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Anzac, Melanesia and defining ourselves as a people

Anzac 1965JOE HERMAN

TRY asking a school child in Papua New Guinea about Anzac Day and what it stands for. Chances are they won’t know. Should they?

Years ago, every 25 April - Anzac Day - we schoolchildren and our teachers marched to the government station to remember the fallen soldiers.

It was a serious occasion, with the local kiap officiating. Also participating in the parade were government employees and singsing groups.

Each year for four years, I carried the wreath of flowers on behalf of my school and placed them at the foot of the flagpole after a lone policeman had blown Reveille on the bugle.

During the ceremony, the kiap explained at great length the meaning of Anzac. The war had never come to Enga so the historical context needed to be framed for us.

Several years later, I had the opportunity to take this a step further.

I organised a seven-person team to make the three-day trek through the Finisterre Range from the Ramu Valley to Madang’s Rai Coast.

I knew about the existence of the wartime trail but it had been obliterated by decades of vegetation growth. Not even an animal track was left. But I was determined that we should persevere.

The first day, we stood at the foot of Shaggy Ridge. Above us was an almost vertical slope and we were awestruck at what it must have been like for soldiers with weapons and heavy packs as they manouevred to engage the enemy.

Years past, and I found myself halfway around the world in the US city of Seattle talking to a brave World War II fighter pilot.

He had been with the US Air Force and based in Port Moresby, from where he flew dozens of missions to Lae and Madang. We became good friends.

Over time, he showed me photos and notes he still had and shared incredible stories with me. I was able to thank him for his service to my country. Sadly, he recently passed away.

Having laid wreaths for my school, trekked through the Finisterres and met my USAF friend, I felt I had a good understanding of the war in PNG.

World War II affected my people in different ways. Some did not know about it, let alone engage in it. Others died so the rest of us could be free.

It is a pity that we no longer celebrate Anzac Day as we used to. History needs to be taught and made real for our young people.

The Allied forces defeated the enemy and, in doing so, handed us our destiny.

We were given the wonderful opportunity to reach our full potential as a people.

We need to believe in ourselves as Melanesians and understand our resilience and capacity so we can act to build our nation and not succumb to political greed and corruption.


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Joe Herman

Daniel, those words sound familiar. Thanks for the reminder.
Michael Dom - you are right about the meaning of artifacts and relics being powerful when these are based on historical facts that we can embrace.

Daniel Kumbon

Joe, are the following words familiar to you?

‘Since independence, I think localisation has been too rapid. Training should be directed at both the acquisition of technical know-how and the development of managerial responsibility. The former is easier to teach and nationals have clearly demonstrated their capacity to master the most sophisticated techniques. But not enough nationals have yet had the time and opportunity to assimilate a full sense of responsibility. We need citizens who will stay back to get the job done even when their workmates may have gone home for the day.’

You said these words in 1985 in the book ‘Faces and Voices of PNG’, A National Family Album commemorating 10 years of independence. I think Patrick Matbob interviewed you. I contributed with four interviewed but three of my stories were attributed to three other people so I had to complain to late Dr Elton Brash (UPNG VC).

The photographer with me was Eisuke Shimauchi and Joe, I still have a battered copy of the book with me.

You must have visited Shaggy Ridge at that time when you were with Ramu Sugar. I also met an American WW2 hero, Lt Barney Nelson in Cleveland, Ohio. He passed away a couple of years ago too. And the last Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel died this year. When all WW2 soldiers, missionaries, teachers and KIAPS pass on – PNG's external links to it’s history will be permanently severed.

And back to what you said over thirty years ago. We have yet to see many patriotic nationals who will get public service work done after hours, on weekends and at odd hours. What are national holidays, national heroes, war cemetaries, national landmarks, historical sites etc to these people anyway?

Michael Dom is right – people will continue to spit buai and piss on our history.

Michael Dom

Myths and legends that have some grounding in history or historical locations, artifacts or relics, convey a lot more meaning and power than the stories on their own.

The opportunities are also economic, for example, what about establishing a Lae National Museum and historical tours or visits associated with the adventure tourism and diving packages?

Souvenirs, memorabilia, books and professional photography fees and etc.

Peter Kranz

By the way, to call something a myth is not to say it is untrue. But that it has become a compelling poetic story which bolsters belief. In the case of the Bible, it supports belief in God.

In the case of heroic stories (the 300, Agincourt, Gallipoli, Kokoda), it bolsters belief in national pride. This is not bad, but needs to be seen for what it is; a form of poetic story-telling.

Michael Dom

Paul - I think Dolarose poem 'Perfect gentlemen' touched a little on this, though from a more titillating and romantic perspective, about a young man knowing his culture but being able to wear either a suite and tie or an arse tanget with equal comfort.

Most Papua New Guineans would like to have the best of the modern world - education, employment, enterprise, entertainment, etc - but still be able to live with their cultural roots in tact or at least the knowledge that it is being kept in tact by someone they are related to, no matter how distantly.

There is a fading idea of being able to maintain an idyllic village lifestyle somewhere 'back home' where one day we can just go and live - no duties, no taxes, no cares.

You go there a few times in your childhood - just so that the folks know who you are - then when you're an old fart, and have paid the right tribal dues, they should welcome you home with open arms and gardens to boot.

But in practice, that means most Pngians want an easy, happy-go-lucky life.

I wrote about this in my poem We live, we sell, we buy, we cast, we pray.

If you've got mineral resources on your land, then you've hit the jackpot, you're set - God has blessed you.

But there seems to be little reinvestment for future generations, except for the family who own the lions share.

If you become a politician, you're riding the government gravy train, you're set - people are praying for you.

These guys and gals don't give a fuck about future generations either, only about maintaining their own dynasties.

If you're lucky to get through to university then get a job in public service, you can sit in your office collect a fat pay cheque and you're set - with strategic positioning you can now slurp off some of the perks from the passing gravy train.

Even public service offices are seemingly nepotistic.

If you work for a company, then make sure it's the right company, with the right links, in the right political party at election year and you're set. Again, the right connections, a few secret handshakes and the gravy train takes your route.

Peter Kranz

Robert Oestreicher was a hero in the defence of Darwin. He was perhaps the only experienced pilot in Darwin at the time.

His inexperienced formation of Kittyhawks was flying to Timor, but were called back to base due to bad weather. They unfortunately intersected with the Zeros flying in to attack.

He radioed his colleagues to hide in the clouds, and radioed the first warnings to base "Zero, Zero, Zero!". Sadly many were shot down by the much more battle-hardened Japanese pilots.

He managed to hide in the clouds, but his formation were not so lucky. Some were shot down, some crash landed. He managed to bring down two Zeros, then saw one of his colleagues bail out after being shot up.

The Japanese were rather ruthless and homed in on the parachuting pilot to riddle him with bullets. Oestreicher saw this happening and performed one of the most amazing manoeuvres in aerial combat.

He dived to the parachuting pilot and performed close spiral circles around him to protect him from the incoming bullets, receiving hits as he descended. He just pulled out around 400 meters from the ground and managed to land and survive.

He had protected the parachuting pilot, even though another had successfully landed but was strafed by a Zero and died while trying to untangle his parachute.

Bloody amazing. You couldn't make films about this.

Paul Oates

The essence of most successful and therefore venerated national leaders is their ability to not only lead but to achieve success by unifying those they lead.

That aspect seems to have been overlooked by many past PNG leaders.

If one was to determine what are PNG's national aspirations, what would feature at the top of most people's list?

Peter Kranz

An aside (again from Grose's book) racism was alive and kicking in the Australia of the 1940s. After the fall of Singapore Curtin declared that Australia must look to the US for help.

The Americans responded and sent a force of Army engineers to help bolster Australia's defences. They happened to be African Americans, and when they arrived in Melbourne in January 1942, Australian Customs refused to let them ashore as they were black, as this was against the White Australia Policy.

The issue was referred to the then External Affairs Minister, Doc Evatt, who grumpily agreed that there was not much choice but to let the black troops in if that's what the US has sent, although he cabled his representative in Washington "the reaction to the despatch of negro troops to Australia would not be favourable" even though it was the US's decision. But try and keep the numbers to a minimum."

As Grose comments "The Americans, quite rightly, took not a blind bit of notice."

Incidentally, the black American troops built the Barkly Highway from NT to Queensland.

Chris Overland

Almost every country in the world has a national myth which is thought to reflect and embody some particular characteristic or quality of the country and its people. The myth's primary purpose is to promote a sense of national pride and unity.

So, the French revere their revolutionary forebears who created the first republic with its demand for equality, fraternity and liberty. Likewise, the great national hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, was and remains an enduring symbol of French military and cultural greatness.

The Americans are tremendously proud of their revolutionary forebears as well, with their constitution being a text book example of the thinking about freedom and human rights that arose during the 18th century Enlightenment.

The Russians, on the other hand, regard the tyrannical Peter the Great as epitomising the qualities of leadership needed to be Tsar of Russia. Vladimir Putin seems to reflect more than a hint of Peter's combination of intelligence, drive and sheer ruthlessness.

In South America, the great revolutionary figure Simon Bolivar seems to be front and centre in the myth making of several countries, all of which lay claim to him as their founding genius. In Venezuela they have named their currency (Bolivars) after him while, of course, Bolivia has gone one better!

As for Australia, we have chosen an heroic but ultimately catastrophic military failure to become the basis of our enduring national myth. Interestingly, the Turks also revere the ANZAC campaign as the place where modern Turkey has its foundations.

In truth, the ANZAC landings were poorly planned, ill timed, badly led and prolonged beyond the point of all common sense, condemning huge numbers of young Australian, New Zealand, British and Turkish men to a premature death. It was, in short, a debacle of the first magnitude.

Still, there undeniably was a great deal of quiet heroism (and humanity) on display on all sides, so I guess there are worse things upon which to base a national myth.

For PNG, there is as yet no enduring national myth, although it seems that Michael Somare is apparently in the process of being turned into a Melanesian version of Nelson Mandela. Whether he is deserving of such an elevation remains to be seen.

There is as yet no archetype that can be said to reflect something unique about PNG. This is puzzling because it undoubtedly is a unique country and its peoples, to me a least, are quite remarkable in their diversity, mercurial character and resilience and stoicism in the face of adversity.

Perhaps PNG's moment is yet to come: a latter day Napoleon or Simon Bolivar or George Washington or, heaven forbid, Peter the Great, may be waiting in the wings.

Time will tell I guess.

Peter Kranz

The Kokoda legend has become a great Australian myth of the heroic Aussies battling great odds with the help of the Fuzzy Wuzzies to defeat the might of the Japanese empire.

Whilst not wishing to detract from this the story of the 'heroic Aussie' nevertheless takes a battering in the truth of the bombing of Darwin on Feb 19th, 1942 (before Coral Sea and Kokoda). It is a tale of woeful unpreparedness, confusion, ineptitude and downright cowardice in the face of enemy aggression. It is not something Australians can be much proud of.

True there are some incidents of heroic courage, (AA Gunner Mulholland and US airman Robert Oestreicher, and the civilians who swam and rowed to the rescue of bombed sailors drowning in the harbour and but three examples).

But the wholesale looting of Darwin, the mass exodus of most of the RAAF on the road south (one was found later in Melbourne, another rode a bike to Queensland), and the picture of the Chief Administrator commandeering policemen to help him load Government House's silver, crockery and precious wine onto army trucks to get them out of harms way whilst bombed survivors were crying out for help buried beneath the rubble around him, leave a sour taste.

The true story was perhaps revealed by the Lowe Commission of Inquiry - kept secret until after the war, and due to massive Government censorship the truth was not revealed at the time.

It was an attack on the same scale as Pearl Harbour (and conducted by the same Japanese forces); over 300 dead and perhaps twice that number wounded. But unlike Pearl Harbour, the attack on Darwin was kept quiet and the details covered up for some years. And the Indigenous civilian deaths were not counted, as is perhaps the case with the PNG campaigns.

"An Awkward Truth" by Peter Grose is a great book and a must read for the gory details of this rather shameful part of Australia's military history.

There are two sides to every coin.

Joe Herman

You are spot on, Michael. We need to raise the national conscience.

Michael Dom

Keith - you're a god send, you clown! Ha,ha,ha!

Michael Dom

Keith - make it so.

Thy will be done on Wednesday - KJ

John K Kamasua

I agree with Phil, Michael. you have said it all

Paul Oates

You never said a truer word Michael.

I recently visited the cemetery in Lucknow, India and photographed Walter Burley Griffin's grave.

The Indian boys who were playing cricket near the grave site clearly had no idea who he was or his achievements.

I rather fancied my right arm, over the 'temporary' wicket, off spin but they hit me for what was possibly a 10.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Your two comments put together make a very powerful statement Michael.

Michael Dom

If we cannot cherish our collective history and the dignity of the human actors behind that history who are no longer around to observe our response, then we fail to demonstrate true respect and therefore we cannot develop self-respect.

I don't believe it takes much of a leap of thinking to understand that without self-respect earned from our common history it is not possible to develop unity.

Today's leaders are trying so hard to create our modern day hero's particularly through sport.

I even view The National story on me as one such attempt to build-up some kind of hero-poet. Too bad they have not learned from history either - poets are usually the anti-hero. I will not poem what you want me to poem - na yu bai pilim!

An yet we failed to celebrate nationally the life and passing of the last living Fuzzy Wuzzy angel.

He rests in the dirt now, just like any other old village bumpkin of colourless history.

One day kids will piss on his grave.

Paul Oates

A very prophetic statement Michael.

Michael Dom

Today the guns that guarded the skies over Lae town stand neglected, blotched with rust, mold and buai spit. The gun track and mount is now used by the occasional long-long or passer-by for a quick standing piss.

The ANGAU base is a decrepit old hospital swamped by the diseased, the dying and dead. The vast empty land beside ANGAU, the former airport, that could have been used to rebuild a modern day hospital fit for an LNG producing country, is disputed or parceled out to unscrupulous Chinese business men. Meanwhile, PNG ships natural gas worth billions of dollars directly to Japan.

In 1937 just before the breakout of World War II, renowned woman aviator Amelia Earhart her launched Lockheed Electra L-10E from Lae and flew into aviation history, myth and legend. Her memorial is next to the anti-aircraft guns under the mango tree on the corner of Coronation Drive up to town.

The mysterious WWII Japanese caves and tunnels are still hidden beneath those very hills. But there are no other public records or identifying sites from when the Japanese occupied Lae and Salamaua in 1942.

The once great Salamaua township itself has entered into myth and legend.

There are no WWII memorials at NADZAB airport and together with the acronym ANGAU much of the local population seem to assume that the words are of some unknown origin from their own ancient past.

Half way up the Kassam Pass, on a ledge with a magnificent view of the Markham and Gusap Valley's, stands a concrete marker placed by fiends of Rupert Roelof Haviland a cadet patrol officer and engineer who built the pass from Gusap to Yonki in 1953.

Kassam Pass was historically, and more so today, the single most vital entry point into the highlands of Papua New Guinea.

Rupert's memorial plaque has been battered and chipped, it is graffitied and spat on, and provides a convenient target for drunk travelers to hurl empty bottles and piss on his memory, while driving through the pass he built before dying. He was 26 when he died.

As long as Papua New Guineans spit and piss on their history and wipe their arses with it's pages, we will remain merely a footnote to the progress of mankind.

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