Papua New Guinea in World War II

Papua New Guinea (PNG) became involved in WWII when Japanese seaborne troops captured Rabaul, the headquarters of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea, on 23 January 1942. Australia had made no preparations to defend PNG. When the invasion occurred most of her troops were in Europe fighting the Germans and Italians. The Japanese rapidly took the towns of the north coast of New Guinea and an arc of islands north and east of the mainland, and in April mounted an invasion aimed at capturing Port Moresby, the headquarters of the Australian Territory of Papua.

The United States of America (USA) had entered the war after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, on 7 December 1941. In May 1942 forces from Australia and the USA, combined in the South Pacific Area Command, prevented a seaborne invasion of Port Moresby by defeating the Japanese in the Coral Sea Battle. In July Japanese troops attempted to capture Port Moresby by moving overland from the Milne Bay coast on the eastern tip of Papua, and from Gona on the north coast via the Kokoda Trail. They were defeated at Milne Bay and turned back on the Kokoda Trail in September. Between September 1942, and their final surrender at Wewak, on the north coast, on 13 September 1945, the Japanese gradually retreated from the areas they occupied. When Manus Island was recovered, in February 1944, the US established a giant base from which to attack Japanese bases in Southeast Asia.

The fighting involved 1,000,000 American, 500,000 Australian and 300,000 Japanese troops (almost outnumbering PNG’s population) and an unknown number of PNGan soldiers, police, scouts, carriers and laborers. An estimated 200,000 Japanese, 15,000 Australians, and an unknown number of PNGans died from injury or disease. In regions most heavily affected some estimates of loss of Melanesian life are as high as 25 percent. PNGan soldiers were recruited into the Papuan Infantry Battalion and three New Guinea Infantry Battalions (later combined to form the Pacific Islands Regiment) of the Australian Army. The Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) conscripted men as laborers and carriers. The Japanese conscripted laborers and carriers but seldom used local men as soldiers.

The effect of the war on PNGans depended on the area in which they lived. People in many island and coastal areas suffered greatly from aerial bombardment and from being caught in the crossfire of Allied and Japanese ground troops. Many lives were lost and gardens and houses destroyed. Even outside the war zones village life was disrupted when men were conscripted and women and children left with the responsibilities usually undertaken by men. However, some parts of the country, such as the central highlands, had little or no contact with the war.

The war had an important social as well as physical impact on the PNGans involved. During the period of the Japanese advance, PNGans saw, for the first time, that white men were not invincible. They also saw black American soldiers who apparently had the same privileges as whites. And they met Australians who respected their skills and, unlike the prewar white settlers, were more prepared to regard them as equals. The support that many PNGans had given Australian troops was well publicized in Australia and after the war Australians were ready to support the government’s well funded ”New Deal” which was designed to accelerate economic and social development and improve the welfare of the people of PNG.

See also: The ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’

Last edited by Sam on September 16, 2017

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