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Nations at war
Johnson, Carl. Little Hell: The Story of the 2/22nd Battalion and Lark Force. Blackburn, Victoria: History House - Jenkin Australia Pty Ltd, 2004
x + 310 pages
Foreword; Introduction; Acknowledgements; maps; photos; news clippings; Suggested Reading; Abbreviations; Bibliography; Indexes
Appendices: Nominal Rolls; Decorations, Awards and Citations; Family Combinations; Surviving Veterans; Civilians Lost; MS Herstein; Civilians Evacuated
Some of the most interesting and compelling stories of World War II revolve around small units fighting hopelessly against overwhelming odds in isolated conditions. One of the classics of the genre involves the Australian 2/22nd Battalion (which, along with attached units, comprised Lark Force) during the Japanese invasion of the Bismarck Archipelago in 1942. The battalion was little more than a token force, completely insufficient to defend such a large region against the tide of enemy air, ground, and naval forces. Lark Force was quickly overwhelmed at Rabaul and most of the troops captured. A few successfully evaded the Japanese and eventually escaped, but the majority were swept into captivity under the usual grueling conditions with a pitifully low rate of survival, especially because of one particular incident.
The story of 2/22nd and Lark Force is one among many events which has assumed almost mythical proportions in Australia, where in general the Aussies tend to take military history more seriously than many other nations. Carl Johnson has compiled a great many pieces of 2/22nd history into a highly evocative kaleidoscope of letters, newspaper clippings, photos, and brief memoirs. While not a unified narrative of the course of the battle and its aftermath, Johnson's approach provides a detailed look into the personal side of young Australians thrown into battleor, as some historians might say, thrown awayin the early days of the war in the Pacific.
The first chapter looks at the formation and training of the battalion in Australia. In this chapter, overflowing with photos of rows and rows of young soldiers arrayed by companies and platoons, the author writes a straightforward narrative interspersed with newspaper clippings, printed souvenirs, and rosters. The chapter ends with a letter from Private Jack Groat to his dear Aunt Lou.
The second chapter covers the arrival of the unit and its duty at Rabaul prior to the Japanese invasion. Unlike the first chapter, this one is made up entirely of letters written home by various soldiers, along with the usual assortment of photos. Surprising to these unlearned eyes, several photos depict baseball teams comprised of players from the 2/22nd.
Chapter Three begins with a page of "Events before landing" and "Events during and after landing" followed by a series of first person after action reports from Lark Force survivors. Here's one of the shorter pieces:
Awakened at 0245 hours. First shot fired about 0350 hours.
Mortars keep up heavy fire. Air was
alive with darting bullets (tracer) about 0400
hours. Stretcher-bearers came up for Bluey and
Peachy. Japs doing a lot of yelling in gullies. Planes
arrived with the daylight and the fun really
started. Had landed troops behind our Company
as well as along the side. Two platoons pulled out
at about 0540 hours. We stayed to hold them.
Pulled out at 0645 hours with the Japs very close.
Had a terrible climb up ridge to get out. Planes
were machine gunning all troops.
Would only travel about twenty yards and then
dive for cover. Reached the top in five hours
almost done. Had dumped a lot of equipment.
Had drink out of tin hats at a Coon's tank. We
climbed off the skyline into deep gully. After
travelling some distance we decided to have a
sleep for a while, as we were nearly all jiggered.
Slept about an hour. Got out of gully, which was
another steep climb and had a coconut each.
Crossed our first road and after getting off the
road a little we made camp for the night. A native
boy brought us water, coconuts, bananas, and
pawpaw. Made down to sleep but it started to
rain so had to shift in a kunai hut. Was just
settled down when we heard trampling coming
from the jungle. Were all ready to give them the
works when we heard cursing and knew they are
With the Aussies quickly dispersed by the force of the Japanese assault, the next chapter turns to the stories of those men who were quick enoughand lucky enoughto escape. This chapter is also told entirely in the words of the soldiers, but these accounts tend to be considerably longer than the snippets found in Chapter Three. For some of the evaders, it took four months to reach safety.
Chapter Five begins the long, sad story of Aussie prisoners in Japanese hands. The brutal events are no easier to bear for being familiar to anyone who has already read about POW conditions in the war in the Pacific. In this chapter Johnson presents a long report by an Aussie chaplain, John May, about "Prisoners of the Japanese at Lark Force Hospital." The next chapter covers the sinking by the American submarine Sturgeon of the Montevideo Maru which, unknown to the Yanks, was packed with over a thousand Australian prisoners. Johnson wrote this chapter with information from a variety of sources, including a recent eyewitness account from one of the few surviving crewmen of the Montevideo Maru. This account confirms what had been rumored, but unproved, since the war: that as many as fifty Australians might have survived the loss of Montevideo Maru, some apparently taken to Japan. "The revelation that there were POWs known to have survived has now created new unanswered questions. If there were POWs that survived the sinking of the Montevideo Maru and they were brought back to Japan, then what became of them?" For this question no answer as yet emerges. The chapter concludes with reproductions of short messages from Aussies in Rabaul informing their families they are POWs plus a series of clippings about the loss of men in captivity.
The next two chapters cover, respectively, the massacre at Tol plantation and the saga of the 2/22nd's band. The former was an atrocity in which about 150 Australian prisoners were bound, tied together in groups, and murdered by Japanese troops shortly after the fall of Rabaul. The latter provides a microcosm of the 2/22nd's experience, with only two of the men surviving the war. The final chapter of the book reviews with photos, captions, and newspaper clippings the story of post-war "reunions and pilgrimages" involving the 2/22nd and Rabaul.
Johnson also includes several appendices to round out his book. The longest by far is the "nominal roll" of the 2/22nd and Lark Force, amounting to about ninety pages with serial number, name, rank, unit, residence (often including street address), and comments (including many, many "died while POW at sea, 1/7/42" notations). Along with unit rosters, Johnson also provides photographs of many of the soldiers, some of the images blurred and out of focus, but all the faces young and vigorous.
Little Hell is not an account of operations in the Bismarcks or the brief battle at Rabaul. For that, other books are already available. None of them, however, can come close to matching the evocative nature of Carl Johnson's compilation about the men of the 2/22nd. No matter how far the war recedes into history, the loss of so many young Australians is sure to resonate with anyone who takes a moment to read these stories and letters and clippings. A book about such a remote corner of the war, even one as handsome as this labor of love, might not find the broadest audienceand no one needs to be reminded that readers in the largest book-buying market don't always show a great deal of enthusiasm for events at such a distance, no matter how poignant or importantbut Little Hell will be a treasure for anyone touched by action on New Britain, loss of the 2/22nd, and death at sea of so many young Aussies.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Jenkin Australia Pty Ltd.
Thanks to Jenkin for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 27 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone