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PNG's first heroes: warriors who laid the foundation of a nation

Private A Baldwin, 2 33 Battalion, receives a drink of water from Papuan stretcher-bearers, October 1942 [AWM]JOHN FOWKE

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.


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William Dunlop

Robert Koomans - G'Day Bob. How's is it going for you and your family.

Robert Koomans

Real nice comments about indigenous Papuans mixing with Aussie conscripts and doing a mighty job of carrying supplies from Kerema along the Bulldog Track, and bringing wounded back to the new military hospital the army built in Kerema.

My father-in-law, Amoa Omohae, who died some years ago aged 113, was the bosboi for many of the carriers, some of whom panicked when being strafed (who wouldn't?). Anyway, he had to keep them on the job.

He also helped build the first SDA church at Ela Beach in Por Moresby.

Two recent burials at Bomana War Cemetery were soldiers killed by Japanese troops in the jungle, who lay there for over 50 years.

When I reported this on Facebook to my Army friends, Facebook offended all by shutting down my comment as racist and hate speech, but I just used the same language that a Papuan newspaper used, which did not seem racist at all as it was condolences to the deceased and their families.

Heather Kwan

Speed Graham was my Dad. He left this earth far too early.

Dr Solo Tongia once told me how Dad was still spoken well of by his family (this is in 1979) because of how well he had treated them when evacuating them from Milne Bay during WWII.

He also fought on Tuaguba and Kokoda (amongst others).

Therese Mackay

I have just come across this today (Anzac Day) and noticed the mention of Des Martin in the comments section.

Des is right now in hospital with an infection and had a cancer battle last year and came through.

He is a very well informed man and a JP in Queensland. He is my late Mother's first cousin. Nice to see him remembered.

He and his brother are the ones who let me know a lot about my Mother's family history. Sadly his brother died last year. I often get political emails from him or funny ones.

Thanks Therese. Des has been a valued correspondent with PNG Attitude down the years. We wish him well and look forward to more contributions from him - KJ

Peter Turner

Thanks Keith, but it is, of course, John's article, like all his work, that is educative and evocative. I just added two bobs worth.

And of course it was John Curtin, as John says, not Ben Chifley, who defied Winston Churchill, and Theodore Roosevelt's wishes to send the AIF to Burma, and insisted that they come home.

Thank God for that man. Without his foresight and grit, the 2/14th, 2/16th and 2/27th AIF Battalions would not have been there to punish the Japanese steamroller so severely during the long withdrawal from Isurava, at terrible cost to themselves, and stop their 'end run' on Port Moresby, the surrender of the Japanese 'South Seas Nankai' would probably have taken place somewhere north of Sydney, instead of at Cape Wom near Wewak.

And thank God for blokes like Des Martin ML, who, as an 18 year old who earned his Pacific Star as a Sergeant machine gunner during the Aitape - Maprik, Wewak campaign and returned to Papua New Guinea as a Patrol Officer after the war, to earn Membership of the PNG Order of Logohu, (from a grateful PNG Government many years later), for his endurance and compassion during the Mt. Lamington disaster in 1951.

Yes,'We will remember them....Lest we forget'.

Peter Turner

Another excellent offering, John, thank you. Your sentiments are absolutely correct and well expressed.

The large number of bravery decorations awarded to PNG soldiers (the First Papuan Infantry Battalion consisted mainly of Royal Papuan Constabulary volunteers) during the war, speaks for itself.

It is largely agreed, in hindsight, that a number of the Distinguished Conduct Medals (DCM) awarded to Papua New Guinean soldiers, should have merited the award of Victoria Crosses.

But then the Australians, like the Brits, and unlike the Yanks, have always been very niggardly in the award of decorations.

There are 3,779 servicemen (maybe an extra 2 or 3 who have been recovered from battlefields and interred there recently) interred at Bomana War Cemetery, including 400 British (out of 1,000 Royal Artillery men captured in Singapore, all of whom perished, on an island (Ballale) near Buin where they had been forced to build an airstrip for the Japanese during the Guadalcanal Campaign), some Indian as well as a number of Papua New Guineans (Royal Papuan Constabulary and Papuan Infantry Battalion, one aged just 16).

I believe that the total of Australian servicemen buried at Bomana, Lae and Bitapaka is around 5,500. (A little known fact is that the United States lost over 10,000 soldiers killed in the 'New Guinea Campaigns' and India 8,000).

The two Militia Battalions deployed to Port Moresby in early 1942 were the 39th and 53rd Battalions. Citizens Military Forces, part time soldiers, as opposed to full time regular soldiers, ahead of the arrival of seasoned and victorious (Greece and Crete being glorious failures like Gallipoli) AIF troops returning to defend Australia, at Prime Minister Chifley’s insistence, from the Middle East campaigns.

Oddly enough the Kiwis left their troops in the Middle East and continued to be some of the best regarded troops to fight there and in Italy until the end of the war. (Must be something in the water in NZ, it was the same in WW1!)

These two Battalions were overwhelmingly volunteers, who had been serving 'Reservists' prior to the War, except for a number of the 53rd Battalion dudes, who were conscripted and dispatched unwillingly to Port Moresby with very little training, and as you say, were employed on infrastructure development around Port Moresby, poorly fed, plagued with malaria and provided with no jungle training, before being flung headlong up the Kokoda Track against the Japanese who had landed on the north coast.

Unsurprisingly, the 53rd Battalion 'failed' to conquer the elite Japanese troops, many of whom were Japanese Marines who had crushed everyone in their path for the previous 10 years fighting in China, Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore, though the 39th performed creditably against overwhelming odds and have passed into history as the 'Valiant 39th'.

The Japanese stopped at Imita Ridge just outside Port Moresby upon orders from Tokyo because, with the Guadalcanal battles raging, they could no longer be supplied.

They were ordered back to the north coast and told to hold the bridgehead. The Australians lost more men chasing them back over the mountains and liquidating the bridgehead than in the withdrawal from Kokoda.

There can be no doubt though, that without the assistance of the 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels' in 1942, the Australian forces would not have been able to slow the Japanese advance over the Kokoda Track, and Port Moresby would have fallen, with calamitous effect to the Allied war effort.

My late father in law, Edmund Aritu of Menapi Village, Rabaraba District in Milne Bay, who passed in 2000 aged 85, and 15 of his mates, were 'invited' to work on a rubber plantation by some Kiap who obviously did not tell them 'the whole truth, and nothing but the truth'.

They found themselves in Port Moresby the day the MacDui was sunk near Hanuabada (Edmund and some of his friends swam out and rescued some of the badly burnt survivors) and the only rubber plantation they saw was the one they passed through on their way to what turned out to be the battle of Isurava, near Kokoda.

He completed the Kokoda Track campaign, and the battle of the Bridgehead at Gona, Buna and Sanananda and then worked for four years at one of the air bases at Dobodura and was repatriated home in 1946.

He never felt himself hardly done by and cherished the 'dim dims', including the one who married his daughter I guess, until his dying day.

Only one of Edmund's mates was lost during the war and he would often talk of the close relationships between white and black, built under fire and in harsh and hazardous circumstances.

He was also very outspoken about the numerous instances that he witnessed of commonplace murder and cannibalism by the Japanese Army.

Very few of the Tolai carriers forced into service on the Kokoda track by the Japanese ever made it back to Rabaul.

A considerable number of the 8,000 Indian troops captured in Singapore and sent to Rabaul and the Sepik as slave labour suffered the same fate.

Major Chint Singh, a Rajput Regiment officer, and one of only 35 survivors of the 3,000 Indians sent to the Sepik, chronicled these unsavoury, grisly facts, largely suppressed as 'too nasty' for the general populace to be informed about.

The Australian Government finally recognized the contribution of the 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels' (Labourers and Carriers, as opposed to the PNG fighting soldiers), a term unknown during the war, which became popular post war due to an inspirational poem written by an Australian soldier whose life was saved by the 'boys', who carried him, and many others, over the mountains to safety.

In 2002 and for a short time after about 140 Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel Commemorative Medallions were presented to the very few surviving Angels, or their widows, out of about 60,000 'boys' who served.

Whilst I honour those 'gubbers' who made that effort, it was "too little, too late". I hang my head in shame, though, to be fair, Australia certainly does contribute gracefully and generously in aid funding to PNG.

I must agree, Phil, that Australia still makes it hard for Papua New Guineans to visit or work there but the reason is, although both sides do not choose to dwell on it, is that so many PNG 'ers just do not come home when they are supposed to. (Traim tasol, and there you have it).

This is sad because, as we know, they are industrious and largely law abiding people. Oh well, as Australia's workforce constricts as the population ages, perhaps they will wake up to the magnificent human resource on their doorstep.

Wonderfully educative and evocative stuff, Peter. I might add, though, that PNGns are not significant over-stayers in Australia in comparison with people from many other countries - KJ

William Dunlop

KJ - Precisely, High German utulising the Hewbrew alphabet.

Lindsay F Bond

William, exactly my point, applicable to persons suffering conditions of wars, and perhaps a few in commentating.

william Dunlop

KJ-my use of the word Yidish with reguard to that great man
John Monish was specific, Reguarding his ancesters origins in
middle Europe & Germany.

William - I edit for accuracy as well as boring things like grammar and spelling. So I leave this comment unedited by way of example. But I must add that Yiddish is a language, not a racial or ethnic descriptor - KJ

William Dunlop

Lindsay - Bean & Keith Murdoch were full of vitriol when they
thought it suited their purpose. Weeing in Billy Hughes' pocket.

Lindsay F Bond

Readers can see a report from that era in 'The Sydney Morning Herald', 6/8/1942; go to

Be aware that even Charles Bean of WW1 would admit not all that he recorded in the field was of certainty, such were frailties of his humanity.

William Dunlop

John - A much needed blast from the past. Phil - Yes, absolutely.

The late Sir John Monash & his troops may have got bloodied at the Dardanelles but did he not acquit himself and his troop's admirably in France & Belgium?

Knighted in the field by the King himself no less. Not bad for a part time Aussie soldier who made General. Nothing but honour when honour's due.

Mathias Kin

Thank you John Fowke for this captivating story. Now I have more insights into the engagement of young Australians and New Guineans in the war against the Japanese.

Michael Dom

Thank you John Fowke, for your revelation of historic facts and all that it means for the past, present and future of PNG.

You have confirmed to me what I have read into the history and stories surrounding that part of PNG history.

It is too far fetched to assume that PNGians did not fight along side those who would have been their friends and were mere serving boys for colonial armies.

If two closely linked nations need any more evidence of their intertwined fates, then the fighting that took place in Kokoda signifies this: ordinary men, not just trained and seasoned soldiers but youth in the prime of their lives, Aussie and PNGian together, threw themselves against a war machine so powerful that it had overrun half the world and stood on their doorsteps.

They stopped 'em right there and broke that invincible army.

What we forget.

Des Martin | ex AIF Sgt and post war Kiap

John - Maybe a misprint but your reference to the Australian Infantry Force should be the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), who were all volunteers.

Incidentally the relationship between the militia force diggers and those in the second AIF, of which I was one, was pretty much the same.

Also the contribution of the Papuan and New Guinea police working with ex Kiap ANGAU officers often behind the Japanese lines has only been touched on in books like "The Third Force" the story of ANGAU.

Des - Not John's error, mine, in spelling out the acronym (now fixed) - KJ

Phil Fitzpatrick

Well said John.

To my mind Kokoda is the defining Australian conflict, not the abortive British effort at Gallipoli.

And, as you point out, Papua New Guineans were an integral and indispensable part of it. It defined the subsequent relationship between our two countries.

Surely this points to the need for a much more closely defined regional alliance and all that it brings, like free trade and access between the two countries.

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