WWII smoke signals saga

by Chris Griffith
Published 7 April 1996 in The Sunday Mail


my face


In May 1942, during the darkest days of World War II, the most bizarre of messages was dispatched from Brisbane to Army General Headquarters in Melbourne.

It claimed German missionaries and North Queensland Aborigines at Cape Bedford Mission near Cooktown were sending smoke signals. The timing and shape of these puffs presumably contained information vital to the Japanese.

"Report smoke signals given from mission on arrival and departure of planes," the message read.

"Execution of warrants held over pending decision to remove all natives to Barambah to prevent them going bush and making contacts for Japanese."

Around 100 Aborigines would die later.

The tale of the Cape Bedford Mission is disclosed in confidential military intelligence documents given to The Sunday Mail last week. They include reports by Australian intelligence that Aborigines on the station spoke German and were proficient at morse code.

The documents show a military intelligence gathering system out of control in 1942, a situation understandable given the gravity of the war that year.

In February 1942, the Japanese captured Singapore, bombed Darwin, and landed at Java. In March, they captured Lae and Salamaua in New Guinea, and their aircraft raided Broome in Western Australia -- all in three weeks.

Australia was understandably in shock, and panic broke out as fears of what seemed an imminent Japanese invasion heightened. As a result, Australian forces rounded up those they believed would collaborate.

But equally understandable is the lingering anger felt today by those wrongly accused of treachery against the country.

In the case of Cape Bedford, the authorities believed not only that the German-born Lutheran missionaries were traitors. They also feared the missionaries would influence their Aboriginal charges to assist the Japanese.

"It is stated that all the blacks on this Mission Station speak German," one intelligence report said. "The natives are specially trained in morse code etc," said another.

In 1942, the Cape Bedford mission was run by George Heinrich Schwarz, a 74-year- old German-born Lutheran pastor who had lived in Australia for 40 years. He had been a naturalised Australian since 1905.

Pastor Schwarz ran the mission of 300 Aborigines with the help of his son-in-law, Victor Daniel Behrendorff. A total of 10 German missionaries worked there.

According to early war intelligence, Schwarz and Behrendorff were "good citizens".

"I have had many talks with Schwarz concerning the war and from same learned that he is certainly not in sympathy with Hitler's methods," an officer reported in 1940.

"I have also had a lot to do with the boys in the mission and am sure that the statement that they speak German is incorrect. Mrs Schwarz and Mrs Behrendorff can both speak the native language."

Another report said: "the matter of smoke signalling is not possible on a workable scale".

Despite these accounts, by 1942 the Army's Northern Command had concluded Schwarz was "a shrewd cunning type and not likely to say anything openly to bring him into conflict with the Authorities, but it is stated there is no doubt where his sympathies lie."

"It is alleged that the Lutheran Missions, through their respective Missionaries have not been strictly devoted to the service of religion but are used as mediums for the spread of Nazism."

These paranoiac counter-assertions were made without substantive fact. They were the grossest of insults to the missionaries and their Aboriginal charges.

Nevertheless, on May 17th, 1942, nine trucks proceeded to mission headquarters at 0800 hours to arrest Pastor Schwarz and remove the Aborigines.

According to an eye-witness account: "Mr Schwarz submitted, called the boys up, spoke to them in their own language, and they immediately obeyed, got into the trucks and lorries and were taken to Cooktown.

"This completed they proceeded to Spring Hill (Hope Vale) and removed all the men, women, and children from there."

The 74-year-old pastor's residence was then ransacked. He was taken away, and locked in the police cells at Cooktown. The mission was left deserted and desolate.

But the worst treatment was to occur to the Aborigines, many of whom were rounded up in the surrounding bush.

According to 82-year-old Peter Costello, nowadays an elder at Hope Vale, his people were herded into the trucks at gunpoint.

"Some of the old people were crying, it was really miserable to see old people being forced into the vehicles. The treatment was horrible. Even I was threatened at gunpoint 'Get into the bloody truck.'"

A total of 254 Aborigines were eventually taken to Cooktown and transferred onto a ship bound for Cairns. Some ended up at Woorabinda, others at Palm Island.

According to the army's own report of the evacuation, the Aboriginal people were without food when they left Cairns for the journey south. Those who reached Woorabinda were also without adequate medical resources, warmer clothing for the relatively cooler climate, and they were forced to share existing housing.

Mr Costello said his wife, who was pregnant during the journey, died within a year. So did their child. And according to Mr Costello, so did around 100 Aborigines who contracted mumps and other western diseases they had not experienced at Cape Bedford, and had no immunity to.

For Mr Costello, the scars of this episode, especially the loss of his family, have remained with him throughout life.

But the biggest insult of all, he said, remains the treatment of his people as traitors.

Over 3,000 Aborigines served heroically in World War II and many died. They fought for a country which did not allow them to be citizens. Aborigines in northern Australia also assisted the Air Force keep watch for enemy planes and landings during coastal surveillance exercises.

Mr Costello hopes this story will serve to correct history, and that the Aborigines and missionaries at Cape Bedford will be accepted as having been loyal Australians throughout the country's darkest days. This is the least they deserve.