Soldiers of PNG Fought Many Battles – Gregory J Ivey
This part of the story of PNG soldiers maintains the rarely-viewed perspective of a loyal, proud, resourceful, and gritty fighting unit – one that any soldier would feel confident to be part of in combat. Those servicemen combined such qualities with local knowledge that helped swing the balance in some of the most difficult and demanding campaigns in the South-West Pacific theatre. That this has not been more widely recognised and valued is regrettable. Indeed, it was not always recognised by senior officers during the Second World War itself. This has meant that the place of these servicemen in the history of the War has largely been unrecognised and undocumented. The words that follow are one attempt to redress that imbalance, and to show that their contribution is both remembered and honoured.
NEW GUINEA INFANTRY BATTALION WARRIORS
In Part 1 of this article (see PNG Kundu, March 2023) we saw that the Papuan Infantry Battalion soldiers ‘proved that they made splendid troops for bush warfare’ (Gavin Long, official war historian). During 1943, the focus of the War was passing to New Guinea regions and pressure from both Australian commanders and young indigenous men led to the creation of the first New Guinea Infantry Battalion (NGIB) in March 1944.
After camp construction and training at Camp Diddy near Nadzab, two companies of 1 NGIB took part in the New Britain campaign, supporting various units of Australia’s 5th Division. D Company 1 NGIB operated with different Australian battalions on the north-west coast of New Britain.
There, in February 1945, Warrant Officer Bengari (formerly of the PIB) bravely counter-attacked a Japanese ambush party from the surf using his Owen gun. Although wounded, Bengari repelled another enemy attack on the beach using a Bren gun taken from a dead Australian soldier. The Japanese retreated from such firepower allowing Bengari to be recovered by NGIB soldiers (including Sgt William Matpi) and sent to a military hospital.
Such leadership was not reciprocated by the Australian platoon commanders who were poorly briefed on the skills of NGIB soldiers, such that NGIB companies were unable to practise their cavalry reconnaissance role, as documented by the author Peter Charlton.
A Company 1 NGIB fought on Bougainville continually for six months until exhausted. In May 1945 they were finally relieved by the PIB. A Company servicemen worked with three different Australian Brigades in succession, and always with the forward battalions. The unit historian of the 29th Brigade wrote,
Long before the Japanese patrols or ambushes knew of their presence, the silent moving native soldiers would be aware of the Japanese and fade into the bush. It seems that they have another sense denied to Europeans or Japanese. They despise the Japanese who they regard as their inferiors …
NGIB soldiers were often able to slip past Japanese sentries with ease. One method employed by them, when circumstances were favourable, was documented by James Sinclair. The leading scout would carry with him wild ginger or pepper. He would very carefully ease himself into a position upwind of the Japanese sentry and then throw the wild pepper into the air. The pepper would be carried on the breeze to the sentry who would begin to sneeze and cough, allowing the scout to slip by him and kill him from behind.
2 NGIB was raised in September 1944 and was also trained to carry out a cavalry role. This battalion was very active in driving the Japanese from the Maprik sub-district in co-ordination with Australian forces. After only two weeks deployment in this sub-district from June 1945,
2 NGIB results more than satisfied the Australian Commander, Brigadier Moten. 2 NGIB were involved in ‘hard fighting’ leading to greater than expected casualties.
Wisely, 2 NGIB was deployed as a unit rather than as a pool to be drawn on piecemeal by Australian units, as occurred with 1 NGIB on Bougainville. 2 NGIB remained fighting a ‘wearisome and vicious war’ in this sub-district until well after the official Japanese surrender in mid-August 1945.
Despite their bravery and heroism, PIB and NGIB soldiers raised legitimate complaints with their supervisors during the war (and after the war) about what they saw as humiliating treatment. Here, two examples are briefly outlined.
While 2 NGIB was being trained in late 1944 at Nadzab, coinciding with a controversial period when Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) assumed military control of the battalion, an experienced, former PIB corporal complained that he had been instructed to wear his corporal stripes on his rami (or laplap).
In the PIB, Corporal Diti had worn his stripes on his shirt sleeves but now he had been instructed to wear them similar to the custom of civilian, indentured sanitary workers before the war. Corporal Diti went to Battalion HQ and attempted to explain how insulting this direction was to the indigenous NCOs who had earnt their stripes in combat. (It has also been recorded that Sgt Tapioli, MM was equally vociferous and dramatic in an identical complaint.)
The 2 NGIB Temporary Commander, Major JH Pawson, refused to change the instruction and the exchange became heated. The experienced Corporal Diti was furious, but Pawson insisted that the NCO should wear his stripes on his laplap or ‘he would not have any stripes at all’.
There were consequences the next day when a European duty officer was set upon by upset NCOs when he visited their mess. Soldiers then headed aggressively towards the location of other European supervisors but were stopped when their leader was knocked down by one of the officers. Four ringleaders were punished and transferred out of 2 NGIB while the striking officer also left. Months later, Corporal Diti saw four of his supervisors stranded in the middle of a flooded river and attempted to rescue them. One was swept away and drowned but Corporal Diti personally saved the lives of the other three, one of
whom, ironically, was Major Pawson. Corporal Diti was later awarded the George Medal for his rescues. Higher authorities subsequently withdrew the controversial and insensitive instruction to indigenous NCOs about re-positioning their signs of military rank.
Complaints were also raised in mid-1945 about labouring work, pay, and police actions when all battalions of the PIR re-located to the Gazelle Peninsula. One example: the soldiers were ‘frustrated with their static role of containing Japanese prisoners’ or labouring on the Rabaul wharves while ‘there were still (active) Japanese troops north of the Sepik, which was home to many of the soldiers’. Although some experienced Australian commanders were convinced that there was much justice to the soldiers’ grievances about pay, rations, and working conditions, it was not until after Japan surrendered that improved rates of pay were announced.
The soldiers’ battles with exhaustion and frustrations led to ill-discipline in 1 NGIB, resulting in discharge or imprisonment for those found guilty. Confrontations also arose between PIR soldiers and others: e.g. some ANGAU officers, local people who resented the presence of PIR troops on their land and the police. In the latter case PIR soldiers sometimes set up roadblocks around their camps to deny access to the police.
In this deteriorating situation, a highly decorated and respected leader, Sergeant-Major William Matpi, DCM, was flown from Lae to reason with the soldiers. Matpi was briefed and given a free hand by authorities to resolve the stand-off. Matpi entered one camp by surprise then gathered the leading soldiers of the battalion, discussed the issues with them, and convinced them that civil law must prevail, now the War was over. He visited each battalion in turn to calm the soldiers and listen to their complaints. His presence restored order, Army discipline, and the status of the police. Finally, Matpi reported to the PIR Commander about the soldiers’ complaints, especially the unfairness, after their years of hard fighting throughout the war, of soldiers being limited to the same rates of pay and conditions as the police.
To better co-ordinate the expanding PNG battalions, the Australian Army established a new headquarters for them in November 1944 called the HQ Pacific Islands Regiment. The last active PNG battalion was 3 NGIB which continued to exist until approximately November 1947. Such was the military success of the PNG Battalions during the war, that the Pacific Islands Regiment was officially resurrected only three years later with the PIR re-commencing active service in March 1951. The PIR, awarded the title ‘Royal’ after Independence, has inherited the battle honours and history of its predecessor wartime regiment.
Many war-experienced soldiers re-enlisted in the new PIR and rose to positions of responsibility in the Army, and in their communities after they were discharged. Through a remarkably far-sighted Australian Army policy of localisation, young soldiers with leadership or technical potential were identified and trained in PNG or Australia. Further, an educational scheme was ‘spear-headed’ by the Army Education Corps, boosted in size over the 1966 to 1973 period by approximately 300 qualified National Service Teachers from Australia. As a result, Papua and New Guinea Command was the most prepared institution in the country as self-government and Independence were achieved.
In Australia, the returning war veterans from the PNG battalions formed an association, originally based in Sydney (now based in Brisbane) for purposes such as social events, reunions, and honouring comrades who had fought and died in PNG. Respectfully, this association retains the letters PIB and NGIB in its title.
With over 140 active members across Australia, including three wartime veterans, the association publishes newsletters, manages a website, erects bronze plaques, all designed to promote the heroic role of the PIB and NGIB plus the constructive role, post-war, of PIR servicemen in preparing the military for PNG’s Independence.
This is history that needs to be told and re-told. The soldiers of the PIB and NGIB performed so well for so long that the people of PNG and Australia can be proud of their achievements during the war. We can justifiably hope that more books will be published, and more research will be undertaken, about them. In the meantime, we are called to recognise their vital role, to document their military experiences and to engage with (and honour) the few war-time survivors before those servicemen pass away.
The seed of self-determination was sown during the war although it took another 30 years for it to be achieved. The people of Australia have surely inherited an obligation to their servicemen and women from the PNG campaigns, and to the citizens of PNG today, to support the people of PNG on their path to personal fulfilment and democratic institutions. •
I acknowledge that the following publications provided material used in preparing this story.
James Sinclair, To Find a Path: The Life and Times of the Royal Pacific Islands Regiment, Volume 1 (Brisbane, Boolarong, 1990)
Gavin Long, The Final Campaigns, (Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1963)
Peter Charlton, The Unnecessary War: Island Campaigns of the South-West Pacific 1944–45, (South Melbourne, Macmillan, 1983)
Darryl Dymock, The Chalkies: Educating an Army for Independence (North Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016)
GJ Ivey, Soldiers in Papua & New Guinea 1940 to 1975, self-published, 2017
Gregory J Ivey, ‘Service with 2nd New Guinea Infantry Battalion, recalled by Lance Sergeant Don Collins,’ Sabretache vol LX11, no.2 – June 2021, pp 4 -8.
www.soldierspng.com and www.wikipedia.org