THIS year marks 76 years since World War 2 reached the shores of our nation. The first shots were exchanged in January of 1942 when the Imperial Japanese 8th Area Army under General Hitosi Imamura captured Rabaul.
This set in motion the Pacific chapter of WWII, which would continue for nearly three long years and claim over 15,000 Allied lives and over 200,000 Japanese. The number of Papua New Guinean lives lost in this war remains unaccounted for (though some sources put the figure at around 15,000).
In March of 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army entered Lae and Salamaua on the mainland after taking Rabaul and other parts of New Britain.
The New Guinea Force, consisting of US and Australian armed forces under the supreme command of the famous US General, Douglas McArthur, initially ran bombing raids on the Morobe coast from over the lofty Owen Stanley from their aerodrome in Port Moresby.
From their fortified position on the north coast, the Japanese Army launched “Operation Mo”. This was their first major thrust to take Port Moresby and use it as their staging point for a major assault on Australia.
The Allied forces however were able to gain air superiority and successfully repelled the onslaught in the “Battle of the Coral Sea” from the 4th and 8th of May, 1942.
The Imperial army’s next attempt to take Port Moresby was put in motion: they took Buna, in the Oro Province and one of the D’Entrecasteaux Islands of Milne Bay. From these two forward bases, they planned a two pronged attack: an amphibious (sea) assault from their base in Milne Bay and overland through the Owen Stanley ranges.
On the 21st of July, 1942, the Japanese launched the “Kokoda Campaign” from Buna with a force of 11,000 men. By September, they had come to within 30kms of Port Moresby.
After some of the fiercest fighting of the war in Papua New Guinea, in an equally unforgiving terrain, the relentless Allied forces and our famous Fuzzy Wuzzy angels stopped the Japanese advance.
Before the end of September 1942, the Imperial army was well and truly routed from the Owen Stanley ranges. With the shift in momentum, the Allied forces then went on to drive out the Japanese from Goodenough Island in the Battle of Milne Bay in October, 1942.
The success of the Allied forces in the Kokoda Campaign and the Battle of Milne Bay had the Japanese army on the back foot. By January 1943, they re-captured Buna in the Battle of Buna-Gona and went on the defeat the Japanese in the Battle of Wau later on in the month.
The Japanese forces fell back to Lae and planned reinforcements from out of “fortress Rabaul” for one final assault on the Allied forces in Wau. This turned out to be a disaster that would signify the beginning of their retreat into a defensive posture until the end of the war.
Japanese reinforcements numbering more than 6,000 men at arms under the command of Rear Admiral Masatomi Kamura, sailed in an armada of eight troop transport ships and eight destroyers across the Bismark Sea for Lae.
In what turned out to be a deadly miscalculation, they had forecasted a bad weather front to keep at bay Allied planes.
The weather front however changed direction and they were exposed. Allied planes scouting the area spotted the fleet and called in the legendary B52 bombers. The Imperial fleet was pummelled, nearly obliterated. Over 4,000 men perished in the high seas. The survivors returned to Rabaul.
The Allied forces then put into motion Operation Cartwheel; a series of coordinated attacks that would include taking New Britain and Bougainville and using these as staging points to re-capture Rabaul. It was then that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind behind Pearl Harbour was killed when the plane he was in was shot down over Bougainville. Combat operations on Bougainville ended on the 21st of August, 1945.
In from the 5th of November of 1943, the Allied air force mounted bombing raids on Rabaul from two US aircraft carriers: USS Saratoga and Princeton. The incessant bombing destroyed the Japanese cruisers (battle ships) in Simpsons Harbour and weakened considerably, Japanese naval power. Continuous bombing raids and the devastation wrought on the Imperial fleet eventually forced the Japanese to capitulate in August, 1945.
From 1944 to the end of the war in 1945, the Imperial Japanese 18th Army was also routed from the North West coast in the Wewak-Aitape Campaign.
On the 2nd of September, 1945, Japan surrendered aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
Our Unsung Heroes
There are numerous historical accounts of the bravery and sacrifices of the Allied Forces; however sadly much of the bravery and courage of our own forefathers and the suffering of our people remain untold. They perhaps never really understood the agenda and disputes of world powers and their struggle for geo-political dominance; nor the abstract ideologies that drove empires to wage war; but they fought, and fought they did, just as courageously and honourably.
This Remembrance Day, I wish to pay homage to late Warrant Officer Paul Yauwiga Wangunare DCM (in photo). He was man of immense stature, both in feat and physique; a towering figure, legendary warrior and national hero.
Born in 1902 in Kusaun, Kubalia, East Sepik, Yauwiga was attached to the Australian Infantry Brigade during WWII and fought throughout the north coast of Papua New Guinea, Rabaul and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. This is a brief recollection of his heroism.
There was a time during the war when his unit’s position was about to be overrun by a Japanese force numbering 80 men. His unit commander fearing the odds, ordered his men to retreat but Yauwiga stood his ground; he is alleged to have told his commander that, women would make haste to retreat, but as men, “we must stand and fight”. His commander and the rest of the unit retreated while Yauwiga faced the Japanese onslaught with only three rifles. He held the position for 15 minutes before repelling the superior force.
Such was his bravery and ferocious fighting spirit that he is said to have single-handedly killed over fifty Japanese soldiers in two years.
Yauwiga was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for gallantry in the field of battle - To give you a sense of the significance of this award, it places Yauwiga among men of great valour that include British Special Air Serviceman (SAS) Andy McNab of Bravo-Two-Zero fame.
The giant from the Torricelli Mountains lost an eye and a hand from an exploding grenade in the war and was said to have been ferried in a submarine to Australia for treatment. Doctors performed an eye transplant, giving him a “new” blue eye which once belonged to an Australian man who died in a motorcycle accident.
Yahwiga’’s story is also one of profound wisdom and foresight. Following the end of the war, Yauwiga played a leading role in eradicating the practice of sorcery and witchcraft in the Wewak-Boiken-Kairuru Island areas. Most witch doctors in the villages he visited, surrendered their bag of magical leaves, roots and bones out of fear and respect for him.
He drove a message of progress and embracing change wherever he went, and was instrumental in establishing the Boram School - Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas Somare is a product of this school. He is also said to have requested the Australian administration to build the Sepik Highway.
I do not know much as I would love to about this unsung hero, but I have been amazed, even challenged, by what little I have heard of him.
Perhaps when I next return for a visit to Kubalia, I will be sure to visit his grave at Marianumbo and pay my respects.
In the war, I believe our forebears choose to fight on the right side. I also believe that the war in the Pacific would have dragged on longer and exerted a far steeper human toll had they not fought beside the Allied Forces.
Kokoda would have fallen, and Port Moresby also, and the war would have extended its horrifying tentacles to the Australian continent, inflicting infinitely more carnage than what bombing raid on Darwin had on the 19th of February, 1942.
Our people experienced intimately, the horrors and carnage of modern warfare. They probably had never seen nor been a part of such unbridled carnage before; I don’t believe they would have imagined the scale of such a war, not even from the ancient annals of our ancestors.
Our war heroes gave up their lives, dying beside their Allied comrades. They fought a mortal combat on their own land; and they much urgency and desperation, knowing that all that they knew and had including their families could all disappear given they were in the same theatre of war. They sensed the enormity of the struggle and the need to win and they rose to meet death as real men.
It is my sincere hope that we, this generation and the ones to come, remember and appreciate the sacrifices made by our forebears and unsung heroes. They fought a war in which they had no quarrel in, but because they fought valiantly. And because they did, we enjoy the freedoms we now have.
Our nation does stand on the shoulders of giants: great men and women of valour like Yauwiga. If their stories have not been told for so this long, it is now incumbent on us to tell it in earnest as proud Papua New Guineans.
Lest we forget…....