Chapter 20: The Pacific War Comes to Wautogig - Part 1

The Pacific War brought great tragedy to our village.1 On the coast, Dagua and But became fierce theatres of war. Planes fought planes in the air. Our people thought the masalais had come back to life, fighting fire with fire and deadly weapons with deadly weapons. None of our people knew how to fly an aeroplane at all. My mother and father told me that at first, people were quite excited about this sky war. The war planes maneuvered in the sky, spitting out fire from guns at each other. It was fun watching what appeared to be a game. Everyone came out to watch. Women and men, young boys and girls, even women nursing babies came out to watch. But the curious observation of the war in the sky soon turned sour.

At that time, there was a prolonged dry season. The days were hot and dry. The evening sunsets were something to behold. They were so beautiful they stirred many hearts to wonder if this was the end of the world. The white people were known. They were the white mastas. They came to recruit laborers for work on plantations and to punish law breakers. The Germans did that first, and when they left, the Australians continued the same practices. Their behavior was known and predictable.

But the new people, the Japanese, were completely unknown. When they first came they were thought to be our deceased ancestors coming back to liberate us from the white men’s oppression and denial of the “road to cargo.” The Japanese were generous with tinned food and paper money. They made the money during the war specially so we could trade with them for guns and ammunition.

One day, while the whole village was sleeping, war planes fought above the village. The Japanese had built secret telephone lines from the coast at Banak, up our Mokoropa Mountain, past our village into the Woginara region. When the Australians found out about this line they moved in to destroy it. Our observation of the sky that at first seemed interesting and fun turned into disaster and despair. Several villages were burned to ashes. Coconuts were destroyed and men, women, and children were killed. They were all innocent. For the first time, our people knew the war was real. You died whether you supported the Japanese or not.

Several of our young men had joined either the New Guinea Infantry Battalion or the Papua Infantry Battalion. There was Moses Yauieb, my mother’s brother. He joined the NGIB and rose to the rank of Lance Corporal. Joseph Nanguia joined the PIB and rose to the highest rank of Sergeant Major. Sela joined the Coast Watchers and fought in Bougainville. He saved one Bougainville child, Kovero, who was abandoned during the war. He took him to Banak, where he is now a proud father of many children and grandfather of many grandchildren.

None of our village sons joined the Japanese Imperial Army. But our people did actively contribute to the Japanese by giving them food and meat. At this time, there was a strong soldier from Wom village by the name of Golo. He rose to the rank of Captain; even Japanese soldiers obeyed his words. Kalo was close to General Nakai and Colonel Adachi. He sent word throughout Wewak district for the people to make sago and supply food to the Japanese army. The Japanese would pay for the food. Like other families my father, mother, and sister Veronica supplied food and greens to the Japanese.

By the end of the war, the Japanese army was desperately hungry. They became cannibals. They ate the flesh of their own dead. They drank contaminated water and died by the hundreds. Our people continued to feed them and protect them. But when the bombs fell and killed many of them, burning their houses and destroying their coconuts, the people knew the Allies were after them. My father lost his ramba parkanda, the basket where he stored his traditional money, to a bomb blast. Nowadays it would earn him hundreds of thousands of kina. Once the bombing began the people’s mood changed. They were afraid. The war was no longer something to watch, but something that affected them, though for what reason, they did not know. But they knew they had to leave for safer ground.

So they planned their long escape. They would leave the village and go inland. Mr. Henir came to our village and advised our people that they must leave the village because in the next day, the Allies would raid our village and capture those who were feeding the Japanese soldiers.2 My father and mother were among those who had heard Mr. Golo’s orders to provide food and vegetables to the Japanese, so they knew they had to run.

Early the next day soldiers did raid the village, but they found no one there. The people traveled together as a village, but in small groups of two to three families. My father and mother and two sisters travelled with the Numbojuor family and two others. They moved quietly, camping as they went. They would cook only at night and save food for the day. They were afraid to cook in the daytime because they feared the smoke would rise and give signals to the Allies who would strike with their aeroplanes. So the people moved quietly through the Urieb and Məbəm River lands. But the war did not stop. They sought shelter among huge rocks and caves as the war became more intense.

When they crossed the Məbəm River lands they were in strange lands – enemy territory. However, beyond those lands, in Yangoru, they had some friends, Yangoru people who spoke a variant of the Boikin language. Most of our fathers and mothers were familiar with the language.3 So our people set their destiny on reaching Mt. Turu and finding their friends there. Little did they know what lay ahead of them.

As they made the treacherous journey, people started to become sick. Some died on the way. They were all buried in the jungle. Some were left under tree trunks to die. It was not possible to carry them, because the carriers were themselves sick and hungry. Worebai’s mother Tuau was too old and sick to continue the journey. She was put in a bilum, hung from the branch of a tree and left to die there. My first cousins Anai and Los died in the wilderness when they could not cope with the journey and my father was too weak to carry them. My father buried them in the bush.

Eventually, our people reached Yangoru. We ended up in a village called Meiwango in the region of Ambokanja and Marumbanja.4 5 6 Our people were strangers there. They were sick and exhausted. They were ready to die. The Yangorus then went into a long debate on what to do with these coastal strangers. Though we were not entirely from the coast, the Yangorus regarded our people as sulungu ha, ‘seawater eaters’, because in better times, the people of Ambokanja and Marumbanja collected their shells, seawater, and sulungu manga (in Arapesh mogat ‘driftwood burned for salt’) from us. Our people would collect these rare items and give them to our ɲugum or ‘naked inlander’ friends when they visited us. In return, they would give us bilums.

The bikman took the cɨbuk, the spear of authority, and walked up and down the awagehʷ, the playground or public place. He was naked, as was the custom of the ɲugum, and stamped the ground. Then he spoke:

“My people, I do not know about you. As for me and my line, I have decided. These are our people. They have come a long way. They are our cousins. When we go to the sea, across these mountains and rivers, we lived with them. They are our bamboo container of sea water and our driftwood for making salt.”

With these words, he stuck the cɨbuk deep into the ground and pulled my father toward him.

In this way, the nation of Wautogig was embraced by the Yangoru people and taken into their hearts. Our people became refugees among the Yangorus. We ate what the Yangorus ate and lived with them in their homes. At one point word came that our people would be moved to the Sepik plains among the Timbunkes. Now these were real strangers from the Sepik grasslands. Our people became fearful at the thought of living with such strangers. But soon, other messages began to arrive. The messages were on papers dropped from the air: the war was over, the Allies had won, and we must return to the village. My father was the only person around who could read these notes. Then confirmation came from Moses Yauieb, the policeman from the army. Yes, the war was over and my uncle Moses Yauieb wanted badly to see his sister, my mother. It is not certain for how long our people stayed with the Yangorus. Some said six months while others said less.


1 Joseph Sallun explains that Narokobi would only be able to speak based on what his father told him; he was too young to himself remember what happened. Bernard was a light-skinned child, so his parents tried to hide him lest the Japanese assume he had an Australian father. The elder Narokobi heroically helped lead his people during the war. Listen.

2 Jacob Sonin and Julius Yehaipim describe Mr Henir as a spy from Australia. Listen.

3 Joseph Sallun explains that Bernard's father had learned to pray in the Boikin language. Both his Catholic petitions to God for help and his abilities in a speech variety close to the one used in the Yangoru area were a help to them when they arrived there. Listen.

4 Joseph Sallun says the Wautogigem first stayed in Pangu and then went to Meiwango. Listen.

5 How exactly did the Wautogigem end up in Meiwango as opposed to some other place? Because they had traditional trade relations with people there. Listen.

6 Joseph Sallun tells a harrowing story about why the Wautogigem left Pango and went to Meiwango. The Japanese were there and they feared their violence. Listen.

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