A legacy born from loss

Published on LEUT Kara Wansbury (author), ABIS Richard Cordell (photographer)

Location(s): Rabaul, PNG

Wreaths and crosses laid at the monument to the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force at Bita Paka War Cemetery on the outskirts of Kokopo.  (photo: ABIS Richard Cordell)
Wreaths and crosses laid at the monument to the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force at Bita Paka War Cemetery on the outskirts of Kokopo.

The Navy footprint in Rabaul is all but gone, with the first major Centenary of Anzac commemorations over, but memories of the two services held there in September will be felt for years to come by those who remain in Papua New Guinea and those who have returned home to Australia.

“At the Bita Paka War Cemetery, where the service to commemorate the first Australian action of World War I was held, the locally engaged Office of War Graves staff have been reflecting on their contribution,” said Deputy Director of Operations, Australian War Graves, Mr Kel Pearce.

Leading Seaman Coxswain Erin Lane from HMAS Yarra stands at rest on arms reverse during a dawn service at the Rabaul Cenotaph to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Bita Paka.

Leading Seaman Coxswain Erin Lane from HMAS Yarra stands at rest on arms reverse during a dawn service at the Rabaul Cenotaph to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Bita Paka.


“After the guests have returned to places far afield, the staff will return to maintaining the cemetery to Commonwealth War Graves Commission standards; they know they have been responsible for providing a hallmark site that is worthy of those who are commemorated and for those who carry the legacy for those passed,” he said.

He said the cemetery staff had an immense amount of pride in their work and genuinely cared for the sailors, soldiers and airmen who were at peace there, and for their families.

Grounds staff at the Bita Paka War Cemetery.

Grounds staff at the Bita Paka War Cemetery.


“As they tender the lawns, the gardens, the trees, the monuments and the grave markers, they are imbued with the work philosophy that every day is Anzac Day,” Mr Pearce said.

Mr John Thomas is one person who carries a family legacy from the Royal Australian Navy’s participation in the First World War. His Grandfather, Able Seaman James Thomas, was one of the crew members of AE1. Despite not knowing the submarine’s final resting place, Mr Thomas found that the week of commemorations in September exceeded his expectations in many ways.

“Both services were fabulous and entirely different. I didn’t realise there would be so many people at the services and to see all the townsfolk there. Words can’t describe it,” he said.

Descendants of the crew of HMAS AE1 in front of the AE1 improvised memorial with Commodore Peter Scott in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. From Left to Right: Graham Rosentrauss, Cheryl Duncan, William Duncan, Ruth Thomas, Commodore Kim Pitt, AM, RAN (retired), Melissa Messenger, David Messenger, Brian Hart, Robyn Rosentrauss and Commodore Peter Scott CSC, RAN.

Descendants of the crew of HMAS AE1 in front of the AE1 improvised memorial with Commodore Peter Scott in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. From Left to Right: Graham Rosentrauss, Cheryl Duncan, William Duncan, Ruth Thomas, Commodore Kim Pitt, AM, RAN (retired), Melissa Messenger, David Messenger, Brian Hart, Robyn Rosentrauss and Commodore Peter Scott CSC, RAN.


When describing the feeling of being in the last harbour that his late Grandfather was known to have sailed from, and in the vicinity of where AE1 is believed to have perished, Mr Thomas said he felt closer to his ancestor.

“I now know where he is. I have come to the island and I am very happy with where he is. I don’t care if they don’t find him,” he said.

He said the service to commemorate the loss of HMAS AE1, with HMAS Yarra as the backdrop, was particularly emotional.

“I got a lump in my throat,” he said.

On his return to Australia, Mr Thomas will continue to read and research more about his Grandfather, having learnt a lot during his week in Rabaul.

Dr Simon Pockley in front of the grave of his relative Captain Brian Pockley at the Bita Paka War Cemetery on the outskirts of Kokopo following a service to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Bita Paka.

Dr Simon Pockley in front of the grave of his relative Captain Brian Pockley at the Bita Paka War Cemetery on the outskirts of Kokopo following a service to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Bita Paka.

Imagery is available on the Navy Image Library at http://images.navy.gov.au/S20142736.