by 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.

Parts 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 subject.

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.

He 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 area.

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 at each other.

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.

Today, at 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 the water.

Though overgrown with vegetation, this modern piece of engineering work will remain as a reminder for others in centuries to come.

 

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