Thomas Henry HERKET
Eyes blue, Hair brown, Complexion fair
Two Wars - Twice a POW and an Untimely Death
With Thanks to Patrick Bourke from the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Group of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia and Graeme Hosken from the Families and Friends of the First Australian Imperial Force for their research support and sections of text in this story.
Thomas Henry Herket (Herkt) was born on 16 July 1897 in the area of Dargaville, New Zealand, about 200 kilometres northwest of Auckland. His parents were Johan Anton and Ida (nee Gnaedig) Herkt. They had been married in Berlin in 1888, but emigrated to New Zealand soon afterwards as their eldest child was born in New Zealand in 1889. Tom had four older siblings – Karl, John, William and Ida. Johan worked as a farmer and a “gum digger” – a fossilised kauri gum resin that was used for and jewellery and making varnish.
At a young age, Tom migrated to Australia. He lived in the southwest area of Sydney and worked as a motor driver. Tom changed his surname to Herket when he enlisted, possibly to make it less “German”. He also changed his age, stating he was 21, not 18, but as he was a good-sized man just below 5 feet 11 inches and 196 pounds, it was quite believable.
Off to War
Just weeks after his 18th birthday, Tom enlisted on the 10 August 1915 at Warwick Farm, New South Wales and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 11th Reinforcements. His initial military training was brief, as he departed Sydney on 2 November 1915 on board HMAT A14 Euripides, headed for Egypt.
Tom arrived a bit ahead of the main 2nd Battalion’s return from Gallipoli, so the new reinforcements would have been continuing their general training in Egypt. The full 2nd Battalion did not arrive at the Tel el Kebir camp until 31 December 1915.
As part of the reorganisation to accommodate all of the new recruits coming in from Australia, Tom was reassigned to the newly formed 53rd Battalion on 16 February 1916. The new battalion continued their training and serving in the Canal defence zone.
To the Western Front
In mid-June 1916, the 53rd was bound for France to join the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. Tom left Egypt with the 32 officers and 952 soldiers on the Royal George arriving in Marseille on 28 June 1916. They then had a 62-hour train ride to Thiennes. It was noted that their “reputation had evidently preceded them”, as they were well received by the French at the towns all along the route.
After several days of marching the 35 kilometres to Fleurbaix, they were settled into billets on 16 July and by 0300 on the 17th were into the front lines. A and B Companies were in front lines with C and D in support.
On the 18th, the 53rd Battalion took over the trenches held by the 54th, with the River Layes and the 60th Battalion on the left. There was severe bombardment all night, by both the British Expeditionary Force and by the Germans. At 4:00pm on the 19th, the 54th Battalion re-joined on the left.
The Australians’ attack began at 5:43pm. There were four waves from the 53rd – half of A and B companies in each of the first two waves and half of C and D in the third and fourth. They initially took the German first and second line trenches, linking up with the 54th on the left, but no one could be found on their right. Their attacks continued. Their lines were held through the night, but the Germans were counterattacking on their front and right flank and the trenches that were captured had to be given back. It took until midday on the 20th for the artillery bombardment to quieten down.
By 9:00am on July 20th, the 53rd received orders to retreat from positions won and by 9:30 they had “retired with very heavy loss”. Of the 984 men who had left Alexandria just weeks ago, 372 were killed or missing and 335 were wounded. By 4:30pm, the remains of the Brigade assembled at HQ.
Wounded and a POW
Tom was reported missing on that day, but confirmation that he was a prisoner of war (POW) did not reach AIF Headquarters until 2 September 1916.
The German documents show that he was taken prisoner on 20 July, suffering from shrapnel wounds to his right foot and left hand. The casualty form entry reported that Tom had ‘lost’ his left ring finger. He eventually underwent 10 operations on his wounded right ankle during his captivity.
The records are somewhat unclear on the details, but after the battle he was moved about repeatedly between several German hospitals in France and Germany including:
- Cologne (Cöln) Germany on 18 August;
- Wavrin (13 km from Fleurbaix) on 2 September;
- moving from St Clotilde, Douai (50 km south of Fleurbaix) to Germany on 13 September;
- moving from Wavrin to Lille (?) on 17 September;
- Wahn, Germany (outside Cologne) on 17 December; and
- Warrin (?), Germany on 23 January 1917.
As described in two accounts (below), conditions for the wounded were tough, but it was noted that the Australians received the same medical attention as the German wounded - although neither had anything good to say about their treatment at Douai.
The following statement is from an unnamed Australian Private who was wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel in 1916. His treatment over the next two years varied, being particularly bad at Douai, but the food was uniformly poor and inadequate:
“Next morning I was taken to Wavrin by ambulance waggon (sic) and placed in hospital. It was a hospital for German wounded and, besides myself, there were three Australians and one Englishman there.
We were treated exactly the same as the German wounded, and the food we got was wholesome, but not too plentiful. The hospital staff consisted of German doctors, a German matron, and A.M.C. orderlies. Our wounds were dressed regularly, and, on the whole, the treatment meted out to us was fair, very fair. I remained here for one month, and was then moved to Douai.
At Douai the conditions were absolutely rotten -- bad food and no medical attention, our wounds often remaining for over a week without being touched. I was here for ten days, and only had my wound dressed once. The doctor, was a " butcher," and gave me a very rough handling ....”
Private William Henry Rice (604, 32nd Battalion) who was also wounded and captured at Fromelles documented some of his treatment by the Germans after the battle.
After his many surgeries and shuffling between hospitals, Tom was finally interned on 4 June 1917 at the POW camp at Wahn, outside of Cologne.
Tom’s foot wounds were such that the Germans eventually classified him as incapable of further military service and he was released in Holland (possibly as part of a prisoner exchange) on 13 January 1918.
Freedom and Return to Life in Australia
Tom arrived in England on 20 January and was admitted to King George Hospital with ‘GSW right foot and left hand, severe.’ After medical reviews, he was transferred to the 3rd Auxiliary Hospital on 28 January 1918 and then, as an ex-POW, took two weeks leave.
On 4 April he was assigned to the No. 2 Command Depot at Weymouth, but rather than return home on the first available ship, he undertook a wool-classing course at Halifax until 27 July. Finally, Tom boarded the D33 Suevic on 20 November 1918 for his return home. Upon his arrival in Sydney there was a medical board review on 10 January 1919, where it was noted:
“Repatriated prisoner from Germany, wounded in action. Shrapnel bullet in right ankle. States he had ten operations for abscesses. Floating bone removed and necrosed bone wounds now healed. Very little movement of ankle joint………... Scars healed now. Foot of little use.”
The Board recommended that Tom wear a caliper on his right foot. He remained under the care of the 4th Australian General Hospital in Randwick, but they kept extending his discharge date until treatment was finished. He was eventually discharged on 14 June 1920 and received the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
Around this time, Hilda Rix Nicholas, a noted Australian artist, had returned to Australia from Europe and was making drawings of soldiers who had returned from the war and were yet to find employment. She was doing this to express the national sentiment around the loss of Australians during the war. One of her portraits is thought to be of Tom.
Following the War, Tom worked as an accountant on several NSW pastoral properties before taking up gold prospecting in the Edie Creek goldfields in Papua New Guinea around the mid-1920s.
In 1939 he joined the Department of Treasury as an Agriculture Agent for the Australian Government in New Guinea.
World War II – A POW, Again, and an Untimely Death at Sea
Tom was working on the island of New Britain on 23 January 1942 when the Japanese landed. The ‘Battle of Rabaul’ was all over within a day. With the fall of Rabaul, over 1,000 Australians, civilians as well as soldiers, became prisoners of the Japanese. Tom was captured at Kokopo, 29 kilometres from Rabaul, and became a civilian internee.
On 22 June 1942, Tom was one of many Australian prisoners who left Rabaul on the ship Montevideo Maru. She was proceeding without escort to the Chinese island of Hainan when she was sighted by the American submarine Sturgeon near the northern Philippine coast on 30 June. Unaware that the ship was carrying Allied prisoners of war and civilians, Sturgeon fired four torpedoes at Montevideo Maru. before dawn of 1 July 1942, causing the vessel to sink in only 11 minutes leaving those on board adrift at sea. All the prisoners and most of the crew died with only about 20 crew members surviving.
Eyewitness Crewman Yoshiaki Yamaji was interviewed in October 2003 and reported:
“There were more POWs in the water than crew members. The POWs were holding pieces of wood and using bigger pieces as rafts. They were in groups of 20 to 30 people, probably 100 people in all. They were singing songs. I was particularly impressed when they began singing Auld Lang Syne as a tribute to their dead colleagues. Watching that, I learnt that Australians have big hearts. —
The sinking of the Montevideo Maru. is considered the worst maritime disaster in Australia's history. Tom was 44.
Tom is commemorated in the NSW Garden of Remembrance, Rookwood, Sydney and in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Remembrance Books for the Commonwealth Civilian War Dead 1939-45, Westminster Abbey, London and SS Montevideo Maru. Memorials in Australia and Papua New Guinea.
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