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Lest we forget the PNG soldiers who served in Australia’s military

Papua New Guinea soldiers mark Remembrance Day at the Port Moresby war memorial depicting ‘fuzzy wuzzy angel’ Raphael Oimbari leading a wounded Australian soldier to medical aid. AAP/Lloyd Jones

As Papua New Guinea marks its Remembrance Day, July 23, in Australia the service of thousands of Papua New Guineans in the Australian military will go unnoticed. At Remembrance Park in Port Moresby, services will take place in front of a statue immortalising Raphael Oimbari, the “fuzzy wuzzy angel” of George Silk’s 1942 photograph, whose bronze likeness leads a wounded Australian soldier to safety.

The statue reflects how closely PNG’s military past is entwined with that of Australia. Remembrance Day in PNG commemorates not only soldiers of the Papua New Guinean Defence Force but also those Papua New Guineans who served as an integral part of the Australian military until independence in 1975.

While this dual service can be difficult for PNG to reconcile with its independence, in Australia it goes almost completely unrecognised. This is despite the fact that just before decolonisation almost one in ten regular soldiers of the Australian Army were Papua New Guineans.

Australia’s colonial army

Papua New Guineans have a long history of involvement in the Australian military. The first PNG soldiers were recruited by Australians immediately before Japan entered World War Two. They eventually formed five battalions of the Pacific Islands Regiment, or PIR.

The iconic image of ‘fuzzy wuzzy angel’ Raphael Oimbari escorting wounded Australian soldier Dick Whittington. George Silk/Australian War Memorial

Despite active service throughout New Guinea during the war, the PIR was disbanded in 1947 by Australian authorities as a result of fears of “arming the natives”. It was raised again four years later as the Cold War threatened to turn hot.

During the 1950s the 600-man regiment had much in common with other “colonial armies” in its segregation and the assumptions about the inherent capabilities of PNG troops. Only Australian officers were considered capable of command, as PNG troops were seen as not yet up to the task of modern warfare.

The racially based differences were most starkly represented in unequal pay and conditions for the soldiers. Papua New Guineans, for instance, were not issued with boots or shirts.

The lower wages and poor conditions made the PIR an inexpensive addition to Australia’s defence. But, for Papua New Guineans, the army offered relatively high pay and social status. There was never a shortage of willing volunteers.

PNG soldiers represented a real contribution to Australia’s defence when the entire regular infantry force during the 1950s consisted of just three other battalions.

An integrated army

Throughout the 1960s, Papua New Guineans were increasingly integrated into the Australian military. They eventually served side by side with Australian troops in a range of positions.

In the face of Confrontation with Indonesia during the 1960s, the PIR was expanded to two battalions and support units, reaching over 2500 men by 1968.

At any one time more than 500 Australian soldiers were serving in PNG, including national servicemen. Hundreds of Papua New Guineans were also posted to Australian Army schools and training facilities on the mainland, or to Officer Cadet School in Portsea, Victoria.

Australian and Papua New Guinean soldiers at Kerema in the 1960s.

The expanded force was Australia’s first line of defence along the border with Indonesia. As Australian troops were countering Indonesian raids in Borneo, Papua New Guinean soldiers also engaged in intensive and arduous patrolling against the possibility of similar incursions.

At the same time, patrols were responsible for helping to extend the reach of the colonial administration. Throughout the 1960s the PIR was still contacting groups of Papua New Guineans who had never seen a European.

With the end of Confrontation in 1966, the force consolidated and began to prepare for the possibility of a self-governing PNG. Nonetheless, it was only with the creation of an independent PNG Defence Force in 1972, just three years before independence, that Papua New Guineans formally left Australian service.

A forgotten history

As much as any other group in Australia’s history, Papua New Guineans deserve the oft-used sobriquet “forgotten”. But the experience of these men in the Australian armed forces has a broader significance beyond Australia’s preoccupation with its military history.

Any discussion of the role of minorities in the Australian Defence Force is incomplete without reference to Papua New Guinean soldiers, particularly as more research is done on Indigenous service in the military.

The reintegration of Papua New Guinean military service into Australian conceptions of its military past also challenges the image of Australian armed forces as overwhelmingly European in origin.

PNG’s Remembrance Day serves, therefore, as a reminder that Australian soldiers have hailed not just from Sydney and Melbourne, but also from Port Moresby and Rabaul.

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