ON 11 September 1914, the Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force captured the German wireless station at Bita Paka, near Rabaul in East New Britain, then part of German New Guinea.
The centenary of this important event was honoured on 11 September last year by the presence in Simpson Harbour of HMAS Yarra IV (the fourth namesake of the original HMAS Yarra) together with other Australian naval and defence force personnel who arrived by RAAF Hercules, and numerous tourists and trekkers.
Liam Cochrane of ABC TV, based in Port Moresby and Max Uechtritz, of Channel 7, Sydney, provided excellent coverage for Australia and the region.
My organisation, Kokoda Historical, arranged for 45 tourists to attend and we were based at Susie McGrade’s Rabaul Hotel (formerly the Hamamas Hotel) at the junction of Malaguna Road and Mango Avenue.
A cruise ship brought 60 tourists for part of the proceedings and another 20 or so tourists stayed at various hotels in Kokopo.
Members of the Rabaul Historical Society worked with RAN and Australian Defence staff, PNG government leaders and Royal PNG Constabulary commanders to coordinate numerous local arrangements.
The ‘old town’ of Rabaul, including Mango Avenue, the airport and golf club has been covered in ash and scrub since the 1994 eruption, but its history lives on in the Rabaul Hotel, the Kaivuna Hotel, the partly-repaired Travelodge Hotel, refurbished New Guinea Club, Rabaul Yacht Club, the ANZAC Memorial and the Montevideo Maru Memorial.
Simpson Harbour’s deep-water wharf and port facilities are nearby and large cruise ships berth there from time to time.
Kokopo is now the business and administrative centre; it has the provincial government office, Vunapope Mission, St Mary’s Hospital, a large mini-bus hub, the post office and banks, car dealerships, supermarkets, a helipad, two hire-car businesses and several modern tourist hotels on the foreshore.
Drivers weave between pot-holes and vehicles can be hidden in the volcanic dust, so great care must be taken when overtaking.
Early in the 20th century Australia purchased two submarines from the United Kingdom, their keels ‘laid down’ in 1911. Built by Vickers Barrow and commissioned into the RAN, they sailed in early March 1914 more than 19,000 km via the Suez Canal, arriving in Sydney in late May 1914.
Both AE-1 and AE-2 joined the Australian Squadron to Rabaul as part of the AN&MEF. AE-2 was later sent to the Dardanelles and was sunk in the Sea of Marmara; its crew becoming prisoners of war.
On 14 September 1914, three days after the capture of the German wireless station, AE-1 was ordered to patrol near the Duke of York islands outside Blanche Bay.
Various hydrographic and underwater searches have been undertaken since the late 1970s without result. There are good reasons for continued searches until AE-1 is found and formally identified, its crew honoured and the site secured as a war grave.
Rod Pearce, a member of the Rabaul Historical Society, well-known in PNG as a diver and owner of the charter-boat Barbarian has conducted private searches for AE-1 in consultation with former RAN members.
An excellent memorial service was conducted for the crew of submarine AE-1 on 14 September 2014 with guests seated under an extensive thatch ‘Haus Win’ located between the Montevideo Maru Memorial and Simpson Harbour.
HMAS Yarra IV provided a backdrop for proceedings before a large, respectful crowd.
Canoes appeared bringing Duk Duk men; the ship’s captain was ceremonially initiated into the tribe; an RAN catafalque party stood to with arms reversed, the RAN Band played; wreaths were laid; the Ode for the Fallen recited; the Last Post was played before a minute’s silence and Reveille.
Reg Yates is a former Army Reservist, ambulance paramedic and trek leader who has visited PNG nearly every year since 1984. He has walked all the WWII battlefield routes in PNG; paddled 360km down the Sepik River; walked the Hindenburg Wall and worked as a paramedic on seismic sites in PNG