Dr Jon Ritchie is the Contemporary Histories Research Group’s representative in Papua New Guinea as he undertakes field research. Dr Ritchie is a Senior Research Fellow at Deakin University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences. While in PNG, Jon will be writing regular ‘postcards’ for the Contemporary Histories Research Group, reflecting on current news in the region.
Port Moresby Postcard Number 3.
18 February 2016
My Papua New Guinea travels have taken me in the last week to the town of Wewak, capital of the East Sepik Province – about as far to the west of Port Moresby as Arawa, the subject of my last postcard, is to the east. Again, the visit was to seek out stories of World War Two – in particular, from the Papua New Guinean perspective – and in Wewak I discovered ground that was as fertile in historical memories as it was in growing the tropical vegetables I found in the market last Saturday.
The War – the World War, that is, the conflagration that killed tens of millions of people and devastated immense areas of Europe, Asia, and the Pacific – ended at Wewak. Well, not far away, and not only at Wewak, but it was close, both temporally and spatially. At 10.15 on the morning of 13 September 1945 – nearly a fortnight after the main surrender at Tokyo Bay, on 2 September – Lieutenant-General Hatazō Adachi, commanding Japan’s forces in New Guinea, handed his sword to the Australian General Horace Robertson at the disused airfield at Cape Wom, eight kilometres to the west of Wewak. With his sword, Adachi also surrendered the thirteen thousand soldiers surviving from the 140,000 who had been with him at the start of Japan’s New Guinea campaign. So while the War against Japan ended at many locations across the southwest Pacific and southeast Asia, it is reasonable to see the Cape Wom surrender as a significant moment in Japanese, Australian, and importantly for my research, Papua New Guinean history.
Now, the Cape Wom Memorial Park is a sad and neglected place, empty when we visited it apart from the pair of young men who wanted two Kina for each photo that I had taken of the memorials.
Not far from the surrender site, I was told, there is a wrecked American plane, still sitting in its swampy grave, a leftover from when Wewak was the last big Japanese stronghold left in New Guinea and was accordingly attacked from the air, day after day, in an unremitting and almost invariably inaccurate campaign to bomb the place out of existence. At the hotel in Wewak, there was a team of young Marines and scientists from the US Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency – a mouthful of a name, but basically with the task to find and return to the United States the remains of Americans killed in conflicts around the world. Their presence in this part of PNG was not only to explore the Cape Wom wreck but another that had recently been ‘discovered’ (although known about locally for many decades).
This plane, we were told, sits atop a ridge, hidden under metres of dense jungle growth, and the exploration and recovery operation will continue until May this year, with the team being helicoptered out to it on a daily basis. Like most things in Papua New Guinea, however, the operation to revisit the physical remains of the War is controversial, centring on the rights of the PNG people, through their government, to retain all the hardware from the War as integral parts of its history. In part as a backlash against the rampant and unapologetic plundering of its cultural artefacts by outsiders over the previous century, PNG established laws at independence in 1975 under the National Cultural Property (Preservation) Act to prevent the worst abuses. For some Papua New Guineans – including Gary Juffa, the outspoken Governor of Northern Province – the Act means that relics such as downed aeroplanes should remain where they lie, a belief demonstrated recently in relation to the Swamp Ghost, a World War II-era American bomber removed in 2006 to Hawaii from its Papua New Guinean crash site.
The visit to Wewak by the Americans is far from uncommon. Currently a Japanese team is in PNG as part of its government’s recently-adopted policy to retrieve its war dead, and Australia’s own lost soldiers are regularly recovered, to be interred in one or another of PNG’s war cemeteries.
Compared to the amount of money and energy that is invested by the nations whose forces fought and died in PNG, the resources devoted to commemorating the Papua New Guineans whose lives were disrupted by the War are negligible. That said, our current project to record the memories of the Papua New Guineans who lived through that time is a vital element of the resurgence of interest in remembering and heeding the lessons of the past.
Cape Wom, New Guinea, 1945-09-13. Maj-Gen H.C.H. Robertson, GOC 6 Division, signing the Instrument of Surrender. Lt-Gen H. Adachi, Comd 18 Japanese Army in New Guinea, formally surrendered to Maj-Gen Robertson in a ceremony held at Cape Wom airstrip. NX9159 Major D.S.I. Burrows, Deputy Assistant Adjutant General, 6 Division, is the Australian wearing the slouch hat at right (Australian War Memorial, 096232)
Cape Wom Memorial Park – the site of the Japanese surrender, 13 September 1945 (photo: J. Ritchie, 13 February 2016).