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by James Benson
Robert Hale Limited 1957
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|Prisoner's Base and Home Again
The Story of a Missionary P.O.W.
This is the memoirs of Anglican priest James Benson at the Anglican Mission at Gona on the north coast of New Guinea. Wearing glasses and overweight, Father Benson is hardly who one would imagine to be a survivor and hero. Yet, his position would place him at the center of the war, and make him the unwilling part of an incredible story of military feats, and experiences as a prisoner of war of the Japanese for years. Through luck, compassion and his faith, he survived the war and went on to write his incredible experiences.
The book begins with the climate of war around Gona, yet, the naive belief by missionary leaders that the war would either pass them by, or that the Japanese would ignore or treat religious people with respect. They concluded they had nothing to fear, and as whites in the islands were order to Australia, they felt a special mission to continue their religious work, and not abandon their flocks. With Benson were two sisters: Mavis Parkins (teacher) and May Hayman (nurse).
Soon war entered their lives. First, a downed American pilot, Wesley Dickinson bailed out of B-25C 41-12491 near Gona and stayed at the mission until his evacuation. On July 6, 1942 bailing out at low level, P-400 Airacobra AP377 piloted by Welker crashed near Gona Mission. Afterwards, Benson found his body and buried his body.
Next, came Japanese air attacks and landing at Gona. At first he wanted to surrender, but decided for the protection of the sisters to join a group of Australian soldiers and downed Allied airmen to try to escape inland to safety.
The group is caught by the Japanese killed in combat and the rest captured, including the sisters. Benson escapes unhurt, lost in the jungle. Alone, he finally decides to surrender to the Japanese, but finds them disinterested in him. He is brought to Salamaua and interrogated as a 'spy' and held as a prisoner, where he experiences both compassion and brutality from different Japanese captors. Later, he is taken by warship to Rabaul, where he is detained in a military prison in town, along with other Japanese offenders and Allied pilot POWs who are interrogated and tortured. Benson himself is still treated as a 'spy'.
Amazingly, the Japanese take him by transport back to New Guinea, forcing him to serve as a translator. Before being dropped off, he witnesses the end of the battle of the Buna/Gona/Sanananda beacheads: the withdrawal of the emaciated skeletons of the remaining Japanese survivors. Benson is probably the one of the few to witness both the Japanese landing and withdrawal from the area. His transport is attacked, and returns back to Rabaul, as the Japanese situation on New Guinea is deteriorating.
Back at Rabaul, he languishes in the same prison for a year, suffering from the effects of beriberi and neglect and treated as a POW and accused of being a 'spy'. He witnessed the crew of Avenger tortured. Finally, his pleas to be treated as a civilian non-combatant are granted, and he is transported to Vunapope, where hundreds of civilian missionaries are interned. Life there is easier, and guards more lax, and he is in the company of other missionaries where he regains his health. In early 1944, increased Allied bombing of Rabaul destroys the mission, and the prisoners, like the Japanese are made to dig their own tunnels to avoid the raids.
By May 1944, they are relocated inland to avoid bombings. The missionaries include Germans, and various religions, but all collectively work for their survival and use their faith to endure, until liberation by Australian Forces in September 1945. This well written book is a must read for anyone interested in New Guinea, Rabaul or the POW experiences of a civilian.
Review by Justin Taylan
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