A story lost and found

A story lost and found

Growing up, I knew my grandpa wasn’t my real grandfather. It didn’t matter – I still loved him very much. All I knew about my mother’s father was a phrase, tired and worn from much repetition. ‘Your grandfather died on a Japanese boat that was bombed by the Americans during the Second World War.’ It meant nothing to me, and neither did he. Behind those words lay a story lost to time.

Then two years ago my sister happened to mention that during WWII my grandmother was evacuated from Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, a few days before Christmas. She was over eight months pregnant and had to leave her husband behind. Invasion of Rabaul by the Japanese was thought to be imminent. When I was in my 20s, I travelled to America and made a dear friend there. One of those friends you feel a soul connection with. When I had to say goodbye to her, knowing there was a possibility I might never see her again, it was one of the most painful events of my life. I think that’s why my sister’s off-the-cuff comment hit me so hard. Imagine being close to giving birth and having to say goodbye to your husband, not knowing what the future held.

Where to begin?

So I began researching their story. My sister and I had my grandma’s memoirs, so I knew what her life had been like in Rabaul, but she wrote surprisingly little about Wilf Pearce, my grandfather. We knew this was because she had been traumatised by the events of those war years. She hadn’t spoken about Wilf in later years at all. But the more I started searching for information about him, the more I wanted to know.

Fortunately, the sinking of the Montevideo Maru is a well-documented event from the war in the Pacific. The Japanese war ship had 1053 prisoners of war on board, and was making its way to Japan, when an American torpedo fired at it on 1st July 1942. A small number of the crew escaped. Everyone else perished. They were mostly Australian, both soldiers and civilians. My grandfather would never make it home to see his new daughter, my mother, born days after Grandma arrived back in Australia.

The Montevideo Maru

I was able to start by reading several books about the Japanese invasion of Rabaul. These gave me an understanding of the war, the known events, and the key players involved. My grandfather was even mentioned in passing a few times, as the accountant or business manager of the Methodist Mission. One book (by Margaret Reeson) told the stories of the evacuated wives, and was based on a series of interviews with the women of the Mission. My grandmother had refused to be interviewed, so she was a secondary character, but at least I had a picture of the key events.

A story lost – a life unknown

I wanted to know more though. I wanted to understand what my grandparents had lived through. And I wanted to know more about Wilf. History always tells us about the major players in events, but it is so easy for others to fade into the background. Their stories disappear in the river of time, drawn unceasingly into the past (to quote The Great Gatsby).

Wilf Pearce (my grandfather) and Eileen Brabin (my grandmother) on their wedding day

Fortunately, Wilf had written articles about his life and work in Rabaul. My sister tracked these down through The Methodist Review, and I was able to hear my grandfather’s voice. He was clearly intelligent, dedicated to his work and the people of Rabaul, and with a great sense of humour. Then I came across other accounts that told me more about him. It turned out the Indigenous people of Rabaul had a special name for him, Kuskus. Other ministers were given the title Talatala, meaning teacher. Wilf’s name meant ‘father’. And whenever he was mentioned in accounts from the time, it was clear he was held in very high regard.

A startling discovery

As anyone doing family history research might tell you, it’s possible to start feeling like a detective. Which can be amazing when you make a discovery that changes how you understand things. I made two discoveries. When the Japanese invaded, most Australians were clustered together at a place on the edge of town called Refuge Gully. We assumed that’s where Wilf was. But then I came across a book by one of the ministers from the Methodist Mission. He had left Rabaul before the invasion, and came back afterwards. On his return, the Tolai (the Indigenous group of the area) told him they had seen Wilf leaving town on the day of the invasion with Harold Page, the town administrator.

Since Harold Page was one of the key players in the events of the time, his movements were well documented. This meant I was able to pinpoint exactly what Wilf was doing the day the Japanese landed in Rabaul, rather than making assumptions. (The second discovery is a story for another time.)

Remembering the lost

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. There will be a commemorative service and dinner in Canberra on the day of the sinking, 1st July. For my sister and I, attending this will be an important way of remembering and honouring our grandfather. Through my research, I’ve come to feel close to him. His is no longer a story lost to time. I’ve come to understand what he was like, how others saw him, how dedicated he was to his work and the people of Rabaul, and the tragedy of the end of his life. His death echoed through our family, even though I never understood why. I wish I had known him.

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