Papua New Guineans at War

My father was a war carrier for the Australians and the Americans, he was carrying bombs and other ammunitions from one camp to the other… [He also] worked behind each soldier as a support carrier… He used to open the packages of cartridges, bombs and other ammunitions and handed them over to the frontline soldiers to fight the Japanese. ... And the bodies were so many, I am unable to count. At the time my grandfather was telling the story and the vivid description of the dead soldiers, I cried when my grandfather told me the story. I was deeply moved by the way my grandfather told stories of his eyewitness accounts during the war."

Dixie Woiwa, Hanau village. Read more of his account.

The Second World War had a big impact on the people of Papua and New Guinea.

The 1939 population of about 1.39 million saw the armed forces of three nations fight a war across their lands. The three nations fought with machines and weapons that many Papua New Guineans had never seen or even imagined before. More than 200,000 foreign dead were left behind on their lands.

It is not known how many Papua New Guineans directly took part, but was likely to have been many tens of thousands of men, women and children. In some way, almost all 1.39 million were affected as the war swept across their lands. People were displaced. There were food shortages. It is not known how many Papua New Guineans died because of the war.

The Japanese forces occupied large parts of Papua and New Guinea from 1942 and the local people were often in danger from Allied air raids and other attacks on Japanese positions. They often had no choice but to help the Japanese, though some chose to. They believed the new occupiers had permanently replaced the Australians. Siding with one side or the other sometimes affected relations between neighbouring tribal groups, or even within groups where there were divisions about who to side with.

The people on the New Guinea islands of Madang, Morobe, Sepik and Sandaun Provinces lived under the occupation of the Japanese. Their lives were in constant danger from air raids. As the war continued, there were food shortages.

Having local people on-side became important to the Allies as the fighting moved across the many different ethnic areas, which often had their own distinct language.

Because our father had received some basic education, our father was identified by the Australian army, where he was recruited [as a] translator. His role was basically to assist with translations between Australian armies and the native people.

-Recks Ea’ah, Bereadabu village

The Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) employed many young Papuan New Guinean men to work as:

  • carriers
  • medical orderlies
  • police
  • cooks
  • translators

They were also recruited to work in other service jobs. They left their villages. Many did not return until the war ended.

Thousands of men were recruited into the:

  • Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB)
  • 1st, 2nd and 3rd New Guinea Infantry Battalions (NGIB)
  • Pacific Islands Regiment (PIR)
  • Allied Intelligence Bureau

These men, together with police of the Royal Papuan Constabulary, fought alongside Australian troops in their own districts and across the country.

Papua New Guinean women were also involved in the war. They worked at bases, barracks, hospitals and looked after Australian and US soldiers in places like Oro Bay and Sogeri.

Most of our young people … were recruited by Constable Sebastian Goro, on the behalf of the American and Australian forces to provide labour for those two Allied forces. Our grandfathers were recruited on the behalf of the engineering - American engineering and Australian engineering units to construct roads, and bridges, and also airstrips that serve the aircraft during the World War Two.

-Carson Hanana, Hanau village

My mother is Ruth Ani. She was recruited and taken to No. 3 camp where she did laundry with other girls. There were 40,000 pieces washed each week … from seven hospitals in the Dobuduru, Oro Bay, Base B area. She was working at No. 3 camp which is located near Girua airstrip until the war came to an end.

-Lomas Tonu Ani, Hanau village

The Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) was one of four infantry battalions that operated as units of the Australian Army. The others were the 1st, 2nd and 3rd New Guinea Infantry Battalions (NGIB).

In November 1944, all four units became part of a newly formed Pacific Islands Regiment (PIR). 4NGIB was established in early 1945, but disbanded soon after. 5NGIB was authorised, but never established. At the end of the war, the PIR had a strength of over 2,300 personnel.

The PIB was established in 1940, to help defend against the Japanese invasion. The Battalion had mostly Papuans soldiers who were led by Australian officers and non-commissioned officers. By July 1942, when the Japanese invaded Papua, there were 300 Papuans and some New Guineans serving in the PIB. By 1944, when it was amalgamated as part of the PIR, they were 700 strong.

Initially, their main roles were:

  • guarding vulnerable points
  • constructing roads
  • working on the wharves

After the war broke out, they helped with scouting, reconnaissance and surveillance patrols. However, their bushcraft and knowledge of the area quickly became an asset for Australian troops.

But after the Japanese invasion at Buna and Gona in mid-1942, they were among the first involved in the fighting. They fought bravely and with great effect. Their bushcraft and local knowledge became an asset for Australian troops.

The PIB became known as 'green shadows' because of an entry discovered in a Japanese diary. It said the PIB, 'moved silently in the jungle, inflicting casualties on us-and then are gone, like green shadows.'

The PIB fought alongside the Allies on the Kokoda Track, from Oivi to Deniki, and Isurava.

They also took part in the advance to Salamaua. They helped capture Finschhafen and Sattelberg on the Huon Peninsula. They were involved in the fighting along the Markham, Ramu and Sepik rivers as they pursued the withdrawing Japanese to the northern coastline. Finally, they fought on Bougainville in the last weeks of the war.

The 1 NGIB supported the Allies in Bougainville, New Britain and mainland New Guinea. 2 NGIB played a minor role in New Guinea supporting the 6th Division in the Aitape-Wewak campaign.

The New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR) was formed in September 1939 with its headquarters in Rabaul. It comprised three companies of Australian troops—men who mostly came from the ranks of pre-war miners, planters, traders and officials in New Guinea. This volunteer force was initially about 450 strong with elements centred around Rabaul and Lae.

When the Japanese invaded Rabaul in January 1942, members of the NGVR helped survivors of Lark Force to escape.

When the Japanese landed in Lae and Salamaua in March 1942, the NGVR was tasked with patrolling and harassing the Japanese. Its numbers dwindled as members joined the regular army. It eventually became part of Kanga Force in May 1942.

Without a civilian government, one of the roles of the NGVR was maintaining law and order. They oversaw several thousand indentured Papuan labourers who could not return home. These Papuan labourers became the first carriers to work alongside the Allies during the war.

It wasn't just the PIB and NGIB who fought alongside the Allies. Many members of the Papuan Native Constabulary (the Papuan police force) joined in combat, too.

During the fighting at Oivi, some Australian troops were cut off from their company. Sergeant Sanopa, a Papuan Police officer who was fighting alongside the 39th Battalion, led Australians back to safety via an alternative track.

I was in the army, I know what dressing [equipment] that was needed to be in the battle but [my father] was not dressed that way, he had only a calico with the weapons on and a pack at the back. But he said that was good because, you know, they moved faster, he said they crawled in, they crawled out, and they could smell the Japanese, they knew where they are, they could even smell their brew, their coffee, or even repellent, their insect repellent or whatever they applied, they would smell them, and they would warn the Australians that these guys were close.

-Rolf Asi, Popondetta

Before the war, Papuans were already employed to transport supplies. Although this was usually arranged on a casual or day-to-day basis, there were strict regulations about the number, duration and payments provided for this help.

On 15 June 1942, Major-General Morris, the Australian military administrator at Port Moresby, terminated all existing contracts of service in Papua and New Guinea. He understood the Allies needed the help of the local people. He gave power to district and senior military officers to employ local people for the duration of the war.

Lieutenant Bert Kienzle, of the Australian New Guinea Administration Unit (ANGAU) was one such officer. His previous experience as a rubber planter in the Yodda Valley gave him detailed knowledge of the Kokoda Track. He was reported to have a good relationship with the locals. When Kienzle was tasked with recruiting Papuans to help, he found poor conditions in the labour camps. He worked to erect clean and dry buildings. By building strong relationships with the Papuans, he could give them a better understanding of what and why the Allies needed their help.

My father says the hard work of Papuan carriers was recognised by Australian soldier, and he gave the name, the fuzzy wuzzy angels. The Papuan carriers thank him for recognising their work.

-Sarah Sau Hiari, Papaki village

There's no doubt that the Papuan carriers were instrumental in the Kokoda campaign. They endured the cold, wet and malnourishment behind the front line. They took their job seriously and were caring in their treatment of the troops.

The condition of our carriers at Eora Creek caused me more concern than that of our wounded. Overwork, overloading... exposure, cold and under-feeding were the common lot.... Despite this no known live casualty was ever abandoned by the Fuzzy Wuzzies.

-Dr Geoffrey Vernon, Captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, ANGAU

The carrying of wounded up and down this mountain track was very difficult and very dangerous but the carriers tenderly took loving care of the patients. When it rained, Papuan carriers used leaves to keep their patients from getting wet. This was not a easy way but they did it lovingly and willingly.

-Sarah Sau Hiari, Papaki village

The Japanese also recruited the local people to help them during their occupation of Papua and New Guinea. In some regions, they treated them with the same kindness and respect as the Australians did. However, in others, they treated them with brutality, which caused much fear.

While there are also cases where ANGAU officers resorted to threats of violence to control locals, this was never an effective nor acceptable strategy by the Allies.

Many civilians left their villages and hid in caves and other secret places, only to return to find their houses and gardens destroyed.

Women, children and the elderly suffered hardship while the young men were fighting and helping. In some cases, more than half the village men were absent.

They suffered food shortages and a later study found that many children became undernourished due to the men's absence.

Most of the tens of thousands of Papua New Guineans who participated in the Second World War did so as carriers of supplies for the Allies or providing other support to the Allies at their bases.

Many thousands fought in uniform as soldiers or police working with the army.

There were many bravery and other awards for service to both those in uniform and civilians:

  • three Distinguished Conduct Medals
  • two George Medals
  • 15 Military Medals
  • three British Empire Medals
  • seven Mentioned in Despatches
  • one US Bronze Star
  • 300 Loyal Service Medals

105 of these soldiers and police are buried in the three Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in PNG at Bomana, Lae and Bitapaka. There are many more on the Memorials to the Missing at these cemeteries.

I think the attitude of the Australian soldiers, together with the American soldiers made a tremendous impact psychologically. Because here we saw a different type of white people who were friendly, who shared things with us. There was no paternalistic outlook from them, you know. And when the coloured Americans came along, the negroes came along, we said, 'Well we didn't know that a black man could be a captain, a black man could be a colonel, a black man could be a major.' This had a tremendous effect, it made us think that the brown and the black person were just as good as the white people, and that the white people the brown people and the black people were all equals.

Sir John Guise, first Governor General of the newly independent Papua New Guinea in 1975 in the book Taim Bilong Masta, The Australian Involvement with Papua New Guinea by Hank Nelson, 1982.