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The battlefield

Higaturu hangings complicate Australia’s national narrative

ANGAU officer recruits labourers for the US MarinesKIRSTIE CLOSE-BARRY & VICTORIA STEAD
| Australian Policy & History

DURING this one-hundredth anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli, narratives of war and nationhood are in high circulation in Australia.

Despite its location on the other side of the world, many consider Gallipoli the ‘birthplace of the nation’. It was here, many believe, and various governments have told us, that Australians first spilt their blood for the benefit of the nation: Gallipoli was our baptism of fire.

Others, though, have sought to draw our attention to battles fought later in the twentieth century and on terrain closer to home. These should indeed figure in our national narratives, although not only for the reasons that are often given.

In 1992, while visiting the Kokoda Track, then prime minister Paul Keating pointed to Australian military efforts in Papua New Guinea during the World War II.

The Kokoda campaign was, he said, a fight not only for the old empire, but a fight for Australia. It may have been, but Keating failed to mention that our presence in PNG was as a colonial power. 

In his telling of it, our connections to PNG were forged in 1942. In fact, our connection to Kokoda officially commenced in 1906, when Australia assumed control of the Territory of Papua. And in 1914 this was followed by the acquisition of what had been German New Guinea.

Though remembering Gallipoli is hard, for the scale of lives lost on a distant battlefield and for the impact it had on the survivors and families on both sides of the trenches, remembering Kokoda is in a way harder.

To date, this remembering has been accompanied by a collective forgetfulness about Australia’s colonial role.

Over the last 12 months, a team of historians from Australia and Papua New Guinea, led by Deakin University’s Dr Jonathan Ritchie, has recorded the oral histories of Papua New Guineans living along the Kokoda track.

These have included some of the few Papua New Guineans still alive who have direct recollections of the war, and the descendants of others who carry the stories of their kin. A new body of research, including collaborations with anthropologists, is examining the significance of these collective memories for contemporary PNG communities.

Complicating the wartime narratives that are familiar to Australians - Papua New Guineans (the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’) working alongside Australians as carriers and guides - are other, grimmer details.

These include the hangings, by Australians, of at least 21 (and possibly as many as 60) Orokaiva men in a place called Higaturu. They were hanged first from a breadfruit tree and later from a gallows constructed for the purpose in July and September 1943.

The Papua New Guinean men were sentenced to death by members of ANGAU, Australian officers who had been living and working in New Guinea before the war and who had been brought into the Australian Army.

The ANGAU officers were valued for their knowledge of the local people, terrain, languages and cultures. 

The executed men had been charged with treason after Australian missionaries from a nearby Anglican mission and an American soldier were handed over to the Japanese, at whose hands they subsequently died.

Pacific scholars and those familiar with PNG may have heard about the ‘Higaturu hangings’, but they are little known by the Australian public. The image of the ‘treasonous native’ sits uncomfortably alongside that of the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel’, although both are problematic.

In the case of the latter, represented most visibly in the iconic image of Papua New Guinean man Raphael Oembari leading a blinded Australian soldier along the Kokoda Track, narratives of loyal carriers take on a ‘noble savage’ bent that obscures the incredibly difficult, and often coercive, conditions in which Papua New Guineans found themselves.

Australia had been administering the Territory of Papua for nearly 40 years by the time our troops started scaling the Kokoda track in 1942.  Papua New Guineans, particularly those in the north where the Japanese launched their assault, were compelled to pick sides in a conflict waged by two foreign powers on their land and in their villages.

Some of the people subsequently executed for treason had been appointed as Captains by the Japanese and offered incentives if they helped them to win. In an area that had been under German and then Australian rule, and where many had worked hard for next to no wage on Australian-run plantations, perhaps this was an opportunity for a new start, under a new system.

Others perhaps tried to pick who might win the war - and hence who would determine its heroes and its villains - and got it wrong.

The handing over of the Australian missionaries and the American soldier to the Japanese was an act of betrayal, and the deaths that they met were cruel. So too, though, were the deaths of the Orakaiva men at Higaturu.

There is ample evidence to suggest grave problems with the judicial process leading to the executions, and a strong likelihood that at least some of the men were ‘innocent’ of the charge against them.

More fundamentally, though, what does ‘treason’ mean in the context of the Pacific War? The very charge itself obscures that the hanged men were not Australian citizens but rather colonial subjects; that the Australians were as uninvited as the Japanese.

Paul Keating’s bid to shift the focus of Australia’s wartime narrative to the battlefields of the Pacific was largely unsuccessful, although a debate about the relative significance of the Gallipoli and Kokoda campaigns has simmered since.

With the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War due in August, it may boil over again. The point here is not to fuel a simplistic contest for historical primacy - if nothing else, the oral histories from the Kokoda Track reveal just how impoverished such simplistic models of either/or conflict are - but rather to call for a more complicated reckoning with Australia’s wartime history.

Part of the potency of the Gallipoli story has been its appeal to a national imagining of ourselves as ‘underdogs’. Kokoda - where Australia had the status of a colonial power, where it was the victor, and where it dispensed a sometimes-brutal victor’s justice - complicates this imagining.

The Higaturu hangings may not be well remembered by Australians, but they are very definitely remembered in the area surrounding the Kokoda Track, where they are entangled with the broader story of Australia’s colonial and postcolonial engagement with PNG, and where people also wonder if and when there will be more than vague symbolic gestures of recognition for the carriers deemed to be our ‘good’ colonial subjects.

Wars and nation-building projects are by their very nature complex and fraught. The stories we tell ourselves about these things must weave together the multiple threads of history, and they must include the angles that we have previously obscured.


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Kirstie Close

Thanks so much for reposting this from the APH blog. I don’t think I realised you had done it and it’s been interesting reading the comments here. I appreciate the feedback.

I’ve had two children since this article was published so just getting back to faster pace of work ... not helped by Covid!

Potential to travel to do further research has been limited but doing what I can, when I can.

Thanks again, it’s a tricky part of our history to talk about.

doug robbins

Concerning the “vague symbolic gestures of recognition for the carriers” (Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels) and the “oral histories” of those “living along the Kokoda track” or “in the area surrounding the Kokoda Track” (Trail), it should never be forgotten that the majority were recruited from many other places – from Daru in the west around to Tufi in the northeast. The stories of a good number of the “Tufis”, recognised for their loyalty, ingenuity and hard work (Kienzle) despite the horrors they endured, were recorded more than a quarter of a century ago while they were still alive. LEST WE FORGET + + + +

Chris Overland

I think that Michael Dom has made a fair point, at least as far as the bulk of the PNG population was concerned.

They were, in most respects, innocent bystanders in a large scale "industrial" war fought between two strikingly different cultures.

As is typically the case in such circumstances, I am quite sure that the vast majority, initially at least, chose to be fairly passive observers, neither collaborators nor resistors.

However, a very small number chose to be active collaborators and those who led the Japanese to the Anglican missionaries and then, apparently, rejoiced in their brutal executions, fit this description.

From that moment, they became "the enemy" for the Allies and their eventually fates were inextricably tied to those of their new Japanese masters.

I prefer to remember the very much larger group of Papua New Guineans who realised almost immediately that, whatever the faults of the Australians, they greatly preferred their relatively benign rule to the rigid authoritarianism and outright cruelty of the Japanese.

In many cases, these people behaved with stoic heroism and, without them, the battle in PNG possibly would have been lost before the USA could tip the strategic balance in the Allies favour. At the very least, it would have been a much more protracted and difficult task.

It can reasonably be argued that the many Papua New Guineans who continued to support the Australians acted rationally to save themselves more than the Australian colonial regime itself.

History suggests that this was a wise decision.

Michael Dom

You must understand that to us, at that time and still for many today, you were all foreigners.

That Australians stepped into PNG jungles to fight a war which people, at some basic level, may have suspected was a much bigger affair, is a different scenario to when you faced foes who had a modern civilization as old as your own.

Do not judge the choices of an un-united people on the basis of a war between technically far advanced military and more 'savvy' commandos.

They were probably doing what they thought was best to survive for themselves and their immediate families.

The Orokaiva narrative would be fascinating to hear. Perhaps I know a few people who could tell me about it.

I slept in their homes and brought had entertaining conversations with spirits I brought with me from the Trek.

Rob Parer

I remember the visit to Aitape about 1968 of a Japanese VIP who had with him about 20 media reps & our President of the Siau Local Government Council, Nagot (RIP 2014).

On being asked did he like the Japanese during the two years of their occupation at Aitape, he said he worked with them, liked them & enjoyed the work.

I was doing the translation & the huge flurry of enjoyment & back slapping & photos being taken soon changed when asked the same question about the Allies & his answer was exactly the same!

Ross Wilkinson

I have some difficulty with this account as it contains some inaccuracies as to historical facts, for example, the iconic image of Raphael Oimbari leading Private Whittington is at Buna, not the Kokoda Track. I would draw readers’ attention to the following account of the hangings on the PNGAA website:


Tom Grahamslaw was a pre-war Papuan Assistant Resident Magistrate who was appointed an officer in ANGAU when he enlisted in 1942 and was sent forward to Kokoda for the duration of that Campaign. His narrative provides a clear picture of the events that occurred and the manner of the executions at Higaturu as he was appointed to carry out and oversee the punishments.

The crimes were not just confined to the missionaries but to a number of events also involving the betrayal of other Australian and American soldiers and airmen to the Japanese or murder by the villagers themselves.

One of these involved a party of 47 soldiers from 2/14, 2/16 and 39 Battalions who were cut off by the attacking Japanese forces when the order was given to withdraw from Isurava on 30 August 1942. The party travelled back towards Kokoda before endeavouring to swing eastwards and bypass the Japanese.

Unfortunately the party was hampered by seven wounded soldiers, several of whom were stretcher cases. One of these, Corporal John Metson, was shot through the ankles. Recognising the difficulties of having enough carriers for the stretchers from within the party, he elected to crawl after the party each day.

After three weeks the party arrived at Sangai village just north of the Kumusi River, where a harsh decision had to be made.

In order to make speed, the wounded were left at Sangai in the care of a medical orderly, Private Tom Fletcher. In another three weeks the main party successfully crossed the range and contacted an American group camped on the Kemp Welsh River and were rescued.

A flight was organised to overfly Sangai village but it was too late, the party left there had been murdered. A later investigation indicated that they had been betrayed to the Japanese and the perpetrators were amongst those hanged at Higaturu.

Metson was awarded a posthumous MBE for his courage, endurance and example to others and Fletcher died without knowing that he had been awarded a Military Medal for his care of the wounded under fire at Isurava between 26 and 30 August 1942.

Grahamslaw clearly identifies that the condemned men admitted to their crimes and, as Chris points out, understood the penalty under their custom of an “eye for an eye.”

Chris Overland

Thanks for the clarification Des.

Whether by bayonets or swords, their end was merciless and cruel in the extreme.

What surprises me a bit is that, given the Orokaiva tradition of seeking an "eye for an eye", the villagers evidently neither foresaw nor, perhaps, expected retribution.

Des Martin ex Kiap

The Anglican missionary families including wives and children were not bayonetted to death. All were hacked to death by Japanese soldiers using swords, the men and wives first and then the screaming children. Many of those hanged were present enjoying the spectacle.

Chris Overland

As a young Patrol Officer in the early 1970's, I was administrative adviser to the Higaturu Local Government Council and was stationed at both Popondetta and Kokoda.

An older man called Jack, who was a planter at Popondetta, told me about these hangings which, in so far as I can accurately recall our conversation some 40 years on, were carried out at or near Buna and Gona, not Kokoda.

In 1943, Jack had been a soldier (maybe in ANGAU) and had witnessed the hangings.

He told me that they involved about 12 men, rather than 21, but I have no way to verify the number involved.

He remembered them as an ugly necessity, both for the sake of justice for the cruelly murdered missionaries (bayonetted to death) and as an example to others that cooperation with the Japanese would result in extremely severe punishment.

His recollection is that they hanged every adult male who the villagers said were involved the betrayal of the missionaries.

There is no getting away from the fact that it was swift, savage and summary justice.

Also, he told me that in the immediate aftermath of the ferocious and very bloody battles at Buna and Gona, in which the Japanese stubbornly resisted far beyond all reasonable hope of victory, the Australian and American troops who overran the rear of the Japanese lines simply killed every enemy soldier out of hand, including the sick and wounded.

These men had spent months living in a wet, muddy, stinking, fetid jungle environment, watching their mates killed and maimed by a stubborn and ferocious enemy who gave and expected no quarter.

At the battle's end they were exhausted, often sick and very angry indeed. What followed was therefore totally unsurprising.

From the distance of 70 years, safe in our comfortable homes and offices, who are we to judge them?

We need to remember that the war in the Pacific was an especially cruel and brutal fight to the death.

Casualties often were shockingly high both due to combat and disease.

The routine brutality of war produces often emotionally numbed and brutalised soldiers.

In this context, the extrajudicial execution of enemy soldiers or collaborators becomes understandable.

For example, in a frenzy of anger and hate that followed the liberation of France, some 14,000 collaborators were summarily executed before the authorities could reassert control over the situation.

The authors of this article are right to point out that war produces, at the very least, a suspension of the normal moral certainties that guide our behaviour.

Those who fight on our behalf are forced into patterns of behaviour that we would normally regard as criminal conduct.

As I know from my work with veterans, some of our soldiers never recover from their experiences.

The so-called Higaturu hangings are simply one manifestation of the moral ambiguity and casual brutality that accompanies war.

Barbara Short

I hope these researchers will also go up to the villages in the Prince Alexander and Torricelli ranges in the East and West Sepik provinces.

Here you will find many stories of villagers who had to chose between the Japanese and the Allies during the World War II battles in that region.

I have been writing World War II stories on their Facebook Forum over the past year or so and we have heard many stories back from Sepik people, some who chose to help the Japanese and some who helped the Allies. They were in a very difficult position.

These days they have good friendships with the Japanese and the Australians, which is as it should be. When the Japanese PM Abe, visited Wewak last year he paid his homage to the Japanese fallen, which included a close relative.

He visited a special Japanese memorial park close to beautiful Meni beach and the memorial on Mission Hill. He did not visit Wom, where Adachi handed over his sword to the Australians. This is quite understandable.

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