Sam Vulum. The
National Article 7/17/01
The air suddenly grew thicker with the smell of death. He knew
at once that he had taken the wrong road. But it would be too risky to
turn back. The stench became heavier with every step. Then he was there.
He saw the first corpse, then another and another. He increased his pace
to escape the sickly odour. He was at choking point when he stumbled
into clean air.
His body gleamed with perspiration, which streamed
down the sides in tiny rivulets and into the folds of the only cloth
covering the lower part of him, also drenching it wet. His was the
convulsive panting of complete exhaustion. He slumped to his knees
and sucked in mouthfuls of fresh air as he scanned his surroundings.
Then he was gone in a flash.
World War II was at its height in Papua
New Guinea. The year was 1943 and Anou was caught up in a battle
zone, a bush track in Cape
Gloucester district, West New Britain province.
And the corpses were those of soldiers killed in clashes between American
Marines and Japanese soldiers. Anou has since died, but years later
the story came back to haunt those who remembered it so well.
Anou's grandson, Namir, was one of them. Namir,
whose knowledge about the war in the district was limited to his grandfather's
track story and others, never took seriously the accounts and even
the war wrecks that littered the area. He grew up with it all and everything
seemed a part of him.
He remembered frequenting one of the two shipwrecks with
relatives at some point as a favourite spot for diving for all kinds
of fish species, which found their home in the wreck. Their diving
escapades always ended with a large catch for family dinners.
of rusted tankers which often fascinated him each time he was around
them, had found usefulness in various forms in family homes. But even
after going to school, Namir had never developed any interest in the
His first realisation about the importance of this
part of the war to his home, his country and the world at large came
during a visit to a war museum in London, England in 1997. He was visiting
England and Scotland as a Harry Brittain fellow; a six-week journalism
study program organised and sponsored by the Commonwealth Press Union.
had found that concealed in the safe confines of an underground hideout,
and surrounded by top military advisors, British Prime Minister Winston
Churchill had busied himself mapping out the trend of fighting around
the globe. He drew lines to indicate where the war had been fought
on a world map.
Cape Gloucester was one of those places named on the
map. A line stretched from it to Los Negros in the Manus province
and extended beyond into the Pacific. There were other lines linking
places in the path of the war. The map still hung gracefully on the
wall of the underground fortress, just as Mr Churchill had left it.
It was the same with everything else, including Mr Churchill's half-smoked
cigar on his worktable. A war siren blared out at intervals to remind
one of those terrifying days of the war.
Everything looked so real,
yet it was all more than half a century old. This discovery added
weight to what Namir had stumbled upon earlier about the war in the
It was on Christmas day in 1943 when US Marines
made a major landing at Cape Gloucester. They effectively cut off
the remaining Japanese forces on the mainland. The Japanese then moved
headquarters north to Truk Lagoon in Micronesia, and American and Australian
forces reoccupied New Britain except for Rabaul, which remained defended
by the Japanese until after their surrender.
After the visit, Namir developed a broader analytical
view about the war in his district. He was also able to see a particular
significance, which mirrored other epic struggles fought on PNG soil,
including the infamous Kokoda Trail battle, and others elsewhere.
He could not help imagining
how those involved were able to survive the challenges and forces
of an environment so foreign to them. The Cape Gloucester track is
still today a very unfriendly territory, too mean for anyone, even
the locals, to venture there. It is an area where the sun never shines
and where your eyes reach as far as your feet go in broad daylight.
Thick fog hangs to the ground, floating or swirling through the dense
undergrowth of heavy foliage, snaking vines and shrubs beneath gigantic
towering trees. The area is also home to many harmful creatures. Leeches
and mosquitoes race in their hundreds to feast on every warm blooded
body that enters their strongholds. Large red venomous ants with
stings that can cause
momentary numbness of the nervous system roam the forest floor. Scorpions
and bees abound. The underbrush is infested with trees with noxious
leaves that cause severe irritation and thorny vines with prickly needles
that can make your skin flame with fire.
Namir now recalled other stories that
he had once taken for granted. While a little boy, he had been told
about the Japanese, the Americans had left lasting memories among those
who saw them come.They landed on a long stretch of coastline, starting
from where the Cape Gloucester station is today and extending northwest.
They came in huge landing craft and trooped onto the beach like columns
of ants. The beach swarmed with them and their machinery and equipment.They
appeared to have driven the Japanese, who were derailed by a shortage
of food supplies, inland.
There were stories
about Japanese soldiers competing with locals for food from the gardens.
Villagers would often arrive at the gardens only to find them swept
clean of all edible vegetables. With the locals as guides, carriers
and some as infantrymen, the Americans pursued the Japanese inland.
This resulted in the battle along the track.
One of the stories involved the downing of a fighter plane.
It happened above a village.The sky-battle took place miles away
and raged towards
the villagers who could faintly hear the rat-tat-tat-tat of machine
gun fire and the shriek and whine of plane engines as they swooped
This pandemonium grew louder as one of the planes approached their
village with another tailing closely. The planes zoomed down as low
as the treetops and the people had a perfect view of them going past.
As they watched in awe, the pursuer suddenly tilted and set its guns
blazing. The volley of bullets ripped through the centre of the fleeing
target plane. It split into
two with the nose and wings going in one direction and the tail going
in the other.
They could see the nose and wings crashing over the treetops from
their hilltop village. They ran to the scene to find a smouldering
heap of rubble and no survivors.
Another story told of the horrific death of a man from a wartime
petrol drum explosion. The extent of the man's bodily injuries could
be compared with the Japanese victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki
bombings. The story concerned a couple.
They had visited relatives at the end of the coastline where the
Americans had landed, and were returning home. The couple used a
hurricane lamp to see their way through the war rubble. As they were
approaching their camp, they ran out of kerosene.
The husband decided to use some fuel from one of the 44 gallon drums,
which the Americans had left standing on the beach. Unaware of the
dangers involved the husband managed to open the lid of one of the
drums. He kept the lamp alight while he tilted the drum to let some
fuel flow into the lamp tank.
Suddenly, there was a thundering explosion. Flames shot up into the
sky and spread out in all directions. The fuel had caught on the
lamplight, causing the explosion.The wife, who was standing a few metres
away, received only burns to her body while the husband literally caught
fire. He was engulfed in flames after the explosion. He took several
plunges into the sea in an attempt to put out the flames before dropping
onto the sand where he lay smouldering like a piece of burnout wood.
He was dead before the wife could do anything to save him. The fuel
drums were some of the war remnants that littered the area.
least one of the two warship wrecks is half concealed by sand. Other
wrecks on land have weathered down to mere frames only. Some remnants
have been buried in several large pits. Some locals believe that some
of the pits contain weapons and ammunition that could still be usable
today. One eye-catching sight for visitors today is the number of American
tankers, all parked neatly in rows after the war ended. There were
about 100 of them and most have rusted down to skeletons while one
or two are still intact. The Americans built some of the best infrastructure
in the area.
Stretched alongside an Australian-built airstrip,
which had been used until declared unsafe in the late 90s, was an
American-built one. Patches of tar are still visible everywhere with
wrecked aircraft still parked where they were left. They also built
several bridges and roads but there is one that is still intact -
built out of strong concrete on top of steel culverts that channel
Though overgrown with vegetation, this modern piece
of engineering work will remain as a reminder for others in centuries