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PNG historians record the other side of the WWII story

War wreckage at WagawagaERIC TLOZEK | Australian Broadcasting Corporation

A SMALL team of Papua New Guinean historians has visited one of the most crucial battle sites of World War II to record the stories of those who remember it.

The team, from the University of Papua New Guinea, spent three weeks in Milne Bay, the scene of a Japanese offensive in August of 1942.

The story of the brutal battle, in which Australian and United States troops inflicted the first decisive defeat of the Japanese on land of the war, is well documented by Australian historians.

But the impact of the war in PNG on local people, who also endured terrible hardship during the Japanese invasion, has not been studied.

UPNG historians Anne Dickson-Waiko, Keimelo Gima and Elizabeth Taulehebo wanted to change that, and received funding for their work from the Australian Government and support from Deakin University in Victoria.

"We feel that most of the history of World War II is about the war itself and is by outsiders," Dr Dickson-Waiko said.

"There's nothing written, documented, on Papua New Guineans, so we thought this was a way to set the record straight."

The tradition of storytelling within the communities of Milne Bay has meant the experiences of older people who were alive during the war were passed on to their children.

"Some of the stories are still being kept alive because people are able to act it out, I suppose because of the constant re-telling to their children and grandchildren," Dr Dickson-Waiko said.

"They still remember the stories as if it took place just a few years ago."

The researchers said they found an unexpected amount of new information about the war.

"We are discovering new things for the first time, new stories, that people will be surprised to hear," she said.

Many people were pleased to share their stories, or those of their parents or relatives.

Baloni Douglas with research team leader Anne Dickson-WaikoBaloni Douglas, a 93-year-old villager interviewed for the project, said she was still unsure about the reasons for the war.

"I did not understand why the war was fought in my home and today I still don't understand because my elders failed to explain it," she said.

Ms Douglas' recollections left her entire family amused, as she recounted her interactions with the "handsome boys" of the Allied forces.

"One of the Australian soldiers was crying for me — do you think I'm joking?" she said, indignant at the raucous laughter.

"He wanted to marry me but I got scared.

"My village councillor advised me to run away when he heard about it."

Other villagers, such as 85-year-old Lolo Tubaiyodi, remembered the strange things that occurred during the invasion.

"The Japanese wore grass skirts, put claypots on their heads and were pretending to look like our village mothers, so the Australians would think they were local women and would not shoot them," he said.

"[But] some of them were recognised by the Australians and killed while trying to escape."

The team was interested by how many people spoke about the role of traditional magic, or witchcraft, which villagers believed kept alive the men who had been conscripted into the Papua Infantry Battalion or forced into manual labour.

Researcher Keimelo Gima said more than half the people interviewed mentioned witchcraft, which is traditionally practised by women in Milne Bay.

"The power of the witchcraft, whether you like to believe it or not, it has to be respected," he said.

"People are not ashamed to tell the stories about the witchcraft of their uncles and fathers that were protected by their mothers and sisters.

"They were very open in saying that because that was given by their mothers and sisters, the locals from Milne Bay survived."

The research team is now transcribing its interviews, so they can be collated and published for students, researchers and the PNG public to read.

They hope the work will help engage younger Papua New Guineans and give them an appreciation for the impact of the war on their ancestors.


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