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When war came to Australian Papua: Poppy & lantana side by side

Doug Robbins  Anzac Day  Springbrook. 2018
Ex kiap Doug Robbins' speech to Springbrook's Anzac Day ceremony yesterday


SPRINGBROOK, QUEENSLAND - The past year marked 75 years since, sadly, too many Australian lives were lost during World War II fighting in the South West Pacific Area – and on Australian soil.

Following Pearl Harbour, Darwin at the north of mainland Australia, was bombed in February 1942 with loss of many servicemen and civilians. Then Broome was bombed the next month.

We know that Darwin is part of Australia, but little is acknowledged that Papua, a former British Colony in the south-east quarter of the island of New Guinea and only four kilometres from the Torres Strait Islands of Queensland, was a Territory of Australia for almost 100 years to 1975.

The fierce jungle battles of Kokoda, Milne Bay and the Beachheads were fought on what was then Australian soil.

In August 1942, at the same time as Kokoda, Australian Forces were defending airfields at Milne Bay to protect Port Moresby and Australia to the south. Milne Bay was free of fighting by September.

Anzac Day RAAF aircraft flyover at Springbrook
RAAF aircraft does a memorial pass over Springbrook yesterday

The Australians plus Americans fresh from Camp Cable south of Brisbane were flown to a newly cleared airstrip at remote Wanigela between Milne Bay and enemy occupied Buna.

Operation Wanigela Hatrack planned for these 4,000 troops to march overland to Pongani and then cut off the enemy retreating from Kokoda. But the flooded Musa River saw them transported forward by the US Army small ships hastily acquired from around Australia and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, 113 Australian commandoes, walking one day ahead, made it through in 35 days (the same walk took me seven days unburdened almost 50 years ago). By January 1943 many lives were lost in the Battle of the Beachheads at Buna, Sanananda and Gona.

The book ‘The Rag Tag Fleet’ gives a brief account of the soldiers’ walk from Wanigela across the Musa River and the vast Agaiambo swamp then on to Pongani and the battlefields. A journalist who joined the soldiers for a short part of the long walk wrote these words:

“Then for the first time they realised what jungle warfare really could mean without actual combat. They staggered along with 60 pounds each on their backs under a broiling New Guinea sun that was frequently obscured by sudden torrential downpours.

“But the rain brought little relief to the sweltering soldiers because after a rain, the jungles in the lowlands were turned into dank, steaming morasses that dragged them down to their hips in their sticky, slimy embrace. Sharp, stiff undergrowth shredded their clothing and tore legs, arms and faces.

“On top of all this were the myriad insect pests of the jungle – swarms of malarial mosquitoes which could bite through thick drill trousers, land crabs of all kinds, voracious large brown ants and persistent sandflies and leeches.”

[From personal experience in the hills towards Safia at Middle Musa, I would add microscopic scrub typhus mites that cause an itchy rash and can be fatal.]

“The boys were caked with slimy mud that covered them from head to foot. But they could always wash or swim in any of the numerous little streams they had to wade through, and there they had nothing to worry about except the crocodiles, which even the natives feared more than sharks.”

In 1972, after two years as the government patrol officer in the Wanigela-Tufi area, I was transferred to Kokoda with my wife Annette and our baby.

In that year, our little Papuan outpost welcomed back, with their families, 40 survivors of the 39th Battalion, raised for service in Papua, for the 30th anniversary of the Kokoda Trail Campaign.

It was obvious that these brave men still suffered physically and mentally from the Kokoda battle. One man had recurring skin rashes while another, who had been cared for by a nurse since the war, wandered off up the track looking for his mate.

Bert Kienzle, who during the war organised the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel carriers, killed a beast and we all had an enjoyable barbeque with our visitors, billeted for three days on the station and at the Kienzle’s.

Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels were the able-bodied men of the native population rounded up from around the Papuan coast from Daru to Tufi beyond Wanigela who capably worked alongside our soldiers and the likes of Papuan Infantry Battalion’s Sergeant Katue, the first Papuan awarded the Military Medal for his exploits in the Popondetta-Wanigela locality.

Interpreter Randolph at Tufi  c 1970
Interpreter Randolph at Tufi around 1970

In rural Papua, Pidgin wasn’t common. Randolph my loyal interpreter during our days at Wanigela-Musa died not long before Annette and I revisited New Guinea in 2009.

He had been one of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels – medical orderly, carrier and labourer.

No poppies grow along the Kokoda Track.

For burial services the Padre would pick a lantana-like flower, native to the jungle, from beside the path as a symbol of remembrance for the life given in service of our country - Australia.

To this day, veterans of the 39th Militia, the only battalion to have the Kokoda Trail battle honour, lay a sprig of lantana alongside a red poppy in memory of their comrades fallen on the battlefields of Papua New Guinea or claimed by age.

More Australians died fighting in Papua than in any other World War II campaign.



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Ross Wilkinson

The issue surrounding Australian citizenship for Papuans was discussed at length and recognised by the Constitutional Planning Committee’s Report of 13 August 1974 and which can be read via this link:

The report was compiled and recommendations made after extensive public meetings and consultation that resulted in many written submissions.

The CPC, in Chapter 4, recognised and made the distinction that Papuan indigenous persons were Australian citizens by virtue of their birth in the Australian Territory of Papua whilst those born in the United Nations Trust Territory of New Guinea were Australian Protected Persons.

It further recognised that Australia (at that time) did not recognise dual citizenship and that Papuans without right of entry to Australia would forfeit their Australian citizenship.

As a result of this, the CPC recommended that PNG adopt a condition to preclude dual citizenship at the time of the declaration of Independence on 16 September 1975.

How well this was explained to or understood by PNG nationals is best demonstrated by statements today by these people about their rights to Australian citizenship.

In the post-Independence period there have been several claims to the High Court of Australia by Papuans seeking recognition of their right to Australian citizenship.

All of these have been rejected by the Court except the most recent which recognised special circumstances. These were that the claimant at birth had at least one Australian citizen as a parent.

However, the finding from the latest case did not confer automatic Australian citizenship but merely the right to apply for citizenship subject to the applicable rules.

This link provides briefing information on this matter:

With regard to the Commonwealth Star on the Australian flag, Keith is correct. The Star, or Federation Star as it is also known, originally appeared with six points to represent each of the original six colonies now states. In 1908 an additional point was added following the creation of the Territory of Papua in 1906.

However, although it was created to recognise Papua, the warrant for its creation also recognised that it was to recognise any future territories created by Australia.

There are currently ten territories represented by this seventh point, both on the mainland and offshore.

Chris Overland

I assume that Andrew Fagu'u is aware of the Papua Besena movement started by Josephine Abaijah in the period leading up to independence.

Abaijah maintained that Papua's original status as a British Protectorate, which was achieved by annexure in 1884, and its subsequent status as Territory of Australia had, de facto, conferred Australian citizenship upon all Papuans.

I am uncertain about the legalities surrounding this argument but, in any event, a unilateral declaration of independence by Papua Besena in 1975 was simply ignored by both the Australian and nascent PNG governments.

It would be a fascinating but probably immensely costly endeavour to revisit this issue through, say, the Australian High Court or the International Court of Justice.

If, as I believe it must, PNG revises its constitutional arrangements to become a federation or commonwealth rather than a unitary state, then Papua might be able to achieve a form of quasi-independence.

In this way, one of Josephine Abaijah's ambitions might yet be fulfilled.

Stranger things have happened in history.

Andrew Fagu'u

Australian Territory of Papua was an integral part of the Commonwealth of Australia since 1905 when the British Crown colony of British New Guinea became a territory when the Australian federal Parliament passed the Papua Act # 9 of 1905. The 6 pointed star national flag of Australia created in 1901 was again changed in 1908. Northern Territory of Australia joined the federation in 1911 and ACT joined the federation in 1914. Both were never british crown colonies but were part of the british crown colony of NSW. Papua never had a Referendum to legally severe ties with Australia. I have so much evidence with me to show you if you want to see them. I would happy to show.

Andrew Fagu'u

Thank you for the history of the Australian Territory of Papua. Many Australians do not know that Papua is the seventh state of Australia as shown on the flag - the Commonwealth star or the star of federation.

Hi Andrew - Sorry to disappoint you but the Australian flag has five stars in the form of the Southern Cross constellation plus a seven-pointed Commonwealth Star. The points represent the six Australian states and the two territories (Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory) - KJ

Doug Robbins

Mention of both the South West Pacific Area and Papua in my ANZAC Day talk is a subtle reference (without spending time to explain it to my Springbrook audience) to the status of Australia's Militia volunteer conscripts – akin to the later Citizens Military Force (CMF) and today’s Reserve volunteers.

In 1939 there was large-scale opposition to the concept of conscription and the provisions of the Defence Act precluded conscripts from serving outside Australian territory. Papua was conveniently a Territory, hence my specifically referring to the 39th of Kokoda as Militia (second last paragraph).

The Papuan Campaign was from 21 July 1942 to 22 January 1943.

On 26 January 1943 changes to the Act meant that Militia units were able to serve anywhere south of the Equator in the South West Pacific Area (SWPA).

Paul Oates

Thanks for raising these oft forgotten facts Doug.

The younger generation now seems to want to become involved yet has virtually no idea in why ANZAC Day is important.

Those who march, whether they know it or not, represent those who marched off to defend our freedom today and did not come back. Even those who did come back often brought back their wounded bodies and horrific memories.

I had a discussion last year just before ANZAC Day with someone who had a sign up declaring everyone should celebrate ANZAC Day. I explained that no one should celebrate war or its consequences but instead commemorate those who gave their all that we today may enjoy whatever we have.

As our Kiap fraternity goes on its last patrol I wonder what we will be remembered or even if there will be any memories at all?

We didn't do such a bad job in so a short time considering the circumstances and that at best, around 250 of us were responsible for nearly 3 million people with a death rate due to duty equivalent to the Australian Forces in the Vietnam War.

Lest we forget!

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