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A Soldier Remembers the Aftermath at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

WWII

A Soldier Remembers the Aftermath at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

The following was written by Lieutenant William Bickerton, formerly of the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, after visiting Port Moresby and Manus Island.

The following was written by Lieutenant William Bickerton, formerly of the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, after visiting Port Moresby and Manus Island.

“I grew up in Western Australia. At the age of 18, I was called up to serve with the Royal Australian Navy as a national serviceman. I sailed on the minesweeper HMAS Fremantle to northern Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) in the latter half of 1956. At the time, PNG was still an Australian Mandated Territory; it gained independence in 1975.

“We went ashore in Port Moresby to play and have a good time, as young sailors will after several weeks at sea. We had little knowledge of the recent war that had ravaged PNG.

“The detritus of war was not evident in Port Moresby, as most activity in this area had occurred at Jacksons Field airstrip several kilometers inland, and in the mountains behind the coastal strip. We then sailed eastward across Milne Bay and up to Lae for a brief stop before proceeding to the Australian naval base on Manus Island in the Admiralty Group. It was there that I first became aware of the extent of the war in this region.”

Untold Quantities of Arms

“Near a village named Papatelli on the south side of the main island, we found airstrips, concrete roads, and hundreds of aircraft still packed in crates a few hundred meters in from the beach. We saw bulldozers, graders, trucks, jeeps, and untold quantities of arms and ammunition. In the main harbor at Lorengau and adjacent to the main wharf were the remains of many rusting landing craft, which were exposed at high tide. Maneuvering our ship to get alongside the wharf was quite an undertaking.

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“Curious about the wartime events in the South Pacific, I returned to Papua New Guinea in 1962 as an employee of the Australian government. I lived in Boroko, a suburb of Port Moresby, with my wife of only a few months. My work took me to many remote areas, such as Popondetta and Oro Bay, adjacent to Buna and Gona.”

Oro Bay and the Allied War Machine

“Initially, we lived near the beach, but the crocodiles were a little too friendly, and we often found their tracks around our tent in the morning. We moved a little farther inland, closer to the Oro Bay village. This proved to have a number of advantages, not the least of which was a very old man (absolutely naked) who came to our tent at first light every morning with a basket of fresh eggs and tomatoes for our breakfast. He would wake us by flicking sticks onto our tent. My wife was quite taken aback, initially, by this old naked fellow, but he became a good friend and a valuable source of information.

“Oro Bay had been a massive base for the Allied war machine. Near the remains of the wharf were enormous concrete slabs that had obviously been warehouse floors. There were vehicles, graders, and bulldozers; massive holes filled with all manner and caliber of ammunition; enormous quantities of arms; and masses of other supplies stacked in crates. There was even a large brick oven.”

Jungle Secrets

“When the old man became aware of my interest, he offered to show me some of his jungle secrets. In the foothills behind his village, there was a complete field hospital with concrete floors, steel frames, and corrugated iron cladding. Inside the hospital were beds with mattresses on them; medical equipment, including surgical instruments in the operating theater; a power generator; jeeps; water tanks; and more.

“On the road from Popondetta we passed two old fighter airstrips, Embi and Dobradura, which still had miles and miles of mat sheeting laid on the ground. We found dozens of aircraft, both fighters and DC-3 transports, thousands of 500- and 1,000-pound bombs stacked in rows, fuel tankers, vehicles, and earth-moving machinery. One day the old man came to me with a big smile on his face and tried to hand me a primed 3-inch mortar shell. I advised him very hastily to throw it in the river.”

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