized with the people operating them before you travel. Once there, these things tend to happen in PNG time. I was told that on New Britain, they have a word 'behind' which is much like the Spanish 'manyana' but without so much urgency!
We included Sydney in our tour on the way home and the air fares came to about £1300 each. That was the rock bottom economy price at the time. Accommodation at Rabaul was from less than £20 per night, but we went up-market and hired a town house with air-con and kitchen etc at £40 per night (for 2 bedrooms) which was worth it. Meals were difficult, as we weren't staying in the town, we couldn't go to the shops without a lift. Therefore, we ended up buying meals in the resort restaurant which was an expensive way of doing it ! If I did it again (what? I hear him say), I would hire a car to get about and not be reliant on the hosts transport. One needed to be fairly bold to drive on the roads there as they suffered from pot holes and other drivers tended to use both sides of the roads (albeit at a slower pace).
In the case of families who have lost their loved ones in the POW camps I believe there may be financial assistance from the Royal British Legion, but in my case, as my father returned, there was no such help.
Ballale or Ballalae (pronounced Ballalai - according to the ex-pats in Rabaul)
This remote island can be best accessed via Honiara in the Soloman Islands. The return fare from Brisbane is at the moment about 1,900 Soloman Island Dollars (which is about £475) but will fluctuate depending on the exchange rate). Facilities on the island are 'non-existent' (according to one adventurer) but accommodation can be found on the main island (Shortland Island Guest House, Nila Postal Agency, Shortlands according to www.solomons.com/twhrstay.htm) which is a speed boat ride away and the probable destination for any traveller to Ballalae. I suspect that Ballalae is the airport for Shortland Island (being catalogued by ICAO as the only civil airport in the vicinity with a usable soft runway of 5500 ft, therefore it would be reasonable to assume that some form of connection must exist to the main island - but check first ! Further information can be gained from here where the contact details of the Soloman Islands Visitors Bureau maybe found.
If anyone wants more help on this subject please contact me.