On 27 July advance elements of an elite Japanese South Seas Islands regiment launched an attack on a small band of young Australian militia soldiers at Kokoda. Over the next three months a series of viscious battles were fought across some of the most inhospitable jungle terrain on the planet. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned the Australians contested every metre of the Kokoda Trail and fought the Japanese to a standstill on the doorstep of their objective at Port Moresby. As our commandos, coastwatchers, pilots and sailors enaged Japanese reinforcments at Milne Bay, Wau and Bougainvile our diggers rallied and forced the enemy back along the track.
The Australians recaptured Kokoda on 2nd November and raised the Australian flag the following day. This small ceremony on 3rd November was significant because it symbolised a turning of the tide in the war in the Pacific and ended any notion the Japanese might have harboured in continuing their advance towards Australia.
Our baptism as a nation is commemorated with our landings at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 and the end of World War 1 with Remembrance Day on 11 November 1918.
We do not have an official day to commemorate our involvement in World War 11. The raising of our Australian flag on the Kokoda Plateau on 3rd November 1942 is the most appropriate day to commemorate the service and sacrifice of our servicemen, servicewomen, the Royal New Guinea Volunteer Rifles and the wartime carriers who have never been officially recognised in that conflict.
Australia was unprepared for the war in the Pacific in 1942. Our faith in ‘great and powerful friends’ coming to our aid in the event of Japan entering the war was shattered with the sinking of HMAS Prince of Wales and HMAS Repulse near Singapore on 10 December 1941 and the secret deal struck by UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt for American aid to be directed to the European theatre of operations at the expense of the South West Pacific.
The defence of Australia and its mandated territory of New Guinea was dependent on untrained militia forces and a small band of New Guinea Rifles as our experienced AIF units were returning from Europe to meet the new threat.
Resources were so scarce in New Guinea that young males were forcibly recruited to support the war effort. Many of these men from remote mountain villagers had no idea of the war and were conscripted against their will. They were told that men from Japan were the enemy. For many of these men other villagers living in remote tribal lands were also considered ‘enemy’. One can only imagine the fear and uncertainty they felt as they were forcibly marched away from their families and clans.
They were designated as Carriers but were to become known as ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angels’ because of their selfless sacrifice in assisting wounded and sick diggers during the various campaigns.
They carried vital war supplies on their bare shoulders in endless lines over hostile and inhospitable terrain. Modern day trekkers are in awe of their efforts. Without this vital link in the chain of our war effort Japan would have been successful in the conquest of New Guinea.
Today, 65 years after the Pacific War, they are the only link in the chain not to have received any official recognition. Many claim they were not properly paid. None were ever issued with a medal. No day has been set aside to commemorate their service or sacrifice.
It is difficult to understand why successive Australian governments have ignored this important omission.
The recent upsurge in interest in the Kokoda campaign by Australian trekkers indicates there is a strong desire for our wartime links with Papua New Guinea to be recognised. This can be achieved by providing them with an incentive to visit, or revisit the country.
The proclamation of a ‘Kokoda Day’ dedicated to the wartime carriers would provide this incentive.
This paper recommends that November 3rd be officially proclaimed as a day of commemoration for the PNG Carriers. This is the day the Australian flag was raised at Kokoda – a ceremony that would never have been possible without the support of the carriers.
To seek the support of the National Governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea to proclaim 3rd November as ‘Kokoda Day’ to commemorate the service of the wartime carriers in PNG.
The PNG Carriers who supported Australian troops during the Pacific have never been properly recognized. Some were never paid and none ever received a medal for their service.
According to our official history of the war in the Pacific by Dudley McCarthy (Australia in the War 1939-1945, p116) the Australian New Guinea Army Unit (ANGAU) was authorised by the Australian government to provide for:
‘the conscription of whatever native labour might be required by the Services..’
Rates of pay were to be determined and the Senior Military Officer or District Officer was empowered:
‘to have the natives so employed to enter into a contract with the Australian Government.’
It has been estimated that some 10,000 PNG nationals served as Carriers in support of the Australians during the Kokoda campaign in 1942.
A further 42,000 are estimated to have been indentured to support Australian troops in the Milne Bay and the Buna/Gona campaigns. They were paid 10 shillings per month.
According to wartime journalist, Osmar White[i]:
‘ANGAU contrived a maximum mobilization and use of native labour. At the critical period, its method of conscription was even more arbitrary than German recruiting in the early days. In some villages every able-bodied male over the approximate age of sixteen years was rounded up, transported to the clearing centres, and thence drafted to whatever type of work had priority in the immediate emergency. Brutal disciplinary measures had often to be taken in the field; but when the first and worst crises of invasion were surmounted, ANGAU did what ti could to conserve the life and health of its native levies and to maintain the viability of native communities depleted of 40 or 50 per cent of their able-bodied men. Under military rule, the labourers’ health was more carefully considered and their diet in general better than under private employers before the war. ANGAU was fully aware of the value of native labour and co-operation to the Allied effort.
What is not understood by many is that male villagers indentured for work as Carriers faced two potential enemies – the invading Japanese and traditional clans whose customary land was foreign to them.
During the period 1944 to 1957 approximately 2 million pounds was paid by the Australian Government in compensation for property damage to PNG nationals by the Australian Government. In 1975 PNG gained independence and the PNG Government assumed all legal obligations for compensation of its veteran community.
Unfortunately the PNG Carriers were excluded from benefits under legislation for compensation of PNG nationals who served in the Defence Force. In 1980 they were also deemed to be ineligible for the PNG War Gratuity Scheme for ex-Servicemen.
In 1981 the Australian Government paid $3.25 million to the PNG Government under the Defence (PNG) Retirement Act as a final payment for compensation for Carriers. In 1986 the PNG Government introduced payments of PNGK1,000 for each surviving Carrier. The payments ceased in 1989 and many Carriers claim to have not received any money.
During the 50th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign the issue of payment and compensation for many of the Carriers who claim they were never paid was raised with the Keating Government.
On 21 April 1992 The Australian newspaper reported that returned servicemen in PNG had called on the Australian Government to pay hundreds of local war veterans who helped Australian troops during the Kokoda campaign. According to the report:
“The President of the PNG Returned Services League, Mr Wally Lussick, said Australia had sent about $3.5 million to PNG to help compensate local war veterans in the early 1980s, but much of the money had gone to the wrong people and a large group of carriers missed out.
“Mr Lussick said much of the money went to those press-ganged into being carriers for the Japanese and many people who took no part in the war received payments.
“The visit to PNG later this week by the Prime Minister, Mr Keating, for Anzac Day services to mark the 50th anniversary of the Kokoda battles would provide a good opportunity for Australia to make a commitment to the surviving carriers, he said.”
In the PNG Post-Courier of 24 April 1992, the Prime Minister of PNG, Sir Rabbie Namaliu called on Australia ‘to help compensate WW2 carriers and stretcher bearers”. He raised the issue with Prime Minister Paul Keating at the time. According to the Post-Courier:
“Most of the carriers and ex-servicemen received compensation payments from Australia in the mid-1980s, but many legitimate veterans from the Southern Kokoda Trail near Port Moresby, missed out.
“PNG authorities estimate up to 200 surviving carriers are still waiting for some kind of payment from Australia for their wartime labour and service.
“Mr Namaliu said the Government was considering making an approach to Australia to identify and pay those carriers who have gone unrewarded for half a century.”
On 5 May 1992 the Bulletin with Newsweek reported:
“Keating says compensation cases will be dealt with on their merits and all worthy claims examined; but no concrete sum for individuals has been discussed. The difficulty of maintaining a list of the original carriers is underlined by how few speak English. Family members of dead carriers are calling for posthumous compensation – after all, they took part in a battle that Keating described this week “as more important to Australians than any other battlefield in Europe or Africa.”
Whilst Prime Minister Keating was genuine in his desire to resolve the issue it is clear that his bureaucracy put it in the ‘too hard basket’ at the time.
The argument that ‘it would be inappropriate for the Australian Government to consider taking any further action on this matter in the absence of a detailed proposal from the Papua New Guinea Government’ was a cop-out.
The increasing numbers of Australians trekking Kokoda and reconnecting with the ‘sons of the fuzzy-wuzzy angels’ will be enthusiastic supporters of a day dedicated to their memory.
Kokoda is experiencing a slow awakening as evidenced by the following numbers of Australians now trekking across the track:
Amongst the trekkers in the above figures have been Federal and State politicians, prominent media personalities, successful business people and a number of private schools.
Remembrance Day – Papua New Guinea
Remembrance Day commemorates Papua New Guinean servicemen who sacrificed their lives in World War 11 and Bougainville. It occurs on 23 July which commemorates the day in 1942 when the Papuan Infantry Battalion first fought against Japanese soldiers near the Kumusi River in Oro Province. Remembrance Day is a public holiday.
Last year Governor-General Paulias Matane paid tribute to these soldiers and added:
“Also we must remember those who provided intelligence reports, coastwatchers and the fuzzy wuzzy angels. All these fallen heroes contributed in a significant way to the strategic defence of our land then and today.”
Whilst Remembrance Day commemorates the service of Papua New Guinean servicemen who sacrificed their lives in action during the Pacific War and the Bougainville crisis, Kokoda Day would be dedicated to the service of the Carriers.
Kokoda Day would not be a national holiday. It would be a day of commemoration which could include:
· a morning service in schools (thus providing an opportunity to educate Papua New Guinean students on the achievements and sacrifices of their grandfathers);
· a flag raising re-enactment at Kokoda; and
· a service at Memorial Park in Port Moresby.
Why 3 November?
The Kokoda campaign began with a full scale attack on the Australian 39th Militia Battalion on 29 July 1942. The campaign lasted three months as the Australians were pushed back to last line of defence on Imita Ridge. The Australians rallied at this point and pushed the Japanese back across the track. Kokoda was recaptured on 2nd November 1942 and the Australian flag was raised at a service the following day.
The flag raising ceremony symbolised the turning of the tide in the Pacific War. It also symbolises the service and sacrifice made by Carriers in all campaigns throughout PNG.
This victory would not have been possible without the vital support of the PNG Carriers across the track. In addition to their contribution to the war effort hundreds of Australian soldiers owe their lives to the selfless sacrifice of the Carriers who guided and carried them to safety over inhospitable jungle terrain in the most adverse of circumstances.
The proclamation of Kokoda Day would provide an incentive for Australians to travel to Papua New Guinea for the commemoration services.
Following is a monthly summary of Australians trekking Kokoda in 2007:
The proclamation would effectively extend the trekking season into November by providing an incentive for Australians to visit PNG. There are many Australians who are not physically able to trek Kokoda however they would visit the village if there was.