The battlefield
I do not know

Anzac Day at Bomana War Cemetery, Port Moresby, 1970

Dawn Service at BomanaPETER COMMERFORD

IT was my first time in Papua New Guinea, or ‘The Territory’ as it was known before independence.

It had been a roller coaster couple of weeks for me, beginning with the first blast of hot air as the cabin door opened after we landed at Jackson’s Airport, Port Moresby.

This was followed by the exhilaration of realising I had actually arrived to teach in Papua New Guinea.

Living at Wards Strip Teachers’ College for the next four weeks for ‘Prac’ [practice teaching] was an incredible experience.

Everywhere I wandered there was visible evidence of World War II: from the tarmac of Wards Strip aerodrome to overgrown anti-aircraft gun craters and the ubiquitous Marsden matting once used for bridges and road surfacing now incorporated into fences and driveways around people’s houses.

We had been in Port Moresby for a couple of weeks when Greg, Phil, Ron and I borrowed a car, courtesy of Greg’s parents who ran Mapang, a missionary accommodation centre in Boroko, and drove to Hombrom Bluff.

The spectacular view was enhanced by the aircraft that flying past at eye level on their approach to Jackson’s Airport.  We continued our trip in a steady climb to Sogeri and the start of the Kokoda Trail, or Kokoda Track as it is now called.

We stood at the start of the trail, the sweet, dank, pleasant smells of tropical vegetation created a sensory assault on our nostrils.  The high pitched drone of cicadas surrounded us and the electric blue flash of a butterfly’s wings caught our eye.

The beautiful insect fluttered erratically along the path as we followed its progress until, as if scripted, it eventually landed on a red frangipani flower growing near a monument dedicated to the Kokoda Trail.

We continued down the track and arrived at a modernistic strip metal sculpture of two soldiers bayoneting a prostrate enemy. This rather simplistic and stylised work marked the formal beginning of the famous trail.

As we walked further along the dirt track for a few hundred metres, we paused periodically, waited, listened and absorbed the sounds of the ghosts of battle.

We returned to the car, now aware of the physical existence of this legendary trail, the history of which had become an icon of Australian bravery and tenacity, burned as deep into our psyche as Gallipoli and Anzac Cove.

It happened that we were in Port Moresby for Anzac Day. I always felt a special affinity with this day as my uncle had been a prisoner of war and, as long as I could remember, my family attended a dawn service and then we would watch the march on television, waiting for Uncle Bob and the 2nd 19th to appear on the screen.

The eve of Anzac Day 1970 at Ward Strip Teachers’ College was a noisy and boisterous evening. We all stayed up, considering sleep pointless, as a friend of Greg’s had offered to drive us to the Bomana War Cemetery in the early hours of the morning to attend the Dawn Service.

Our transport arrived and we clambered aboard, squeezing ourselves uncomfortably into whatever space was available. We slowly drove out of the college and into the night.

Once on the main road our pace increased and we drove swiftly along the road to Bomana. Our headlights occasionally illuminated shadowy bilum-laden figures who turned their backs and shielded their eyes from the glare as we sped past.

Turning off the main road, we bumped along a gravel lane and finally crunched to a halt next to other parked vehicles.  It was a relief to stretch as we unfolded ourselves from the cramped car, our eyes adjusting to the deep black of the tropical night.

I was conscious of the slow movement of people trudging past. We fell in behind them and, in the darkness, followed the muffled sound of their feet as they crunched along the pathway.

It was so quiet I felt compelled to speak in a whisper as other people joined the moving tide of ghost-like figures. The eeriness continued; the silence interrupted only by the sound of the occasional insect.

As I walked along head down, the shadow ahead of me stopped suddenly and I bumped into it. I nodded an apology to an invisible face and the shadow moved forward again to be swallowed up by the night.

I couldn’t recognise anyone. Not even my mates. It was only Phil’s whisper that gave me some idea of where our group stood. I pushed past some stationary figures and located Phil and the others. Once reunited, we stood shivering slightly in the cool of early morning and waited in silence.

The only movement was the brief flash of a struck match followed by the red glow of a cigarette.  Perhaps those soldiers 30 years before would have experienced such a scene as they crouched nervously, immersed in private thoughts, awaiting the signal to move into battle.

Bomana War CemeteryIt seemed an eternity before the sky’s inky blackness lightened. Magically the surroundings began to change and what had appeared to have been mounds of rocks or clumps of shrubbery were slowly revealed to be groups of silhouetted figures.

There were hundreds of people, expatriate and local, standing side by side, some wearing campaign medals.  We turned in silently to face the direction of the sunrise. It was only then, with the rapid approach of a tropical dawn, that the white shapes of the headstones revealed the graves of the fallen.

The hush and solemnity of that moment impacted us all. The silence was broken by the sound of boots snapping to attention, accompanied by the rattle of unshouldered rifles. Wreaths were silently laid followed by a firm, clear Australian voice reciting Ode to the Fallen.  Spines tingled and tears welled as the Last Post pierced the air. We stood in silence, heads bowed.

The dawn came quickly and revealed the completed scene as Reveille marked the ceremony’s conclusion. The Australian flag was raised to the masthead, fluttering quietly in the gentlest of breezes, until it was returned to the half-mast position. Then the rifles rattled and there was a stamping of feet as the soldiers marched from the cemetery.

The crowd slowly dispersed and we wandered back along the path to the waiting cars, voices now louder as people recognised and greeted friends along the way.

My mates and I walked on in silence, not wanting to speak. I stopped to look back at the scene which was now transformed, the graves illuminated by the morning sun. As the insects’ hum began to greet the day, I quietly reflected on the hundreds of graves and the sacrifice they marked. Lest we forget.


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