Tuesday, December 25, 2007

the War in Papua New Guinea. Part Three.

Delonix regia can best be described as a messy tree, and they rely heavily on a good season if they are to be a spectacular tree. I have seen some awesome D. regias in the past and seen some pretty ordinary ones. In Australia they are sometimes referred to as Poincianas and in North Queensland, they are pretty popular, as they grow fast and are tough as boots. They will often in times of dry weather, shed all their leaves and look quite deciduous, other more prosperous times, they will hold onto their foliage. In PNG, they are called Christmas Trees, as this is the traditional time for them to flower (not to be confused with the other Christmas Tree which is Cassia fistula or even C. queenslandica).

As Christmas can often be a time of reflection, so too are the memorials and cemeteries which I have spoken in the last two previous posts and the Bita Paka War Cemetery has a small stand of D. regia within its boundary of Codiaeums. The Bita Paka War Cemetery makes up the trio of War Cemeteries here in PNG.

From my understanding the fighting that took place in East New Britain was a little different to that of mainland PNG. It appears that the Japanese saw Rabaul as a very important strategic port with its deep volcanic caldera and proximity to lands to the east, west and south. The Japanese decided that Rabaul had to be theirs, so they sent some 17,000 troops ashore to pacify a small contingent of Australian troops that were in the area.

The battle was decisive yet the Australians fought valiantly despite being heavily outnumbered. The stories that emerged from the months afterwards are emotional and exhausting, tales of survival as people tried to retreat to mainland New Guinea amidst plantation massacres and those who remained in East New Britain and became spies against the Japanese forces. The Memorial to the Missing at Bita Paka lists more names than those buried in the cemetery itself, many of the names were of servicemen killed at Tol and served as part of the Lark Force.

Members of the Lark Force and many civilians were also killed aboard the Montevideo Maru as she sailed away from New Guinea towards South East Asia. An American submarine thinking the vessel was a Japanese Troop ship, torpedoed and sank the Montevideo Maru, killing all on board.

Once Rabaul had fallen, Lae fell shortly after, and then the push to capture the Coral Sea and Port Moresby was on. Rabaul indeed became a vantage point for the Japanese Troops. Along with the troops, the Japanese bought with them Indian and Pakistan soldiers who were captured on the Malay Peninsula and used in New Guinea as labourers, digging many of the tunnels which dot the shoreline around Simpson Harbour. Some 400 of these POWs are now interred within Bita Paka, many of them unidentified.

The history of the Bita Paka War Cemetery was created before the atrocities of the Second World War, as the War Cemetery is now on the site where a German Telegraph station was positioned during the start of the First World War. Australian exploratory troops were sent to Rabaul too investigate and a small and bloody battle took place where the first Australians to be killed in the First World War lost their lives, just days before Australian Troops stepped onto the shores at Gallipoli.

The Delonix regia are not the main horticultural feature of the cemetery, this honour goes to a stand of Albizia sammans which grace and dominate the entrance. These massive trees are a vigilant reminder of the strength and fortitude that was required not once but twice by Australian Troops in this part of PNG. At this time of the year, let us remember those who served and those whom still provide defence duties for their countries.

Lest we forget.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

the War in Papua New Guinea. Part Two.

Speak to a lot of ex-pat Australians living in PNG and they know of Kokoda, and quite a few have read books on the subject and a few have also read further into the battle campaigns of PNG not centered around that "bloody track". The Battle of Milne Bay and the Naval conflict on the Coral Sea are some of the more decisive campaigns in the entirety of the whole Pacific War. The march into Rabaul by some 17,000 troops was a confidence building victory by the Japanese forces. And their ensuing push to gain control of the whole of New Guinea started when the Japanese landed at Buna and Gona on the Northern side of the Owen Stanleys.

The city of Lae, not far from Buna and Gona was invaded by the Japanese as easily as Rabaul was, and the Markham and Ramu Valleys were strategic pieces of flat land in and otherwise mountainous country. The Australian advance was to eventually push the Japanese back from whence they came and the Markham and Ramu battlefields were as pertinent to the entire conflict in PNG as Kokoda was.

As a horticulturist in this country, I spend a great deal of time looking for moments of inspiration, looking for those parcels of trees, flowers, plants, and grass that capture the beauty of this amazing country. In my last post I mentioned the Bomana War Cemetery and the cemetery is an oasis in a rugged country, especially in the dry season, but the Lae War Cemetery is a picture of history, of what the entire city of Lae once possibly looked like.

I have heard storeys of how the red canna lilys once lined the entrance to the city of Lae for kilometres underneath the massive boughs of the Rain Trees. Now these Rain trees are infested with Mastotermes darwiniensis, a monster termite accidentally imported from Australia in timber pallets and is literally eating the city of Lae. And these trees are falling over and busting the fences of the Golf Course, which I might add, is another splendid display of horticulture in PNG.

If you want to see good amenity horticulture in PNG, visit the War Cemeteries, the Golf Courses or a politician's residence.

The canna lilys are now almost completely gone. High cyclone fences and razor wire now line the streets of Lae, it's an aggressive face to a once beautiful city. The old Royal Botanic Gardens shows infrastructure which once would have been gorgeous, and yet it still holds one specimen of Amherstia nobilis, the Queen of all Flowering Trees. And nestled in one corner of the Lae Botanic Gardens lie the final resting place of nearly 3,000 graves of soldiers from the Commonwealth. The Lae War Cemetery is a large expanse of turf, with small garden beds interspersed amongst the concrete headstones, surrounded by a garden bed designed to hide the boundary. Beyond the fence is the Botanic Garden, fastly becoming a termite infested jungle.

The neatness of the War Cemetery, proves what once was, and may never be again. It is a peaceful and reflective sanctuary as are the majority of cemeteries, but the harsh razor wire edge of Lae tends to soften a little as you read the inscriptions of those young men who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Lest We Forget.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

the War in Papua New Guinea. Part One.

It is nigh impossible to avoid the fact that the Second World War held a theatre of conflict here in Papua New Guinea. At the time, Allied troops had surrendered at Singapore, Pearl Harbour had been blown to pieces and the Japanese were expanding their line of attack ever closer to Australia. John Curtin was caught up between Commonwealth (read Imperial) alliances and the entry into the War by the US. Plus he had a continent in which war had never graced its shores before.

August 1942, Australia was in the firing line.

Papua New Guinea has a very interesting career, the Spanish have been visiting for hundreds of years and only a dozen years before the Second World War reached New Guinean soil, white man had discovered soil in the rich fertile populated Highland regions. What did New Guineans think of the invading Japanese and what did the Papuans think of the invading Australians?

There are no answers at the three War Cemeteries in Papua New Guinea. Only more and more questions but all three War Cemeteries are beautiful places of reflection and peace. I often find myself on my journeys of PNG, stopping to refocus within these places of history. I am not alone as I know of many expatriates who work here in Papua New Guinea who often visit the War Cemeteries as a place of solace and understanding. No where closer to Australian soil has a concentration of Australians fought so valiantly for a nation of multiculturalism (Those in Darwin may disagree, and I understand).

My first blog entry on the War in Papua New Guinea starts with the Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby. Here lies close to 4,000 Commonwealth soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice. I have wandered through these grounds and read the epitaphs of many of the fallen, the individuals who's history is forever written include Kingsbury, French, Marie Craig, Bissett, Payne and many more but it is some of the collective stories that bring me back to wander the field.

I must say that am moved by the 438 men of the British Artillery who surrendered at the Fall of Singapore only to be taken Prisoner of War by the Japanese and sent to Ballale Island. There they were instructed to build a runway for the Japanese offensive to continue East. Unfortunately these British men died on the Island and were buried in a mass grave. This grave was soon discovered after the War and the remains were relocated to Torokina War Cemetery on Bougainville. A short time later, they were exhumed and reinterred at Bomana War Cemetery, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.... A long way from home, and a long way to get there...

The loss of a plane full of passengers in a tragedy anywhere, but one full of Medical staff and wounded soldiers returning to their home after the War was declared over is even more heartbreaking. 28 were on board a flight returning home to Australia when they crashed into Mt Carstenz in Irian Jaya. Recent explorations have discovered a 29th body which was never on the original flight manifest and was always considered lost in action by family. The discovery of remains from the wreckage has finally given closure for families back home, as their burials at Bomana have only recently occurred. One member of the flight was Sister Marie Craig who is the only female buried at Bomana War Cemetery.

At the going down of the sun, we will remember them.

The wonderful part of walking around Bomana is the gardens themselves, they consist of a large expanse of turf surrounded by Albizia sammans, and then the dry tropic areas surround. The headstones are interrupted by a variety of plants which obviously need to be trimmed to be kept in size and a series of low growing plants which sit in front of the headstones.

My favourite photo of Bomana is of a young son of a good friend of mine, we all visited Bomana one weekend and young Scotty enjoyed his time running around, simply oblivious to the impact of some 4,000 headstones should have. I am well aware of the significance of him holding a white feather but it was found from an Egret which habits the Cemetery.

Lest we forget.