The cover is addressed to Mr. C. Williamson, C/o Burns Philp, Gizo, B.S.I. and the 2 green 1d KGV Head stamps are cancelled with the arrival postmark GIZO/ 17 AP 39/ BRITISH SOLOMON IS. The cover was handstamped with an oval RADIO STATION/ 7 APR 1939/ WILLIS ISLAND (whence it originated), there was a ms. ‘per MALAITA’, as well as an additional straight line handstamp ‘WILLIS ISLAND’ (Figure 1).
The reverse has a blue printed ‘BURNS PHILP LINE’ belt & buckle insignia, with the flag of the company at its centre, on the flap, and there is an identical oval handstamp, as on the front, RADIO STATION / 7 APR 1939/ WILLIS ISLAND (Figure 2).
The cover’s vendor had found an article in The Australian Stamp Monthly dated October 1, 1939 throwing light on Willis Island and showing a b & w cover with a 2d KGV Head stamp addressed to the same Mr. C. Williamson, addressed to Makambe, B.S.I, on the identical date as before, with both the oval and straight-line Willis Island handstamps. In addition had an incomplete transit postmark for TULAGI/ 10 AP 39 (British Solomon Island). The stamp also had a large ‘Paquebot’ handstamp which cannot be seen on the figure. The Island motor vessel, ‘Malaita’ (owned by the Burns Philp Line Co.) had been diverted from her course en route to the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, to the Willis Island in response to an S.O.S. call. This was necessitated by a temporary shortage of food and petrol. This cover is seen in Figure 3.
Willis Island in the Coral Sea was opened for meteorological research in 1921, and it is situated ENE off Cairns at latitude 16.29 south and longitude 149.97 east, and it has an altitude of 8 metres. After the devastating cyclone of Mackay in 1918 there was agitation for such a station to help predict the path of future cyclones. The station was manned by 2-4 men, and Mr. C. Williamson was not on the staff, but was employed by Burns Philp. The position of Willis Island in relationship to Queensland is seen in Figure 4.
The letters from Willis Island are rare and were made up when the Malaita called there. They bore the Australian stamps which the passengers and ship’s officers had with them and were addressed to Gizo and Tulagi (ports separated by a narrow span of water) in the British Solomon Islands and to Kieta and Buka Passage in British New Guinea. The position of Giza, in the British Solomons is shown by the red arrow in Figure 5.
Malaita was built in Glasgow Scotland in 1933, a passenger/cargo motor ship that traded mainly between Sydney and the Solomon Islands. When Japan became an active belligerent, Malaita was involved in the evacuation of women and children from the Solomon Islands. Later she transported troops and equipment to Port Moresby to halt the Japanese advance. On the 29th August 1942 a Japanese submarine torpedoed the Malaita off Port Moresby, and it was towed to shallow water in Basilisk Passage, Port Moresby, New Guinea. On 15 September Malaita proceeded under her own power at reduced speed to Cairns Australia, arriving 20 September, having steamed the 790 miles from Port Moresby at an average speed of 7 knots. The extent of damage was so severe repairs were not undertaken until October 1945 and these were completed in April 1947. She resumed trade to New Guinea with Burns Philp and remained in this service until being sold for scrap in 1971. A picture of the MV Malaita is seen in Figure 6.