Back in April 1980, when I was stationed at the Australian Embassy in Tokyo, I returned from a late-night meeting to turn on the TV to catch up on the news and landed partway through a live interview with a diminutive though sprightly, articulate European woman with white, close-cropped hair.
The interviewer referred to fact that she was 100 years old. That was surprise enough, but then it was revealed that she was also an Australian.
I resolved to call the TV station as soon as I got to work the following morning. But there was another surprise awaiting: she was already there, hoping to pay a courtesy call on our ambassador. He was outside Tokyo and I was asked to show her around. It was cherry blossom time and the extensive gardens of the Residence, adjacent to the old embassy (both since demolished and rebuilt), were at their best. Below a rocky ledge was the embassy’s vast collection of bonsai, some of them large and over 300 years old.
“I don’t feel quite so ancient here,” she quipped. We strolled back to the main part of the garden and sat under a tree in full bloom. There was a mild breeze and the odd petal fluttered down.
Monte Punshon, a kind-hearted woman, was born in 1882 in Ballarat, one of the prosperous mining cities from the Gold Rush days in the state of Victoria. Her grandparents had migrated from England in 1857 and settled there. She spent much of her childhood in Ballarat before moving to Melbourne. She became a teacher and was keenly interested in developments of the day, especially the rise of Japan. She travelled there in 1929 and was enormously impressed with the culture and industriousness of the Japanese.
It was on her way back by ship that she learnt of the Wall Street crash in October of that year. Later, she studied Japanese with a lecturer at the University of Melbourne who was himself a native Japanese-speaker.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Australian government was keen to put Monte’s rare skill set to good use. She was inducted into the Army and was immediately sent to Tatura, a small agricultural town 150 kilometres north of Melbourne where an Aliens Internment Camp had been established. Within that perimeter was a Japanese Internment Camp, which held civilian families from not just Australia but also from Indonesia, New Caledonia and other parts of the region.
Of the 1,000-odd internees Monte looked after the women and children. She recalled being told that, “Compared to the Germans, the Japanese are cooperative and are more like friends.” No doubt that is one of the reasons they were comparatively well treated, unlike Japanese-American internees in the United States.
“Auntie Monte” quickly became their heroine and organized classes in a variety of subjects for the children, who ranged from toddlers to teens. She promised to visit them in Japan after the war, which she did in 1963. The 1980 trip was to celebrate her 100th birthday and was arranged by the Kobe Japan-Australia Society. She was taken around the country to catch up with the “children” from Tatura days, who now had extensive families or their own.
It was under that cherry tree in the embassy garden in 1980 that Monte and I set foot on a path that would lead us both back to Australia and to a rare glimpse she was to provide into a fascinating part of US history. Little did we realize at the time.
I’d told Monte that I was due to return to Australia in less than two years and that if I could help her with anything I’d be delighted. “Well, there might be one thing,” she said, “but I’m sure it will never happen, certainly not at my age.” She had always wanted to write her life history but found 100 years of it a daunting prospect. I offered to help with it and eventually it did happen.
In Melbourne, our agreement was that I would turn up at her apartment at 6 o’clock each Wednesday evening armed with a bottle of chilled Italian Soave white wine, her favorite. She would have a casserole ready, and after enjoying the meal, and with the washing-up done we would return to the dining table with pen and paper (no laptops around then). Her long life was a rich human tableau and we could have written a book on each decade.
At the age of 16, she had been accepted as a trainee teacher at a strict girl’s convent school in Launceston, Tasmania. For the journey across Bass Strait on the steamer she was “chaperoned” by her uncle and then placed in the strict care of the Mother Superior.
She was told that rule number one was never to go down to the back of the garden, which, being a rebel, she did at the first opportunity. She met a handful of old men there, sunning themselves against a stone wall. Asking why she shouldn’t be there, the reply was, “We’re all convicts. We were granted tickets-of-leave years ago but had to remain in the colony until our sentences had expired. By then it was too late to go back to England.” In the 1980s, Monte was probably the last person alive in Australia who had met a convict.
We meandered up through the years, writing pages on Federation and the death of Queen Victoria. Before we tackled the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, she suddenly remembered that it wasn’t long before that that she’d met “Dr Bell:” indeed, she’d had lunch with that gentleman. Not thinking in an American context I asked,”Which Dr Bell?” Monte was appalled and said: “How could you not know? Alexander Graham Bell, of course.”
But he never visited Australia, I suggested. Yes, he did, Monte insisted. “I remember he had a great white beard and was softly spoken, but with a good, firm handshake. From his manner with the deaf children, and they included some well into their teens, he seemed a warm-hearted man. He visited each class and was quite adept at sign language.”
Monte at that stage was a teacher at what was then known as the Victorian Deaf and Dumb Institution in St. Kilda Road, Melbourne’s Champs Élysées. Bell had sat in on one of her morning classes and was so impressed that he asked if she could be seated near him at the lunch to honor his visit.
So why was Bell in Australia? It was part of a 1910-11 world tour that he was undertaking along with a fellow American inventor. They visited places in Eastern Australia and made a point of including Melbourne because of a friend working there. This was Richard Sutton, then a world-renowned Australian inventor (born in Ballarat in 1855) who was close not only to Bell but also to Nikola Tesla.
Sutton’s inventions came in diverse areas like aviation, car design and manufacturing, telephony, battery storage, wireless telegraphy or radio and a variety of other technologies. Sadly, he is all but forgotten in Australia today.
Our second glimpse into American history comes from a Tasmanian farmer and businessman, Angus Wilson, who was a shade under 100 when he told me his story. He been born on the family farm in the early 1900s and missed out on serving in the First World War. Island people are usually alert to any opportunity to leave and explore the wider world and Angus’s chance came in 1927 when he spotted an advertisement in a Melbourne newspaper for bright young men to undertake a two-year, all-expenses-paid, traineeship in Detroit with the Hupp Motor Car Co.
Robert Hupp had worked at the Ford Motor Co. as well as at Olds Motor Works decided to produce his own vehicles. His “Hupmobile” (with the extra “p” dropped) went on sale in 1909, with the company’s history telling us that Henry Ford was said to have told a friend, “I recall looking at Bobby Hupp’s roadster … and wondering whether we could ever build as good a small car for as little money.”
Hupmobiles soon earned a reputation for not just being cheap, but also rugged and reliable. So much so that Hupp 20 Runabouts were Detroit’s first police cars.
Around this time in Australia vehicle assembly and the manufacture of vehicle bodies were protected by tariffs on imports. During the First World War, to preserve foreign exchange, the government imposed a ban on the importation of car bodies and in the 1920s this protection was extended to chassis and other parts.
This led to major manufacturers like Ford eventually establishing their own vehicle assembly facilities and parts manufacturing plants in Australia.
Hupp Motor Car Co. chose to recruit smart young Australian men to undertake training in their Detroit works so that they could return to Australia adept not only at each stage of production but also with the intricacies of assembly.
Angus applied and was accepted. He was 24 when he left Australia by steamer for San Francisco and then by train to Chicago and Detroit. A close friend of Angus’s father knew a successful Australian businessman living in Chicago and an introduction had been arranged. Angus spent a few days with that family and was treated like a son, even being given a trendy three-piece suit. The businessman explained that he frequently visited Detroit and whenever possible would take Angus to lunch or dinner to make sure he was well fed and looked after.
As a knockabout Australian farm lad, with good social graces, Angus got on well with the American workers in the Hupp factory, many of whom were black, with some the sons of black soldiers who had fought in Lincoln’s Union Army in the Civil War.
As an old man, Angus spoke warmly of the friendships he’d made at that time, some of which lasted for decades. He was dazzled by American inventiveness and used to say, “After all, Detroit then was like Silicon Valley today.”
His Chicago mentor had promised him that before he left Detroit to return to Australia he would take him to dinner in the swankest restaurant in town, no matter how exclusive. Having heard that the Detroit Yacht Club was the place to dine, and knowing that his mentor was a member, asked whether that might be too extravagant. No, it certainly wasn’t, so a few evenings later that’s where Angus found himself. The waiter took the pair’s order and Angus surveyed the few other people there at that early hour. “I still can’t believe I’m here,” he kept telling his mentor. “I’ve come from one end of American society to the other.”
An elderly, white-haired gentleman nearby caught his attention. He was sure he had seen his photograph. It turned out to be Thomas Edison, dining alone and halfway through his soup.
Angus’s Australian mentor knew Edison well and did business with a number of his companies. Would you like to meet him, Angus was asked?
“Too right I would,” he replied.
His mentor strode over to Edison’s stable and they chatted for a moment. Angus was convinced that Edison, an elderly man, would not wish to be disturbed. But then he called the waiter and arranged for his yet unfinished soup to be taken over to the other table. The two men approached and Angus stood to be introduced, still finding it difficult to believe this was actually happening.
Angus was full of questions but feared it might be rude and pretentious to ask the one at the top of his list: how did Edison train his mind in his early years to make it so “inventive?”
“It begins with your recognition of the fact that you’ve been endowed with a good intellect. The challenge then is to nurture it and learn how to harness its boundless energy. And, of course, there’s that old saying of Samuel Johnson in the 18th century: ‘the one true sign of intellect is curiosity.’ That’s the road map you use to take your intellect into realms beyond where most people go.”
On the steamer back across the Pacific, Angus heard of the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, just as Monte had, heading south from Japan. Angus Wilson later became a pioneer of post-WWII trade between Australia and Japan.
Warren Reed is a former an intelligence officer with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and was trained by MI6 in London. He served in Asia and the Middle East. He is now a writer and commentator, his latest spy novel being “An Elephant on Your Nose”.