Democracy or not to be – lessons from an African experience
All out of love

The executions at Higaturu revisited


In August 2008, PNG Attitude published a carefully researched and erudite piece of writing by John Fowke entitled The War in Papua – The Executions at Higaturu. Here, with some revisions, John has provided a longish extract that adds real depth to the article and subsequent commentary that appeared a week ago under the headline, The Higaturu hangings complicate Australia’s national narrative….

AMONG the Australians who worked as government officers in pre-war Papua, and who later served in the Army’s on-the-ground village liaison and logistics unit, ANGAU, was Thomas Grahamslaw.

Grahamslaw later became Chief Collector of Customs in pre-independence PNG. He retired late in the sixties. In 1971, aged 70, he wrote a personal memoir detailing his experiences as an ANGAU officer in the Moresby-Milne Bay-Buna-Gona-Popondetta areas in 1942-43.

The memoir was published in 1971 in the then-widely-read Australian magazine, Pacific Islands Monthly, and it has been quoted from and referred to many times since.

Tom Grahamslaw, aided by then Sergeant Katui, PIB, among others, was the officer who oversaw the execution of those who were hanged at Higaturu in 1943.

After the respective hearings and sentencing, Grahamslaw together with the late Claude Champion and with David Marsh, a well-remembered District Commissioner of Central Province, appealed to the General Command for clemency for the condemned men.

These three Australians whose whole lives and interest were bound up with Papua and its destiny, recommended that the capital penalty be reduced to one of life imprisonment. Their advice was considered but rejected by the Commanding Officer in Port Moresby, Lieutenant General Edmund Herring, who ordered that the executions be carried out immediately, at Higaturu. Later in life, Herring became Chief Justice of Victoria.

Following the arrival at Higaturu of the Warrants for Execution, Grahamslaw arranged for and oversaw the grisly and sad events. Claude Champion oversaw the construction of the gallows. In his memoir Grahamslaw gives an exhaustive account of the events leading up to the arrests, convictions and the executions under prevailing laws of the Papuan offenders, as well as the executions.

Among the many books by individuals, as well as Army unit histories covering these happenings, along with the entire campaign, that written by acclaimed Australian journalist Timothy Hall ‘New Guinea 1942-44’ published by Methuen in 1981 stands out.

This is not only because it tells the story of the Papuan campaigns very well but because it is well-researched and quotes its sources in a comprehensive bibliography. Here reference is made to many files accessed at the Australian Archives and the Australian War Memorial.

These files are available for perusal by anyone with sufficient interest to do so, and they contain reports relevant to the subversive activities, conspiracies and murders carried out by a small minority of the native population of the relevant districts. A simple Google search provides references to this data.

In fact an extract from the collection of ANGAU diaries held at the Australian War Memorial, being a page from the reports of Captain JS Beharall, sometime colonial Magistrate, co-opted to serve in ANGAU, is in this writer’s possession.

This gives an intimate record of the exhumation of the bodies of murdered Anglican missionaries, of several American servicemen, of an Australian officer of the Papuan Infantry Battalion and of several local Papuans including the Anglican teacher Lucian, who, whilst able to run away, stuck with the white missionaries to try to dissuade their Papuan captors from handing them over to the Japanese.

The leader of the treasonous villagers was one Embogi, the first of the men to be hanged later at Higaturu. Lucien was murdered and his body thrown into Gambureta Creek, from which it was later removed, placed in a coffin and properly buried at Sangara by Beharall’s group.

The torture and murder of a number of Australian, English and Papuan Anglican missionaries by Japanese aided, and in some cases physically assisted, by Papuan collaborators in and around Buna, Gona and Popondetta is commemorated in the well-known Martyrs Memorial High School, not far from Popondetta.

In annual services in Anglican churches both in PNG and in Australia, the murders of the missionaries and their helpers is commemorated. As well, the deaths by summary execution, often preceded by torture, of Allied and Papuan servicemen and policemen captured by local villagers and handed over to the Japanese, are also commemorated both in monuments and in the histories of the campaign.

The summary and ghastly executions by the sword of the young Australian mission workers, Mavis Parkinson and May Hayman, were the consequence of prior abuse by their captors. A cover up. Even rank-and-file Japanese soldiers had some knowledge of the rules of war and the consequences that might follow where rape and torture of civilians were discovered.

The events were observed by a loyal Papuan villager who remained hidden for some time near the shed in which the two women were held captive, and who subsequently gave evidence at an inquiry into their fate.

Several other Anglican missionaries as well as a larger number of Allied servicemen suffered similar fates, having, like Parkinson and Hayman, been beguiled and then put in the hands of Japanese by Papuan men pretending to be supportive or acting as decoys.

One of the main groups of treasonous village men was that led by Embogi, who, as a Japanese-appointed ‘Captain’, armed a number of his cohorts with rifles. This group was responsible for the capture and handing over of several Allied servicemen, and Embogi was physically involved in the subsequent killing of one of these.

Embogi’s group was also responsible for armed raids upon villages in the Managalase area, where houses were burned, women raped, and a number of people tied up and taken away.

Whilst a number of ordinary villagers supported the Japanese tacitly or actively when ordered to do so, understandably in the circumstances, those who were executed were pre-war village officials and leaders who, tempted by offers of payment and the use of rifles, became facilitators and spies of the Japanese.

These men, so-called ‘Captains’ enjoyed considerable power over their fellows in the villages, and exercised it to their own advantage in many ways. Their actions, widely resented, ultimately led to their conviction upon a range of charges supported by numbers of witnesses from the villages, men who had learned to despise and to hate them.

With the retreat of the Japanese, Embogi was placed in some minor supervisory capacity with the Army labour-line at Soputa. Initially Embogi ingratiated himself with Grahamslaw who found him likeable and helpful until, inevitably, the truth of his treasonous and murderous deeds came out.

The executions took place before a large assembly of villagers, who, summoned by Grahamslaw, began to assemble the day before the event. At the appointed time, Grahamslaw addressed the crowd, speaking in the Motu lingua franca he knew, also using the services of a local interpreter who repeated what was said in the local language.

As Grahamslaw recalled, it was a grim experience. Each man was given

the chance to speak, and each did so. Grahamslaw recalled that Embogi's speech had a profound effect on all present. He had a sonorous voice and was obviously a gifted orator. He stated that he had done wrong, and that he was fully conscious of this. He said that he was an uneducated man, and had not known better. He stated that the punishment he was about to receive was just, and urged his people to heed the Government and to obey its laws.

Grahamslaw wrote as follows; "I lay awake most of that night listening to the drums beating and the wailing of the mourners in the village adjacent to Higaturu, and I relived the events of the day. I had seen death in various forms during the preceding 12 months, but nothing affected me as deeply as the hangings of Embogi and his fellow murderers."

None of the people concerned in the hangings of Papuan and Japanese war criminals escaped unscathed. Tom Grahamslaw’s memoirs show that he carried an ongoing sense of sadness at the recollection of these events and the killings and betrayals by trusted men that preceded them.

The Port Moresby-born Claude Champion, scion of a family famous in the annals of Papuan administration and exploration, and present with Grahamslaw at Higaturu, recalled later in life that the executions were distressing in the extreme; impossible to forget.

As a young man in the then Territory in the fifties I knew the late Bill Gordon, again a scion of an old Port Moresby-based Australian family, for whom the modern-day suburb Gordon’s Estate is named. Bill was the hangman in all but a few of the Northern Division executions, although not in case of the first five executions at Higaturu. An officer of the Royal Papuan Constabulary sent from Port Moresby for the purpose officiated here.

Bill Gordon, an alcoholic whose later life was governed by his addiction, once said in his cups “I don’t care about the Japs. I hung lots of them, too. But those natives, bad bastards and all that they were, I still see ‘em. Still see ‘em.”

It was not simply that Australian laws or prevailing martial law as it existed in Papua [civil government was extinguished by decree in Papua on 14 February 1942] had been broken. Traditional Papuan custom and relationships, and relationships established over many decades with the Anglican Church, had also been ridden over roughshod by those who had conspired with and acted with the invading Japanese.

The situation was a very complex one within a complex and costly period in the history both of Papua and of Australia. All those who were there on the ground and continued to fulfill their duty to the end handled it in a way that deserves the greatest of approbation from us all. To them and to the Americans we all owe our present-day freedom and our participatory democracy.


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Peter Dowling

David Marsh knew Embogi well. After his arrest Embogi brought his men to assist in building and clearing airfields.

Right up to his death in 2014, David maintained that the Higaturu men were given rough justice. Those involved in deciding the fate of the killers had no cultural awareness, particularly in how various tribes interacted.

Also set aside was the truth of the bloody atrocities committed by white men against the people of the Mambare river basin between 1893 and 1910. The Higaturu men were defending their land against the white man invader.

Many Higaturu men joined the Japanese as they felt the white men had been bad to them. They had long memories of these past atrocities. A number of the white men who led reprisals were former officers in the Queensland Native Police.

John Glasson

Sister Francis May 'Merry' Hayman, a Gona missionary, was my cousin. Anyone with knowledge or images of Gona etc would be much appreciated as I am in process of writing a book about her and her friend Mavis Parkinson.

A documentary is being formulated to complement the book. Anyone interested in more information can contact me here:

Thank you in advance.

Lindsay F Bond

We cherish the present-day freedom to revisit, review and even revise. We learn of Page, Gordon, Strong and others laden at least by participation, as also Embogi, whose last was in taking initiative.

Des Martin

When I was ADO Baniara 1956-58, the headquarters of the Anglican Church was located at Dogura. Archbishop Phillip Strong was head of the Church in the then TPNG and later became Primate of the Church in Australia.

He regularly called into Baniara for a"cuppa" and we became quite friendly. He never forgave himself for not advising the murdered missionaries to leave, believing that the Japanese would respect their religion and allow them to continue their missionary work.

Some plantation people in New Britain also believed that the Japanese would allow them to carry on as the Australian Army occupiers in Rabaul had done with the German plantation people.

A book "Between Victor and Vanquished" by Arthur Page, who was brought up from childhood to his twenties in Japan and had all his primary and secondary schooling there and was totally fluent in Japanese, is worth reading.

As I recall he mentions his interrogation of the Japs about the murders of the missionaries but in any case the book is well worth reading. This bloke fully understood the psyche governing Japanese thinking and murderous behaviour.

Garry Roche

Thank you John. We can learn from the past and we do not need to get self-righteous about it. If mistakes have been made, let us try and not repeat them.

Barbara Short

Thanks for reprinting that. A very moving piece of writing by John Fowke. Especially relevant at this time.
We miss your articles, John!

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