Soldiers of PNG Fought Many Battles
Gregory J Ivey—PART 1
Fortune has left alive a few veterans who fought in PNG against a well-armed and ruthlessly-determined invader during the Second World War: they symbolise the historic and cultural integration between Papua New Guinea and Australia. Servicemen and women from both countries combined then against an existential threat and they endured that catastrophe to leave us a legacy and an obligation. Here is part of that story.
Soldiers of PNG
The Papuan Infantry Battalion (1940–46) and the New Guinea Infantry Battalions (1944–47) comprised mainly soldiers of PNG and some Australian servicemen and were, militarily, a part of the Australian Army commanded by General Thomas Blamey within the South-West Pacific Area controlled by General Douglas MacArthur. Over 3,550 servicemen were posted to the PIB or NGIB, upgraded in 1944 to become the dominant arms of the new Pacific Islands Regiment. The PIB or the NGIB participated in every major battle in PNG except Milne Bay because at that time all their forces were concentrated in the Kokoda Campaign where they initiated the first offensive.
Approximately 156 servicemen (134 Papua New Guineans and 22 Australians) from PIB/NGIB/PIR died during these conflicts. The number of confirmed enemy deaths while operating against those same servicemen was 2,201. Between 1942 and 1945, 45 members of the PIB and NGIB received 43 bravery awards and decorations including a DSO, 6 MCs,
3 DCMs, 20 MMs, and a United States Legion of Merit. After the war, the Australian authorities awarded these battalions 11 Theatre and Battle Honours, which are proudly displayed today by the Royal Pacific Islands Regiments.
Two years after its formation, the PIB was required to enact an offensive role against the invading Japanese Army. Their initial army roles were (a) as a reconnaissance unit (b) as a fighting unit and (c) as a guerrilla unit. In these roles, the PIB provided outstanding service, particularly in operations behind enemy lines. There, PIB soldiers excelled at infiltrating enemy camps to gather intelligence; in rescuing downed airmen and soldiers cut-off behind enemy lines; and at harassing the enemy. They also proved very effective in disrupting the Japanese lines of communication.
Later, as the number of PNG battalions increased, other military roles were added such as small attachments to AIF or USA infantry battalions. Then, their roles became more diverse as they were subject to local commanders rather than their distant headquarters.
Quality Soldiers, 1943
After the Kokoda and Northern Beach Heads Campaigns, the PIB participated in many large and small Allied campaigns. The effectiveness of the PIB can be illustrated by a 1943 report written by the Commanding Officer of the United States 162nd Infantry Regiment, Colonel AR McKecknie:
During recent campaigns in the Nassau Bay/Tambu Bay/Salamaua area, it was the good fortune of this Regiment to have attached to us Company A, PIB. The work of the members of this Company during operations was outstanding and without the valuable assistance of this, our troops would have had extreme difficulty in accomplishing their mission.
The troops of our Regiment in daily contact with the members of this Company have developed an unusual respect and admiration for their prowess and soldierly qualities. I feel that, in any operation by European troops in jungle country, the assistance of the PIB would be an invaluable asset. Operating in twos and threes with our patrols, and leading our small units along the tracks, I feel that the PIB saved us many casualties; and enabled us to move and obtain information in places which would otherwise have been inaccessible to European troops. They saved us many lives and it is our sincere hope that, in any future operations in jungle country, we may have the privilege of operating again with this excellent Company …
An Australian Commander wrote another report in 1943 praising the PIB.
On 9 November General Vasey, had issued orders for the PIB to relieve 2/6th Independent Company units in the Kesawai area of the Ramu Valley. Brigadier Ivan Dougherty, commanding the 21st Australian Infantry Brigade, wrote on the operations of B Company PIB during this part of the campaign:
During the time B Coy has been under command of 21 Aust Inf Bde, they have rendered valuable service in patrolling. They have been very suitable for gathering information. One very pleasing feature of their work is that at all times they appear to have been under excellent control no matter how difficult the situation. Communications have never failed,
and I have, at all times, been able to follow movements of patrols no matter how distant.
Australian Commanders and PNG Leaders
Major WT Watson DSO, MC and Bar, DCM (1887–1961) commanded the PIB from September 1942 to April 1944 and was an outstanding leader who earned respect during his long career. Born in New Zealand to Australian parents, he played Rugby Union for Australia in 24 matches and captained the team three times. During the First World War, Watson served in the ANMEF at Bita Paka, then at Gallipoli and later the Western Front where he was awarded his MC and Bar, and a DCM. Postwar, Watson lived in PNG twice over twelve years.
In the early days of the Kokoda Campaign, Watson was twice the Temporary Commander of Maroubra Force earning him his DSO. Later, when reporting to the newly-arrived Brigadier Potts, Watson offered his PIB soldiers to fulfil any role required in the battle. Potts asked Watson to deploy his PIB soldiers in the vital role of military protection for, and supervising the evacuation of, wounded servicemen back to Port Moresby. PIB soldiers proceeded to organise and escort the carriers and their wounded heading south along the Kokoda Track. In 1944, aged 57, Watson was over the Army age limit and had to retire. After the war, Watson returned to his American wife and children, serving Australia as Vice Consul in New York.
Lance Sergeant Benjamin Moide CBE, DMS, Tuari Tauna (1924–2013) was a soldier in the PIB during the War, having volunteered as an under-age 16-year-old to join the new PIB in 1940 as Recruit Number 67. Born in his mother’s village at Hanuabada, Ben received his education at Badili Catholic School. Being educated, tall for his age, and healthy, Ben was accepted for PIB training in Port Moresby, claiming to be 19. Ben was a member of the PIB patrol which conducted the first, organised offensive against Japanese servicemen in Papua on 23 July 1942. Led by Lt John Chalk of Queensland, this patrol was instructed by a message from Major Watson to ‘engage the enemy’ so they arranged an ambush of the advancing enemy east of Awala Village. Ben and his fellow soldiers soon found themselves out-gunned by the heavier Japanese weaponry, so they retired from the ambush to fight another day. This historic baptism of fire for PNG soldiers has been recognised by the PNG Government on Remembrance Day which is observed each year across PNG on 23 July.
After being initiated in his father’s village at Daru, Ben became a successful leader of other PIB soldiers. His leadership skills were recognised so he earnt promotions in the PIB, became a weapons instructor and rose to the rank of Lance Sergeant. In common with other PNG soldiers, Ben was discharged abruptly from the Australian Army after the war, and he faced a difficult transition to civilian life.
Ben had to overcome cultural barriers to marry a Motuan girl, Maba Daroa, but eventually the marriage was approved. Ben and Maba raised seven children at Waigani on the outskirts of Port Moresby. Ben supported his family and relatives through his initiative and employment in the capital city. He joined the RSL and became a life-long leader among his former PIB and NGIB colleagues. Ben’s leadership among PNG veterans and among the local Rugby League community earned him an MBE, later a CBE, and the DMS from the PNGDF. Ben also maintained his friendship (mateship) with his Australian comrades who welcomed him on his visits for Anzac Day, reunions, or medical procedures.
In his final years, Ben dictated his biography to his relative, Lahui Ako, and a modest but pioneering account was published (and sold out) in 2012. The book represents only a limited portion of his war experiences because Ben wanted to exclude some occurrences out of ‘respect for the dead’. Ben was awarded a State Funeral in Port Moresby on 17 January 2014, the first (and possibly the last) State Funeral for a Second World War veteran from PNG. The Australian Minister for Defence sent a statement praising Ben as ‘a fine man, a brave soldier, and an outstanding servant of Papua New Guinea’. He was buried at Taurama Barracks Military Cemetery, outside Port Moresby, with full military honours in front of a large crowd.
James Sinclair, To Find a Path: The Life and Times of the Royal Pacific Islands Regiment, Volume 1 (Brisbane, Boolarong, 1990)
Lahui Ako, Nameless Warriors: The Ben Moide Story (Port Moresby, UPNG Press, 2012)
GJ Ivey, Soldiers in Papua & New Guinea 1940 to 1975, self-published, 2017
www.soldierspng.com and www.wikipedia.org
Editor’s Note: Ben Moide’s post-nominal, Tuari Tauna, is a phrase of Hiri Motu meaning warrior persons.