The 2014 oral histories project recorded the memories of Papua New Guineans who experienced the Second World War around the Kokoda Track, Kirstie Close-Barry explains how it has helped to recognise the important role Papua New Guineans played in the conflict.

‘You have not heard my story about the Second World War before. So now open your ears and listen.’ Claude Gegera Peututu, Deboin village, Northern Province, 2014

The ground-breaking pilot oral histories project launched in 2014 has helped to revive the history discipline in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and recorded the memories of Papua New Guineans that can be passed on to subsequent generations. A team of the foremost historians and heritage workers in PNG travelled to significant sites in the vicinity of the Kokoda Track – Hanau, Deboin, Kokoda, Beama, Popondetta, Kovelo, Kagi, and Sogeri – to conduct interviews with community members who could relay their own or their family’s memories of the War. The scholars were born and bred in PNG. Dr Jonathan Ritchie from Deakin University and Professor John Waiko from the University of PNG led the team. Dr Ritchie, born in PNG, is now a Senior Research Fellow at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. He’s actively opening up new connections between Australian academic centres and the research team in PNG, which includes Maclaren Hiari, Soda Ihania, Elizabeth Taulehebo, Cathy Langu, Hennington Horewo, Javith Lowland Abavu, Lepsy Koia, Barnabas Orere and Didymus Gerald. This project offered an excellent opportunity for PNG historians to put their research skills to use, and enlighten the nation about the danger and turmoil experienced by people caught in the crossfire of global conflict.

Interviewees were invited from surrounding areas to speak, and after the research team explained the details of the consent forms, agreed to record their memories. The process was greatly helped by the landowners at each location, and local government officials. The National Library of Australia supplied the recording equipment, and the project was funded overall by the Kokoda Initiative – a joint project run by the Australian and PNG governments.

A valour medal being presented to a member of the Royal Papuan Constabulary (image courtesy of Australian War Memorial).

There were stories of carriers – some who never returned home, such as Lancelot Dauma’s uncle. We learned of their recruitment, sometimes by local constables like Sebastian Goro, and their experiences of working on the Track, alongside Australians and Americans. The pilot study has set the scene for a more extensive exercise to be undertaken across PNG in the coming two years. It is clear that a more complex history of the carriers needs to be conducted, with recognition of all localities where men and women were recruited to support the military operations, including Gulf, Western and Milne Bay. There is still a long way to go to before the service of carriers and others working on the Track is sufficiently recognised.

The interviews move well beyond the stereotypical histories of Papua New Guineans as carriers, employed to aid troops across the rugged Owen Stanley ranges. They reveal the stories of medical orderlies, policemen and members of the Papuan Infantry Battalion. Men who worked in these roles sometimes travelled extensively and the interviews give insight into the experience of mainland Papua New Guineans who travelled from their home areas to Port Moresby, and beyond. Some spoke of fighting the Japanese Imperial Forces in Lae and Bougainville for instance.  Their role was not limited to the Kokoda Track, nor was it minor, Papua New Guineans were fighting in defence of their land as well as venturing out of their own customary areas, sharing the experience with Allied forces throughout PNG.

Women’s histories were also revealed through this study. With whole villages displaced during the conflict along the Kokoda track, several interviews gave details on exactly where villages relocated to until it was safe to return or establish a new village elsewhere. Godfrey Daima told of how his mother took him to a location well away from the frontlines in her efforts to protect him. Stories were told of how some women would follow their husbands to the stations when patrol officers recruited them, but were then sent back to their villages alone.

Women were also employed by the armies in the area. Tasman Oiko Orere’s stepmother, Naitameri Oiago Orere, and Lomas Tonu Ani’s mother, Ruth Ani, were among many who worked in the army laundries. They washed and ironed extraordinary loads of washing each week, helping to sustain the military efforts.

Papua New Guinean women working in the army laundries (image courtesy of Australian War Memorial).

The interviews also offer insight into the impact of the War and its ramifications for Papua New Guineans. Not only lives were lost: the landscape was also utterly changed, and there was extensive damage to property. Claude Gegera Peututu, quoted at the start of this article, said ‘The people cried bitterly when they saw how the war had destroyed their land and environment,’ before telling of how he and other carriers were taken to the beach to dig up the dead and re-bury them elsewhere.

Transcripts of all of the interviews are being stored at the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery in Port Moresby. Greg Bablis, acting curator of modern history at the Museum, is conscious of the role that this project plays in forging ‘a sense of national identity and patriotism’, as well as the ability to both allow PNG peoples to ‘write and present history in their own ways’. Bablis says that this project creates ‘a truly Papua New Guinean historiography … The significance of the ownership of the oral recordings is that the copyrights are vested in the interviewees themselves who have given permission for their stories to be made available for public consumption and for use for research purposes.’

Over 70 people have been interviewed for the project so far. PNG’s historiography stands ready to develop rapidly, with plans to expand on this pilot project into other parts of PNG. Already, the historians who worked on the project, like Maclaren Hiari, are working the words of those they met along the Track into their body of historical writing on the war. With this in mind, the colonial archives created by administrators, travellers and planters that have long dominated histories of PNG will have to move aside for the voices of the nation’s Indigenous inhabitants. Reaching beyond the colonial archives legitimises the experiences and opinions of Indigenous Papua New Guineans, giving greater respect and recognition for their role in constructing the nation we know today. It also gives Australians the opportunity to develop greater understandings of our shared past, which is crucial when we are talking about a history that has come to mean so much to Australia and PNG.

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Kirstie Close-Barry - Historian - Lowy Institute

Kirstie Close-Barry

Historian

Dr Kirstie Close-Barry completed a Master of Arts at the University of Melbourne in 2009, and graduated with a PhD in history at Deakin University in 2014. She has taught tertiary-level Australian and Pacific histories since 2008, and will be teaching at the Pacific Adventist University and Deakin University this year. Her research continues on Australian, Fijian and Papua New Guinean colonial histories.