Updated: Mar 4
He was a man of faith, so James Benson could have been forgiven for aligning himself with Job of the Bible, when he lost his family and his freedom. There were also similarities with Jesus Christ when after news of his death during World War Two, he was found alive in a Japanese POW camp.
Since he was a little boy in Yorkshire, England, James had wanted to be a missionary. He joined the Bush Brotherhood in Australia and studied to become a minister in the Anglican Church. He served as a Chaplain in World War One, then in Papua New Guinea with his wife for a number of years. By the time he started serving in Bodalla on the south coast of NSW as the minister, he was the father of four little children.
James eyesight wasn't good at the best of times, but on this particular night at 3am the family were returning home from a camping trip. The children were all asleep in the back of the car and James' wife was sitting next to him. Seeing a light that marked the beginning of the punt, James moved the car forward.
Only it wasn't the punt, it was the edge of the river and the car plunged into the deep water of the Clyde River. James desperately managed to get his door open, stood on the running board and grabbed his wife's arm. The inrush of water from the strongly flowing tide flipped the car. James had to rise to the surface, took a breath and dived again. The darkness, the cold and his exhaustion all got the better of him and he realised he needed help.
Picture 1 - James Benson. Source: Anglican Board Mission
Rescuers were eventually able to find the car and drag the bodies of three of the children out of the depths. The body of James' wife and baby, however, were never found.
Fast forward 14 years and the Reverend James Benson is in charge of the All Souls Mission in the little village of Gona, on the beach of the northern coast of Papua New Guinea. He worked alongside many local people as well as Sister May Hayman from Adelaide and teacher Mavis Parkinson from Ipswich, Queensland.
It was 1942 and news had reached the small village that war had broken out. On July 22 James was busy in the Gona Mission workshop when someone rushed to the door to tell him of the big ships that were arriving on the beach. They were actually four destroyers and troop transports from the Japanese navy who were preparing to invade the island nation.
James, the two women and a number of Papuans gathered their belongings and fled. After a time they were ambushed by a Japanese party and the missionaries scattered. James would never see May or Mavis again as he dived into the jungle and was lost for six days, until a Japanese foot patrol captured him.
Picture 2: The memorial plaque in All Saints Church, Bodalla. Photo: Monument Australia
Meanwhile news reports had made it home that the priest from Gona village had been beheaded on the beach by the Japanese forces. For the next three years his father and family mourned his death, until James was "resurrected" or in more real terms, was found alive in a prison camp in Papua New Guinea.
James stayed in Papua New Guinea until his death in 1957. His ashes are kept in the church in Gona and a memorial plaque was erected in the All Saints church in Bodalla.
'PNG indebted to the missionaries of WWII', The Canberra Times, Saturday 29 August 1992, Page 22
'Five drowned. Car's plunge into Clyde River', The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 13 October, 1928, Page 17
'Priest killed in Papua', Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate, Friday 15 January 1943, Page 4