Of war and medicine

Normal, Weekender

WALLACE KIALA chats with Thomas Poken Tokiapron, a native medical officer who was trained under the Australian and New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU)

THOMAS Poken Tokiapron from Nissan Island on Bougainville was 19 years old in 1945 when he was recruited to be a native medical officer by the Australian Army medical team of the 23rd Brigade serving in the Second World War under Australian and New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU).
This was after the Allied forces take over from the Japanese in the summer of 1944.
Last week Thomas now, 84 spoke with The National Weekender about his time as a native medical orderly during the WW II occupation by the Allied forces of Nissan Island  known then as the Green Island on Bougainville.
Tokiapron was born in Yochibol village on the main island of Nissan.
The Green Islands are eight islands, being part of two coral atolls on the north end of the Solomon Island chain, four degrees South of the Equator.
Nissan Island is the largest one and where the U.S. Navy / Marine Corps., New Zealand and Australian bases were located when they out did the Japanese.
Tokiapron recalled that “during the occupation of Nissan by the Allied forces still fighting the Japanese, many of the local islanders were forced to be moved in February of 1944 to temporary care centers on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and me and my family were part of the group”.
“They built us makeshift tents along the beaches but only a few months into our stay there was a serious disease outbreak which affected our people and most of them mainly children started to die. It was very very heart-breaking  seeing this happen in a foreign land that were forced to be temporary stations while the war continued”, he said.
According to extracts from  The Third Party -ANGAU’s New Guinea War 1942 – 1946 by Alan Powell : in February 1944 around 1200 local inhabitants of Nissan were evacuated by the US command because they believed it would be easier to feed and supervise them on Guadalcanal than in their remote homeland. All went as no one objected to the idea to seek refuge in the Solomons.
“By March 1944 they reached Guadalcanal, they were well housed and rationed, provided with a school and  hospital, however the changed environment and the enforced separation of the Nissan islanders from their lands caused them to become depressed.” Powell wrote.
As a result they could not fight diseases that they caught at the care centre, This resulted in a number of deaths among the very old and infants.
In September of 1944 the military authorities gave in and had to ship the locals back to Nissan .
All the fit man were promptly put to work for the incoming Australians of the 23rd Brigade.
Tokiapron was handpicked by an Australian army doctor, Fred Gilmore on Jan 1945 to be a native medical assistant.
“Dispela dokta yet bilong Australia em I bin stap insait long Army em skulim mi long ridim thermometer, lo givim sut long ol man, meri na pikinini”.  (The Australian doctor serving in the Royal Australian Army taught me how to use the thermometer and administer malaria prevention injection to people)
He said the common diseases he treated were malaria and dengue fever, sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia, appendicitis and sores.
There were many locals from New guinea (Mamose, New Britain and Bougainville) who served in their respective areas as native medical assistants.
By mid 1945 The ANGAU detachment’s task was to spread Australian influence from Bougainville into the outlying islands of New Britain, New Hanover, Djaul, Tabar, Tanga Feni and the Lihir group.
Local labour was part of the spread and in July 1945 Tokiapron left his home and parents for Tanga Island in New Ireland province as a fully fledged native medical orderly.
He served there from 1945 to 1949 travelling extensively by foot and canoe throughout villages on Tanga, Tabar and Lihir Islands.
In Jan 1950 he was among other medical officers from New Ireland who joined colleagues in East New Britain province for further training at Nonga hospital and practical work at Namanula Japanese prison hospital in Rabaul and at the Kokopo health centre.
They completed their training at the end of 1951. He said they had learnt a great deal which he is thankful for today. They were all presented certificates of qualification as native medical assistants during the Territory of Papua New Guinea era.
“At the end of our training I was given my certificate and I owe this to the people of New Ireland especially Tanga, Tabar and Lihir and most importantly to my father and mother who let me go to New Ireland just as the war was coming to an end”, he said.
Tokiapron returned to Nissan and continued his duties until the Queens coronation in 1952.
Tokiapron married a local girl named Rita, they had 10 children. Now a widower, he has  29 grand children and 10 great grand children.