By Gregory Bablis
The Lark Force Track is a little-known wartime track with a big history. Located in the East New Britain Province, it runs from the Warongoi River in the north to Tol, Wide Bay, along the south coast. The track is named after the 2/22 Lark Force Battalion which was a garrison of Australian soldiers that was left behind by the Canberra War Cabinet to guard Rabaul and its important harbour against the invading Japanese Army in January of 1942.
The Australian soldiers were greatly outnumbered and forced to escape over the Gazelle Peninsula in fragmented groups. A group of around 200 soldiers took the route from the Warongoi River and through the northern Mali Baining villages of Arabam, Reigel, Vaingait and Lamengi. They crossed the rugged Baining Ranges, skirting around Mt Bururimea, the highest peak in the province, and trekked the distance down to the Balus River which is about 4 km north of Tol Plantation. One hundred and sixty Lark Force Battalion soldiers were there captured by the pursuing Japanese soldiers and massacred between Tol and Masarau on 4 February 1942. The massacre of these soldiers has been one of the great blunders of the Australian Army of WWII as they were not given timely support and no rescue was ever organized for them.
The route taken by the Lark Force soldiers is a bush track used traditionally by the Bainings moving between villages in the north and south. The German Catholic priest, Fr Alphonse Mayerhoffer, who was stationed at Lamengi pre-war, was providing support for Australian soldiers and it was he who pointed them to the track. But the Lark Force Track hides yet another secret that only now local oral histories have been revealing. During WWII, sometime between 1942 and 1945, Japanese soldiers had also massacred Baining villagers at Vaingait.
The villagers were marched to the site and ordered to dig a big tunnel into the side of a hill. They were then told to hide in the tunnel for their own safety from the Allied Forces bombing raids. A machine gun was placed at the mouth of the tunnel and used to slaughter the villagers. A conservative number of villagers killed would be 200 and some suggest as many as 1,000 were killed.
Today locals of Tol, Masarau, Marunga, and the Mali Baining villages from Karong up to Raigel, have come together to acknowledge the history of this wartime track that is bookended by two brutal massacres – one of Australian soldiers and one of Baining villagers. Locals recognize the potential for this track to generate something of economic value for them through the tourism and trekking industries. With the support of the National Museum & Art Gallery and the leadership of the indigenous Baining authority, Qaqet Stewardship Council (QSC), chaired by Mr Nicholas R. Leo, locals have come together to begin revealing the secrets and stories of the events of WWII from the local perspective.
They plan to make the Lark Force Track a viable tourist track by firstly mapping the route taken by the Australian soldiers who were later massacred in Tol. A 34 men, and women, team made up of locals from Mengen, Sulka and Baining tribes recently completed a 7-days mapping expedition of the Track which runs a total of 61.4 km from Arabam in the north to Tol in the south. Baining landowners have also established an entity called RAIMA (Raigel-Marunga) which is envisaged to be the managing authority over the Lark Force Track. The major sponsor for the important mapping exercise was Ms Angela Pennefather of Melanesian Luxury Yachts. Financial assistance was also received from other private sponsors and the whole exercise was backed and underwritten by the QSC. The entire exercise cost over K15,000.