Mission to the mainland
It is the Australian equivalent of The Sound of Music.
As World War II threatened Australian soil, 95 indigenous children — all members of the stolen generations – escaped the Japanese bombing of Darwin, shepherded by their missionary carer on a 500-kilometre trek.
A new documentary, screening on the ABC on Tuesday November 20, tells how the children made the arduous journey from Croker Island, 200 kilometres off the Northern Territory coast, to the south of New South Wales.
Margaret Somerville, the missionary who led the 1942 exodus, is living at Mayflower Village in Rockdale, South Eastern Region and recently turned 100. She met some of the ten surviving children last year in an emotional reunion featured in the film Croker Island Exodus.
At the age of 28, Sommerville was an inexperienced missionary when she was made one of three “cottage mothers” in charge at the Methodist home in November 1941. She was on the last ship going north before the Japanese bombed the US fleet at Pearl Harbour on December 7.
The children had been on Croker six months, making their own fun “in paradise”, swimming, fishing and riding horses. With the Japanese advancing on the Philippines and Hong Kong, the War Cabinet decided that women and children should be evacuated from Darwin. The three cottage mothers were asked if they would stay with the children — or could they go, leaving their young charges stranded.
But the real risk of their position became clear when the first Japanese plane passed overhead.
Alice Briston, one of the children, recounts the moment: “I’m waving away and I said, ‘Hey Chinaman, Chinaman driving that plane,’ and anyway he waved at me too. And then he flew straight into Darwin … and that was when the first bomb fell down in Darwin.”
In the coming weeks, those on the island were informed by radio that every endeavour would be made to ensure their safety.
Netta Cahill, another of the surviving children, tells of the children not realising their beloved horses had been cooked to eat. “We didn’t know, but we – they cooked up our horses. No wonder we were sick, we were eating our own pet.” Using diesel from the sawmill, the entire “family” left in the mission boat, Larrpan, landing on the mainland at Barclay Point. The Church Missionary Society organised two trucks to take them 84 kilometres south to Oenpelli. With creek crossings, engine trouble and three punctures, they were out of the truck as often as they were in it.
Walking barefoot through Kakadu, the children believed they were going on holiday. Somerville says: “I can’t say it was any feeling of apprehension or worry. We were just on a journey and that was it. That just had to be done, so you did it.”
As the bombing continued after two weeks at Oenpelli, the group continued south, capsising a canoe as they tried to cross Alligator River.
“We just kept on walking and walking. Pine Creek is about 150 miles (240 kilometres) from Darwin, which was still being raided by Japanese planes nearly every day. And planes were passing over us on their way to bomb further south – so we were travelling right into a war zone,” Sommerville says.
At Pine Creek, full of army personnel, the group was treated poorly and given a place to sleep in the butcher’s paddock. The soldiers wanted a concert, so the children practised their songs and delivered.
Soon, however, they were allowed to join a train to become the largest and last party of women and children to leave the north. Packed into cattle cars, they slept on the floor. But it didn’t matter – they weren’t walking any more.
After 44 days and almost 5,000 kilometres, they made it to Central Station in Sydney before ending their journey at an old homestead at Otford owned by the church’s Crusader Movement.
After the war, in 1946, Sommerville and 69 children boarded a navy vessel in Sydney and made the six-week passage back to Croker.
At a reunion on Croker, Jessie Lyons said, “I’m really thankful to the missionaries, I mean they stuck with us, they could have left us. They had a chance to go but they just stayed with us — which was good of them, eh?”
Croker Island Exodus is on ABC1 on Tuesday November 20 at 8.30 pm
With thanks to The Journey, Issue 46, November 2012
See also: She crossed a continent