Recalling the War: the PNG in WWII Oral History project

SSGM Seminar Series


Jonathan Ritchie, Deakin University


Lecture Theatre 2, Hedley Bull Centre (130), corner of Garran Road and Liversidge Street, ANU


Tuesday, 14 October, 2014 - 15:00 to 16:00

In November 2013, Ovoru Indiki, thought to be among the last of the famous ‘fuzzy wuzzy angels’ who supported Australian soldiers fighting along the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1942, died, reportedly aged 105.  Ben Moide, slightly younger but with an illustrious record in the Papuan Infantry Battalion – the ‘green shadows’ who ‘moved silently in the jungle, inflicting casualties’ on the Japanese – passed away in January this year.

Their passing underlines the urgency of the task of recording the experiences of the many thousands of Papua New Guineans whose lives were often profoundly affected by World War II, before there is no one left to tell their tales.  Indeed, even now only a very small number remain, in isolated and remote locations dotted around PNG: their stories have been passed down to their children and grandchildren, to keep the memories alive.  Sadly, even these are not widely known, even in PNG.

Last year, Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a major project to 'document an oral history of Papua New Guineans' experiences during World War II', and as part of this exercise a pilot study commenced in March 2014, to record the stories of men and women living along, and nearby, the Kokoda Trail.  Working with the Kokoda Initiative and stakeholders including the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery and the Kokoda Track Authority, the pilot study has travelled to many locations in Oro and Central Provinces, to record interviews with more than seventy people about their fathers’, mothers’, and in four cases, their own, memories of the time the War came to PNG. My presentation will report on this pilot study and the lessons learned from it for the extension of the project to other parts of PNG affected by World War II.

Jonathan Ritchie is Senior Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute, Deakin University.  He is a historian who is most interested in the stories from Papua New Guinea’s recent past, as its people have engaged with the world through War, decolonization, and independence.  The author of the biography of the late Sir Ebia Olewale (2012), Jonathan has more recently been engaged in a number of major oral history projects, including about World War II, independence, and education.

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