The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (NX68309) Private Alfred William Hawkins, 19th Dental Unit, Second World War.


The Last Post Ceremony is presented in the Commemorative area of the Australian War Memorial each day. The ceremony commemorates more than 102,000 Australians who have given their lives in war and other operations and whose names are recorded on the Roll of Honour. At each ceremony the story behind one of the names on the Roll of Honour is told. Hosted by Melanie Cassar, the story for this day was on (NX68309) Private Alfred William Hawkins, 19th Dental Unit, Second World War.

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NX68309 Private Alfred William Hawkins, 19th Dental Unit
Died at sea (Montevideo Maru) 1 July 1942

Today we remember and pay tribute to Private Alfred William Hawkins.

Alfred Hawkins was born in Gulgong, New South Wales, on 10 February 1902.

Alfred grew up alongside his siblings Gladys, Dorrie, Bert and Lloyd, with the children raised by their mother, Emily.

By the time of the Second World War, Alfred, his wife Nita and their child were living in the Sydney suburb of Matraville, where Alfred Hawkins worked as a dentist.

Hawkins had joined the Militia early on in the war, putting his skills as a dentist to good use with the Australian Army Medical Corps. In February 1941, he enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Force, and joined the 19th Specialist Dentist Unit at Sydney.

After a period of pre-embarkation leave, in mid-May 1941 Private Hawkins embarked from Sydney on the troopship Katoomba, joining the 2/22nd Battalion. The group sailed to Rabaul, the peacetime capital of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea, where they joined the local unit of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, coastal defence and anti-aircraft batteries, and elements of the 2/10th Field Ambulance and 17th Anti-tank Battery to form Lark Force.

Later supported by No. 24 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, Lark Force was responsible for protecting airfields at Lakunai and Vunakanau, and the seaplane base at Rabaul. They also provided early warning of Japanese movements through the islands to Australia's north. Like the other forces named after birds, Lark Force was ill-equipped and likely to be overwhelmed by enemy attack. Nonetheless, the men spent the next months constructing defences and training for operation in a tropical environment.

Japanese bombing of the island of New Britain began in early January 1942, increasing in intensity as the month continued. By the morning of 22 January, No. 24 Squadron had been virtually destroyed and its three remaining aircraft were withdrawn. With no use for the airstrips, they were destroyed, and Lark Force withdrew from Rabaul, waiting on the western shores of Blanche Bay for the inevitable Japanese landings.

These began at 1 am on 23 January. By 9 am, communication failures and the overwhelming Japanese strength – 5,000 troops against the 1,400 of Lark Force – destroyed the cohesion of the Australian defence. The Lark Force commander, Colonel John Scanlan, on the morning of the 23rd of January ordered a withdrawal on the basis of “every man for himself”. Unprepared for retreat, among the troops chaos ensued and Lark Force disintegrated.

Over the following days, groups (ranging in size from entire companies to pairs and individuals) sought escape along the north and south coasts. Some found small boats and escaped, others were picked up by larger vessels operating from New Guinea. Around 400 members of Lark Force made it to Australia, and about 160 Australians captured by the Japanese while trying to escape were massacred at Tol Plantation.

Hawkins was among some 840 survivors who were interned as prisoners of war. Early in the morning of 22 June 1942, Hawkins and other prisoners were ordered to board the Montevideo Maru, which sailed unescorted for Hainan Island, keeping to the east of the Philippines in an effort to avoid Allied submarines.

Eight days into the voyage, the Montevideo Maru was spotted by the American submarine USS Sturgeon which manoeuvred into a position to fire its four stern torpedoes. Survivors from the Japanese crew reported two torpedoes striking the vessel, followed by an explosion in the oil tank in the aft hold.

The ship sank in as little as 11 minutes. Although the Japanese crew were ordered to abandon ship, it does not appear they made any attempt to assist the prisoners to do likewise. The ship’s lifeboats were launched, but all capsized and one suffered severe damage.

While the exact number and identity of the more than 1,000 men aboard the Montevideo Maru has never been confirmed, an estimated 845 military personnel and as many as 208 civilians lost their lives in the tragedy.

Among the dead was Alfred Hawkins. He was 40 years old.

His name is listed on the Roll of Honour on my left, among almost 40,000 Australians who died while serving in the Second World War.

This is but one of the many stories of service and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Private Alfred William Hawkins, who gave his life for us, for our freedoms, and in the hope of a better world.

Duncan Beard
Editor, Military History Section

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