UPON reflection - following the appearance of my piece on the wartime executions at Higaturu and in recognition that there is an efflorescence of internet commentary by a new generation of Australian Pacific experts in the year of the Anzac centenary - I think it is as well to recall in clarity the early days of Australia’s military intervention in Papua.
This article is derived from two pieces previously published in PNG Attitude. I also commend the blog’s archival section Past Times -WWII and Kokoda as a resource to newly-hatched Pacific experts and other people interested in the reality of Australia in PNG during World War II.
The original battalions of Australian soldiers to arrive in Port Moresby were not volunteers. As is well-known, they were conscripts.
They were young men forced into service by the martial law then prevailing, as were the carriers and labourers – the so-called “Angels” - the many Papuan men who supported the Australian soldiers on the famous Kokoda Track, Lakekamu, Wau, Port Moresby, Milne Bay and elsewhere.
Besides carrying supplies and wounded men, these Papuan conscripts were employed building Army camps and digging drains and pit latrines at 6 Mile and elsewhere.
The Jackson's Airport we know so well was transformed from a tiny dirt landing-ground to a major airstrip capable of landing DC3's and other large aircraft. It was upgraded by these same Papuan conscripts equipped with shovels, picks and wheelbarrows.
The young Aussies were youths who had not volunteered to serve in the AIF [Australian Imperial Force]. They were lads who had remained in their jobs as office-boys, apprentices, labourers and farm-hands until they were compelled to enter training for service in a militia brigade.
Australia's mature, well-trained, volunteer infantry force had been sent to support British troops in the North African and Mediterranean countries invaded by Germany soon after hostilities began in 1939.
These other young militia men, untrained and often unwilling, were all that was left in Australia to form a second fighting force.
Under law it was illegal for an Australian militia detachment to be deployed overseas but, as Papua was an Australian protectorate, it was deemed by Canberra to be of similar status as mainland Australia.
It was on this basis the young militiamen embarked for Port Moresby. This is a point never, to my knowledge, taken up by the off-and-on Papuan separatist movement even though it is redundant in law.
The young soldiers were a very discontented lot when they realised they had been effectively tricked into service overseas, and when they apprehended what they were expected to do. Fight the Japanese.
They showed their anger by looting houses, shops and even the Anglican Church in downtown Port Moresby soon after their arrival. Eventually their mainly elderly, superannuated World War I-era officers managed to settle things down.
The young white men went on to find friends in the shape of the conscripted Papuan labourers and carriers who served beside them in the thick of battle.
Both sides saw they had much in common and they shared smokes and biscuits and mugs of tea along the track, at the same time learning something of each others customs and worldview.
This was illuminating for the Australian youths, but for the Papuans the dawning reality of white men as simple humans and the reality of their access to and rational explanation of the hitherto-marvellous consumable goods and artefacts of the outside world, was a huge influence and a lasting driver of change.
Here was the beginning of the legend of Kokoda which we recall every year. This legend, in a different form, became part of the cultural tidal wave which swept PNG post-1945.
The relationship established in the heat of battle developed into a strong bond between two peoples. We do ourselves and those brave men, black and white, a great injustice if we lose sight of the reality of this period in our common history.
For their part, the Papuans were rounded up by patrol officers in their villages from Daru in the west to East Cape beyond Milne Bay.
Stories of this procedure were told to me by my boss when I worked as a Co-operatives Officer, the late ‘Speed’ Graham (known widely as Io Gram - the whiteman who always says “ yes”, a consequence of his initials being EO or “yes” in Motu).
At age 20 Speed, a newly-fledged patrol officer had been sent west from Port Moresby to recruit in the Orokolo and Purari Delta villages, now within the Gulf Province.
As the census roll was called, each male with hair under his arms, excluding those with grey or white hair on their heads, was lined up and loaded aboard a waiting vessel. These brought them to Port Moresby and several years of often dangerous service with the Australian Army.
The friendship and understanding between black and white conscripts blossomed and led to an association which was set down in an emotional poem published in the Australian Womens Weekly magazine in 1943. Here the unforgettable name ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ was coined and came into common use.
The young Australians, faced with the reality of the Kokoda Track and the Japanese opposition to their advance, changed overnight. Together with the seasoned soldiers who returned from the Middle East some months later, they established the legend of Kokoda-Buna-Gona.
They served with great bravery and took many losses, killed and badly wounded.
It is sobering to reflect that, at Bomana, more than 9,000 Australian servicemen and women lie buried. These are those whose bodies were found. Others lie in Lae and Rabaul, but some remain where they fell or crashed from the sky, unseen and lost forever.
There is no officially-designated and consecrated burial ground for the Papuans and New Guineans of the military labour force who fell beside their Australian and American allies in the war.
Those men, who were already members of the two territorial police forces and the Papuan Infantry Battalion, were ultimately awarded medals and received service pensions upon their retirement from employment.
As a patrol officer in the then Gulf District I was still paying out war-service and war-damage compensation to individuals and family representatives as late as 1960.
There have been efforts within PNG over many years to recognise the Angels nationally, but the process has not run smoothly.
I am aware for instance of the aged father of a friend of mine, an old Angel from the Malalaua area of the Gulf, who often made trips to Port Moresby when rumours of medals and parades were about but he never met with a welcome and the recognition he deserved. He died a disappointed old man some 15 years ago.
The Angels, unknowingly, were the real pioneers of a modern, independent PNG by being actively and fearlessly among those who together faced, fought and ultimately subdued the rapacious Japanese Empire.
They were heroes in this context and this needs to be said, loud and clear.
The services they provided to Australians were a subsidiary issue, and we do the memory of PNG's World War II servicemen, Police, and Angels great insult by placing them in a historic role as loyal, smiling, simple native helpers of the Australians.
They were warriors in their own right and served and fought bravely often in special-force-like defence of their own land.
The truth needs to be told for the benefit of young, present-day Papua New Guineans, to correct the egregious sales pitches of the Kokoda tour operators and the predilections of emerging Pacific experts.
The truth is that the Fussy Wuzzy Angels, the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the Royal Papuan Constabulary were the pioneers of modern, independent PNG.
Not the Pangu Pati, outspoken and confident in its white socks and polyester shorts, nor the United Party with its Australian Country Party contacts and fears of the rise of a hegemony of “black masters.”
It was the fighting men who were the real blood-sweat-and-tears pioneers who helped to ensure that their proto-independent nation remained free of Japanese imperial conquest and then helped protect Australia from a similar fate.
We must remember them as they were. The first heroes of PNG, the free and independent nation.