Effort to record PNG's WWII stories 'urgent', says researcher
A pilot oral history project has just been completed in Papua New Guinea recording the experiences of those affected by the second world war.
A pilot oral history project has just been completed in Papua New Guinea recording the experiences of those affected by the Second World War.
The pilot focussed on the Kokoda Trail, famous for the 'fuzzy wuzzy angels' who supported Australian troops in 1942.
The last of the fuzzy wuzzies, Ovoru Indiki, died last year.
A researcher at Melbourne's Deakin University who helped gather the information, Jonathan Ritchie, says Mr Indiki's death underlines the urgency of the task, as PNG perspectives are often overlooked.
Mr Ritchie told Jamie Tahana he hopes the project will be expanded to cover the whole country.
JONATHAN RITCHIE: There's been lots of coverage, and reporting and books and films about the Australian, New Zealand, American and even Japanese perspective on the war in the Pacific. But unfortunately, all too often the voices that tend to neglected are those of the actual Pacific islanders themselves. Turning to Papua New Guinea, this is a real problem because too many people who were alive and active during that time, whether they were carriers, or whether they were members of the Papuan Infantry Battalion, or New Guinea Infantry Battalion have now passed away. And indeed, earlier this year one of the last ones, a gentleman by the name of the late Ben Moide unfortunately died. So there's very, very few people left alive now who can talk about their experiences. So it's really crucial that we get out there and get recording as quickly as we can. We're very fortunate because the Kokoda initiative which is the name of the agreement between the Papua New Guinean and Australian governments who decided put some funds into making this happen. So around May this year I was with a group of Papua New Guineans who formed our project team and we began our interviews in Oro Province. We went to several villages, we went to schools, we went spoke and recorded interviews with about 40 people - most of whom of course weren't active and alive during the war, but we did manage to get to some which was terrific, and we got these fascinating stories. More recently we were able to do the same thing in Central Province. So all-in-all, the exercise so far has recorded more than 70 different interviews, of those 70 we have six men and women who were alive and indeed active during that time. So we've got a real mixture of wonderful stories, and the sense that we had very strongly from the Papua New Guineans who we spoke with was that this is just the beginning, there are so many more stories out there that demand to be told.
JAMIE TAHANA: What kind of stories did you hear? What did the locals have to say that was different to what we've already heard?
JR: Well for a start I think the Australians' focus on the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels is really only one part of the story. The war was much bigger than the Kokoda campaign which we tend to focus on which was obviously extremely important, but really lasted between July and the end of 1942. The war kept on in Papua New Guinea until August and even September 1945 and that is an entire period of three and a half years, long after the fighting had moved away from the Kokoda trail area. Papua New Guineans were still involved, they were recruited from villages to work as carriers and often they didn't return home for the entire duration. They went and worked with the allies in many different locations across the territory as it then was. They fought as soldiers, and indeed the members of the PNG infantry battalions were known by the Japanese soldiers, and feared by the Japanese soldiers -- Called Green Shadows because of their ability to slip in and out of the bush and to commit mayhem -- so they were really seen as being very effective and important soldiers. But of course the story's much greater than just the soldiers and the carriers because thousands upon thousands came to places for the duration of the war and that had a major impact on the experience of Papua New Guineans. So these stories go far more broadly and more deeply than just that Australian creation of just the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel.
JT: How open were these people to telling their stories, I mean you said you've only done a fraction of what there is?
JR: Oh look, we were welcomed wherever we went. People were so enthusiastic about this project. People understood very, very clearly the purpose of it which was not so that historians like me can go off and write books, we made this very clear. The point of this story was that we would typically go into a village and there'd be opportunities for some speeches and so on and there were so many children around. Wherever we went, little children in village and I would point to them and say 'this exercise is for these children, and it's for their children, and it's for their children' and so on. And everybody understood this, that this is not about a short-term exercise, this is about something that will benefit untold generations long after the war fades into history. What happened was that we would then sit down with the people wanting to tell their stories and we would have an audience around us and people would tell these stories for the record, but also for the people who were listening, and it was just enthralling listening.
JT: What was the biggest learning experience for you doing this? Like you said, not much is known about these experiences here.
JR: Probably the biggest learning experience for me was that people lived with and still live with the legacy of the war. That these are stories that people feel very, very strongly about and they look back to that time of great trial with a mixture of sadness, but also nostalgia. People look back to this time of great partnership, they really remember and they want to tell the story about the time when Papuans and New Guineans and Australians were working together. That's a clear message that came through.
JT: This of course was just a pilot project in a very small fraction of a very large country. What's the process for doing more of this? I mean, it was just a pilot, you need to seek more funding don't you?
JR: Well yes we do, but I should say that when the project was first announced, and it was the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard who on a visit to Papua New Guinea made a speech in which she said the Australian government would support this exercise across all of PNG. So the way things like this turn out is there is this wider project still to be done, but we test the water by doing a pilot study. The pilot study is now complete and we're now going through the process of looking at the lessons from this pilot study and turning that into a set of clear recommendations for going forward. So I can't really talk about the question of funding, I don't know how available that will be and how both the PNG and Australian governments are and that's a question for them to say. But what I can say is that I've certainly had nothing but good impressions from people with whom I've been working with about the likelihood of something like this going on. And of course everyone understands that there's a huge amount of urgency here because so many of the people who lived and worked and fought during the war have now passed away and if we want to have any chance at all of getting most people, we need to do it quickly.
To embed this content on your own webpage, cut and paste the following: