With thanks to Joe Herman in the USA who suggested this story to mark US Veterans Day in which we pay tribute to all Papua New Guineans who have served in war and those from other countries who have fought in PNG. This article is based on writings by Steven Winduo, Steve Rusbridge, Phil Fitzpatrick, Dennis Burns, the Australian War Memorial and the PNG Post-Courier.
NOOSA – When Paul Yauwiga Wankunale, known as Yauwiga, from Kusaun village in the Kubalia area of the East Sepik Province came into view, he immediately presented himself as an unusual man.
“He was the only famous Papua New Guinean fuzzy wuzzy angel with a blue eye,” wrote academic and author Steven Winduo.
“I grew up marvelling at this tall, well built, giant of a man from my area; legendary in his lifetime for his bravery in the Second World War, fighting alongside the Allied forces on Guadalcanal, Buka, Rabaul, Madang, Morobe and the Sepik.”
Yauwiga, a big man even more World War II ended the war as an Australian Army Warrant Officer Class 1. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in 1947 for his service, especially in M special unit, which operated as Coastwatchers in Bougainville.
Yauwiga joined the New Guinea Police Force in 1930 and by October 1941, just before the Japanese invasion in early 1942, he attained the rank of sergeant. He was attached to the Allied Intelligence Bureau on Bougainville in February 1942.
Many years later, Yauwiga spoke of his war in Bougainville:
After about one week the Japanese bombed Kieta, so we collected all of the stores and all the material that we could from Kieta and took it and hid in various camps around in the bush.
We had been in the bush for about one month when I heard that the Japanese had killed Sergeant Waramapi, who was working with Jack Read up in the northern section of the island, so I left Kieta with my line and went up into the area, and I found Waramapi’s wife and children and took them back down to the Numa Numa Plantation.
I then went up into the mountains near Buka Passage to a place called Aravia and there I found Jack Read with his camp, and I worked with him for nearly three years. When we were first up at this camp the Japanese came looking for us.
The Japanese had a line of about a hundred natives and about a hundred Japanese, split into two parties. Some of the Japanese came up from the Numa Numa side, and the others came up from the Teop Plantation side. They were trying to find where we were hiding up in the mountains.
We knew the Japanese were coming but Jack didn’t want to fight them and I became very cross and I said to him, “Why do we run away the same as women do?”
Jack told me that this wasn’t the job of the Coastwatchers and since I was a Coastwatcher scout it was not my job to fight because if I fought the Japanese how could I then watch and pass on the information about Japanese bombers and submarines and troop movements – that was my job. My job was not to fight.
I didn’t like this but it was the job they gave me. I was told that if the Japanese came, if I could possibly escape, my job was to run away, so that I could live to spy another day.
One particular day when we were up in the bush near Ariva, we had our camp on the slopes of a small hill that was surrounded by big bush.
It was not the kind of place that you could run away from very easily and I was up on this ridge line above the main camp with an Australian signaller whose name was Allan Forbes and another policeman whose name was Wamulu, from Manus Island.
At a point down the trail that approached our camp I had bent a branch of a tree down and lightly fastened it onto the other side of the road and then later on while we were sitting up on the side of the hill I heard a noise as this branch of the tree was knocked out of position and swung back.
We looked down the track and there were a lot of Japanese milling around us as the branch had knocked some of the Japanese over.
We yelled out to the others to get out of camp and the Japanese started to shoot at us with machine guns. The three of us quickly jumped behind a large tree and opened fire on the Japanese.
There was a mixture of Japanese and local natives in the group that was coming towards us. In this engagement until we ran out of ammunition we killed 25.
We then slipped away from the camp and made our way up the side of a mountain until we got to a ridge line. The only way up was by waterfall and there we waited to see what the Japanese would do.
He tells his story in the book ‘To Find a Path: The Life and Times of the Royal Pacific Islands Regiment’ by Jim Sinclair (Boolarong Publications, Brisbane, 1990, pp 285-9).
In October 1943, Lieutenant Commander Pryce-Jones of the Royal Australian Navy’s Naval Intelligence Division, which was, responsible for Coastwatchers, presented him with the Loyal Services Medal, crediting him for showing remarkable bravery and for his positive influence on local people.
In November 1944, Yauwigawas flown to Queensland to teach Australian troops jungle survival skills.
Returning to Bougainville he operated far behind enemy lines. In 1945 he was in a hidden camp when he noticed the approach of 80 locally-guided Japanese troops. His group escaped with essential equipment. Then with two others, he killed engaged the Japanese, killing 25 in 15 minutes.
Yauwiga found out that the Japanese had been brought up by Konkon, a local luluai, who he told not to work for the Japanese but for the Allies. “But Konkon wouldn’t listen to me,” he said.
“I said to my police line we can’t let this man bring Japanese to us all the time so I quietly sent out a party and we killed Konkon.
“We didn’t bury him, we just left him on the ground as a warning to the other people that if they helped the Japanese like this without their being forced to then they would suffer the same fate.”
Yauwiga then spread false rumours that the collaborator, Konkon, had deliberately led the Japanese into an ambush. As a result the Japanese killed 10 of their own leading spies.
Yauwiga’s team arrested another 30 collaborators effectively destroying the Japanese spy network across Bougainville. In 17 months Yauwiga had killed 57 enemy troops.
But in June 1945, in a terrible accident. He mistook a phosphorous grenade for a smoke signal grenade, pulling the pin out.
The subsequent explosion severed his left hand and left him blind in both eyes. He was evacuated to Holland Park in Brisbane, Australia, for treatment and in November 1945 underwent a cornea transplant operation - the first time this surgery had taken place at the hospital.
Yauwiga was given the eyes of a man who had died in a motorcycle fatality. One eye grafted well and Yauwiga became a rare being, a Melanesian with a blue eye.
He spent three months in Australian hospitals before returning to PNG.
So, after a very active war in which he had been involved in much fighting the Japanese, passed valuable information to the Allies and rescued many downed airmen, his service career was over.
His injuries precluded rejoining the police force and he retired to his Sepik village in May 1946.
But this was not the end of Yauwiga’s story.
In 1948 he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal, on top of his other awards for service and gallantry.
The DCM ceremony was witnessed by 80,000 Sepik people and officials. Yauwiga was more than a war hero to them. He was also a great community leader. The school he helped to found at Boram produced PNG’s first prime minister, Sir Michael Somare.
Yauwiga never wore his DCM medal. He kept it hidden in his bush house. If you saw him, you would never realise what a great man Yauwiga was.
He walked around in his laplap and went to church every Sunday at Marinumbo hamlet.
After the war Yauwiga wanted to get things moving in the Sepik. He went to see District Commissioner Horrie Niall and requested 20 bushknives, 20 axes and 20 spades with which to start building a technical school at Boram near Wewak.
He taught at the school, although he could not read or write. He also started Kreer Cooperative Society and became a cattle farmer.
In ‘The Bishops’ Progress: An Historical Ethnography of Catholic Missionary Experience on the Sepik Frontier’, Mary Taylor Huber wrote: The major figure in Wewak and its immediate hinterland in the first years after the war appears to have been Yauwiga who was a war hero”.
But Yauwiga was more than a war hero to his people. He was a catalyst of many transformative changes in East Sepik right after the war.
In the 1970s, the one-eyed, one-handed New Guinea native was flown to Canberra to meet Queen Elizabeth during her Australian tour.
Former Warrant Officer Yauwiga did not hesitate to offer political advice, which was recorded by a reporter as: "Me tellim Missis Queen: 'Now Queen, I'm one fella pickaninny. Self-guvim New Guinea im e no good. You givim self-guvim New Guinea now, New Guinea e all buggerup”.
Paul Yauwiga DCM, one of Papua New Guinea’s greatest heroes, died in 1982.