The ‘spies’ who never came back from New Guinea

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

Ian Townsend’s third book, Line of Fire, a work of non­fic­tion, is ex­cel­lent. It fol­lows two fine nov­els: Af­fec­tion (2007), based on the 1900 plague out­break in north Queens­land, and The Devil’s Eye, cen­tred on the worst cy­clone in Aus­tralian his­tory.

The Queens­land ra­dio jour­nal­ist and au­thor has a tal­ent for dis­cov­er­ing lit­tle-known events and flesh­ing them out to make his­tory come alive. His new book is a grip­ping yarn of es­pi­onage and war.

Townsend metic­u­lously mined re­search ar­chives in Aus­tralia, Ja­pan and Pa­pua New Guinea. The story he tells is as fas­ci­nat­ing as it is tragic: in May 1942, in the trop­i­cal town of Rabaul in the then Aus­tralian ter­ri­tory of New Guinea, Ja­panese troops shot dead a group of Aus­tralians who had been con­victed as spies.

One was Mar­jorie Man­son, a dress­maker who had lived in Ade­laide and Bris­bane. She was ex­e­cuted along with her brother Jimmy, her part­ner AA Har­vey, a friend named Bill Parker and her 11-year-old son Richard, known as Dickie.

Were they spies? Dur­ing their trial it was re­vealed the four adults had been caught be­hind en­emy lines with a hid­den ra­dio trans­mit­ter. Mar­jorie also had a con­cealed re­volver.

Their ex­e­cu­tions oc­curred at the base of Tavurvur, one of the vol­ca­noes that sur­round Rabaul har­bour. It was the site of an earth­quake in early 1941, and vi­o­lent twin erup­tions in 1937 in which almost 400 peo­ple per­ished. In­deed, as Townsend ex­plains, this area re­mains one of the most seis­mi­cally ac­tive places on the planet.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing the fal­li­bil­ity of doc­u­ments, in­clud­ing so-called pri­mary sources, and the frail­ties and fick­le­ness of mem­ory, Townsend has nev­er­the­less re­con­structed an ex­tremely in­trigu­ing his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive. De­spite the lim­its of the source ma­te­rial, he has, in the main suc­cess­fully, tried to ex­plain how and why a work­ing-class Aus­tralian fam­ily ended up in a hot and hu­mid trad­ing post, caught be­hind en­emy lines in a bru­tal con­flict that cost them their lives.

He also il­lu­mi­nates why their ex­pe­ri­ences have largely been for­got­ten. Part of the ex­pla­na­tion is that a num­ber of Mar­jorie’s rel­a­tives, es­pe­cially her mother Phyl­lis, dis­ap­proved of her leav­ing Aus­tralia to live on a run­down plan­ta­tion at Las­sul, out­side Rabaul, with the of­ten un­sta­ble and grandiose Ted Har­vey, a mar­ried man. As a con­se­quence, much of the truth about the five ex­e­cuted Aus­tralians has not been well­known.

Townsend ex­plores how the John Curtin gov­ern­ment was un­able to re­in­force some of Aus­tralia’s small gar­risons in New Guinea, while at the same time re­fus­ing to evac­u­ate their civil­ian and mil­i­tary pop­u­la­tions. On New Year’s Day 1942, the com­man­der of the 2/22nd Bat­tal­ion, colonel John Scan­lan, is­sued the fol­low­ing or­der: THERE SHALL BE NO WITH­DRAWAL.

Townsend doc­u­ments how, in the face of an ir­re­sistible Ja­panese in­va­sion soon after the Pearl Har­bor at­tacks, more than 1500 Aus­tralian sol­diers and non-com­bat­ants were aban­doned in Rabaul as “hostages to for­tune”.

One of the many rea­sons this book is so ab­sorb­ing is that the mul­ti­lay­ered ex­pe­ri­ences of th­ese five or­di­nary Aus­tralians, ex­e­cuted in Rabaul, are part of Aus­tralia’s story and a cru­cial episode in our mil­i­tary his­tory.

Townsend un­cov­ers some im­por­tant se­crets along the way, mainly per­sonal — in­clud­ing one about Dickie Man­son, which I will not re­veal. How­ever, some­thing that im­presses me about the au­thor’s ap­proach is that he in­di­cates where he’s more or less cer­tain about what ac­tu­ally hap­pened and where he has spec­u­lated.

He also clearly ital­i­cises con­ver­sa­tions and di­a­logue he has in­vented. In do­ing so, he has tried to, as he puts it, to “keep what peo­ple said true to their char­ac­ter and cir­cum­stances.”. In this en­deav­our, too, he has also been largely suc­cess­ful. I like to call such books fac­tion.

In a sad postscript, Townsend re­veals that, de­spite her re­peated ef­forts, which in­cluded writ­ing to fed­eral min­is­ters such as La­bor’s mer­cu­rial Ed­die Ward, Mar­jorie’s es­tranged mother, Phyl­lis, never knew what had hap­pened to her daugh­ter, to her son Jimmy, or to her grand­son Dickie. Un­able to cope with such deep un­cer­tainly, Phyl­lis Man­son com­mit­ted suicide in Fe­bru­ary 1956 at the age of 65. The grief had fi­nally caught up with her. is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of his­tory and pol­i­tics at Grif­fith Univer­sity.

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