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.
In the time-honoured tradition of postcard writing, I have left my last card until I am sitting in the departure lounge at Port Moresby airport – well, almost.
I promise to send it from Papua New Guinea, though, so you will at least have a PNG stamp to add to your collection!
In the last few weeks of my stay in this country, I have been travelling around, as before with the aim of identifying where local ‘champions’ might be – people who are already, or want to be part of, researching and recording stories about Papua New Guineans’ experiences during the Pacific War. Since my last postcard, I have been to Madang on PNG’s north coast – an important Wartime base for Japanese forces – and the Markham and Ramu Valleys, the enormous riverine valley that separates the mountains of the Huon Peninsula from the main PNG highlands. It was through here, from September 1943 to April 1944, that Australian forces – chiefly the 7th Division of the AIF – successfully drove the Japanese back from Lae to Madang and prevented them from counterattacking and regaining their lost ground. The Markham and Ramu Valley-Finisterre Ranges campaign (as it is rather clumsily known) centred around the battle for the much more evocatively named Shaggy Ridge, an imposing 1500 metre high razor-backed spur of the Finisterres that was eventually stormed by elements of the 7th Division in January 1944. Following that bloody victory, the Australians pushed on and were able to enter Madang on 24 April 1944, with the Japanese 18th Army retreating to Wewak (and ultimately, surrender a year and a half later – see my postcard #3).
Perhaps the greatest crisis of the Pacific War in Papua New Guinea took place in its first year, culminating in the Battle of Milne Bay, the Kokoda campaign and the retaking of Buna and Gona in December 1942. The drive up the Markham Valley and over the Finisterres, together with the simultaneous campaign by the 9th Division in the mountains of the Huon Peninsula north of Lae, can be seen, though, as the War’s centrepiece. Both campaigns were fought over terrain that equalled or surpassed in difficulty that of the 1942 battles, against an enemy that was still well supplied and as belligerent as ever. Strategically the 1943-44 operations were as important as Kokoda and Milne Bay by denying the Japanese the path back via the valleys; and, whereas in the Kokoda and Milne Bay campaigns the local inhabitants were on the whole supportive of the Australians, in the valleys and mountains between Lae and Madang such loyalty could not be assumed.
The subsequent campaign along the north coast that ended with the surrender at Cape Wom has been memorialised in John Hepworth’s The Long Green Shore (written soon after the War but only published in 1995) – and there have been (far too) many books written about the Kokoda campaign. But to date there has been no similar evocation of what was a vitally important seven months for Australia and its allies in the Pacific War.
The closest might be Peter Ryan’s classic, Fear Drive My Feet (1959). Ryan, who died in December last year, is a familiar name in Melbourne, where he is perhaps best known as publisher at Melbourne University Press from 1962 to 1989. Less well known is his War service, in which he spent his 19th and 20th birthdays (from late 1942 to just before the advance from Lae a year later) behind enemy lines in hiding in the mountains to the north of the Markham Valley, the savage, forbidding Saruwageds that reach to thirteen thousand feet. Peter Pierce, the editor of the Cambridge History of Australian Literature has called his book ‘Australia’s finest war memoir’.
Saruwaged Mountains on a clear day, from the Lae-Madang road, 15 March 2016 (photo J. Ritchie)
I thought of it often during the two-hour bus trip up the Markham Valley from Lae’s Nadzab Airport last week, en route to Gusap, home now to Ramu Agri Industries – growers of Ramu Sugar, Ramu Beef, and Ramu Oil Palm. From September 1943 Gusap was home to a large and strategically important Allied airfield (the Marston matting – perforated steel plates used to quickly construct airstrips – is now used to fence the Brahmin cattle in: a contemporary take on converting swords into ploughshares).
Brahmin cattle and mountains, Ramu Valley, 16 March 2016 (photo J. Ritchie)
The Markham Valley – and the Ramu, which it joins just after the village of Kaiapit (the site of a significant battle during the campaign) – is today the centre of a major agricultural region. It is a vast plain of crops and cattle, hedged in to the south and north by majestic ranges covered in what from a distance looks like the softest and plushest green velvet – but is in fact sharp-bladed and impenetrable kunai grass which grows to two metres or higher. The foothills lead to an alpine landscape of freezing winds and sodden fogs, forbidding even to look at, let alone walk through. What Peter Ryan and the soldiers of the retreating Japanese army as well as the advancing Australians had to endure while fighting over them (even apart from the dangers of being shot or blown up) is, in 2016, quite unimaginable.
AWM caption: ‘Far forward in the Finisterre Ranges, well on the way to Japanese held Bogadjim, these Australian troops, after a tough climb through the hills, pause for a breather. Identified, in the foreground, second from left (face visible) is: NX117057 (N123241) Alan Francis Pooley, 2/10th Battalion, who enlisted on 22 September 1942.’
Ryan’s book is worth a read, or a reread. If you do look at it, I suggest approaching it from the viewpoint of the Papua New Guineans whose names and actions punctuate the narrative.
His account addresses the dilemmas faced by many Papua New Guineans who faced the ‘us or them’ choices of the War. From the perspective of the PNG in World War II oral history project, this is an important reminder of the complexity of conflict and colonialism, and of the centrality of Papua New Guinean experiences in understanding the War.