Project preserves war stories


Ironically, the most destructive manmade events often leave in their wake a regenerative compulsion among the humans affected by them.
The trope of the “fuzzy wuzzy angels” or the Green Shadows, for instance, were the stories of individual sacrifices writ large.
Yet the meta-narratives they fed into often failed to recognise the individuality of suffering and sacrifice.
The Oral History project sought to identify, individuate, honour and recognise while amplifying Papua New Guinean involvement to a national and international scale.
Gallipoli held swayed over the Australian national psyche for the early part of the twentieth century, just as the Revolutionary War and Civil War had for America, or Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele had in post-WWI Canada.
Retrospectively, many Australians now view Kokoda as the true test of Australian mettle in a war that was seen to be quite literally at their doorstep.
An important question for the project though, had and continued to be, “what were Papuans and New Guineans fighting for?”
The answers gleaned were more nuanced than suggestions of conformity.
The Oral History project was a grand effort in developing a national consciousness, especially in a country that had struggled with a weak sense of nationhood and where tribal affinities were often prioritised.
Wartime service could be constructed as an occasion on which people from across the land worked together on a common project.
The majority of the wartime carriers did not come from the region of the Kokoda Track – Koiari, Biage and Kaiva.
These local people were directly displaced by the fighting.
Most of the carriers were recruited from existing labour pools in Port Moresby and further along the Papuan coast, from Daru to Milne Bay and Gulf.
New Guineans who were conscripted and shipped to Buna carried for the Japanese and many of those who survived then escaped and joined the Australians.
Men from Bougainville, the Sepik and Rabaul also walked the Kokoda Track.
Many of PNG’s WWII veterans have passed away and their numbers continue to dwindle, so the Oral History project was literally a race against time to capture their voices in the first person – though this point was not always appreciated or taken seriously enough by the PNG Government.
The fact that we have now lost another one of these old men, in the late Nepe Kumanyal who passed away on Sept 20 in Port Moresby, was sad.
But we were thankful that he shared his story with the museum in 2015. His story is unique, for he is the only person from the Highlands whose war service story was recorded by the museum.
That most of the carriers who worked along the Kokoda Track came from other parts of Papua and New Guinea and were recruited from existing labour pools explained how Kumanyal was pressed into service.
He was from Chimbu in PNG’s Central Highlands.
I interviewed him on Aug 15, 2015, at the Museum Theatrette.
Kumanyal told me how he started carrying cargo for a kiap (colonial official) he knew only as “master Kyle” sometime in the 1930s, shortly after Australian gold prospectors and kiaps had intruded into his region.
Kumanyal said Kyle paid the carriers in shell money, which was more valuable to them at the time.
Kumanyal said he was a young man in 1942 and was in Wau, Morobe, with other Chimbu carriers when war broke out.
Angau (the Australian New Guinea administrative unit) recruited Kyle as a coastwatcher and intelligence officer and he used the same Chimbu carriers he had employed to trek to Wau with him from the Highlands.
From Wau, they walked to Salamaua and then further south to Oro where they met up with Australian forces at Kokoda Station.
Kumanyal described how he saw and met other Papua New Guineans at Kokoda Station, but they could not communicate with each other because they all spoke different languages.
He said they would signal with their hands over their bellies to indicate to the white men that they were hungry.
Kumanyal served as a carrier and later went to Port Moresby where he received training to be a medical orderly.
In the high diction of war, normal language and terms are often “raised” to give them commemorative and emotional force in the aftermath.
For instance, friendship becomes comradeship or mateship; bravery becomes valour or courage; determination becomes endurance or ‘Kokoda spirit’; soldiers become warriors.
And carriers, whose range of tasks included menial labour, were described as angelic beings whose intercession and assistance, especially on the Kokoda Track, was immortalised in poems, prose, photographs, paintings and other popular merchandise.
The “carrier” was reformulated in locution as almost worthy of divinity.
Yet this still disavows the individuality of their suffering and sacrifice.
What is perhaps most fuzzy about the “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels” is the official recognition, and to state it bluntly, the monetary compensation or lack thereof, given by the colonial administration and now the PNG Government.
In 2009, the Australian government offered symbolic compensation through a new Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels Commemorative Medallion, which it bestowed on surviving carriers and their descendants.
Late Kumanyal showed me his medallion when I interviewed him in 2015, but lamented the fact that since the end of the war he had never been paid anything.
Apart from his medallion, Kumanyal and his daughter Nancy, with whom he was living with, always looked forward to the annual Remembrance Day celebrations and its free meals.
“Tis all cruel tokenism though, to be honest.
“In another irony, this year’s Remembrance Day celebration, which would have been Kumanyal’s last, was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kumanyal’s extraordinary story was made all the more amazing by the fact that he lived in a region that had at the time only recently been intruded by the Western world.
He was likely the first generation from his place to see white men and experience that quantum leap in technology, which was then accelerated tenfold by the war.
A common vignette from the oral histories of the war was that Papua New Guineans were like “meat in a sandwich”.
This was an expression of a situational irony whereby PNG participants found themselves in an unexpected position through no direct action of their own.
Some saw no racial differences between the Australians, Americans and the Japanese, as was initially the case for Kumanyal.
As a Papua New Guinean observing the war and studying its effects in the present, I noted the irony in Papuans and New Guineans helping one colonial master to fight another foreign power who might have become the next colonial master.
And yet the outcome of the war, as it turned out, was so important to the disintegration of the colonial complex and PNG’s future path to self-determination.
Late Kumanyal is survived by five children, 19 grandchildren, 29 great-grandchildren and 1 great-great-grandchild.
His funeral service was held on Oct 19.
He will be laid to rest at his home village, Konoma, Sinasina-Yonggomugl, Chimbu.

Gregory Bablis is Principal Curator, Modern History Department, PNG National Museum and Art Gallery.