Arthur “Toss” Parker was eighteen years and one month old on 4th April 1941 when he enlisted in WWII. He was too young to join the A.I.F., so he volunteered for the Anti Aircraft Anti Military Landing Craft Defence Force, Rabaul. After his compulsory training and pre-embarkation leave, he embarked on HMAT Neptuna on 7 August 1941 and disembarked Rabaul on 16 September 1941 along with two officers and fifty-two other comrades of his unit later known as A.A. Battery, Rabaul. These boys had been too young to be sent beyond the bounds of Australia with the regular army, but had been sent to the supposed safety of an Australian territory.
Once in Rabaul they took their gun position, with two 3-inch guns and obsolete ring-sight telescope, at Frisbee Ridge, silhouetted as it was against both north and southern skylines. For Rabaul lay in what was virtually a gigantic crater; only from this ridge could the guns command anything like the requisite 360 degrees angle of traverse. This position was also conspicuous from land, sea, and air.
After the outbreak of war in the Pacific began on 7th December 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, Malaya, and the Philippines with the Japanese already having bases in their Micronesian colonies, there was nothing between the Japanese and New Guinea. By January 1942, the Japanese had over 20,000 troops to the north of Australia – from Malaya and Singapore through Java, Ambon and Timor to New Guinea. With most trained units in the war against Germany, the Australians could do little to support the men in New Guinea facing the advancing Japanese.
On 4th January 1942, the Japanese dropped their first bombs on Rabaul and other raids followed. On 22nd January 120 Japanese aircraft attacked Rabaul. Both the bravery and the ineffectiveness of the Australian pilots in their Wirraway’s (normally used as trainers), against modern fighters were obvious. Heavy pre-invasion bombing continued on 23rd January. That night at 11.40pm the Japanese landed barges of 5,000 forces. As dawn broke, the Australians could see the harbour and the channel dense with Japanese shipping. Any sign of Australian resistance or movement attracted low-flying Japanese aircraft and naval fire. The Australians were told there would be no retreat. However, overwhelmed by numbers and firepower, group’s cut-off and communications breaking down, the order changed to ‘every man for himself’.
The Japanese gathered over 1,000 prisoners of war and civilian internees in Rabaul. Apart from knowing that Rabaul had ‘fallen’, the Australian public knew almost nothing of what happened in Rabaul. Then in April, newspapers began publishing reports from the men who had escaped.
These were alarming as they made public the killing of over 150 Australian prisoners of war at Tol plantation, south of Rabaul. Then the Australians were surprised when Japanese aircraft over Port Moresby dropped bundles of letters from prisoners in Rabaul. Most of the prisoners – including nurses and civilians – said ‘they were being treated reasonably’. The Australians now had contradictory information; some men were killed and because of a strange act of enemy chivalry, others were known to be alive. That was almost Australians were to know for another three years.
War reports state that on 22 June 1942, the civilian and military prisoners in Rabaul, except the officers and nurses, were loaded on the Montevideo Maru. Just before they left, they were able to tell the officers that they were on their way to Hainan Island. Off the Filipino coast near Luzon, early on the morning of 1 July, she encountered the torpedoes of the American submarine SS Sturgeon. Not one of the 845 prisoners of war or the 208 civilians survived. Most of the crew and guards reached the shore in the Philippines where Filipino guerrillas killed many. Only 3 Japanese guards and 17 crew had survived.
Japanese authorities received confirmation of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru early in 1943 but never advised Australian authorities. It was October 1945 when the translated nominal roll was received by the authorities in Canberra. Telegrams were sent to the families confirming the deaths of the men and boys from the 2/22nd Battalion, 1st Independent Company, the Fortress Artillery, Signals Units, Number 17 Anti-tank Battery, the Anti Aircraft Artillery, Number 19 Special Dental Unit, detachments from New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, 2/10 Field Ambulance, Ordnance Corps units, the 8th Division Supply Column, the Canteen Services Headquarters New Guinea Area, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Australian Navy and Australian civilians.
By the end of October 1945 families of those named on the Montevideo Maru nominal roll received correspondence stating; “It is with deep regret that I have to inform you that the transmission of the nominal roll of the Japanese vessel Montevideo Maru which was lost with all personnel after leaving Rabaul in June 1942 shows that [name] was aboard the vessel and I desire to convey to you the profound sympathy of the Commonwealth Government for External Territories.”
It is unknown how Toss lost his life, whether he was one of those massacred at Tol Plantation, perished in the jungle of New Britain whilst trying to escape, or drowned due to the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. The nominal roll retrieved from Japan cannot be confirmed, as there are many discrepancies. Some families of civilians were told that their loved one was on the nominal roll but after returning to Rabaul and talking to their native friends they were told of his execution.
The sinking of the Montevideo Maru is the greatest single disaster suffered by Australian’s in World War II. However, until recently, it was rarely referred to on Anzac Day or other days of national remembering.
In at least two ABC TV presentations, it was stated that the tragic loss of HMAS Sydney, with the deaths of 635 Australian, was ‘the greatest single loss’ of the war. Family members who lost someone among the 1035 Australians who died when the Montevideo Maru sank feel, when they hear this, that their sense that no one has heard of this event has been confirmed yet again.
There is disappointment, frustration, and even anger that a situation that has had such a profound impact on their own families, and the families of more than one thousand other Australians should be unrecognised, forgotten, or ignored by most of their compatriots. They feel that they have not been included in Australian history and wonder why this should be so.
For those who have links with that community which was lost from the islands of New Guinea in 1942, there is a common desire to have the story made known to the wider public. In a speech in 1992, at a service of remembrance in New Britain to mark the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru, it was stated, ‘The history of those months deserves to be far better known.’
The majority of the ‘A A Battery, Rabual’ was young boys under the age of 20 years old. Their lives cut short! They never had the privilege of marrying and having a family of their own or to be reunited with their loved ones.
There was no confirmation of the names of those who lost their life.
After the events in Rabaul, it would more than 3 years before the family of those killed were to find out their fate. How tragic this must have been for all concerned. Not knowing whether their son, brother, father, uncle, grandchild was alive or dead!
During 2011 the “Rabaul and MVM Society” in Australia, were pro-active in seeking recognition for all those who lost their lives and constructed a Memorial in Canberra. Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neal contributed $100,000 towards a work, that will be constructed at the Memorial next year.
My role, as our family historian is to preserve Toss’ existence in our family history.
Arthur “Toss” PARKER’S parents were Arthur John PARKER and Rhoda Prudence ‘Winifred’ GREEN.
To my knowledge, Arthur and Winifred never married although through the Electoral Rolls I have found them living together 1930 and 1933 at 44 Selwyn Street, Paddington. After this date, they separated. Arthur was then living at 30 Bellevue Street Arncliffe with Alice’ Eva’ PARKER and Winifred is living at 32A Burton Street, Surry Hills. Although Winifred married Vladimir Faddeyeff in 1943, she continued to live at the same address until, according to the electoral roll, 1963. Toss had stated this address as his residence on his enlistment papers. Perhaps Winifred could not bear to leave her address in case Toss came home looking for her!
My mother, Joan Thomas, remembers the boys visiting their father and Eva at Arncliffe. She also recalls visiting Winifred. My grandmother, Margaret Thomas, Arthur’s sister, often visited Winifred who worked in a cake shop or cafeteria in Sydney.
Toss also had a brother Eric Parker who joined the forces on 5 January 1942, he was discharged 19 December 1945. Eric married Kathleen Little on 22 September 1945 at Auburn. I believe they had two daughters, Janette and Aileen. Eric and Kathleen divorced in October 1958.
Toss’ father died on 12th April 1946 aged 50 years, and I wonder if it was the stress and or the news of hearing that his son was never to return, caused his death!
Lest we forget!
Selby, David. Hell And High Fever. 1956 Currawong Publishing Co. P/L. Sydney.
Alpin, Douglas. Rabaul 1942. 1994 Pacific Press. ISBN 1 875150 02 01
Reeson, Margaret. Whereabouts Unknown. 1993 Albatross Books. Sutherland ISBN 0 7324 1033 7
Reeson, Margaret. A Very Long War. 2000 Melbourne University Press ISBN 0 522 84909 1
Remembering The War In New Guinea
Lost Lives-The Second World War and the islands of New Guinea
The Montevideo Maru. Lost at Sea, Lost from Australian History.
Statement by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel, the Hon Alan Griffin, MP. Statement on the loss of the Montevideo Maru 21 June 2010