The Ben Moide Story: Nameless Warriors by Lahui Ako, University of Papua New Guinea Press, 2012, 246 pages. ISBN 9980869577. Order online or purchase from the UPNG Press & Bookshop, Port Moresby
PORT MORESBY – Ben Moide was one of the youngest members of the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB), a unit of the Australian Army formed in 1940, the first 63 recruits being old or volunteer police officers, some with considerable experience patrolling with the kiaps.
However Moide’s picture of the PIB was not one of glorious comradeship, but of tribal enmities, tensions even amongst kinsmen, dissension, desertion and discrimination between mixed race and other troops. The PIB lost 60% of its members due to such issues.
The Ben Moide Story is an important book written by a Papua New Guinean historian about a Papua New Guinean soldier and his experiences of a global event that has scarcely been written about by Papua New Guineans.
In author Lahui Ako’s acknowledgements one can glean the challenges he faced when he initially brought his manuscript to an Australian publisher who shrugged it off as “unofficial”.
One can infer the risk this manuscript seemed to pose to the status quo. Here was a Papua New Guinean writing about World War II in PNG, around which existed a status quo established by Australians – including “official” war histories.
I by no means intend to conflate the interests of the Australian publisher with a general Australian readership nor to insinuate that all Australian publishers may have an agenda to silence other perceptions of World War II in PNG.
I have some personal insight of this book project as I was operations manager of the University of PNG (UPNG) Press and Bookshop when Ako’s manuscript was accepted for publication in 2012. Dr John Evans was general manager at the time.
I was responsible for organising two book launches and for marketing and selling the book between 2012 and 2013. Of all the recently published UPNG Press titles, The Ben Moide Story was a best seller especially among Australians and Papua New Guineans working and living in Port Moresby.
Despite the initial hostility of the Australian publisher, many Australian readers, perhaps hungry for a different story or some unique insights into a well-known historical event, took to the book zealously. It also sold well in Port Moresby during the 2018 APEC Summit.
Another reviewer of The Ben Moide Story, John Burton, has pointed out that there are two unit histories that chart the course of World War II from the perspective of the PIB, New Guinea Infantry Battalion and the Pacific Islands Regiment.
These are Green Shadows by GM Byrnes (1989) and To Find a Path: The life and times of the Royal Pacific Islands Regiment by Jim Sinclair (1990).
Neville Robinson’s 1981 monograph Villagers at War: Some Papua New Guinean Experiences in World War II incorporates oral histories from three villages in the Central, Gulf and Morobe provinces.
In the same genre is Annie Kwai’s Solomon Islanders in World War II: An Indigenous Perspective (2017). Kwai, a Solomon Islander, based the book on her master’s thesis from the Australian National University. Her book is another important inclusion in the genre of ‘inside-out’ histories or ‘bottom-up’ histories, if I may describe them as such.
Ako contextualises the events of Moide’s life by painting broad brush strokes of the world events that led to World War II and that impelled the Australian government to begin fortifying its own and the Papua-New Guinean coastlines in 1939.
Moide was 16 years old in 1940 when he noticed changes in the usual rhythm of his life in Port Moresby, where he lived in his maternal village of Pari and attended the nearby Catholic school at Badili.
Stories of Australian activities, the build-up of Australian soldiers and their construction activities on Paga Hill abounded.
One day in July 1940, Moide and his friends aimed to satisfy their curiosity about the Australian Army’s activities at Konedobu by visiting the encampment of makeshift tents there.
Moide was amazed by what he saw: the activities of the PIB; their training and discipline; and the admiration they attracted from both men and women. He was also intrigued by the possibility that Papuans could be equal to the taubadas.
This one exploit planted a seed in his mind that would see him sign up the very next day as the sixty-seventh enlistee of the newly-formed PIB.
So, on a Friday morning in July 1940, a normal school day, young Moide left his home in Pari, hugging and kissing his mother as if for the last time. Moide had made up his mind to join the PIB and this intention was unbeknownst to his mother.
His public show of affection unsettled his mother who felt that something was amiss. Days later when she and Moide’s father were informed of Moide’s enlistment with the PIB, they were horrified at the thought of losing their son.
They lamented their son’s action when the war was not theirs, an all-taubada affair as far as they knew. Furthermore, since Moide was only 16, he should have been turned away by the recruiting officer.
And they were frightened that the Australian Army would take its troops into the hinterland, which was the much-feared Koiari territory, the Motuans traditional enemy.
Through examining Moide’s reasoning, his decision to enlist with the PIB and his parents’ grief over his action, Ako describes the tribal sentiments and territorial loyalties then prevalent in colonial Papua and New Guinea.
For whatever personal reasons Moide joined the PIB – to protect his native lands of Pari or Kiwai or to protect his family and clan members from external threats – might be added a third possibility.
Could Moide have envisaged the bigger picture of a nation run by Papuans themselves? Without a doubt, years after the end of the war, Moide would have appreciated his part in it, and understood as we do now, how those events and outcomes shaped the nation of PNG.
In September 1945, the 20 year old Sergeant Moide was discharged from active service in the PIB. He had not gone on to serve in Bougainville and had spent his final year training new recruits at Murray Barracks and Bisiatabu.
Back in civilian life he regretted he had not seen his mother before she died and was buried at Gaire Village where the people had been temporarily resettled during the bombing of Port Moresby.
The inevitable “what if?” questions began to torment him. What if he had waited and joined the army after his mother passed away? At least he would have been able to spend her last days with her. His father had permanently resettled on Kiwai Island but Moide and his siblings remained in Pari with relatives.
The war had changed everything in Papua-New Guinea forever. The population had a more experienced outlook on what life should be like for them than they had before the war. Meek acceptance of the taubada’s authority was no longer assured. Racial awareness and hostility to Europeans in general was increasing.
Disgruntled war veterans like Moide were becoming frustrated daily with their lives. They felt abandoned after they had lost blood, sweat and tears to help the taubadas.
Things had changed in other ways too. Gone were the wonder and awe with which people viewed warriors. Most saw the returning warrior as a competitor to the new status quo created by the vacuum they had left in order to fight the taubada’s war. They all blamed the taubada for creating such a situation.
Most members of the PIB were paid a monthly salary during the conflict, the amount of which was determined by rank and time served. Moide’s salary payments ceased about a month after he had been discharged.
These men were not fighting for a nation but for their own patches of tribal land which happened to be Australian territories. They should have been recognised as individual soldiers or carriers and treated like any other Australian war veteran.
More should have been done to support a PNG veteran’s affairs department with the initial aid monies especially knowing that a fledgling democracy would not have been immediately concerned with the welfare of veterans who served in a war more than three decades before political independence.
A common sentiment in this book, which is present in many other Papua New Guinean oral histories of the war, is that the war was not theirs. The question then is whose responsibility it was to facilitate reparation, compensation and manage veteran’s affairs?
Moide was well-known but his celebrity should not eclipse the anonymity of his comrades. As someone who has been collecting and studying oral histories of World War II in PNG for the past six years, I support the intimation of Ako’s title that there are many Papua New Guinean “warriors” who have passed on and so remain nameless and may continue to remain unrecognised unless we dig up their stories and preserve them.
Ako’s book and the icon of Ben Moide stand as important segues to illuminate the richer historiography of Papua New Guinean oral history.
The sacrifices that we in fact celebrate and acknowledge every Remembrance Day in PNG is the anonymity of these nameless warriors that we all inadvertently perpetuate through our inaction.
Lest we forget!