Our submission to the PNG Government to proclaim ‘Kokoda Day’ as a National Day of Commemoration to honour the service of their wartime carriers in 2008 was amended by the National Executive Council to ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel Day‘ – the reason, according to one MP at the meeting, was because a group of MPs from another Province thought ‘Kokoda’ was already getting too much attention!

12 years later we now know that eliminating ‘Kokoda’ from the proposal also eliminated the wartime tourism potential of the concept.

‘Kokoda Day’ could be a source of intense pride for all Papua New Guineans. It has the potential to emulate the commemorative status of Anzac Day in Australia. It will also provide a strong incentive for Australians to visit PNG for the commemoration and all it represents. But more importantly it provides a status of recognition for the Papua and New Guinea wartime carriers – the unsung heroes of the campaigns they supported throughout Papua and New Guinea.

1942
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 remained 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 in Australia and Papua New Guinea they remain both nameless and invisible!

Wartime Carriers

For those who command a desk in far flung bureaucratic empires 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 the 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 issued with a uniform and never enjoyed the esprit de corps of belonging to a unit. They were essentially native groups of 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 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 lie in unmarked graves 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 or Papua New Guinea governments[iii] 

This can be rectified by the PNG Government proclaiming a special day to commemorate their service and sacrifice – Kokoda Day!

‘At Templeton’s Crossing it may well be imagined what we struck; for every half hour had been bringing us nearer to the front . . . it was a little beyond here, at the junction of the Cargi and Myola tracks, that we came in contact at last with living fighters, after the long series of death scenes. Some of our soldiers were coming back from the forward lines for rations.

They told us of fierce fighting a couple of hours onward, and in their wake came a procession such as I had never seen in my life before, and which moved me to the depths. Picking their way very carefully with expressions of solemn responsibility, came native bearers with the badly wounded. Some of those forms under their coverings were horribly mutilated and might not survive the long, perilous journey back to the base hospital from the R.A.P. Others were straight and very still. Some were in an agony of suffering in spite of all that had been done to mitigate and soothe. The natives moved softly and silently, handling the stretchers with a surprising deftness in rough places in order to save their human burden from the slightest jolt. Their black faces were soft with pity and concern. They would carry those poor fellows along such a route as I have described, through mud and slush and morass, along the razor backs, quickly and softly over the fields of death and pestilence, till they arrived at their intended destination. Some of the sufferers would fall into natural sleep soothed by the rhythm of the lithe movements, and oblivious of the wildness and perils of the way.’

Geoffrey Hamlyn-Harris: ‘Through Mud and Blood to Victory’

Kokoda Day

Whilst Remembrance Day commemorates the service of Papua New Guinean soldier who served, and those who sacrificed their lives in action 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 and never received a medal.

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 traditional cenotaph[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.  They rallied at this point and pushed the Japanese back across the trail.  Kokoda was recaptured on 2 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.

‘As we marched in and took up our position for the ceremony we could all feel in our bones that history was being made. The Australian flag was raised, with soldiers and natives as solemn witnesses. Tribute was paid to all who had died along the track for the victory which had taken place here, making this beautiful valley and its air strip ours once more, and clearing the way for what all of us now felt must be a successful issue.

‘Although I find it hard to express precisely what I mean, I felt that the raising of the flag here, as elsewhere in New Guinea where the boys were overcoming the enemies of civilisation, heralded a new epoch of Aussie history. Considering what was accomplished collaboratively in a war such as had never been known in the world before, what might not we do together in a voluntary way for Age of Peace to follow? The thing could be ideal, you see, everybody working as one man for a new and better method of world government which would benefit all equally.

‘The faces of the witnesses standing around the flag pole in the centre of the village were a living, though silent, testimony of what had been suffered for Australia and for moments like this, by the lads of the graves up the range and all along the track by which we had come. We were thinking individually of those pals of ours; for the Owen Stanley Range still overshadowed us in memory as well as in fact, an unpleasant monster conquered; and only those who had shared their experience could have understood the extent of the price they paid in advance for victory.’

Geoffrey Hamlyn-Harris: ‘Through Mud and Blood to Victory’

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 ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angel Day’ . . .

Australia is the primary market for the Kokoda Trail. The term ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angel‘ is not well known. For those who are aware of it before they trek it is regarded as ‘endearing‘ and/or ‘patronising’ – after they trek it certainly has more respect.

But in marketing terms it has no pull – this is evident in the fact that there has been no increase in tourism numbers to Kokoda in the November period since it was proclaimed in 2008.

Marketing Value of ‘Kokoda’ . . .

The term ‘Kokoda’ now has a resonance equal to ‘Anzac’ in marketing terms in Australia.  

The fact that more than 50,000 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 the 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 the late 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 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 be given to the creation of a traditional cenotaph in the National capital – a spiritual tomb for those who never returned to their village. The form and location of such a significant national structure would be the subject of a separate resolution by the PNG Government.

A traditional cenotaph would be the focus for national commemoration in Port Moresby.  It could be located in an area that allows for the future development of a Wartime Educational Centre and park to tell the PNG story.  Education centres at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and the Anzac Memorial in Sydney provide good models for what it possible.

PNG Schools

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 3 November supported by an appropriate educational package would be an important component in the further development of national pride in PNG.

Wrap-Up

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 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.

‘Eventually the likelihood of ever getting away from here by air became so remote that we packed up our gear and set off again upon a twelve mile walk to Popondetta. Here the natives lined up as we marched in towards the airground, hundreds of women and children gazing wonder eyed at everything their white champions did. They were as completely unconscious of their nudity as they were primitive, the women in grass skirts which hung well down below their stomachs and the youngsters quite naked. We had learnt so much of the valour of their men that we had a great respect for these simple people, and I am glad that my last view of New Guinea presented such faces looking up at us with shining expressions as we at last boarded the planes which were to carry us back to Moresby.

Away we went! Back over the low country, over the mountains – over the Owen Stanley’s utmost rim – over the mud and cliffs and canyons – over the bleaching battlegrounds – over the graves – over the sites of sacrifice and bravery and valour which will be remembered fro all time – over everything, in just about an hour or less.

‘As we soared along I felt convinced that the souls of our pals and leaders who had died for Australia down there among the gorges and in the jungles, were soaring along with us as proud and happy as possible – good old Bill, good old Des, and the whole lot of them. It was just O.K.’

Geoffrey Hamyln-Harris: Through Mud and Blood to Victory

Recommendation for PNG

‘Kokoda Day’ be proclaimed on 3 November each year to commemorate the service and sacrifice of your New Guinea Wartime Carriers. 

Em Tasol

Author’s Note:
I have trekked across the Kokoda Trail 99 times between 1991-2019. During this time I have been stretchered off the trail twice – once after falling backwards onto rocks at Templeton’s Crossing in the early days before Kokoda became popular and the other after having an acanthamoeba parasite in my right eye after dipping my head in some dirty water at Agulogo Creek. Both times I was saved by the selfless commitment of our PNG guides to my welfare. I will never be able to thank them enough and I will never forget them.

Committing to a National Day of Commemoration for their forebears – the ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angels’ is the least I can do to repay them.
Charlie Lynn


Raising of the Australian Flag on the Kokoda Plateau: 3 November 1942

[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.