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Remembering Australia’s Wars: Hangings of Papua New Guineans by Australian Soldiers in WWII Complicate Our National Narratives

By Kirstie Close-Barry and Victoria Stead 

In the lead up to the one hundredth anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli, narratives of war and nationhood are in high circulation. Despite its location on the other side of the world, many consider Gallipoli the ‘birthplace of the nation’. It was here, many believe, and various governments have told us, that Australians first spilt their blood for the benefit of the nation: Gallipoli was our baptism of fire. Others, though, have sought to draw our attention to battles fought later in the twentieth century and on terrain closer to home. These should indeed figure in our national narratives, although not only for the reasons that are often given.

In 1992, while visiting the Kokoda Track, Paul Keating, then Prime Minister, pointed to Australian military efforts in Papua New Guinea (PNG) during the Second World War. The Kokoda campaign was, he said, a fight not only for the old empire, but a fight for Australia. It may have been, but Keating failed to mention that our presence in PNG was as a colonial power.  In his telling of it, our connections to PNG were forged in 1942. In fact, our connection to Kokoda officially commenced in 1906, when Australia assumed control of the Territory of Papua, and in 1914 the Territory of New Guinea.

Though remembering Gallipoli is hard, for the scale of lives lost on a distant battlefield and for the impact it had on the survivors and families on both sides of the trenches, remembering Kokoda is in a way harder. To date, this remembering has been accompanied by a collective forgetfulness about Australia’s colonial role.

Over the last twelve months, a team of historians from Australia and Papua New Guinea, led by Deakin University’s Dr Jonathan Ritchie, has recorded the oral histories of Papua New Guineans living along the Kokoda track. These have included some of the few Papua New Guineans still alive who have direct recollections of the War, and the descendants of others who carry the stories of their kin. A new body of research, including collaborations with anthropologists, is examining the significance of these collective memories for contemporary PNG communities.

Complicating the wartime narratives familiar to us-Papua New Guineans working alongside Australians as carriers and guides, our ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’-are other, grimmer details. These include the hangings, by Australians, of at least 21 (and possibly as many as 60) Orokaiva men in a place called Higaturu. They were hanged, first from a breadfruit tree and then from a gallows constructed for the purpose, in July and September 1943.

The Papua New Guinean men were sentenced to death by members of ANGAU, the New Guinea administration-Australians who had been living and working in New Guinea before the war-who had been brought into the Australian Army, valued for their knowledge of the local people, terrain, languages and cultures.  The executed men were charged with treason after Australian missionaries from the nearby Anglican mission and an American soldier were handed over to the Japanese, at whose hands they subsequently died.

Pacific scholars and those familiar with PNG may have heard about the ‘Higaturu Hangings’, but they are little known by the Australian public. The image of the ‘treasonous native’ sits uncomfortably alongside that of the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel’, although both are problematic. In the case of the latter, represented most visibly in the iconic image of Papua New Guinean man Raphael Oembari leading a blinded Australian soldier along the Kokoda Track, narratives of loyal carriers take on a ‘noble savage’ bent that obscures the incredibly difficult, and often coercive, conditions in which Papua New Guineans found themselves.

Australia had been administering the Territory of Papua for nearly forty years by the time our troops started scaling the Kokoda track in 1942.  Papua New Guineans, particularly those in the north where the Japanese launched their assault, were compelled to pick sides in a conflict waged by two foreign powers on their land and in their villages. Some of those subsequently executed for treason had been appointed as Captains by the Japanese, offered the world if they helped them to win. In an area that had been under German and then Australian rule, and where many had worked hard for next to no wage on Australian-run plantations, perhaps this was an opportunity for a new start, under a new system. Others perhaps tried to pick who might win the war-and hence who would determine its heroes and its villains-and got it wrong.

The handing over of the Australian missionaries and the American soldier to the Japanese was an act of betrayal, and the deaths that they met were cruel. So too, though, were the deaths of the Orakaiva men at Higaturu. There is ample evidence to suggest grave problems with the judicial process leading to the executions, and a strong likelihood that at least some of the men were ‘innocent’ of the charge against them. More fundamentally, though, what does ‘treason’ mean in the context of the Pacific War? The very charge itself obscures that the hanged men were not Australian citizens but rather colonial subjects; that the Australians were as uninvited as the Japanese.

Paul Keating’s bid to shift the focus of Australia’s wartime narrative to the battlefields of the Pacific was largely unsuccessful, although a debate about the relative significance of the Gallipoli and Kokoda campaigns has simmered since. With the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War also due in 2015-in August – it may boil over again. The point here is not to fuel a simplistic contest for historical primacy-if nothing else, the oral histories from the Kokoda Track reveal just how impoverished such simplistic models of either/or conflict are-but rather to call for a more complicated reckoning with Australia’ wartime history.

Part of the potency of the Gallipoli story has been its appeal to a national imagining of ourselves as ‘underdogs’. Kokoda-where Australia had the status of a colonial power, where it was the victor, and where it dispensed a sometimes-brutal victor’s justice-complicates this imagining. The Higaturu hangings may not be well remembered by Australians, but they are very definitely remembered in the area surrounding the Kokoda Track, where they are entangled with the broader story of Australia’s colonial and postcolonial engagement with PNG, and where people also wonder if and when there will be more than vague symbolic gestures of recognition for the carriers deemed to be our ‘good’ colonial subjects.

Wars and nation-building projects are by their very nature complex and fraught. The stories we tell ourselves about these things must weave together the multiple threads of history, and they must include the angles that we have previously obscured.

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/remembering-australia%e2%80%99s-wars-hangings-of-papua-new-guineans-by-australian-soldiers-in-wwii-complicate-our-national-narratives

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