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When war came to Australian Papua: Poppy & lantana side by side

Doug Robbins  Anzac Day  Springbrook. 2018
Ex kiap Doug Robbins' speech to Springbrook's Anzac Day ceremony yesterday

DOUG ROBBINS

SPRINGBROOK, QUEENSLAND - The past year marked 75 years since, sadly, too many Australian lives were lost during World War II fighting in the South West Pacific Area – and on Australian soil.

Following Pearl Harbour, Darwin at the north of mainland Australia, was bombed in February 1942 with loss of many servicemen and civilians. Then Broome was bombed the next month.

We know that Darwin is part of Australia, but little is acknowledged that Papua, a former British Colony in the south-east quarter of the island of New Guinea and only four kilometres from the Torres Strait Islands of Queensland, was a Territory of Australia for almost 100 years to 1975.

The fierce jungle battles of Kokoda, Milne Bay and the Beachheads were fought on what was then Australian soil.

In August 1942, at the same time as Kokoda, Australian Forces were defending airfields at Milne Bay to protect Port Moresby and Australia to the south. Milne Bay was free of fighting by September.

Anzac Day RAAF aircraft flyover at Springbrook
RAAF aircraft does a memorial pass over Springbrook yesterday

The Australians plus Americans fresh from Camp Cable south of Brisbane were flown to a newly cleared airstrip at remote Wanigela between Milne Bay and enemy occupied Buna.

Operation Wanigela Hatrack planned for these 4,000 troops to march overland to Pongani and then cut off the enemy retreating from Kokoda. But the flooded Musa River saw them transported forward by the US Army small ships hastily acquired from around Australia and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, 113 Australian commandoes, walking one day ahead, made it through in 35 days (the same walk took me seven days unburdened almost 50 years ago). By January 1943 many lives were lost in the Battle of the Beachheads at Buna, Sanananda and Gona.

The book ‘The Rag Tag Fleet’ gives a brief account of the soldiers’ walk from Wanigela across the Musa River and the vast Agaiambo swamp then on to Pongani and the battlefields. A journalist who joined the soldiers for a short part of the long walk wrote these words:

“Then for the first time they realised what jungle warfare really could mean without actual combat. They staggered along with 60 pounds each on their backs under a broiling New Guinea sun that was frequently obscured by sudden torrential downpours.

“But the rain brought little relief to the sweltering soldiers because after a rain, the jungles in the lowlands were turned into dank, steaming morasses that dragged them down to their hips in their sticky, slimy embrace. Sharp, stiff undergrowth shredded their clothing and tore legs, arms and faces.

“On top of all this were the myriad insect pests of the jungle – swarms of malarial mosquitoes which could bite through thick drill trousers, land crabs of all kinds, voracious large brown ants and persistent sandflies and leeches.”

[From personal experience in the hills towards Safia at Middle Musa, I would add microscopic scrub typhus mites that cause an itchy rash and can be fatal.]

“The boys were caked with slimy mud that covered them from head to foot. But they could always wash or swim in any of the numerous little streams they had to wade through, and there they had nothing to worry about except the crocodiles, which even the natives feared more than sharks.”

In 1972, after two years as the government patrol officer in the Wanigela-Tufi area, I was transferred to Kokoda with my wife Annette and our baby.

In that year, our little Papuan outpost welcomed back, with their families, 40 survivors of the 39th Battalion, raised for service in Papua, for the 30th anniversary of the Kokoda Trail Campaign.

It was obvious that these brave men still suffered physically and mentally from the Kokoda battle. One man had recurring skin rashes while another, who had been cared for by a nurse since the war, wandered off up the track looking for his mate.

Bert Kienzle, who during the war organised the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel carriers, killed a beast and we all had an enjoyable barbeque with our visitors, billeted for three days on the station and at the Kienzle’s.

Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels were the able-bodied men of the native population rounded up from around the Papuan coast from Daru to Tufi beyond Wanigela who capably worked alongside our soldiers and the likes of Papuan Infantry Battalion’s Sergeant Katue, the first Papuan awarded the Military Medal for his exploits in the Popondetta-Wanigela locality.

Interpreter Randolph at Tufi  c 1970
Interpreter Randolph at Tufi around 1970

In rural Papua, Pidgin wasn’t common. Randolph my loyal interpreter during our days at Wanigela-Musa died not long before Annette and I revisited New Guinea in 2009.

He had been one of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels – medical orderly, carrier and labourer.

No poppies grow along the Kokoda Track.

For burial services the Padre would pick a lantana-like flower, native to the jungle, from beside the path as a symbol of remembrance for the life given in service of our country - Australia.

To this day, veterans of the 39th Militia, the only battalion to have the Kokoda Trail battle honour, lay a sprig of lantana alongside a red poppy in memory of their comrades fallen on the battlefields of Papua New Guinea or claimed by age.

More Australians died fighting in Papua than in any other World War II campaign.

 

Comments

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Doug Robbins

Mention of both the South West Pacific Area and Papua in my ANZAC Day talk is a subtle reference (without spending time to explain it to my Springbrook audience) to the status of Australia's Militia volunteer conscripts – akin to the later Citizens Military Force (CMF) and today’s Reserve volunteers.

In 1939 there was large-scale opposition to the concept of conscription and the provisions of the Defence Act precluded conscripts from serving outside Australian territory. Papua was conveniently a Territory, hence my specifically referring to the 39th of Kokoda as Militia (second last paragraph).

The Papuan Campaign was from 21 July 1942 to 22 January 1943.

On 26 January 1943 changes to the Act meant that Militia units were able to serve anywhere south of the Equator in the South West Pacific Area (SWPA).

Paul Oates

Thanks for raising these oft forgotten facts Doug.

The younger generation now seems to want to become involved yet has virtually no idea in why ANZAC Day is important.

Those who march, whether they know it or not, represent those who marched off to defend our freedom today and did not come back. Even those who did come back often brought back their wounded bodies and horrific memories.

I had a discussion last year just before ANZAC Day with someone who had a sign up declaring everyone should celebrate ANZAC Day. I explained that no one should celebrate war or its consequences but instead commemorate those who gave their all that we today may enjoy whatever we have.

As our Kiap fraternity goes on its last patrol I wonder what we will be remembered or even if there will be any memories at all?

We didn't do such a bad job in so a short time considering the circumstances and that at best, around 250 of us were responsible for nearly 3 million people with a death rate due to duty equivalent to the Australian Forces in the Vietnam War.

Lest we forget!

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