Kokoda Day: A Tribute to Papua New Guinea’s Unsung Heroes

 

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. (more…)

Time to reign in KTOA bullies on Kokoda

‘What? Provide for the welfare of natives on the Kokoda Trail – you’ve got to be kidding!’

That’s not exactly what they said but the Australian based Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) submission to a review of the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) ridiculed a suggestion that they should have to provide for the welfare of their guides and carriers. This could create an ‘entitlement mentality’ they wailed!

What is really required, according to the KTOA, is a combination of ‘education – hard skills – and thought process’.

They don’t explain how they would ‘educate’ a subsistence villager to carry loads far heavier than the maximum allowed for their ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angel’ forebears in 1942 – or how they would ‘educate’ them to sleep on freezing, wet ground without a sleeping bag or mat in the upper reaches of the Owen Stanley Ranges – or how they would ‘educate’ their bodies to be physically sustained on packets of two-minute noodles.

The KTOA assertion that ‘for successful commerce, all parties must bring something to the table – there cannot be a hand out mentality’ is reminiscent of a colonial blackbirder addressing a native work-party in the late 19th Century.

Whilst their submission acknowledges ‘the legitimate right of landowners to participate in and benefit from the Kokoda Track tourism experience’ they maintain that ‘this right needs to be translated to viable means by which this can happen; education and mentoring is needed to develop the skillsets required and the appreciation that self-sustainable change and development requires a contribution from oneself’.

WTF! This surely takes patronising arrogance to a new level. (more…)

‘Yes Minister’ alive on Kokoda

‘However it seems that DFAT has sought to outsmart Prime Minister Peter O’Neill by appointing a former employee of the Australian Department of Environment as their preferred consultant. A clever ‘Yes Minister’ ploy to transfer responsibility for the managerial bucket-of-shit they created to the PNG Government.’

 

The Review of the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) ordered by PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, is a disappointing academic desk-top study which recommends more of the same under a different name.

Prime Minister O’Neill ordered the review after the collapse of the management system put in place by the Australian Government in 2009.

Despite spending more than $60 million since then Kokoda trekker numbers have declined by 43 per cent; there is not a single management protocol in place; not one of the five key strategies or 33 objectives established by Australian managers for the period 2012-2015 was achieved; and there is still no master plan to protect and interpret our shared wartime history of the Kokoda campaign.

Australian officials were able to cover their taxpayer funded follies for a number of years but they now seem to have run out of academic subjects for consultants to address in regard to climate change, social mapping, capacity building, gender equity, mentoring and a plethora of other Third World causes along the Kokoda Trail.

The only subject they have failed to address is the identification, protection and interpretation of our shared wartime heritage. It would be easy to conclude that the current crop of Australian’s responsible for Kokoda are ideologically opposed to it.

The situation along the trail is now dire. Local villagers we were supposed to help are now mere spectators to a passing parade of trekkers. Once proud women who used to greet trekkers with huge smiles, dishes of cooked vegetables and tropical fruits now sit despondently in village dust trying to sell twisties and coke. The once pristine nature of the trail continues to be degraded by erosion. Battlesites sacred to our shared military heritage have been desecrated.

Back in Port Moresby the management structure put in place by the Department of Environment has been corrupted. No financial reports or newsletters have been published for at least five years. The Ranger system has collapsed; unlicensed trek operators are able to act without fear of detection; local guides and carriers are overloaded, underpaid and ill-equipped by unscrupulous Australian trek operators. Campsite owners are short changed and local villagers have lost all interest in the industry.

The KTA Review was supposed to address these issues and make recommendations to fix it all. (more…)

Why does PNG tolerate ‘blackbirding’ on Kokoda?

Recent articles on the history of ‘blackbirding’ in the Pacific should serve to shine the spotlight on the Australian Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) whose member lead treks across the Kokoda Trail.

The most abhorrent practice condoned by many KTOA members is the ‘student discount’ which allows them to claim a 50 per cent discount for their trek fees.  This effectively means that subsistence villagers along the trail have to subsidise wealthy Australian private school students who trek with them. One can only hope that these school are unaware that they are participating in a modern adaption of blackbirding.

Of more concern is the fact that PNG leaders responsible for the welfare of their people along the trail allow themselves to be bullied into accepting such a practice by the KTOA.

Following is a snapshot of villagers along the trail who are being forced to subsidise wealthy Australian private school students. Why? (more…)

HERITAGE INTERPRETATION OF THE KOKODA TRAIL

‘At the foot of the Owen Stanleys in Papua New Guinea you can look into the ancient landscape – majestic peaceful wilderness, nature in its full glory.  There have been tracks across the mountains for thousands of years; the people who inhabit the region were gardening at the same time agriculture was developing in Ancient Egypt.  The strength of natural and cultural heritage are beyond simple words: fascinating, awesome, daunting – world class.

‘Yet the battles of 1942 and the contemporary interest in ‘Kokoda’ are what have made it Papua New Guinea’s No 1 tourist attraction.  In 1942 it was Australians and Papua New Guineans fighting Japanese for what was then Australian land.  Young men in a bloody struggle for ‘their land’.  The battle has become folklore in Australia – a place of pilgrimage like Gallipoli, Villers-Bretonneux, Sandakan, Passchendale.’[i]

In the lead-up to the 70th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign IN 2012 Network Kokoda commissioned Michael Pender of HPA Projects to develop a Heritage Interpretation Plan and Implementation Strategy for the Kokoda Trail. We chose HPA Projects because of their commemorative heritage projects at Isurava, Sandakan, Hellfire Pass and the Australia National War Memorial in France.

The report was ignored.

The 75th Anniversary of the Kokoda campaign in 2017 offered another opportunity as it was sure to be the last parade for the dwindling number of surviving veterans and its adoption would have been seen as an appropriate legacy to ensure their service and sacrifice would never be forgotten.

It was ignored again.

In view of the complete dysfunction of the management system put in place by the Australian Government during the period 2008 – 2012 and the subsequent decline in trekker numbers it is timely to review the essence of the report as it is still relevant.  (more…)

Kokoda: Time for Business

In a recent response to an article published in The Spectator magazine the President of the Kokoda Tour Operators Association, Sue Fitcher, wrote that ‘All KTOA businesses are run from Australia’.

This is the nub of the problem for the Kokoda Trekking Industry.

The current review of the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) should seek to understand why this is so because PNG will never realise its potential as a tourism destination if international operators have to run their businesses from their home countries.

The PNG trekking industry which started with so much promise in the late 1990s is now on its knees because of dysfunctional management and government indifference.

After PNG established a local management authority in 2003 trekker numbers surged by 423% from 1074 trekkers to 5621 in 2008. However since the Australian Government assumed control trekker numbers have crashed by 42% to 3267 in 2017 despite an expenditure of more than $50 million of Aid funding through the Kokoda Initiative.

The numbers indicate that something is seriously wrong. (more…)