The New Guineans

The great majority of the 18,000 New Guineans who participated in the campaign did so as carriers of supplies for the Allies, though 800 men from the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the Royal Papuan Constabulary fought against the Japanese in 1942...

Two thousand men from New Britain worked for the Japanese as carriers and between two and three hundred Papuans aided the Japanese as armed scouts.

The arrival of the Japanese intruded into tribal politics. Those of the Orokaiva, Bininderi and Koiari peoples, who were employed by the Australian administration at the start of the campaign, in the main sided with the Australians. Others had no particular reason to favour either side. Of necessity it was more important for them to consider the effect of the arrival of the Japanese on the web of political relations between tribal groups. Consequently some calculated it was in their best interest to support the new arrivals, especially if a local enemy had thrown in their lot with the Australians.

Green Shadows – the Papuan Infantry Battalion

On the Kokoda track

Soldiers of the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) were the first to offer resistance to the Japanese invasion of their country. PIB Captain Harold Jesser said that the Battalion was called the 'green shadows' because of an entry found in a Japanese diary in Papua. It was written that the PIB 'moved silently in the jungle, inflicting casualties on us-and then are gone, like green shadows.'

The PIB was formed in 1940 for the defence of Papua. Its privates and non commissioned officers were Papuan. Its officers, and some NCOs, were Australian. It was led by a New Zealander, Major William Watson.

The Japanese landed in Papua on 21 July 1942. Two days later at Awala their advanced guard was ambushed by 38 men of the PIB. Joined by a platoon of Australians of 39th Battalion the ambush was repeated the following day as the Japanese crossed the Kumusi River, and again at Gorari on 25 July.

The Papuans and Australians dug in at Oivi on the night of 26/27 July in an attempt to halt the Japanese advance. The Japanese proved to be too strong and once again the defenders were driven back.

At first Kokoda on 29 July, at second Kokoda, at Deniki and Isurava the PIB stood alongside the Australians as the Japanese forced them back along the Kokoda track. In early September the PIB on the Kokoda track was withdrawn to Port Moresby for rest and training.

Behind Japanese lines

While the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the Australians were retreating along the Kokoda track other members of the PIB had been cut off behind Japanese lines in the Ambasi - Ioma area. One platoon attempted to escape south to Port Moresby but was dispersed or killed. The remainder, B Company, was ordered to maintain contact with the Japanese and send reports of their activities. In October 1942 C Company and the battalion headquarters was able to join them via a route which avoided the Japanese, who at that time were half way to Port Moresby. This isolated force of over 150 PIB attacked Japanese parties retreating to the north coast in November after their defeat at Oivi-Gorari. In January 1943 it also did vital work intercepting Japanese operations north of Buna and in the following month contributed to the elimination of the last Japanese remnants in Papua.

The achievements of the Papuan Infantry Battalion

The Papuan Infantry Battalion, never more than 300 strong in 1942, was credited with killing at least that many Japanese. The battalion was in action for the entire seven months of the Papuan campaign and lost 15 men killed and 35 wounded. The Battalion was awarded one Distinguished Service Order, one Distinguished Conduct Medal, one Military Cross, four Military Medals and 24 Loyal Service Medals.

The cost of war

The destruction wrought by the war in Papua was felt in every village. Those where the Japanese were present felt the hard hand of their administration and the loss of reliable food sources. The hungry Japanese army occupied what is now Northern Province for seven months during which thousands of Papuans were displaced and hundreds starved to death. Elsewhere the absence from their villages of 18,000 men employed by the Allies as carriers, soldiers or policemen also caused hardship. In some villages half of the men were absent on war work. As a consequence women and children suffered food shortages. A study done later in the war noted that many children were undernourished as a result of the absence of the men from their homes for long periods.

Papuan Warriors

Corporal Sanopa was a member of the Royal Papuan Constabulary, a forerunner of the present day Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary. The RPC, an armed police force, is less well known than the Papuan Infantry Battalion but it made a similar substantial contribution towards the Allied victory. By the end of the Papuan Campaign there were 1,127 members of the RPC.

Sanopa was stationed at Buna before the war and knew the Kokoda track well. While serving temporarily with the Papuan Infantry Battalion during the Kokoda campaign he was praised for his bravery on several occasions. The best known of these was on the night of 25/26 July 1942 when the Papuans and Australians were almost surrounded by the Japanese at Oivi east of Kokoda. Sanopa found an unguarded track and led the entire force to safety. Sanopa also fought at Kokoda, Deniki and Isurava. He was awarded the Loyal Service Medal.

Sergeant Katue was from Gora village in the gulf district of Papua. As his low service number PN4 shows, he was one of the first to join the Papuan Infantry Battalion when it was raised in 1940. He was the first member of the Battalion to be awarded a Military Medal. His medal citation reads as follows:

In the Awala-Buna area during the night of 22-23 July at great personal risk and alone, this NCO penetrated to the rear of the enemy lines for a distance of several miles and returned to his headquarters with valuable information of the enemy strength and disposition, thereby enabling his unit to take up a strategic position and greatly retard the enemy advance. This NCO repeated his feat on 26/27 July 1942.

Another gulf district Papuan, Sergeant John Ehava, won the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the highest bravery award given to a Papuan during World War two. At the end of the Papuan campaign an element of the Papuan Infantry Battalion under Ehava was ambushing Japanese who were escaping north along the coast towards Salamaua. Ehava's award citation describes what followed.

On February 8, 1943 at the Kumusi River mouth a patrol under Sergeant Ehava attacked an enemy party attempting to cross the river. During this engagement Sergeant Ehava saw another enemy party approaching on his left. He immediately detached himself from his patrol and, at great personal risk, took up a commanding position and armed with a Bren gun held his fire until the enemy was less than 40 yards distant. He repulsed the attack and personally killed 30 of the enemy.

Ehava's brother, Lance Corporal Gabriel Ehava, served with him at this time and won the Military Medal two weeks later.

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Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), The New Guineans, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 11 July 2024,
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