Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 19 Feb 2007
When Australia deployed the Lark Force to the harbor town of Rabaul in New Britain in Jan 1942, the men knew that their force, ill equipped and few in number, had no hope against a full scale invasion by the Japanese. What they counted on was that after they fulfilled their duties of resisting an initial attack, their leaders in Sydney would evacuate them from immediate danger. What they got, however, was a government that had secretly written them off as a loss weeks before the actual invasion had taken place. This is the subjectâ€™s of Bruce Gambleâ€™s Darkest Hour, and it is a compelling study of a little known chapter in the history of World War II.
With a detailed play-by-play of the invasion, Gamble recreates the hopelessness and despair as the Australian defenders sabotaged their own heavy equipment and fled into the disease-ridden jungles. Those who were captured faced humiliation, starvation, and torture. In many cases, some were unjustly executed, and the author's writing such as the passage below made me feel that I was an unwilling witness of the atrocities.
"Ambulance driver Bill Collins was the last man in another column of prisoners being marched into the coconut groves. The Japanese officer leading the way called a halt, and the Australians were directed to sit on the ground. Unsheathing his sword, the officer sliced the rope connecting the first captive in line with the others, but it was not for freedom's sake. The Australian was motioned to his feet, then a soldier with a fixed bayonet guided him into the underbrush. Collins heard a scream, and a few moments later the Japanese soldier reappeared, wiping his bayonet. One by one, the other prisoners were led away and executed...."
"...Private Thomas B. Clissold, an orderly with teh 2/10 Field Ambulance, tried to protest by pointing to the Red Cross brassards he and Collins wore. The officer ripped them from their uniforms. Defiantly, Clissold indicated with his hands that he'd rather be shot than bayoneted. The officer complied, shooting Clissold where he sat."
While the executions were barbaric and unjustified, the darkest hour did not come until the sinking of the transport Montevideo Maru. The transport, full of prisoners of war but unmarked, was torpedoed by an American submarine while en route to Japan; all POWs were lost. Page by page, Gamble unfolds the drama experienced by the Lark Force in a way that is readable for those unfamiliar with the subject, and detailed enough for those who know more.
However, Darkest Hour is not really about the suffering of the Australian personnel. Instead, through the book, it is clear Gamble meant to show the triumph of the human spirit exhibited by those abandoned by their own government. The book is written about the soldiers who fled into the jungle, crossing raging rivers and climbing steep hills while Zero fighters strafed them, refusing to surrender. It is about the non-combatants, too, including the nurses who risked their lives in the attempt to hide an Australian soldier by darkening his face with black shoe polish to make him look like a native patient. It is also about the forced laborers at Rabaul's docks who took on the dangerous mission of stealing food from Japanese supply ships so that they could share with their fellow captives.
Sporadically found in the book are also a number of maps designed to orient the readers, who likely possess little knowledge of New Britain's geography, on some of the names of missions, villages, and roads found in the area. While they are helpful in providing a general sense of direction, the maps are also rather simplistic in that many of the named places were left off of them, which caused some small frustrations for this visually-oriented reader.
Exhaustively researched and descriptively written, Gamble's narrative of Darkest Hour is rich in detail but yet still easy to read. Pick up a copy, settle into your favorite chair, and be careful not to get lost in the wild growth of the South Pacific jungles.
This review was edited by Bryan Hiatt.
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