The bleached bones of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of nameless PNG wartime carriers lie where they fell in unknown locations in swamps, jungles and formidable mountain ranges during the New Guinea campaigns. To this day we don’t know who they were. We don’t know where they came from. We don’t know where they died. There is no record of their existence. No medals were ever struck to acknowledge their service towards the war effort.
It’s time to honour their sacrifice by providing a Spirit Haus for their souls and a day to commemorate their sacrifice.
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 HMS Prince of Wales and 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 Papua and 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[i]. 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 to fight in ‘our’ war against Japan[ii].
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.
The issue of compensation remains a vexed issue more than 70 years after the war. While the Australian government paid some compensation for property damage to PNG nationals between 1944 and 1957 the wartime carriers were excluded from receiving any such benefits under the prevailing legislation. In 1980 they were also deemed to be ineligible for the PNG War Gratuity Scheme for ex-Servicemen.
And they were deemed to be ineligible for a medal. In the eyes of post-war bureaucrats they were both nameless and invisible.
For those who command a desk in distant bureaucratic and academic institutions the care of a Papuan in a remote jungle is something they will never comprehend.
For those who have been carried to safety on a stretcher over inhospitable terrain the unconditional care of their stretcher bearers will never be forgotten.
Papuan Infantry Battalion soldiers were recruited into their army. They were issued with uniforms and weapons. They were decorated with campaign medals and marched proudly behind regimental colours on commemorative occasions such as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. They were known as ‘green shadows’ because of their mastery of their jungle environment.
On the other hand Papua and New Guinea wartime carriers were indentured, often at gunpoint, to support a war they didn’t understand. They were never recorded on a Roll of Honour; never issued with a uniform; and never enjoyed the esprit de corps of belonging to a unit. They were essentially nameless labourers.
Their job was to carry supplies forward to our troops. Carrying our wounded back on the return journey was not part of their job description.
But such is their nature of care that, when they came across a soldier who could go no further and who faced a certain, anonymous death on the side of a muddy, bloody track, they would stop, assemble a stretcher from bush materials, load him onto their shoulders and begin a journey that took up to two weeks to complete. When night fell and temperatures dropped they would lay on each side of their’ white stranger’ and try to keep him warm – sharing the few grams of rice they were rationed with him.
They were poorly equipped, underfed, often overloaded and paid less than a subsistence wage. The spirit of their commitment was captured in a poem by one of their patients who owed his life to their care – Sapper Bert Beros.
Many of them now lie in unmarked places alongside jungle tracks far from their village homes. They have no grave. They have no spiritual home.
And to our great shame their service and sacrifice has never been officially recognized by successive Australian governments[iii]
This can be rectified by the PNG Government proclaiming a special day to commemorate their service and sacrifice – Kokoda Day and by creating a spiritual resting place for their souls in the form of a ‘Spirit Haus’ – the PNG equivalent of a Cenotaph which is a Greek term for an ‘Empty Tomb’ – at, or adjacent to, Bomana War Cemetery.
Whilst Remembrance Day in PNG commemorates the service of Papua New Guinean soldiers who saw active service during the Pacific War and the Bougainville crisis, Kokoda Day would be dedicated to the service of the wartime carriers who were never issued with a uniform; who never received a medal; and whose names are not even recorded on a National Roll of Honour.
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 forebears);
- a flag raising re-enactment at Kokoda; and
- a service at a the Spirit Haus[iv] in Port Moresby[v].
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 the last line of defence on Imita Ridge. The Australians rallied at this point and pushed the Japanese back across the trail. Kokoda was recaptured on 2nd November 1942 and the Australian flag was raised at a service on the Kokoda plateau 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 wartime carriers in all campaigns throughout PNG.
This victory would not have been possible without the vital support of these carriers across the Kokoda Trail. 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.
Marketing Value of ‘Kokoda’
The term ‘Kokoda’ now has a resonance equal to ‘Anzac’ in marketing terms. The fact that more than 45 000 Australians have trekked across the trail over the past decade is testimony to this fact. There are many thousands more who would make a pilgrimage to Kokoda without having to trek because of their age and/or physical condition. All they need is the opportunity to plan and commit to it.
‘Kokoda Day’ will provide that opportunity.
Tourism Opportunities for Oro Province
A marketing package for Oro Province would be developed around a week of activities culminating in a ‘Raising of the Flag’ ceremony on the plateau on the 3rd of November each year.
Trek operators would schedule treks to arrive in Kokoda from Owers Corner on the night before the ceremony.
Short treks from Kokoda to Isurava, across to Abuari and back to Kokoda via the eastern side of the range could be organised for those who do not have time or the level of fitness to complete the entire Kokoda Trail. This would also include villages on the Eastern side of the range (Hagutawa, Kaele, Fela, Pelai and Kanandara) who currently receive no benefits from the Kokoda trekking industry.
Short tours can also be organised for the battlesites of Oivi-Goiari and the beachheads at Buna and Gona. Visitors could be given an opportunity to extend their stay at Tufi Resort.
Kokoda Day also provides an opportunity to showcase Orokaiva culture in regard to the staging of traditional dances, sing-sings together with markets for local arts and craft.
The afternoon of the ceremony could be devoted to a ‘Province of Origin’ rugby league match between Central and Oro Province in their own ‘blue’ and ‘maroon’ jerseys on the Kokoda plateau. This could be a joint promotion between PNG Tourism, Air Niugini, NRL/PNGNRL and tour operators.
PNG National Remembrance
Kokoda Day provides an opportunity for PNG to create their own national remembrance in accordance with Commonwealth tradition.
According to Sergeant Ben Moide MBE he and his men in the Papuan Infantry Battalion were ‘nameless warriors:
‘We fought but according to the bulk of the taubadas, we remained nameless; we were just the native scout or the Papuan guide to them. Still, to the gallant few who addressed us by name, I owe them my undying gratitude for treating us as mates. But the fact remains, without the help of all those nameless warriors and carriers who braved the sickness, rain, mud, hunger, despair and enemy of this campaign, all would surely have been lost.’[vi]
At the end of the war Sergeant Moide’s unit was awarded a battle honour; he and his fellow Papuan soldiers were issued with campaign medals; and they have their own Remembrance Park.
Their wartime carriers were never honoured in a similar way. They had no units, no uniforms, no battle honour, no ‘Roll of Honour’ no repatriation and they have no spiritual home. Many lie in unmarked jungle graves in provinces far beyond their traditional village homes.
Young Papua New Guineans are becoming more conscious and increasingly proud of their wartime heritage. Thought should therefore be given to the creation of a traditional cenotaph or ‘Spirit Haus’ at Bomana War Cemetery adjacent to the spirits of those they tried to save. A ‘Spirit Haus‘ guarded by custodians in traditional dress would become the most visited place in Port Moresby.
Each Anzac Day PNG students would carry stretchers out of the pre-dawn darkness from the vicinity of the ‘Spirit Haus’ to the sound of traditional kundu drums and walk slowly past the graves of the diggers they tried to save towards the Cross of Sacrifice. They would then lower their stretchers to the ground, turn inwards, bow their heads and remain in that position for the duration of the service.
Education is a key building block for national pride.
Wartime carriers were indentured from all over Papua and New Guinea to support the war effort along the Kokoda Trail, the Huon Peninsula, the Markham–Ramu Valley and Shaggy Ridge.
A Kokoda Day Flag Raising Service in each school on 3rd November supported by an appropriate educational package would be an important component in the further development of national pride in PNG.
It’s Time to Acknowledge Their Sacrifice
The Australian army would have been defeated in the Kokoda campaign if they had not received vital logistic support from the New Guinea wartime carriers. Hundreds would have died of their wounds and tropical illnesses if they had not been carried off the trail.
These wartime carriers have never been officially recognised. The Australian government specifically excluded them 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.
The service of the wartime carriers and the sacrifices they made towards the allied victories in Papua New Guinea should now be honoured and enshrined in a special day dedicated to their memory.
The most appropriate day is November 3 as the Australian flag would never have been raised on the Kokoda plateau if it had not been for their service.
For this to happen the PNG National Executive Council has to proclaim the 3rd November as ‘Kokoda Day’ – but first it must receive a proposal from a PNG leader or group of leaders – nothing will happen until then.
Sergeant Ben Moide MBE
[i] 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.’
[ii] According to wartime journalist, Osmar White[ii]: ‘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.
[iii] A recent decision to issue a commemorative medallion to ‘surviving Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angels and the widows of surviving deceased Angels’ was a shameful attempt to deceive the public into believing the issue had been rectified. The difference between a ‘medal’ and a ‘medallion’ is that one is formally awarded for service to nation and the other is a ‘give-away’ with no formal status.
[iv] The word Cenotaph means empty tomb, a sepulchral monument in honour of a person whose body is elsewhere. The word is derived from the Greek Kenos – empty, Taphos – a tomb, Kenotaphlion – Cenotaph. http://rslnsw.org.au/commemoration/memorials/the-cenotaph
[v] In Australia war memorials held a special significance, as they often represented “surrogate graves” for soldiers whose bodies were buried in overseas war cemeteries or could not be located. Usually erected in prominent civic areas such as town squares, parks, central intersections, or near public schools, these local monuments continue to be a focus for community Anzac Day services. https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/war-memorials/
[vi] Nameless Warriors – The Ben Moide Story. Lahui Ako. Sterling Publishers. 2012.