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Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels of Kokoda
Dragged into Conflict
Australians recall two sacred sites when remembering their war dead. Anzac Cove in Turkey and the Kokoda Track in New Guinea. The former is for another lens but recent events has stirred my recall of a very special people who are in need and of a particular person and his passion over the events that took place in 1942 just north of Australia
Many years ago Bert Beros presented me with a signed copy of his book The Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels. It's a small book of poems about his experiences in Papua New Guinea while a soldier during WWII
Bert was a memorable figure and we had a lot in common. We both loved poetry and we were both writers. His book sat among all my other treasures for all this time and over the course of the last few weeks the talk and films about Anzac Day and the Battle of Kokoda to repel the Japanese and prevent an invasion of Australia sent me right to it. Here was a man whom I had known and who had personally suffered and fought on the trail that was featured in all the World War II stories on television. How could I not remember and pay a tribute to the people of which he thought so much.
Anzac Day, 25th April, is a time of remembrance in Australia. The thing most recall about the Anzacs was their bravery and the terrible conditions under which they fought. But nothing could or would ever come close to their trials on the Kokada Track and here is where we meet their mates, the Fuzzy Wuzzy's who helped them survive and who dragged them down mountains as steep as cliffs to save their lives.
Photo is from Wikipedia and was taken by George Silk (November 17, 1916 - October 23, 2004) who was born in New Zealand, and served as a photojournalist for Life for 30 years. It is open source. Read the full story here including remarkable images and the poem Bert wrote.
Native Tribes of West New Guinea
This tribes in this video are not related to the eastern tribes but will give an insight into what any visitor might have encountered on first contact. Tribal customs are very similar throughout the New Guinea region and fighting neighboring villages is as common to them as having a party is to us.
New Guinea People
An isolated culture
New Guinea lies just to the north of Australia. In fact, if you stand on the northern most point of Cape York you can almost see New Guinea across the Torres Strait. The group of of islands in this body of water are more related to New Guinea than to Australian aborigines, although they are Australian citizens.
During the war and for years afterward New Guinea was under the protectorate of Australia until it was decided to allow its independence in the late 1960s.-70's
Photo of the Owen Stanley Range is from picsearch.com It shows the jungle conditions of a mountain whose height is 4073 m or 13363 ft. For most this is getting extremely high and would normally play havoc on the body. But it is also an area where you get rain every day, where tracks are mud, rivers are torrents, waterfalls are abundant and that is only the geological side of the environment. Add to these hazards, snakes, birds, insects, constant wet clothes, freezing cold night and boiling hot days and you get some idea of what climbing this mountain in normal soldiers gear of WW2 would have been like. Bear in mind too that due to the scarcity of supplies and materials the soldiers were not well equipped.
My introduction to this region was through anthropology and an in depth study of the native people and their tribal customs. Isolated from the west by impenetrable mountains and impossible terrain most of the tribes in the high mountains had never seen a white man until anthropologists, Mick Leahy and Jim Taylor, walked into the "huge and heavily populated Wahgi Valley. A short time later they walked in with a well supplied patrol and became the first westerners to come into contact with the tribes that are now on the location of Mount Hagen." (cited Wikipedia) The natives thought they were gods with their light skin and hair. Managing to communicate with and befriend them enough to study their customs and habits and build an airstrip at Kelua.
Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels
This is a term of endearment for gentle, kind and the most helpful of people who took upon themselves the role of helpers, paramedics and ambulances to evacuate and ferry wounded soldiers over impossible terrain and back to Port Moresby.
Kokoda Track New Guinea
Lae - The Second Largest City in Papua New Guinea
Lae is the seond largest city in Papua New Guinea. The Highlands Highway, the main land transport corridor from the Highlands region to the coast, begins here It is also the main cargo port and home to the University of Technology.
It started as a result of the gold rush of the 1920s 30's and developed around an airstrip. In 1937 Amelia Earhart took off from here and disappeared on her round the world flight. In 1937 due to a volcanic eruption in Rabaul it became the Capital city of New Guinea.
The Japanese invasion of 1942 saw them take over Lae, Rabaul and Salamaua where they built major bases in preparation for invasion of Australia. The first assault took place on February 19th when aerial attacks on Darwin devastated Allied shipping, At the time there were 46 ships squeezed into it. The Japs launched 188 planes in the attack and lost some 131 of them while the Allies lost some 900 people, 77 planes and several ships.
The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, took the approach that the Japanese could have Australia and they would try to get it back later. Australians were furious and armed themselves with the addition that wives and children should be killed at their own hands rather than let them fall into the violent hands of the Japs who would rape them.
At that time the country had sent its fighting forces to battle the Germans in Europe and Africa and were fighting major campaigns with heavy losses. A young nation of just 7 million it was hard to round up a new fighting force in time to counter the Japanese. England wanted several thousand more of our young men to go over there and John Curtin, Australia's Prime Minister, stood up to Churchill and said no.
He loaded young untrained 18 year olds onto rusty ships and sent them into New Guinea where he hoped to stop any invasion. At Port Moresby they received a brief six weeks training before facing the Japs on the Kokoda Trail. The Americans came to our aid under General Douglas MacArthur, who took control of this region and they fought the Japs in the battle of the Coral Sea.
Where is It?
Port Moresby 1956 - Slide show of area
A Brief Training Ground
Port Moresby is the largest city in New Guiinea and it sits on the southeast peninsula of what is known as the Gulf of Papua. It was sighted by Captain John Moresby in 1873. He named the harbor after his father, Sir Fairfax Moresby
Inhabited by the Motu-Koitabu people it was an important center for trade between various tribes who dealt in tools, weapons, boats and other things. Houses were mostly erected on stilts over water making little impact on the land.
European settlement began in c.1883 with the annexation of the eastern part of New Guinea to the British Empire. It then passed to the new Commonwealth of Australia in 1906 and was a territory administered by it until 1975 when it gained independence.
During the Second World War it served as an allied military base and thousands of troops were stationed there. It was the objective of a Japanese invasion fleet in May, 1942, that was stopped by the Battle of the Coral Sea. The enemy then tried to take the city by going overland and down the Kokoda Track.
The poorly trained new recruits from Australia were called upon to deal with them. They faced the battle hardened Japanese who had superior weapons, training, acclimatisation and support. Pushed to the limit many an Aussie collapsed on the way up the hill and many more suffered horrendous injuries, discomfort and diseases, such as malaria.
Every day it rains here for at least an hour saturating clothes, ground and equipment. At night, in contrast to hot stifling day time temperatures, the thermometer plunges and people having to sleep in wet clothes really feel it. Stumbling on the next day up the wet, slippery, hard to climb track it was not uncommon for a fall to result in broken leg bones, snake bites, or lacerations. Many would still fight on regardless of their injuries if they could.
Japanese soldiers threw everything at them from hand grenades to bullets, bombs rained down from aircraft, and they trudged on, upwards and down again. This was what they faced on the Owen Stanley Range with its height over 13,000 feet high.
With No One Else to Help
The Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels came to their rescue. They acted as porters, stretcher bearers, transporters and friends.
Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels
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 halos only holes slashed in their ears
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 the bad places on the awful mountain track
The look upon their faces would make you think 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 those impromptu angels with their fuzzy wuzzy hair.
- Bert Beros
Battle of Kokoda
The 21st Brigade under the command of Brigadere Potts comprised just 1500 men. It was their job to stop the Japanese advance into Port Moresby. What followed was arguably the bloodiest battle of World War 11 and Australia's most significant campaign, according to Wikipedia.
More Australians died here than in any other campaign and these 18 and 19 year old soldiers lie buried at the Bomana war cemetery outside Port Moresby
Description of the track: Parts of it are fairly easy along the slopes of Gorari and Oivi and towards the village of Kokoda. It stands on a plateau of just 400 meters above sea level. It is surrounded by mountains up to 2,000 meters high,
The steep ridges that one climbs net run through deep valleys on their way to Deniki, Isurava, Kagi, Ioribaiwa, Ilolo and, Owers' Corner. They are then linked with a motor road heading from hilly plantations above Port Moresby and then down to the coastal plains.
The area traveled between Kokoda and Ilolo is along gradients that are so steep they represent extreme labor for the burdened men of WWII to climb even a few hundred yards.
The majority of the track is through impenetrable rain forest, where the narrow passage is enclosed and almost disappears between walls of thick bush.
Higher up the terrain is covered with moss and stunted trees and is frequently covered in mist. That makes is hard enough to climb under normal circumstances but while fighting a war with a tenacious enemy it was sheer hell.
From the Australian War Memorial we learn that the first engagement the Aussies had with the enemy occurred on July 23, 1942. The Australians were hideously outnumbered as the enemy force constantly grew and they were forced back over the Owen Stanley Range.
Kokoda possesses a small airstrip which played an essential role in flying in supplies and reinforcements and proved to be of great strategic importance. The remnants of "Maroubra Force", however, were so exhausted by a month's constant fighting that even withdrawal was hard to achieve.
Nonetheless they managed to recapture the plateau after they were driven out. The Japanese considered it vital as a forward base was essential for their drive over the ranges and along the Kokoda Trail to overtake Port Moresby. They struck back before the Australians could muster sufficient strength to stop them.
With the initiative now with the Japanese the Australian withdrawal began again. They passed through Isurava, Alola, Templeton's Crossing, Myola, Efogi, Menari and Nauro to Ioribaiwa Ridge. Here they stood firm as to prevent the Japanese penetration and a final stand was taken,
Against impossible odds a 25 pound gun was hauled up from Port Moresby. It helped turn the tables as the Japanese were then on the receiving end. This final campaign began on November 19th and ended on January 22nd 1943. At that time all organised resistance by the Japanese ended. Some 13,000 Australian soldiers had died here.
The Horror of the Trail
Have They Been Repaid
Its a heavy debt we owe them
It was with a degree of shock that I was recognised as the next speaker after our Prime Minister, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, at a Liberal Party Federal Convention. The question before the Assembly was "should New Guinea become a state of Australia?"
Some time before this I was on a flight from up north somewhere to Sydney and behind me sat a man from New Guinea. He was instantly recognisable as he was black as the ace of spades and terribly out of place in White Australia. My reaction was to wonder why he was coming to Sydney? Questions like who is he and what is his business here? popped into my head. It was hard for non whites to get visas into Australia but his visit may have had something to do with what happened on this day.
Without any preparation or much thought before hand I was now to speak in front of several hundred people and the media on this very question. It was not hard to get the words out. They floated across the room as my voice boomed through the microphone and into the loud speakers. Not only was I addressing the audience but all of the country. The Sunday newspapers the next day bore my words as their headlines and quoted my speech.
My words went something like this. "You cannot defend this country with out of date ships, planes and tommy guns. Defense must come from within through education and removal of the White Australia Policy. How could we make New Guinea a state of Australia when its citizens are black? How could they vote in free elections when our own aborigines are denied that right? How could they work in a free economy when we deny anyone of any other race outside of those with white ascendants any rights or power in the commercial world?"
Pointing out that we are surrounded by countries whose populations are mainly black it would be impossible to defend our shores if they are antagonized by an attitude that would provoke invasion. With Indonesia close to our northern shores and many islands within a hop step and jump away how long could we seriously think we could keep them out? How long would we be tolerated as this arrogant neighbour? The feeling inside me told me that what was said was making an impact.
The more I spoke the more heated up I became but my debate was a good one and obviously had an impact. Within a couple of days 3 Federal ministers came to see me at the University of New South Wales where I was a medical student to ask me how I envisaged the end of the white Australia policy. The following year I saw my first black South African walking on Sydney streets.
New Guinea was granted independence soon after and they now rule with a good solid political base helped by Australia. We are there for them and we owe them a lot. In my way I sincerely hope they have been repaid for their generosity, help and support at our time of need.
Photo of the front of Parliament House Port Moresby by Steve Shattuck
What do you think of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels?
Should we be reaching out to befriend and help them
Many have made i through the Kokoda trials and reading more about it is a good idea before tackling the trail.
This is another view of what the track entails. Monuments to the Australian and Japanese are part of the way we remember what happened here.
The invasion by Japanese during WWII followed their raids on the Philippines and Solomon Islands,
Everywhere they turned it seemed there was a Japanese ambush awaiting for the soldiers as they climbed it and tried to turn back the invaders. Many died and many more were so badly injured it is doubtful that they could lead a normal life afterwards,
So many are now travelling here and doing the track that there are now hotels and special developments along it to cater for the growth in tourism.
Aussies Doing the Track Today
The Kokoda Trail is a tourist venue for Australians who test their might against the conditions our soldiers experienced during that dreadful battle against the Japanese. Many Australians go to visit with the war dead and to pay their respects. It is like touching them in some way and responding to emotions that say they should never be alone, even in death.
Tribal Warfare under Self Government
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© 2010 norma-holt