Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Second World War in Papua

Former Papua New Guinea-based kiap (patrol officer) JOHN FOWKE writes of WW11 in Papua…


In 1958, at the age of 19, I was sent from Port Moresby to Kikori to work for the TP&NG Administration there. At the time, Kikori was the Admin. Headquarters for the Gulf District.The move to Kerema came two or three years later. At Kikori the District Commissioner, the late Dick White, ruled from an office built of pit-sawn "melila" timber - (kwila) - built in 1928 at a time when the famous Champion brothers and Jack Hides were exploring the hinterland of Gulf and Western Districts, crossing the country from the Fly to the Sepik, discovering for the outside world what are now the Southern Highlands and the Enga Provinces. 

At Kikori I worked side by side with men who had fought the Japanese invaders, beginning in 1942 with the invasion of New Britain, spreading from Rabaul to Buna, Gona, Sananada and later to Milne Bay. Our senior RPNGC man at Kikori was Sgt. Udiga from Tufi in the then Northern District; he was ably assisted by the energetic Corporal Segera of Daru and Corporal Gelai of Balimo. All were pre-war policemen who delighted in showing me the intricacies of the old R.P.C. issue rifle from early days, the Martini-Henry, of which there was an example still in store at Kikori. My boss at Kikori, the late Allan Jefferies, A.D.O., and the DC, Mr White, had both been active in ANGAU in the Sepik and in Manus, respectively.

The Japanese nation, the first Asian nation to industrialise and to build a modern, mechanised military capability, believing in its own superiority and in its destiny to dominate, rule and gain access to all the raw-material resources it wanted, conceived of a vast, militaristic, neo-colonial operation which it named as “THE GREATER EAST ASIAN CO-PROSPERITY SPHERE.” The aim was to invade and take over all of SE Asia, as well as the islands of Melanesia and the Australian continent which lay to the south.The Japanese had already invaded and taken possession of the Korean Peninsula, and had also conquered and possessed the Manchurian provinces of  mainland China. The Japanese believed that as they advanced into SE Asia from these bases, any threat from America, at that time neutral in the European conflict begun by Hitler's Nazis, would be minimised if they attacked and sank the USA’s Pacific Fleet, normally at anchor at its huge base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.

Thus the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere campaign was launched in a dawn attack upon the Pearl Harbour base on December 7th, 1941. It was a surprise attack, and was devastating.Eight weeks later, in January of 1942 a Japanese invasion of what is now Papua New Guinea commenced and soon New Britain, New Ireland, Manus and parts of the mainland were occupied. On the 21st of July, Anglican missionaries near the then Government station of Buna were surprised to see very large ships approaching the coast. Thus began the invasion of what was the Northern Division of the Territory of Papua. The aim was to press through to Port Moresby.  From here the Japanese believed that air and sea attacks upon Australia would be launched with ease.

Australia’s reaction was one of panic. As a loyal member of the British Empire Australia had committed almost all its military resources to fight with the British against the Germans in North Africa, in Europe, and in the defence of Singapore aginst the Japanese. In Australia there remained, at best, a “Dad’s Army” of elderly and unfit men whose service in the First World War was considered experience enough to allow them to man the coastal defences of Australia. The plan of action was for civilian populations of Queensland and the Northern Territory to withdraw to the south to a position below what planners called “The Brisbane Line,” drawn across the continent from north-east to south-west. From here a defensive land-battle would be initiated. Lands to the north and the island territories governed by Australia were too big and too difficult to man and supply, let alone to defend.This fall-back position behind the Brisbane Line was the place where the opposing forces would engage when the Japanese landed in northern Australia.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, but most fortunately for the rest of us, Papua New Guineans and Australians alike, the Americans, impelled by the unheralded and massive attack at Pearl Harbour, came into the war with a huge impact. The US Pacific Command was created, and in due deference to his experience and to the huge resources at his command, the American, General Douglas MacArthur was given command of all of Australia’s forces at home and in the Pacific. MacArthur immediately dismantled the “Brisbane Line” preparations and requested the Prime Minister of Australia to assemble a military force for the defence of Port Moresby, correctly anticipating Japan’s plans in this regard.

The force which was dispatched to defend Port Moresby was almost entirely composed of young and unwilling conscripts to the Australian Militia, which was by law, prevented from operating outside Australia. Relying upon Papua’s status as an Australian-protected Territory as his justification, the Prime Minister authorised the despatch of this force to Port Moresby. Older soldiers named these youths “The Chocolate Soldiers,” predicting that they would melt once they faced the heat and discomforts of service in Papua. Their officers were for the most part older men who had been judged as unfit for service in other theatres of war. On arrival at Port Moresby, the “Chocolate Soldiers” showed their resentment by disobeying orders and by systematically looting and vandalizing the stores, warehouses and private residences of the town. Even churches were vandalised and despoiled, as recounted to this writer by the daughter of the then Anglican Rector of Port Moresby, the Reverend Mathews.

Despite the complaints of the remaining white residents of Port Moresby, little was done to restrain these youths in uniform by their largely ineffectual officers. At the same time, civilian officers of the Papuan Administration were sent on patrol in all the coastal districts with instructions to conscript all healthy males within a certain age-band for service with the Australian Army as carriers and labourers. This was done, and men from the West, from the Gulf, from all parts of Central and Milne Bay and Kokoda in the then Northern Division were brought to Port Moresby. Here they faced a frightening, dangerous and low-paid existence for an unknown period. In the beginning, naturally, there were many desertions. Then with the landing of the Japanese invading force at Buna matters began to change. An advance party of experienced men of Australia’s Seventh Division, called back from service with the British forces in Egypt prepared for movement to Port Moresby soon after their arrival in Australia.

These experienced soldiers, together with the young militiamen, a great many of whom were teenagers, referred to contemptuously as “Chockos,” were deployed to the Sogeri Plateau and beyond to meet the Japanese advance. Marching with them as carriers and stretcher-bearers were the Papuan conscripts who would become known as the “Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angels.” These two groups had a lot in common, being for the most part young, bewildered, badly-paid, and apprehensive of the immediate future. In the extreme adversity in which they found themselves the two groups of men formed a bond of a kind which neither side had ever known or expected to be a part of. The young Australians initially viewed the Papuans, with whom they could not converse, as strange and unpredictable savages, whilst the Papuans began to recognise that they had much in common with the young white-men, a race which they had been accustomed to view with a degree of awe and even fear; a race with which they had never imagined that they would share a cigarette, let alone a cup of tea and a hardman biscuit. This however, was what happened. From shaky beginnings both groups steadied and became resolved to carry the fight forward to the Japanese, buoyed by growing comradeship and admiration for each other, a regard forged in the raging crucible of extreme danger, death and discomfort. Ultimately, victory was achieved through this spirit of one-ness and the bravery which grew with it. This is the true story of the “Chockos” and the “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels” and the campaign which, together, they fought.They freed Papua from the planned domination of the Japanese Empire, and in so doing they helped to ensure the freedom not only of Australia, but also of New Guinea to the north, and the islands of Manus, New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville.

The Australian soldiers of the Kokoda and allied campaigns were paid six shillings a day, the equivalent today of roughly K 9.00 per fortnight, with rations, blankets, shorts, shirts and boots. The “Angels” were paid the equivalent of K1.50 per fortnight, plus rations, “ramis” - (laplaps) - a leather belt and a kitbag. All were provided with a waterproof cape, a blanket and a mosquito-net. Medical attention was available, with evacuation to a field-hospital for the badly-injured. A stick of tobacco with newspaper cost roughly 5 toea in today’s money at the Army labourers’ canteen in Port Moresby. A box of matches was 1 toea.

In recent years it has been stated that the PNG campaigns fought by the Allies and their Papuan and New Guinean fellow-soldiers was something which had nothing to do with the people of this country. It has been intimated that the local people were caught up in fighting which had nothing to do with them.

This theory is quite incorrect as we have seen. Papua New Guinea was an object of the Japanese desire for conquest and domination and exploitation just as much as Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma were. Such expressions of opinion constitute an insult to the many Papuans and New Guineans who fought and who died to make their native land safe from the occupation of a merciless and brutal foe. This is to say nothing of the more-than-9000 Australian servicemen who lie buried in War Cemeteries and in as-yet undiscovered and lonely graves throughout Papua New Guinea today. All, brown and white alike, fought and died so that together we could remain free of the rule of the Japanese Empire.

In addition to the older policemen and NCOs of the Kikori detatchment of the R.P. &N.G.C. at Kikori, I also knew local ex-servicemen such as ex-Sergeant- Major Katui, MM, late of the Papuan Infantry Battalion, of the Goaribari tribe, and ex-Sergeant Major Samai of the Kairi tribe, upriver from Kikori. Both served in the Kokoda- Popondetta-Buna-Gona-Sanananda campaigns, both with great distinction. 

Of all these veteran Papuan soldiers and policemen, Katui’s picture stays clearly in my mind today, more than fifty years later. Katui, even when approaching old age was a particularly impressive figure of a man, standing some six feet in height, broad-shouldered and big-boned without being heavy. A man with the unmistakeable look of a warrior. Katui, who worked together with the late Tom Grahamslaw in ANGAU, was renowned for his practice, when encamped within known distance of a Japanese outpost, of going out at night clad only in the skimpy garment known as “sihi,” and equipped only with a large, sharp sheath-knife of the type in those days issued to Papuan Village Policemen. Katui would quietly work his way close to the Japanese camp in the early hours of the morning. With patience and skill this big man would slowly inch forward, ever closer to the cold and sleepy Japanese sentry. Then suddenly and in silence, Katui would rise and cover the Japanese man’s mouth, slit his throat, pierce his heart, cut his ears off, and withdraw. Katui’s grisly collection of dried Japanese ears became a legend throughout the Allied forces in the country, and in his own Kikori district he was regarded with awe and great respect up until the day of his passing.

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