Cornelius 'Con' Page
Cornelius 'Con' Page
[NAA Item Page CL, A6769]
By the end of March, Page was a dot in a Japanese-held ocean…
[Eric Feldt, The Coastwatchers, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1946, p. 75]
Cornelius (Con) Page was one of many Coastwatchers who risked his life transmitting reports of Japanese movements. Page was born in Sydney but went to New Guinea at the age of 19. He bought a plantation in Rabaul and began coast-watching duties at the age of 30, when Japan entered the war. Page is remembered as being ‘a trader, planter and free spirit, who violated the expatriates’ code by taking a Tabar girl, as his consort.’ He is also remembered as being liked and trusted by the natives. [Alan Powell, War by Stealth: Australians and the Allied Intelligence Bureau 1942-1945. Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 1996, p. 33]
Page is credited with making the first enemy sighting by a Coastwatcher in the Bismarck Archipelago when he spotted Japanese plans en route to reconnoitre Rabaul on 9 December 1941. As they passed overhead he reported their numbers to Naval Intelligence. His plantation was raided after the fall of Rabaul and Intelligence Headquarters in Townsville signalled him to bury his radio and leave the island for somewhere safer. Page refused to leave: his wife Ansin Bulu was a Tabar islander and he regarded the islanders as his people. He was then ordered to cease transmissions to avoid attracting enemy attention.
Con Page was a civilian Coastwatcher and was not paid for his services. Belatedly, he was commissioned as a sub-lieutenant RANVR (Royal Australian Navy Volunteer Reserve) but nothing could save him. As the Japanese moved in the islanders turned against him. The RAAF continued to drop supplies and radio parts but attempts to evacuate him failed. He refused to leave or to silence his radio.
According to Feldt, ‘by the end of March, Page was a dot in a Japanese-held ocean’. [Feldt, p. 75]
On June 12, 1942, Page signalled for assistance:
SOS Japanese landed Monday. Am hunted by dogs, natives, machine guns. Japanese left last night Thursday. They will return with more troops. Only chance flying boat land on west side where there is small island and sandpit.
[AWM 124 2/3 The Stubborn Coastwatcher – Cornelius Lyons Page]
At dusk on 16 June a flying boat was despatched to rescue Page. The pilot searched the beach thoroughly but saw no sign of the Coastwatcher and turned back to Cairns. It is assumed that this captured document, the diary of a Japanese soldier who was a member of Kure No 3 Special Landing Party April to August 1942 refers to the capture of Page and a fellow planter, Talmage in June 1942. According to this document the Japanese searched for the Coastwatchers between 13 and 20 June so they were probably not actually captured until after the RAAF’s unsuccessful search.
There is some discrepancy about the date on which Page was executed but It is believed he was executed in the company of two other Coastwatchers who had been captured in New Ireland. Some accounts suggest it was as late as September but the Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour lists his date of death as 21 July 1942.
Two years after Page’s death, Sub-Lieutenant Stanley Bell RANVR visited the Tabar group which was then on the outskirts of Japanese-held territory under siege from the Allies. Page’s wife/companion, Ansin Bulu, just released by the Japanese came to Bell with a crumpled and dirty scrap of paper she had managed to carry during her years of imprisonment. In, by then, barely legible, pencilled scrawl Page had written:
To CO Allied Forces
Cornelius Page was Mentioned in Dispatches ‘for special services in the South West Pacific’. His name is included under HMAS Brisbane on Panel 1 of the World War II Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial.