Battle for Bita Paka remembered in Kokopo

This article has photo gallery Published on LEUT Kara Wansbury (author), ABIS Richard Cordell (photographer)

Location(s): Kokopo, Papua New Guinea

Able Seaman Combat Systems Operator Mine Warfare Alex Lebrun-Footman from HMAS Yarra pauses at the grave site of a fallen sailor at Bita Paka War Cemetery on the outskirts of Rabaul. (photo: ABIS Richard Cordell)
Able Seaman Combat Systems Operator Mine Warfare Alex Lebrun-Footman from HMAS Yarra pauses at the grave site of a fallen sailor at Bita Paka War Cemetery on the outskirts of Rabaul.

The tranquil setting of the sculptured gardens at Bita Paka War Cemetery belies the battle that took place near there a century ago. The battle for Bita Paka, fought by the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, was the first Australian battle of World War One.  It was fought in German occupied New Guinea and the resulting disruption to the German wireless network was definitive. 

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Senator the Honourable Michael Ronaldson, Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, and Deputy Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, The Honourable Leo Dion, were amongst the 1000 people who paid tribute to the six Australian servicemen who lost their lives in this battle.

HMAS Yarra’s ship’s company provided the catafalque party for the service, mounted on the Cross of Remembrance - a towering feature that commemorates all soldiers, sailors and airmen who gave their lives in the service. The cross, flanked by war graves of 32 First World War servicemen and the 1,120 World War II servicemen, was a focal point for the event. 

Deputy Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, The Honourable Leo Dion, thanked the crowd for their attendance at the event on such a historical day. 

“All of us are linked across many nationalities today, by the same duty to honour and remember and the same sense of loss and waste of war. The sailors and soldiers of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force landed on these shores 100 years ago. I pay tribute to those fine men who fought and died on this day…..no matter which side they fought for,” The Honourable Leo Deon said. 

Able Seaman Combat Systems Operator Mine Warfare Rodney Burnett and Leading Seaman Combat Systems Operator Mine Warfare Donna Bekkeli form part of HMAS Yarra's cataflaque party at Bita Paka War Cemetery on the outskirts of Rabaul.

Able Seaman Combat Systems Operator Mine Warfare Rodney Burnett and Leading Seaman Combat Systems Operator Mine Warfare Donna Bekkeli form part of HMAS Yarra's cataflaque party at Bita Paka War Cemetery on the outskirts of Rabaul.

Vice Admiral Barrett read the honour roll of the five Navy and one Army servicemen who were killed during this battle. 

“Those casualties”, he said, “should be honoured for their sacrifice.” 

Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, with children from St Joseph's Bita Paka Primary School, at Bita Paka War Cemetery in Rebaul, Papua New Guinea.

Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, with children from St Joseph's Bita Paka Primary School, at Bita Paka War Cemetery in Rebaul, Papua New Guinea.

“This battle was and is very important for the nation to understand. Its significance as Australia’s first battle is understated and, clearly for Navy, very significant as well - with both the Naval brigade employed but also the first casualties of the war being five sailors and one soldier,” he said.

The service took a particularly moving turn when two sailors from HMAS Yarra assisted two Sydney school boys and two local school boys with laying six crosses at the ANMEF memorial. These crosses were signed by school children from all across Australia as part of the Australian War Memorial Commemorative Crosses Program.  

The honour was particularly poignant for Able Seaman Combat Systems Operator - Mine Warfare Alexander Lebrun-Footman.

“What’s going on today will remind people of what happened here. I see past soldiers and sailors, like those we honoured today, as the guardians of the nation we have today,” Able Seaman Lebrun-Footman said.