PNG friends span the generations

Published on MIDN Timothy Barrow (author)

Location(s): Buna-Gona, Papua New Guinea

The crew of HMA Ships Benalla and Shepparton meet with local villagers during a recent visit to Papua New Guinea.  (photo: Unknown)
The crew of HMA Ships Benalla and Shepparton meet with local villagers during a recent visit to Papua New Guinea.

The crew of HMA Ships Benalla and Shepparton had the opportunity to connect with some Australian service history during a recent tide camp near Cape Sudest and Buna Village, Papua New Guinea.

The tide camp was conducted in support of survey operations within Oro Bay. At the request of the Papua New Guinea Government, Benalla and Shepparton were tasked to improve the survey quality between Cape Nelson and Caution Point to allow for deeper draught vessels to safely navigate the reef strewn coast—an area already rich with Australian Navy hydrographic survey history and broader military history.

Navy personnel liaised with local villagers while setting up a tide camp to gather data supporting their survey of the nearby shipping route. Many of the villagers had walked long distances to meet the new faces on their beach. One of the villagers they were fortunate to meet with was Mr Martin Oembari, whose grandfather Mr Raphael Oembari holds a special place in the Australian military history context.

Christmas Day, 1942. An Australian soldier, George 'Dick' Whittington, is aided by Papuan orderly Raphael Oimbari, at the Battle of Buna-Gona.

Christmas Day, 1942. An Australian soldier, George 'Dick' Whittington, is aided by Papuan orderly Raphael Oimbari, at the Battle of Buna-Gona.

Mr Oembari senior was depicted in an iconic Second World War photograph in which he assists injured Australian soldier George Whittington to a field hospital near Buna. 

The location of the tide camp was very close to the location of the Battle of Buna-Gona, a significant Second World War battle involving Australian, American and Japanese forces. The battle took place in 1942, and Australian troops suffered losses almost three times greater than those suffered at the better known Battle of Guadalcanal in the same year.

The Australian troops were beset by many difficulties beyond the battle itself. Tropical diseases such as bush typhus, malaria and dengue fever claimed more lives than the battle, a total of 7,125 casualties compared with 2,700 from the battle. Additionally, Australian troops suffered from insufficient equipment such as armour and artillery.

Amid the problems faced by Australian troops, the presence of the Papuan New Guinean people who assisted wounded Australians was a welcome relief. Known colloquially among the troops and by Australians back home as the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’, Papua New Guinean field orderlies and stretcher carriers, including Mr Oembari, saved many Australian lives showing great care in their lengths to ensure the comfort of their patients and great bravery never abandoning an injured soldier even in periods of heavy combat. 

After speaking with Mr Oembari junior and his sons, it was clearly evident that the history of the battle had been passed on through the generations—ensuring the sacrifice made by all involved will never be forgotten. 

At the tide camp this local people were exceptionally helpful in assisting Navy personnel with setting up their camp and equipment and making them feel welcome and at home in the Papua New Guinean jungle. Now 73 years on from the Battle of Buna-Gona the Papua New Guinean people are still showing the same care, tenacity and attention to detail whilst helping Australian Service personnel. And the sailors and officers enjoyed the opportunity to forge new connections with our closest neighbours, while learning more about Australia’s service history in the location where it happened