The alarm went off at 5.00am this morning. We got up, quick shower and half an hour later, we were in a small park in the middle of Madang sitting next to a huge, white, concrete obelisk with a light on the top. In front of us lay the Pacific Ocean and the first shadings of the morning sun were beginning to appear in the sky.
Today in 25th April, ANZACs Day. It is the day when Australians and New Zealanders honour the dead of the two world wars. It is celebrated all over Australia and New Zealand, but it is also an important day of commemoration in Papua New Guinea. Even in Madang, a couple of hundred people turned out for the Dawn Service.
The white obelisk is the site of the war memorial that pays tribute to the ‘Coastwatchers’ who died during the Second World War. ‘Coastwatchers’ were men who hid with their radio transmitters in the jungle and on the cliffs along the coast of PNG and, at great risk to their lives, kept Allied Military Intelligence informed about Japanese military movements.
25th April was the day in 1915, when the first ANZAC troops came ashore at Gallipoli in Turkey. It was the first time that Australian and New Zealand soldiers had taken part in a major, foreign war, (apart that is from a minor engagement during the Boer War.) Next year it will be the 100th anniversary of that campaign.
(By the way, for those of you that don’t know what ANZAC means – like me, until a few days ago – it stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.)
During the Second World War, Papua New Guinea became a major battleground for the Australians because the island was invaded by the Japanese and, if the Emperor had been able to conquer the entire island, it would have made a perfect staging post to support an invasion of the Australian mainland. To make matters worse, by the time the Japanese came into the war in 1942, most of Australia’s best trained troops were already committed to fighting Rommel in the deserts of North Africa. The homeland was defended by a rag-tag army of reservists, clerks and administrators who were originally mocked as “chocolate soldiers’, but who ended up going down in ANZAC legend for the bravery of their defense of PNG.
The Japanese landed on the north of the island and started to push towards the capital, Port Moresby. Facing them were much weaker forces of Australians and, later, Americans. The fighting, in the mountainous terrain of Papua New Guinea, was relentless and bloody. By the time the Japanese were forced to withdraw, in January 1943, they had lost over 200,000 men. Losses on the Allied side were around 7,000 American and 6,000 ANZAC forces dead, with a further 2,000 men still unaccounted for.
Stuck in the middle between these two warring armies, that were bringing death and destruction on their land, were the people of Papua New Guinea, who hadn’t invited either side to visit their country. Most Papuans sided with the Allies and, having no army to contribute to the fighting forces, many of them found other ways to support the war effort, either as jungle guides or as “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’.
(Now before I get irate comments on my blog about the use of racist language, can I point out that the word ‘Fuzzy-wuzzy’ goes back a lot further than the Second World War. It first appeared in the nineteenth century, long before the concept of ‘racism’ was coined, used by British soldiers fighting against a fearsome and long-haired Hadendoa tribesmen in The Sudan.)
Rudyard Kipling even wrote a poem about the Hadendoa that ended with the words:
“… So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy
In your ‘ome in the Sudan.
You’re a poor, benighted heathen
But a first-rate fighting man.”
And then today, after the prayers and the hymns, as the sun gradually rose, one of the speakers paid tribute to the role played by Papua New Guineans in helping to defeat the Japanese.
It was a story I had never heard, so I looked it up on the internet. Amongst other references I found was the following excerpt from an Australian officer’s letter home to his wife, talking about the evacuation of ANZC casualties along the notorious Kokodo trail in the Owen Stanley mountains, where so much of the bitterest fighting took place.
“They carried stretchers over seemingly impassable barriers, with the patient reasonably comfortable. The care they give to the patient is magnificent. If night finds the stretcher still on the track, they will find a level spot and build a shelter over the patient. They will make him as comfortable as possible fetch him water and feed him if food is available, regardless of their own needs. They sleep four each side of the stretcher and if the patient moves or requires any attention during the night, this is given instantly. These were the deeds of the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ – for us!”
When this morning’s service was over and the important visitors had given their speeches, there was one final reading. A young Papua New Guinean stepped forward and read this poem, written, during the war, by an Australian sapper, Bert Beros:
The Fuzzy Wuzzies
Many a mother in Australia when the busy day is done,
Sends a prayer to the Almighty for the keeping of her son;
Asking that an Angel guide him and bring him safely back –
Now we see those prayers are answered on the Owen Stanley track.
For they haven’t any haloes, only holes slashed through the ear
And their faces worked by tattoos, with scratch pins in their hair:
Bringing back the badly wounded, just as steady as a horse,
Using leaves to keep the rain off and as gentle as a nurse.
Slow and careful in bad places on the awful mountain track,
The look upon their faces would make you think that Christ was black.
Not a move to hurt the wounded as they treat him like a saint.
It’s a picture worth recording that an artist’s yet to paint
Many a lad will see his mother and husbands see their wives
Just because the fuzzy wuzzy carried them to save their lives
From mortar bombs and machine gun fire or chance surprise attacks
To the safety and the care of doctors at the bottom of the track
May the mothers of Australia when they offer up a prayer,
Mention these impromptu angels – with their fuzzy wuzzy hair
After that, with the night having turned into a calm and peaceful morning, The Last Post was sounded and the flags were brought to half-mast.
It was an emotional moment for everyone. It made me very thankful that I have grown up as part of a generation that never had to go to war.