Darkest Hour
The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul
Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of
World War II

Gamble, Bruce. St Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2006

ISBN: 0-7603-2349-6
Pages: 304

"The correctful thing in all literary books is to remember that the truth may need suppressing if it appears out of tangent with the common man’s notion of reality." - Trader Horn 

Any author who tries to tackle the difficult subject of wartime Rabaul and keep the tragedy of what happened in the forefront of Australians' consciousness is to be commended.  However, for me, Darkest Hour offers little I didn't already know.  With little new information, it seems to be a well-woven compilation of accounts that have already been published in other books and information from diaries and unpublished manuscripts in the AWM.  It would be hoped that any author of secondary histories would accept the serious responsibility to sift what has been written before and leave things clearer than they found them!  This is particularly the case where so much inaccurate surmise has already been written about Rabaul.   

General Comments: 

Like the first book published on the 2/22nd Battalion and the loss of Rabaul (Rabaul 1942), Darkest Hour (DH) could have done with a good fold-out map, so the reader isn't constantly flipping back to the small maps trying to work out where all the various groups were. Also, as there were so many groups of escaping soldiers of the Battalion heading in so many different directions, it is difficult to keep the timeframe in context.  I found the non-super scripting of page references very annoying.  There is still a lot of information the author didn't find, didn't mention or perhaps didn't reference.

There is some new information.  Interestingly Gamble states that Captain Shojiro Mizusaki, Commanding Officer of the 81st Naval Garrison
[p. 224] was the officer overseeing the movement of the nurses from Vunapope to the
Naruto Maru for transportation to Japan [p. 244]. This means he was also in charge of the inspection of the nurses that took place on the preceding day when he told the nurses he would be inspecting them once a month.

The author references this statement to Not Now Tomorrow [p.88] but NNT states that the officer was from the house of Mitsubishi:


This day which, oddly enough, ended in optimism was the 22nd of June 1942.  Exactly twelve days after that disturbingly memorable date hordes of Japanese again invaded our sanctuary.  We had just come in from a walk to the Mission cemetery when Sugai the Interpreter arrived with several Naval officers, one of whom stood out noticeably from his companions. He was tall and looked more southern European than Oriental.
With much over
emphasised bowing, Sugai introduced him. ‘This gentleman is from the House of Mitsubishi. You must obey him,’ said Sugai totally ignoring the other officers. As none of us, at this stage, had heard of the House of Mitsubishi this honour was completely lost on us.
Before Sugai could give us any instruction this important person addressed us in a well educated English voice. ‘Please, just call me Michael’.  Speechless gasps greeted this invitation - we were all too astonished to call him anything, much less Michael

If this new information is correct [and to me it makes sense that it would be Mizusaki, as the Rabaul nurses were special prisoners to the Japanese at that time], historians should be raising the question of why an officer of such senior rank would be involved with moving 18 lowly POW nurses to Japan. But unfortunately, as other historians have in the past, the author has missed the significance of this encounter and didn't ask any questions.


Comments About Specific Claims in Darkest Hour 


Page 11, last paragraph. “Salvation Army realized that conscription might come at any time”. Prior to Japan's entry in the war, there had been little discussion of conscription. This had been a huge issue during WWI causing a split in the Labor Party and their loss of Government. The government had actually suspended enlistment to the 2nd AIF in July 1940. Some members of the Salvation Army may have used the prospect of conscription to justify their service enlistment after the war, to pacifists within their own community, but it was not an issue during 1940 and early 41. Although conscription was subsequently introduced in at end first quarter 42, after the fall of Singapore and Japanese successes through modern Indonesia, this was under manpower regulations with personnel directed to the AMF not the AIF.


Page 13, 3rd paragraph, discussion of the relationship with the CMF to the Australian Army and comparison to the US National Guard movement. 
This is entirely wrong. The CMF was the Australian Army. From federation, the structure of the Australian Army was as the part-time CMF with a small number of full-time personnel, the latter limited to coastal artillery, engineers, service corps (logistic transport support) ordinance corps (logistic support) and the instructional corps. It had been a point of conflict that an officer wanting a regular army career in the combatant arms had to be attached to the instructional corps and had a much slower rate of progress than a part-time officer and also had a lower priority for attachment to the Indian Army for critical training courses required for progress past the rank of Captain. The 1st & 2nd AIF were entirely recruited "for the duration" of the war and disbanded at the end of their respective wars. The regular peacetime army was not founded until after WW2.


Page 19, 2nd paragraph "focus their attention on Europe”... “bled white under a prolonged siege at Tobruk."
This paragraph is superficial and not accurate. When England declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939, Australia also declared war.  The phoney war period was used to form, arm and train the 2nd AIF.  The collapse of France and the Low Countries was sudden and spectacular.
The North African campaigns became the main land warfare theater for British troops.  The 2nd AIF was heavily committed to the disastrous Greek campaign, where heavy losses occurred.  Also, only three Divisions were committed to the North African campaigns (6, 7 & 9th.).  The 8th remained in Australia and was subsequently split up with the bulk as a garrison to Singapore and the remainder as Lark, Sparrow & Gull Forces. The 8th was always short of artillery, transport and other equipment.  This had been part of the reason for its retention in Australia.


Page 19, last paragraph discussing AIF recruitment. 
See previous comments.  To get a better understanding, supported by statistics, see Jeffrey Grey "A military history of Australia".  This is generally regarded as an excellent introduction and overview of Australian military history.  


Page 20, 1st paragraph. States Australian attitude was that the US & Macarthur provided a shield in the Philippines. 
This is not true. Official policy and strategy was based on Fortress Singapore. The USA was isolationist and regarded as unreliable.  Until Pearl Harbour, the USA was not an ally.

There is some evidence that the Americans were strategically interested in Rabaul and that they were covertly involved in the building of the Vunakanau aerodrome. [See unpublished manuscript “Memories of New Guinea Rabaul 1937 -1942” by Harry Morris p.25]


Page 20, 3rd paragraph. Discussion of Mandated Territory of New Guinea. 
The Author is generally confused.  As an Australian Territory, the white Australians were not "Expatriates".  With independence in 1975 and the renaming of the country as Papua New Guinea (the "and" is removed!) and the way PNG has enacted its citizenship regulations, the non-indigenous community are now known as the "Expatriates" even if they are long term residents planning to live their entire lives in the country.  So "expat" as a term was not in use in the period of the book. 


Page 22, 1st paragraph. Under the League of Nations Charter for mandated territories, the construction of fortifications was expressly prohibited.  This leads back to the question of what was the role of Lark Force, as a buffer garrison against Japanese expansionism or a garrison to protect the harbour from Nazi German merchant raiders like the Kormoran.  As the latter, their role was legitimate within the Charter; however as the former the legality of their role was very questionable. In particular the construction of the 6 inch gun emplacements was a questionable activity. 


Page 38, Albert Hahl.  The main problem with Kokopo is the shallow depth of its harbour. Large ships can't dock there. Rabaul, although threatened by the volcano, made a more viable location because of its deep water harbour.


Page 52, last paragraph. General description of small arms.  The rifle in use was the SMLE No 1 Mk III*. These were newly-made for the 2nd AIF, being the model adopted in 1915 and very similar to the Mk111 adopted in 1907.  They fired the Mk7 .303 cartridge which had been adopted during WWI.  Rebuilt WWI rifles were retained in Australia for use by AMF troops.


Page 58,Not all women were able to leave”.  
The six civilian/government nurses were offered evacuation but they volunteered as a group to stay.  There was no intervention by H Page and no elderly Government nurse sailed to Australia.  Reference to the Government nurses volunteering to stay can be found in the Court of Enquiry into the fall of Rabaul that was conducted by the Australian Government in early 1942. 
[See Lost Women of Rabaul page 203, Not Now Tomorrow page 17.] 
It should be noted that the AANS nurses were never offered evacuation as it was deemed their duty to stay with the men. Gamble may be referring to the fact that Joyce Oldroyd–Harris was flown in as relief matron for Namanula hospital on 22 December 1941 as Matron Alice Thorburn was taking her leave on the 29 December?
[See That They Might Live by Ellen Kettle (ISBN 0 908203 02 0) page 75.] 


Page 94 and 116 Have Selby spelt "Shelby". 


Page 120, "they squabbled like children about food"
This statement is not referenced, but Gordon Thomas wrote of this:

Hunger over-rode any scruples we might have had regarding the manner in which it was served. Europeans, Asiatics and natives all joined in the general scramble for food. [Rabaul 1942-1945 by Gordon Thomas. Unpublished p.24]


To my mind scrambling and squabbling are two different things... 


Page 146, "they were bitterly disappointed that on had come for them" - missing words. 


Page 187 has Colin Dowse dying just before the arrival of the LaurabadaPage 193 has him dying after arriving back in Australia on the Lakatoi


Page 202,only comprehensive narrative among the prisoners from Lark Force”.  This is a big call.  Gamble hasn't read any of the Rabaul nurses' diaries and although not a member of Lark Force, Gordon Thomas wrote a book entitled Rabaul 1942-1945 which was never published. Bishop Scharmach also wrote "This Crowd beats us all".  Gamble makes reference to neither.


Page 210, 3rd paragraph, “The most reverend Leo Scharmach and his staff were Germans; they were treated with the same contempt as the Australians”.  This is incorrect.  Bishop Leo Scharmach was Polish but had served in the German army as a stretcher bearer in WW1.  He had a German Iron Cross medal which he used to great effect in influencing the Japanese.  There are plenty of examples of the Bishop not giving in to Japanese pressure.
[See p27 This Crowd Beats Us All – Disastrous Order from Tokyo]

Page 211.  The comment that Bishop Leo Scharmach resembled Groucho Marx is unnecessary and possibly gives the reader the wrong impression.  The author goes on to state that he could do little about the Japanese sexual advances and the guards punishing the nuns at Vunapope.  Nuns were punished as the author states, but they were the little native nuns at the top of the Ramale Valley who were out side the Bishop's sphere of influence.
[See “This Crowd Beats Us All” page 247 - Native Sisters Tortured.]


It is true that the Bishop trod a very fine line with the Japanese, but he managed to survive the war and saved the missionaries under his care. 


Page 212.  The author references the death of Gray to Not Now Tomorrow. None of the seven Rabaul nurses' diaries (that I have copies of) make any mention of the death of Gray, some did however name him as being executed on war crimes affidavits in Manila in 1945.  The original story was written in “This Crowd Beats Us All” page 21.


From Darkest Hour


At Rabaul, captured soldiers and airmen were subjected to some of the worst atrocities. John Gray, the engineering officer captured at Tol, was the victim of a particularly heinous crime committed by members of the 3rd Battalion.  Taken to Vunapope rather than imprisoned at the Malaguna Road stockade, he was tied to a palm tree outside Lieutenant Colonel Kuwada’s residence and questioned for hours in the blazing sun. Periodically the Japanese slapped him with a length of rope, beat him with planking, or sprinkled biting ants on his body. [?]  When they grew tired of the interrogation, they took Gray to a distant hill [?] where missionary students witnessed his execution. First, a doctor named Chikumi, whose reputation for malevolence had earned him the ironic nickname “Sunshine Sam,” [The way I understand it he was given this name sarcastically as he was a little ray of sunshine] administered an injection that rendered Gray semi-conscious. [Why has this been added?] Next, Chikumi performed a vivisection and removed Gray’s still-beating heart, for no better reason than “to study his reactions.”

Reference given by Gamble: Page 281 Torture and execution of Capt. Gray including “in order to study” Reference Bowman P.70 Not Now Tomorrow


What was written on page 70 Not Now Tomorrow


Much in evidence these days was a nasty little Japanese doctor called Chikami - and referred to by our men as Sunshine Sam. Just how diabolical and cold-blooded he was we were to learn. He was responsible for an atrocity, in face of all others, hard to believe. Captain Gray of Engineer Services had been captured by the Japs soon after the fall of Rabaul. He refused to give information about the Australian Army and was tied to a tree near the Bishop’s residence, a residence which was now occupied by the Japanese Army officer in charge of the Japs at Vunapope, Lieutenant Colonel Kuata. After brutal interrogation Captain Gray was repeatedly beaten, but his courage was entwined in the fibres of his heart and his torturers could gain no information from him. He was taken to a nearby coconut plantation where missionaries were forced to witness his macabre execution.  Doctor Chikami cut out this brave man’s heart while he was still alive “in order to study his reactions” 


The original story from This Crowd Beats us All:


Again there was the case of Captain Gray of the 2/22 Battalion who was taken prisoner on the way to freedom. We do not know all the details of what happened. However, some of our seminarians, who were not confined to their house but who were forced to do all kinds of small jobs for the Japanese soldiers and were thus able to move about more freely, reported to us that they witnessed the following incidents.

On the morning of a bright sunny day, Captain Gray was seen tied to a coconut tree some 50 yards from the Bishop’s House. He was ordered to disclose military information on the whereabouts of the Australian Army. He refused and was beaten. He was then left alone until the officers returned, repeated their questions, “beat him up” again, and for a second time tied to that tree in the blazing tropical sun. That procedure was repeated periodically till 4 p.m. Captain Gray remained adamant. They had a last request: that he should admit that Japanese officers were gentlemen. He refused, and probably gave them a very frank opinion as to what they actually were.


At 4 p.m. he was marched several hundred yards into the adjoining coconut plantation. Several soldiers with spades, some officers and Dr. Chikami escorted him. At the selected spot the callous doctor got busy.  He cut out Captain Gray’s heart, ALIVE . . . in order to study the reactions! 


With the Bishop stating “We do not know all the details of what happened,” it is at best hearsay evidence. 


Update 7 February 2009 - I have located a copy of a post war interview with Brother J Mahrhofer who saw Captain Gray passing through the mission.

You may have to be logged onto the Australian Natioanl Archives site as a guest to view this page.

Then go to Page 49


Page 213.  Definition of “soon" - in a prompt manner.  Singapore fell 15th February 1942.  Indians arrived five months later, after the sailing of the other POWs? 


Page 217.  Lex Frazer couldn't speak fluent Japanese. He could speak enough Japanese to survive and could make himself understood.  He was liaison officer for the Rabaul camp.  I spoke to Lex 30/1/2007.  He also stated that the officers and nurses sang the song "Auld Lang Syne" in the hold of the Naruto Maru on their way to Japan and that the Japanese had their own version of the song. 


Page 237. Gamble is unfamiliar with "great circle" navigation over the curved surface of the Earth. The route to Hainan to the north of the Philippines is in fact the shortest in track distance. Also the average speed of the Montevideo Maru was a few knots lower (and much more economical for fuel consumption) than the one that he has calculated.


Page 238. There was in fact no system of special POW markings. Allied ships also carried POWs without notice - leading to the famous case of the "Laconia Incident" (
Anyway, 15 out of 19 Japanese marked Hospital Ships were sunk during the war (, as was the treaty-protected POW relief ship Awa Maru (, so markings were of little use in the Pacific.


Page 245, 4th paragraph.  Thomas and the other men with him were never housed in the camp. They were housed at the Rabaul ice works. The question Gamble has failed to ask is why weren't they going with the other men on the Montevideo Maru?  By that time they weren’t essential to the daily running of Rabaul.  Why did the three from the Rabaul ice house survive when the other civilian men left behind didn’t?  There was a reason...
[See Lost Women of Rabaul page 34.] 


Page 247 The one-week delay in notification of the whereabouts of the Montevideo Maru crew on the shore of Luzon all points to the lifeboats going only to the shore, and no-one being picked up by a ship within the week. Also, analysis of the movement of Japanese warships at that time shows none in the area of the Montevideo Maru sinking.


Page 248, they had little food on the Naruto Maru.
The men had brought a few tins of Bully beef and they had hard dog biscuits before boarding.
No reference?

Lorna Whyte's diary states: 

                 Small tin water every other day to wash.  Meals mostly rice.  Our trip made
                 very comfortable by our soldier companions who had some extra food

[Lost Women of Rabaul p. 49 ]


Page 257.  It wasn't a Red Cross Representative that visited the nurses at Totsuka, it was a delegate of the Swiss Legation, Erwin Ruch.  The nurses were never misplaced; they were for want of a better term, political prisoners.  The following document is from the Federal Archives, Berne, Switzerland [translated from French] and is an example of type of information coming out of Japan about the Rabaul nurses in 1944 [See “Lost Women of Rabaul" p.95:]: 


The Swiss minister in Tokyo, M. Camille Gorge who had been in charge of American interests in Japan since 9 December 1942, sent a telegram in December 1944 stating:

Australian Interests - The 18 Internees previously at Yokohama Yacht Club should now be at Totsuka near Yokohama.  They appear to be Australian Nurses.  Since March 1943 I have applied eight times in writing and numerous times orally to visit the Australian nurses, but the Gaimusho has never responded. It would perhaps be advisable that Australian Government request me to protest. [Copyright Rod Miller 2007]  


The problem for the Australian authorities would have been the fact that they didn’t know officially that the Rabaul nurses were in Japan but they did know unofficially.  See Lost Women of Rabaul p.144.  Gamble is probably quoting the Red Cross from Not Now Tomorrow. Some of the statements made in this book are not supported by the survivors or their diaries.


This leaves the Epilogue.  


Gamble is far too strident and sure of his points, when he should realise that he's skating on thin ice... - Maybe a lesson there for us all!  

I agree with his point about escorts not being with the Montevideo Maru and being unlikely to proceed to Japan.  However he didn't read (the surviving Japanese seaman) Mr Yamaji's account closely enough to see that the line about picking up Australian survivors had come from the OSK office in 1942, not Mr Yamaji.  Although I agree it was essentially "face-saving" concerning the abandonment of the POWs.  The author mentions the OSK office on p267, he then, on p268 writes,


"...there is no evidence to corroborate Yamaji's claim that POWs were rescued and taken to Japan". 


Possibly Gamble should have written, "There is no evidence to corroborate the OSK Official's claim that POWs were rescued and taken to Japan".  The way it's written, he paints Mr Yamaji as a liar; whereas it’s possible that the aging Mr Yamaji, talking about events from so long ago and speculating off the cuff in response to leading questions, should have considered his answer more carefully. 


Page 267,if indeed a member.”  It is difficult to understand why the author doubts Mr Yamaji's authenticity as the sole surviving member of the Montevideo Maru crew.  He was invited to tell his story by Australian television after discovery of his survival through Mr Hisashi Noma's


The section on "bunker oil" is completely over-the-top, particularly since the Montevideo Maru was a motor ship, and the fuel was light diesel, not the heavy oil of a steamer.  


His vehement rejection of the possibility of any singing in the water is wrong. I don't find it strange that people sang in adversity - it was a very "British" thing to do.  Remember the band on the Titanic!  A little Googling gives plenty of other examples... 

1) USS President Lincoln (WW1)


Fourteen of the sixteen boats were successfully launched, two being blown up in the explosion of the torpedoes, one aft and one forward. The men left on the ship after the life boats had pulled away, immediately began cutting the lashings of the life rafts and launching them, sliding down life lines onto them, singing and paddling away with whatever wreckage they could pick up for a paddle. It reminded one more of a Sunday school picnic than a race with death, to see them racing one another and singing. 


2) HMS Courageous 1939,9171,761974,00.html  

Rescue ships, including a U. S. freighter and a Dutch vessel, picked up perhaps half of the Courageous' company who were found singing and cheering in the water.  

Etc. etc. etc. (All singing away in pretty harrowing circumstances...!)

The author's understanding of the Japanese Prisoner of War Information Bureau [PWIB] is very sparse.  


Page 269.


– The battle of Midway would have made no difference to the PWIB - there were no POWs involved, and the loss at Midway was a secret in Japan anyway.
- The PWIB would not have been paid, or received rations for the dead POWs on the books! - The delay in the Navy providing the Roll to the PWIB could also reflect the time taken to re-compile the list in a form suitable for transmission from Rabaul.
- The author then gives the Japanese too much leeway when he assumes that the PWIB was designed to work in the first place. As Major Williams, who was sent to Japan at the end of the war to investigate the disappearance of the men from Rabaul reported, the PWIB actually reflected the Japanese desire not to provide information about the massive losses of POWs under their administration.  


There is more to the story of the Montevideo Maru, but unfortunately historians always reach the same conclusion, for they rely heavily on the minimal information in the Australian and Japanese archival files.  But there is evidence for a more plausible explanation of why the Japanese couldn’t release details of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru and the other hell ships during the war. It wasn’t only sheer incompetence on the part of the PWIB, although this is the un-researched excuse accepted over 60 years ago!  In the case of the Montevideo Maru, the acceptance that the PWIB was incompetent closed the case on Australia’s worst maritime disaster.  The reason it was accepted involves the Japanese Government at a very high diplomatic level and possibly the Australian Government who through intelligence sources [FRUMEL, Mis-X] knew that the men had left Rabaul on a ship. This fact is supported by the same document that Gamble uses to support his case for the acceptance of the official excuse of incompetence by the Japanese Prisoner of War Information Bureau:



Scraps of information collected at DPW & I, LHQ, over a period of several years prior to Japans surrender, pointed to the probability that about 1000 PW, officials and civilians had been embarked at RABAUL in Jun 42 for a destination unknown. Close interrogations of recovered Aust .PW passing through MANILA had confirmed this probability. See AWM 54 779/1/1 page7

This intelligence would have been used by Williams in Japan to secure information from the Japanese on those lost.  The same document cited by the author to support the case of “bureaucratic ineptitude” by an agency that was “notoriously inefficient” also states: 


It is however necessary to report that both the Swiss Legation and the IRC officials have unofficially but in no uncertain terms stated that in their opinion the information was deliberately withheld. (AWM 54 779/1/1)


The fact that the International Red Cross and the Swiss Legation knew that information had been deliberately withheld is repeatedly overlooked by historians, as it does not support the more politically favourable official findings accepted by the Australian Government in 1945.  Both the IRC and the Swiss Legation had people in Japan during the war.  Although never officially reported, in December 1942 an IRC representative did visit the Rabaul nurses, talked to them at some length and took their details.


This begs the question, “Why didn’t Williams investigate the claims of the IRC and Swiss Legation further?” Major Williams arrived in Japan on 27 September 1945, before departing on the 6th December.  In a period of eight weeks he investigated and possibly closed 14 separate matters. How could he possibly have thoroughly investigated any of these matters in such a short time frame and why was the Australian Government so quick to accept his report with out further investigation?  


Unfortunately the author of Darkest Hour has failed to ask any of these questions and has accepted the official story of the investigation into the Montevideo Maru without questioning the inconstancies in the report that the conclusion is based on.  


Although a valiant effort, the author of Darkest Hour The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul should have presented all the facts not only the ones that support the official history.  He could have questioned some of the reports that the official history of the Montevideo Maru is based on, or at least pointed out some of the problems with the officially accepted history considering it finalizes the death of so many with such little investigation. It is difficult for any reader to decide what they believe in the way of any alternative reason for the withholding of the information of the sinking of the hell ships by the Japanese, other than that supported by the author, when only the information that supports the status quo is presented.  The author then emotionally suggests in the last paragraph that:

Ultimately, readers must decide for themselves what they believe regarding the disaster and the alleged conspiracies. Wherever the truth lies, the men who were lost must be allowed to rest in peace. Soon enough, their entire generation will exist only in memory.

Is there a problem here?  Surely it is more urgent than ever to research, scrutinize and question the inconstancies of the official findings whilst the generations that experienced and suffered are still alive to confirm or deign what is being written by later day historians.   

"There are many great truths which we do not deny, and which nevertheless we do not fully believe
."  - Joshua Willis Alexander 

For more information on the IRC and the acceptance of Major Williams report read Lost Women of Rabaul. See 

Thanks to Ross Torrington and James Oglethorpe for assistance with this review




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