Prior to the Second World War in the Pacific, the territories of Papua and New Guinea to the north of Australia had been the scene of several gold rushes. One such area that was still being worked at the outbreak of the war was the Wau-Bulolo Valley in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. It was here, during the urgent early months of the seemingly invincible Japanese push south, that a still-unsolved mystery surrounding a substantial amount of stolen gold took place.
By the early days of March, 1942, after Rabaul on the island of New Britain and Kavieng on New Ireland to Australia’s north-east had been invaded, and the Japanese had raided towns in New Guinea and Port Moresby in Papua by air, much of the industry in the Australian Mandated Territory had shut down, and the population been evacuated. The mostly commercially-worked goldfields in the Wau-Bulolo Valley were no exception, as many of their former ‘European’ workers had enlisted in the A.I.F. Of those male civilians of military age – the women had been evacuated to Australia – many remaining chose to serve in the local territorial force, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, or in a civil capacity (such as police, native affairs etc.) in the military government.
With the priority for resources being the evacuation of civilians and the transition from a civilian to a military government and preparation for possible armed conflict by the few, and poorly armed, defenders, not all civil matters were able to be finalised. This included the safe transport to Australia via Port Moresby – by air – of quantities of gold amalgam, owned by the Koranga Gold Sluicing and Bulolo Gold Dredging Companies. Pre-war, the gold may have been placed in the care of the Bank of New South Wales, which had a branch in the Bulolo Valley, however in lieu of the coming conflict, the bank had closed down. The only other option for temporary security until it could be transported out of the country, was to place the treasure – variously described as amalgam and bullion – in the care of the military authorities, in this case, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles. The NGVR had its headquarters in Bulolo, one of two large towns in the valley with airstrips and a range of civilian facilities, and detachments spread far and wide, including at Salamaua and Lae on the coast.
Rifleman Ziegeler was present at the NGVR guard house in Bulolo at the end of February or the beginning of March, 1942, the exact date was not ascertained, when two men, one Ziegeler knew as Bill Bedser, and the other unknown to him, arrived in a car and deposited for safekeeping a bag and a tin, both said to contain gold in some form, with NGVR Sergeant Honan, the N.C.O. then in charge. It is believed that approximately 42 kilograms of gold was contained in a mail bag, and the tin of gold is stated in a later investigative report as weighing up to 182 kilograms (400 pounds), though it is possible this is a typographical error and intended as 18kg. The ‘locked steel box’ was claimed to have contained 17 bars of gold, and was the property of the New Guinea Gold Limited company.
Three men moved the bag and tin of gold from the car to the steps of the guardhouse, after which Sergeant Honan and another man, presumably of the NGVR, placed them “in the wire grille detention room near the bathroom.” Ziegeler recalls Honan stating that he had placed a bed over the gold and was intending to sleep there. Sergeant Honan had possession of the key for entry to the detention room.
Meanwhile, over on the coast at Salamaua where the NGVR had a handful of men watching the now-empty town – the same was true of Lae: there were no substantial forces with which to defend either location – in the very early hours of the 8th of March, as had been expected, the enemy came, and landed unopposed. The message would have been sent by runner to Mubo, a small base inland between Salamaua and the Bulolo Valley, and from there by wireless to the NGVR Headquarters at Bulolo.
Rifleman Ziegeler recalled being notified at about 6 p.m. one evening, which must have been the 8th of March, “to prepare to move out at a moment’s notice,” which the men did. The following tense hours, which some described as a mild panic – understandable, given that knowledge of the enemy’s intention and strength was then unknown, and the two major airfields in the Bulolo Valley were prime targets for any air attack (they had been bombed and straffed a number of times since late January) or attempted ground assault – resulted in a small ‘demolition squad’ of six persons being left at Bulolo to blow up with pre-prepared explosives the major pieces of infrastructure in the area to deny them to the enemy should the need arise and the command be given.
The gold bullion, thought to be that contained in the mail bag, was noted by one member of the demolition squad as missing from the guardroom on the morning of the 8th, though as the news of the enemy would not have been received until mid-morning at the very earliest, the dates and times at this point are confusing and unreliable. Rifleman Bergstrand, who was one of the six and noted the disappearance, was informed on the 9th by another of the demolition squad, Rifleman Kerr that he, Kerr, had also noticed the bag of gold missing and had taken it upon himself to remove the metal box of gold and bury it for safekeeping, lest it also mysteriously vanish. Kerr apparently did so with the help of his indigenous servant, and offered to tell Bergstrand the location, but the latter indicated he didn’t wish to become involved.
On an unstated date, Kerr was interviewed by the 2 i/c [second in-charge] of the NGVR, Major Jenyns, whereupon Kerr stated that he had buried the tin after overhearing a conversation while in the guard room – the content of, and participants in which, does not seem to have been recorded, so perhaps Kerr did not reveal it – and afterwards noting the disappearance of the bag of gold.
Kerr was also alleged to have commented to a Mr. Sheringham of the Bulolo Gold Dredging Company: “I had a hell of a job getting the box up the hill, and just after I left the Guardroom, they came back in the car. Fortunately they did not come into the Guardroom”. Kerr did not say who “they” were, but he Sheringham gathered that “they” were the ones responsible for the taking of the canvas bag of gold.”
Later untraced rumours had it that the gold, the bag, that is, had been buried somewhere between “the General Manager’s house, Bulolo Gold Dredging Company, and Honan’s house, at Bulolo,” however subsequent searches in the area failed to find any sign.
It was noted by Major Jenyns to the investigating officer that it had been suggested by unknown persons that “on the night of the panic at Bulolo NGVR Sergeant Barker is alleged to have taken a motor vehicle along the Wau Road from Bulolo and returned to Bulolo about daybreak. This trip was apparently unauthorised.”
Rifleman George Moffat Kerr retrieved the tin of gold he had buried sometime prior to December that same year, 1942, and for his troubles received a reward of £100 from a firm of solicitors in Adelaide, Australia, representing the owners of the gold, Koranga Gold Sluicing Limited. The mail bag and its contents, however, remained missing.
No doubt the civilian authorities were relieved to have received advice from the Australian Crown Solicitor, in early August, 1943, that the Commonwealth was not legally liable for the loss of the gold, and was “consequently under no legal liability to compensate the owners.”
On the 18th of October the same year, roughly five weeks after Salamaua and Lae had been re-entered by Australian and American military forces (Salamaua on the 11th and Lae on the 15th of September), a Field General Court Martial took place in New Guinea in which former NGVR Rifleman Bourke – who was NOT one of the demolition squad of six – was found guilty of the charge of having in his possession a quantity of gold without lawful excuse, an offense under the Mining Ordinance in effect pre-war. He had apparently been caught sluicing for gold and was arrested after being found in possession of a honey jar and biscuit tin which collectively contained 16 kilograms of ‘dirty’ gold amalgam. The honey jar and tin had been allegedly been given to him by former Rifleman Shaw who claimed to have ‘found’ the gold in the vicinity of Bulolo, and, thinking that Bourke had lost the gold he had deposited for safe-keeping in the NGVR Guardhouse – though there seems to be no record of the same – had given it to his friend. The charge, however, was not confirmed on technical grounds, but the amalgam was confiscated and held at the Royal Mint in Melbourne, and Bourke made no attempt to claim it. No evidence could be found to substantiate the suspicion that Bourke’s gold may have included a portion of the missing gold, so the mystery remained.
A further physical search for the gold at Bulolo was made over eight days in September of 1944, under the auspices of the Royal Papuan Constabulary, and with the help of thirty indigenous labourers, but with no result, and as late as April, 1945, when the war had very much moved on from the Bulolo Valley, and most of the NGVR members who had been present at the time of the disappearance had either been discharged from the army, or transferred to other entities such as the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, inquiries were still being made by a Major Hicks of the Royal Papuan Constabulary. The Australian Commonwealth Investigation Branch had also assisted in the efforts to find the gold by interviewing witnesses and suspects then residing in Australia.
In early 1946, after the civilian administration had taken over governance of the Territory from the army, the case was handed over to the Police Special Investigation Branch.
Finally, just over 11 years after the mystery first began, a cache of gold was unearthed at Bulolo on Monday the 29th of June, 1953 by a bulldozer driver named Wally Lawson who was involved in road-making. At the time, the missing gold was estimated to be worth £15,000.
Unfortunately the newspaper article announcing the find did not provide any further details, but as the documentation in the National Archives ceases at about this time, we might assume that the ‘bag’ of missing gold had been found. The question of who secreted it at same time as the first enemy troops set foot on mainland New Guinea remains unanswered.