Wewak’s forgotten heroes

Normal, Weekender

SINCLAIRE SOLOMON revisits a forgotten war memorial at his Mengar village in Wewak, which is dedicated to Indian POWs who died there during World War II.

ABOUT 50m from my mother’s home, and grave, at Mengar village in Wewak, stands a lonely memorial.
The hundreds who travel the Dagua Road every day to and from Wewak across Wariman bridge don’t know of its existence because it is overgrown by kunai grass.
Yet, this unkept memorial is dedicated to about 450 Indians prisoners of war (POWs) captured in Hong Kong and Singapore and shipped to Wewak, where many suffered severe hardships and brutality at the hands of their Japanese captors.
It is probably the only one of its type in the area and the country, erected by the Wewak Returned Services League club in the 1970s.
The Indians were used to fortify Wewak against an impending invasion by the Allied forces.
Most were killed in the softening-up air raids while others died from malaria, malnutrition and hard work. The death rate was such that only 11 of the POWs survived the Wewak campaign. Unfortunately, 10 of these 11 men were killed in Rabaul when an RAAF Dakota transport plane crashed on take-off when taking them home after liberation.
The sole survivor was Major (Jemadar) Chint Singh, a key witness in war crimes trials in Wewak and Rabaul.
Two weeks ago, I decided to track down the major who had been a POW near my village, in my mangrove, sago swamp and beach, a stone’s throw from Wewak town, more than 64 years ago.
“That’s like looking for a needle in a hundred haystacks. Good luck, anyway,” said my Indian-born colleague, Sanjay Bhosale.
Undeterred, I got busy on the internet; just two days later, I had found my man, his two living relatives and heaps of articles and photographs, notably from the Australian War Memorial.
His younger son Narinder Singh Parmar, a high school teacher in Wollongong, NSW, said his father Major Chint Singh (1917-1983) was a soldier from India’s northern state of Himachal Pradesh. He was respected by many Australians and some of his mates still remember him, he said.
Mr Parmar said his father did not like to remember the years he and his comrades spent as POWs in Wewak.
However, his father sent a message to PNG on Sept 30, 1971, when the second Indian Martyrs memorial was unveiled at Angoram, on the west bank of the Sepik River.
The message read: “…  day of great significance to me when I along with 10 Indian POWs was rescued by the Australian armed forces at this spot.
“We were feeble, sick, emaciated, reduced to mere skeletons due to the brutalities of Japanese guards.
“Life was no certainty. A day earlier, Sept 29, 1945, Sepoy Jai Ram and Sepoy Ibrahim had breathed their last.
“We, the remaining 11, were also waiting our turn to join them.
“In the meantime God sent angles from heaven (Australian and local people of New Guinea) to fetch us out from the oblivion into the new world, and put new life into us at Angoram.
“We were not known to the world, nor the world to us.
“We were declared missing by the British government and our kith and kin were missing to us.
“We were living in absolute darkness. Our hearts had become as hard as stones, our feelings were crushed, we had turned worse than animals, eating grass, jungle roots, lizards, insects.
“How we passed days, months and years, through atrocities and privations and without any type of food including sugar and salt seems incredible even to me.”
His elder son Colonel Surjit Singh Parmar (retired) recalled: “In February 1983 when dad was in the hospital, a diagnosis of cancer was made but I did not have the heart to tell him.
“The best option was to meet one of his 2nd Dogra (regiment) colleagues, Brig S L Kapoor, who was also posted there.
“He told me ëyou can tell him the fact without any apprehension as he is a brave soldier and knows how to face the realties of life’.”
Son Narinder said he got his commission in the 2nd Dogra Regiment in 1948. During his career in the army, he excelled in his training role. He was recalled on active service during 1971 Indo-Pakistani war. He retired in 1974 and settled in his village. During his retirement he was actively involved with the welfare of ex-servicemen and war-widows.
Major Chint Singh lost his battle with cancer in February 1983 at a military hospital and being an ex-serviceman, he received a soldier’s funeral.
Recalls Narinder: “When we went through his belongings, we found a diary in which he mentioned all the steps to be taken after his death. One of the tasks was – ‘Inform my friends in Australia of the death e.g. Bruce Ruxton, Tony Hordern, Peterson, HQ, RSL, Canberra, Australia’.
“It is amazing how well he maintained his diaries during the war which became important evidence against the Japanese and he kept that habit of writing in his diaries till the last day of his life.”
Dr Peter Stanley, principal historian of the Australian War Memorial, wrote that conditions for Indian POWs were at least as severe as those encountered by Allied prisoners of war elsewhere in the Japanese empire.
“Every liberated prisoner had been beaten or had witnessed severe beatings. The interrogation reports of liberated prisoners include many accounts of routine brutality.”
Dr Stanely wrote that the first indications that Indians were to be found in New Guinea came in March 1944 when 69 Indians were liberated on Los Negros, Manus, by the US 1st Cavalry Division.
He said it was apparent that the presence of Indians on Los Negros came as a surprise to Allied authorities.
“Neither American nor Australian formations had any experience of Indian troops – who largely spoke Urdu rather than English. Passed along a medical chain of evacuation by unfamiliar personnel, they evidently repeatedly encountered difficulties in cultural and religious sensitivities.”
He wrote that during the Aitape-Wewak campaign in December 1944, Australian units immediately started encountering sick and starving prisoners, often wandering in the bush.
In one instance, a patrol found two emaciated Indians who had been travelling from Wewak for 45 days, the first of many Indians recovered in the Sepik campaign.
In mid-May, 88 prisoners were recovered by Aussie Diggers following the landing of the “Farida Force” east of Wewak.
Contact between my people and the Indians was nil because Wewak villagers had fled to the safety of their relatives in the hills when the Japanese invaded.
In total, about 6,000 Indian POWs survived in New Guinea until they were liberated by Australian, or US forces, in 1943-45.