Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Not Just Kokoda

There is a picture that lurks in my mind, brought back to me especially by a visit to Caloundra on Queensland’s Central Coast, where I find many commemorative plaques of the soldiers who fought in the Second World War.  I have counted that over one third of the plaques commemorate soldiers who fought in Papua New Guinea.    

The picture that lurks in my mind, is of long rows of grave stones set in a grass cemetery.   Hundreds of graves are lined up in neat rows, many of them marked with the details of an Australian, or Japanese soldier; however there are just as many with the words, ‘Papuan Soldier Unknown’, inscribed on them.

I am walking in a Papua New Guinea cemetery in the city of Lae on the north east coast of the island.  It is really my first glimpse of the war that was fought to keep Australia safe from the Japanese in the Second World War. It is eye-opening to realise how many of our soldiers died in an effort to protect our land, but it is even more eye-opening to realise how many New Guineans died in an effort to help the Australians win.

While Kokoda is the most known name in Papua New Guinea relating to the Second World War, it is astonishing when you realise how many other locations are historical landmarks.  

In 2006, my Dad, myself and a team of four other Australians flew to Papua New Guinea for a six week mission trip, teaching in remote villages on the value of forgiveness in a culture where the ‘payback’ system is very prevalent.  We saw this system in action when a drunk driver killed the aunt of one of our guides.  As a family member it would have been his ‘privilege’ to kill the driver, however he chose forgiveness and broke the chain of death in his family.

Though Kokoda village was a location that we planned to speak at, our itinerary was arranged by locals who sent us to wherever we were asked for and not where we had planned to go.  Though this was at times very confusing, we were privileged to see many war sites in remote villages which many people are unaware of. 

Staying in the village Konje, near the historical war site Gona, where many Japanese soldiers landed to begin their trek across Kokoda, Dad asked one of the locals what a large impression in the ground was.  He suspected that it was an impression caused by a hurricane that had torn a coconut tree out by the roots but was very surprised to find that it was where a bomb had hit during the war. 

With our eyes opened to the history of the place, we began to explore a little in our afternoon breaks when we should have been taking naps to prepare for the late night teaching sessions we were giving. 

Protected from the harsh sun by large hats, plenty of sunscreen and long-sleeved shirts, we hiked down the rough road to the Gona beach.  Marking the way were scattered graves, overgrown by weeds and grass.  A native pointed out to us the old overgrown mission hospital close to the waterfront that was abandoned during the war and another pointed out where a lone cross stood, stating that during an Australian air raid many Japanese soldiers had hidden in the church adjoined to it thinking it would be safe.  After the bomb, the cross was the only thing that remained standing.



Down at the beautiful picturesque beach where the most amazing blue waves rolled on the sparkling black sand, an old man recollects his memories of the war.

“This beach is where the Japanese soldiers land and the Australians try to shoot them down.  Soon this beach is covered in dead bodies and the river flows red with blood.  We hear them coming and we not know what to do and we just drop our babies and we run to the mountains.  We not know who to help when we see soldiers, whether it is the Australians we should help or the Japanese.  No one tell us why this happen here.”

After six weeks hearing similar stories and realising our ignorance of the war that was fought in Papua New Guinea, we began researching the history of the war in Papua New Guinea, collecting and reading many books and speaking with others who had been in the country during the wartime.

Today Kokoda is a very popular trek and many stories are emerging of people who have spent time trekking the trail and how their lives have been changed by it.   Though we were unable to trek the trail in 2006, we realised that it was not just Kokoda where the battle was fought but that many lives and places were impacted by the war and though the Australians fought for our land it was the many innocent ‘Papuan Soldiers Unknown’ that played a large part in fighting so our nation could remain safe.


 Linking up at Thriving Thursdays





1 comment:

  1. Hello Lizzy:

    I'm reading about your teenage adventures in PNG now - found you through Scribd and the Missions Network.