Why Biden’s ‘cannibal’ story was misinformed
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Why Biden’s ‘cannibal’ story was misinformed


Papua New Guinean boatmen transport Allied supplies in World War II (US Library of Congress)
Papua New Guinean boatmen transport Allied supplies in World War II (US Library of Congress)

WAIGANI - After a visit to the Veteran’s War Memorial in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on 17 April, president Joe Biden gave a speech to a crowd of supporters.

Attempting to personalise his family’s life story within the larger narrative of his country’s wartime sacrifices, he made passing reference to Ambrose Finnegan, his uncle who served in the Pacific theatre of World War II.

Speaking of Finnegan, Biden stated: “He got shot down in an area where there were a lot of cannibals in New Guinea at the time. They never recovered his body.”

Later, when the White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was pressed by Fox News White House correspondent, Peter Doocy, Jean-Pierre avoided the topic altogether.

Biden’s remark was also fact-checked by CNN’s Donald Judd, and debunked using official reports from the US Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. 

This bureaucracy in the US military is tasked with recovering the remains of its servicemen in foreign theatres of conflict. It is their authenticated version of the story we can rely on in this instance.

Some PNG commentators have argued that this episode is detrimental to PNG-US relations. There is no basis for such conclusions.

Joe Biden has a track record of embarrassing gaffes. He once called himself a ‘gaffe machine’, given his occasional verbal slip-ups. This is the latest of the lot, with right-wing American media outlets having a field day.

Biden’s tall tale, however, presents PNG with an opportunity to rethink how we conduct our overall public diplomacy with the American audience in mind.  

Papua New Guinean narratives about World War II in the Pacific should be made to an American audience, not just to educate Americans about the legacy of the war in our part of the Pacific but, more importantly, the prospects of entanglement in future global and regional conflicts PNG may not have the capacity to prevent.

Outdated imageries still persists about PNG, especially for misinformed global publics.

Speaking on ABC’s Pacific Beat program on 23 April, Dr Henry Ivarature from the Australia Pacific Security College rightly observed that these outdated images of PNG discount the changes brought about through various influences like education and Christianity.

Biden’s remarks seems dismissive of the actual sacrifices by Papua New Guineans during the war.

As prime minister James Marape stated, World War II was not part of PNG’s usual experience.

Caught in between the warring nations, Papua New Guineans had to quickly familiarise themselves with the different countries involved in the conflict.

In some parts of PNG, as the brutality of the Japanese forces became apparent, the Allied forces were welcomed as ‘liberators’, and were able to win over the hearts and minds of the natives.

Then again almost 38,000 Papua New Guineans served alongside the Allied forces during the war.

One story that discredits Biden’s tall tale is that of Lieutenant Fred Hargesheimer of the 8th Photo Squadron of the US Army.


On 5 June 1943, Hargesheimer’s plane was shot down by Japanese fighters.

After crash landing into the jungles of New Britain, and spending 31 days hiding from the enemy, Fred was found and rescued by villagers from Nantabu village in the Nakanai area.

The Nantabu villagers risked their lives, hiding him from Japanese patrols and caring for him until he was fully recovered.

Fred would later rejoin his group and after the war he reconnected with his Papua New Guinean rescuers.

This story is well known to the locals in the Nakanai area of the West New Britain province.

Indeed, the Airmen’s Memorial School at Ewasse, in West New Britain Province is a permanent reminder of the goodwill of the people of Nakanai to this American serviceman.

The Hargesheimer rescue, and many more, shows the compassion and humanity of Papua New Guineans, quite the opposite for the inferences made by Biden.

My grandfather indeed served as a Coastwatcher in the Nissan islands and around Bougainville. He spoke very fondly of American servicemen and the mutual friendship made during their time in the war.

Hardly the encounter with New Guinea’s cannibals that is depicted by President Biden!

All across Melanesia, stories abound of the goodwill demonstrated by Melanesians towards American servicemen by natives.

Biden’s predecessor John F Kennedy was rescued in the Solomon Islands after his patrol torpedo boat was rammed by the Japanese destroyer, Amagiri, on 2 August 1943, killing two of Kennedy’s crewmen.

Coming into contact with Kennedy, two Solomon Islanders instructed Kennedy to carve out a message on a coconut, which the two natives carried through enemy lines to Allied forces. Kennedy was later rescued and rejoined his fellow Americans.

Almost 500 American servicemen were rescued by locals in the Solomon Islands behind enemy lines during World War II.

If Melanesians are cannibals that popular imagination would have us believe, how was it possible that they even went out of their way to rescue distressed American servicemen in this war?

In fact, Papua New Guineans and Solomon Islanders showed humane aspect of their Melanesian culture, even with all the mayhem happening around them.

In an age where internet-based social media platforms provide instantaneous spread of information from virtually anywhere, we are constantly reminded of how the outdated and misinformed stereotypes of PNG and Melanesians persist to this day. In some parts of PNG, like other societies in the Pacific cannibalism was practiced.

But this practice served a specific purpose, and was specific to a limited time period in these societies. Cannibalism has long since been abandoned.

The relations between the people of the United States and PNG has not altered through the misinformed gaffes of President Biden.

However the peoples of both countries must be mindful to avoid such misrepresentations of each other’s’ cultures.

We must accurately acknowledge the sacrifices demonstrated during the trying times of the Pacific War.

And we must constantly remind present generations that peace must be maintained at all cost.

Patrick Kaiku teaches in the Political Science Strand at the University of Papua New Guinea


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John Trent

Let's not take this cannibalism nonsense too seriously, folks.

Just a misguided old American politician, who just happens to be the most powerful in the world, gnawing on a bone.

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