Back in April 1980, this writer was stationed at the Australian Embassy in Tokyo. Returning from a late-night meeting he turned on the TV to catch up on the news. To his surprise, he'd landed part way through a live interview with a diminutive though sprightly and 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 three-hundred 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. Monte 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 the language with a lecturer at the University of Melbourne who was himself a native Japanese-speaker.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour 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 one-thousand 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 the experience of Japanese internees in the United States.
"Auntie Monte" quickly became their hero and organised 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 realise 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 a hundred 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 6.00 each Wednesday evening armed with a bottle of chilled Italian Soave white wine, her favourite. 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 sixteen 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 aksed,"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 honour his visit.
So why was Bell in Australia? It was part of a world tour in 1910-11 he was undertaking along with a fellow American inventor. They visited a number of 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 this writer 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.