SX10212 Private Maurice Roffe SEARCY
Maurice Roffe SEARCY was born at St Peters (SA) on 22 January 1905; the eldest child of five children of John Edwin SEARCY and Elizabeth SEARCY (nee KELLY). His father was the proprietor of real estate firm J.E. SEARCY & Co, in Victor Harbor; according to the Victor Harbor Times (edition of 14 April 1939), John SEARCY had been selling real estate in the district for about 20-years. Maurice was educated at Victor Harbor Public School prior to moving to Adelaide for his secondary education.
Maurice was age 35, single and an auditor, when he enlisted in the Army on 30 August 1940. At the time he was living with his parents at 11 Pembroke Street, College Park. His father was nominated as his next of kin. His service file is held by the National Archives of Australia and we have downloaded this. It contains an enlistment photograph of him; it is small in resolution but at this time is the only one we have.
The brief description given of Maurice revealed his religious denomination as being Church of England, hair colour – brown, eyes – green and distinctive marks being a small circular scar, inner side right leg.
After enlistment and some basic training, Maurice was posted to Australian Army Ordnance Corps (AAOC), a posting that would have utilised his qualifications as an auditor. Our research indicates that a person with his qualifications might have been selected for officer training but perhaps Maurice might have declined the responsibilities that went with a commission.
Maurice then undertook training at the Signals Training Depot in Balcombe (Victoria), followed by infantry training with the 7th Infantry Training Centre at Wilson’s Promontory, near Foster (Vic). In 1942, the Centre was renamed the Guerilla Warfare School. Whilst at Foster, he was admitted to the Casualty Station on 20 April 1941 suffering from an infected insect bite. He rejoined the training course two days later.
On 10 May 1941, Maurice was posted to No. 1 Independent Company. This army unit had only been recently formed in May-June 1941. That same day, Maurice was graded as a Group II Signaller; this title is an army classification for pay purposes. Initially, the unit was raised for service in the Middle East although at the time army headquarters were not quite sure what role the company would play there. Warned for overseas service, Maurice and other members of the unit were sent on pre-embarkation leave from 20th to 30th June 1941. The expectation they would soon see overseas service did not materialise until after Japan entered the war.
With war against Japan was looming on the horizon, No. 1 Independent Company would join the formation code-named “LARK FORCE”, a special formation that would be sent to resist any future Japanese advance towards Australia. The men boarded the converted cargo and passenger ship HMT “Z” (the code name for the ship ZEALANDIA) on 12 July 1941. This ship would later be sunk in the Jap air raids over Darwin on 19 February 1942.
The ship disembarked the some of the soldiers of LARK Force, including No 1 Independent Coy, at Kavieng, the capital of the Papuan-New Guinean province of New Ireland; their task was to defend strategically important airfields and harbours. From Wikipedia:
The objective of Lark Force was to maintain a forward air observation line as long as possible and to make the enemy fight for this line rather than abandon it at the first threat as the force was considered too small to withstand any invasion.
Commanded by Major James Edmonds-Wilson, in the event of an invasion of New Britain by the Japanese the 1st Independent Company was under orders to resist long enough to destroy key airfields and other military installations such as fuel dumps, before withdrawing south to wage a guerrilla war. They did not have to wait very long, as on 21 January 1942, a preparatory bombing raid by about sixty Japanese aircraft attacked Kavieng.
A number of aircraft were shot down, however, the company’s only means of escape, the schooner Induna Star, was damaged. Nevertheless, despite the damage the crew managed to sail the vessel to Kaut where they started to repair the damage. As they did so, the commandos withdrew across the island to Sook, having received word that a large Japanese naval force was approaching the island.
In the early morning of 22 January 1942, the Japanese landed at Kavieng with between 3,000 and 4,000 troops. As the lead Japanese troops reached Kavieng airfield, fighting broke out as the small force that had remained at the airfield blew up the supply dump and other facilities. Fighting their way out, the commandos withdrew towards the main force at Sook, although a number of men were captured in the process. Once the company had regrouped at Sook, on 28 January they withdrew further south to Kaut, where they helped with the repair of the Induna Star, before setting out along the east coast of the island. They reached Kalili Harbour on 31 January but after learning that the fighting on New Britain was over and that the Japanese had occupied Rabaul, it was decided to sail for Port Moresby.
On 2 February 1942, the schooner was sighted by a Japanese plane, which subsequently attacked, causing considerable damage to the vessel as well as destroying one of its lifeboats and causing a number of casualties. The Induna Star began taking on water and as a result the men were forced to surrender. Under escort by a Japanese aircraft and then later a destroyer, they were instructed to sail to Rabaul where they became prisoners of war.
After a few months at Rabaul, the officers were separated from their NCOs and men. The officers were transported to Japan where they remained in captivity for the rest of the war, whilst the NCOs and men, along with other members of Lark Force that had been captured and a number of civilians, where put on to the Japanese passenger ship Montevideo Maru for transportation. Travelling unescorted, the Montevideo Maru sailed from Rabaul on 22 June. On 1 July, the ship was sighted by an American submarine, the USS Sturgeon, off the coast of the Luzon, Philippines. The USS Sturgeon torpedoed and sunk the Montevideo Maru, without realising it was a prisoner of war vessel. Only a handful of the Japanese crew were rescued, with none of the between 1,050 and 1,053 prisoners aboard surviving as they were still locked below deck. All 133 men from the 1st Independent Company who were aboard the Montevideo Maru were either killed or drowned.
Maurice’s service file records that in July 1942, he was declared “Missing Believed Prisoner of War”. The service file further records on 19 October 1945 “… and for official purposes presumed to be dead (on board Montevideo Maru)”.
As PTE Maurice SEARCY has no known grave, he is commemorated on the Rabaul Memorial, along with 1,200 other Australian servicemen who lost their lives in that area during the Second World War and have no known grave.
Service file of SX10212 PTE Maurice Roffe SEARCY held by the National Archives of Australia ( www.naa.gov.au ).
Wikipedia entry for 1st Independent Company: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1st_Independent_Company_(Australia ).
Trove Newspapers, the Victor Harbor Times (https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/title/832 ).