Local history repeating in isolation

Local history repeating in isolation

How easily we Australians slipped into a new daily routine during this current COVID-19 shut down. Without fuss, most of us have used tales shared by our parents and grandparents, (those who lived through the 1940 war years), to stock up pantries and cupboards, dig and plant out vegetable gardens and to bunkerdown to patiently wait.

We have made good use of the time in shut-down: cleaning out houses and sheds and finishing off jobs half done. The situation has been made easier by having access to modern technology as mobile phones and the Internet have enabled us to keep in touch with significant others outside our bubbles.

Keeping busy and worn out has been important, just as it was for those left behind for years during World War II. While young farmers, sons, fathers, husbands, nieces and nephews were away fighting, those left at home did whatever they could to keep busy, mentally stimulated and support the war effort.

In the Orbost district two distinct contributions were made.

A Volunteer Home Defense Force base was established at Cape Conran, on the point at the West Cape, above Salmon Rocks. The ticket box from the Marlo Racecourse was relocated and became the watchers hut and two radio wires were run, from the hut back to the Marlo Post Office, so that word could be passed quickly.

The unit comprised locals who kept watch for enemy shipping and air traffic. Everything was hush hush and never confirmed, but it is believed (and ex-abalone divers from Mallacoota confirmed it), that a Japanese submarine was sunk between Cape Conran and the Pearl Point area.

At Bete Bolong, just north of Orbost, a substantial camp was built to accommodate Italian prisoners of war (POW). With farming declared essential works, their labour was much needed to harvest grains and vegetables, much of which ended up at the large dehydrator in Bairnsdale where it was processed for distribution.

Orbost farmers and graziers had much needed physical and mental assistance to run their farms and the POWs had important work to carry out. Working hard alongside each other was a win-win situation for both groups.

While the POW camp is reasonably well documented, it might interest some to know that after the camp was decommissioned in November 1945, two huts ended up at Cape Conran. The kitchen at the POW camp was renovated to become Jim and Flo Lynn’s house and Ray Cavagna, who bought a dormitory, converted it into a three-bedroom house, complete with duty lists for the prisoners written on the inside walls, inbetween the noggins. 

Local historian, Glenys Hammond, has unearthed a great number of yarns and facts while researching the history of Cape Conran and the houses in particular.

“All of them remind me how grateful I am to live in East Gippsland, especially now,” Glenys said.

IMAGE: James and Flo Lynn’s house at Cape Conran was the former kitchen of the prisoner of war camp at Bete Bolong. (PS)