Joe Biden's cannibal tale puzzles PNGns
'Magical thinking' threatens humanity

Joe Biden's cannibal tale puzzles PNGns

| The Guardian | Extract


SYDNEY – President Joe Biden’s suggestion that his uncle may have been eaten by cannibals in Papua New Guinea during World War II has been met with a mixture of bemusement and criticism in the country.

Biden spoke about his uncle, Second Lieutenant Ambrose J Finnegan Jr, while campaigning in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, describing how ‘Uncle Bosie’ had flown single engine planes on reconnaissance flights during the war.

Biden said he “got shot down in New Guinea”, adding “they never found the body because there used to be a lot of cannibals, for real, in that part of New Guinea.”

Official war records say Finnegan was killed when a plane on which he was a passenger experienced engine failure and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

The records do not mention cannibalism or state that the plane was shot down.

Analysts in PNG who were shown his comments described the claims as unsubstantiated and poorly judged, pointing out that they come at a time when the United States has been seeking to strengthen its ties with the country, and counter Chinese influence in the Pacific region.

“The Melanesian group of people, who PNG is part of, are a very proud people,” said Michael Kabuni, a lecturer in political science at the University of Papua New Guinea.

“And they would find this kind of categorisation very offensive.

“Not because someone says, ‘Oh there used to be cannibalism in PNG’, yes, we know that. That’s a fact.

“But taking it out of context, and implying that your [uncle] jumps out of the plane and somehow we think it’s a good meal is unacceptable.”

“I am lost for words actually,” said Allan Bird, governor of the province of East Sepik, who was recently selected as the alternate prime minister for the opposition.

“I don’t feel offended. It’s hilarious really. I am sure when Biden was a child, those are the things he heard his parents say. And it probably stuck with him all his life.”

Maholopa Laveil, economics lecturer at the University of Papua New Guinea, said the claims were unhelpful, and pointed out that it comes after Biden cancelled a brief trip to the country last year.

“It paints PNG in a bad light. PNG has already had a lot of negative press around riots and tribal fighting and this doesn’t help, and [the claims are] unsubstantiated,” he said.


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Stephen Charteris

I have not seen a video of the speech, but I think it likely that Joe Biden was mining the audience for laughs. He can be droll at times.

If in fact his uncle had arrived on the ground alive by parachute, I would have expected him to have been sheltered by local people and delivered to the nearest coast watcher to be reunited with his home base.

This was the experience of Fred Hargesheimer who was shot down near Bialla on June 5, 1943. He was rescued and sheltered by local people and eventually reunited with his unit.

His story is one of a life-long endearing friendship with the community that rescued him.

It was also the experience of a US Navy flyer on a reconnaissance mission over a Japanese seaplane base on the north east coast of Isabel island, Solomon Islands in 1943.

While flying over the base, his Grumman Wildcat F4F fighter was damaged by anti-aircraft fire and he ditched the plane about forty kilometres to the west in shallow water.

His descent in an aircraft trailing black smoke and losing altitude was witnessed by people in Kia village who promptly dispatched young men in canoes to rescue him.

He was found alive and well floating over a coral reef in a rubber dinghy. His first request was for one of his rescuers to dive down the six meters or so to the plane with a rock and smash the gun site, a piece of technology he did not wish to fall into enemy hands.

He was hidden from the enemy, duly delivered by the Kia men to a Coastwatcher in the interior of Isabel Island, taken off Isabel by submarine and reunited with his colleagues on Guadalcanal.

In 1980 I was fortunate enough to hear the story first-hand from some of the Kia men involved and to dive on the plane which was still in remarkably good condition.

While I think Biden's account was probably whimsy, he should nonetheless be more sensitive to people across Melanesia who rallied to the Allied cause.

The rescue of a young naval ensign and future President of the United States whose daughter is the current United States Ambassador to Australia and the so-called Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels of the Kokoda Track immediately come to mind.

As we approach another ANZAC day it is important to remember that the Allied forces who were successful in halting and ultimately repelling the Japanese invasion of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands could arguably have suffered a different result had it not been for the magnificent support provided to them, often at great personal cost, by local people.

As a footnote, the Japanese seaplane base at Suavonau was subsequently bombed out of existence following intelligence on the disposition of the anti-aircraft defences supplied by a Kia man who had taken it upon himself to provide fresh vegetables to Japanese servicemen at the base while at the same time noting the positions, numbers and disposition of their forces.

Lest We Forget.

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