IAN McPHEDRAN | The Australian
CANBERRA - Officer cadet Mark Rakatani has carried the memory of his great-grandfather and the hopes of his nation’s defence force onto the parade ground at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
He was the first soldier from Papua New Guinea to graduate from the elite military campus of the University of NSW in Canberra when, with more than 250 young officers including 14 foreign students, he marched out in front of thousands of family and friends.
Mark Rakatani comes from a long line of warriors.
His great-grandfather, Sergeant Katue, is regarded as one of the finest Papuan soldiers of World War II, fighting deep behind enemy lines in the jungles against the Japanese invaders.
As a member of the then Australian Army’s Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) he was already in action against the Japanese before the Australian 39th Battalion arrived at the front.
At Buna-Gona, soon after the Japanese landed in July 1942, Katue penetrated the Japanese lines three times to gather vital intelligence before he raised a small local force and stayed behind enemy lines to terrorise the invaders.
Katue, whose portrait by war artist William Dargie is in the collection of the Australian War Memorial, was the first Papuan soldier decorated for the Kokoda campaign, awarded the Military Medal for his courageous actions.
According to the official history of the PIB, Katue urged local leaders not to support the Japanese. “At one village Katue was told by a village councillor they would support the Japanese because the Japanese were paying them for their work and issuing rations to the women,’’ it says.
“When Katue shot the councillor and his main supporter, he was ringed by angry men with bush knives and spears. He ordered them to disperse and they took refuge in the bush.’’
After 73 days in the jungle he arrived at headquarters in Port Moresby festooned with the stripes, badges and insignia of the 26 Japanese he had killed and with a terrified enemy prisoner in tow.
Mr Rakatani said his great-grandfather’s record was inspiring and he was acutely aware of the history and of his own responsibility to help set the future direction for PNG military officers.
“I hope what I have achieved will be a motivation for more people to come through.”
He said he looked forward to getting involved in more complex operations at home after his final year learning infantry warfare at the Royal Military College Duntroon in 2018.
“There is a lot of effort being put into that so we have a specialised cell to train our troops in line with the capabilities of Australia so we can at least bring something to the table,” he said. “We are the best jungle war fighters, but we need to be more integrated into modern-day warfare.”
A keen sportsman and dedicated Melbourne Storm and Queensland Reds fan, he played rugby league and rugby union for the academy. He said the thing he missed most about home was the food, especially his favourite dish, mumu, pig cooked on hot stones under the ground.
Watching in Canberra was his father, Colonel John Rakatani from the PNG Defence Force, who spent several years in Australia and was an instructor at RMC for two years.
Many of his colleagues are now senior officers in the Australian Army, including its most senior woman and commander of the Australian Defence College, Major General Simone Wilkie.