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Research essay
Recent books on Australia and Japan at war in Papua and New Guinea, 1942-45
Professor Hank Nelson

The Report on Historical Sources on Australia and Japan at War in Papua and New guinea, 1942-45, was completed in March 1998.

The following notes have been written in March 2000 to bring the Guide up to date. It is interesting that nearly sixty years after the war came to the Pacific, unit histories are still being published, and personal reminiscences are probably being written with more frequency than ever. There has also been considerable scholarly biography and this has resulted in a re-examination of command decisions on Kokoda.

Unit Histories

Ian Downs, The New Guinea Volunteer Rifles NGVR 1939-1943: A History, Pacific Press, Broadbeach Waters, 1999.
Formed in Rabaul and in the Morobe District on the eve of the Japanese invasion, the NGVR drew together a cross-section of the pre-war white community and a small minority of the Chinese and mixed-race communities. The NGVR was involved in the defence of Rabaul, more particularly the retreat and escape from Rabaul, and in the fighting between the Australians based around Wau and Bulolo and the Japanese at Lae and Salamaua.

Allan Draydon, Men of Courage: The History of 2/25 Australian Infantry Battalion, 2/25 Australian Infantry Battalion Association, 2000.
A Queensland battalion that formed part of the 7th Division, the 2/25th fought against the Vichy French in Syria, and against the Japanese on Kokoda, in the Markham and Ramu Valleys and at Balikpapan. The 2/25th arrived at Imita Ridge in September 1942 and only half of them were still with the unit at Soputa in December.

Tim Jones, Milne Bay Radar: Unit History of 37 Radar Station
Alexander ‘Sandy’ McNab, We Were the First: The Unit History of No 1 Independent Company, Australian Military History Publications, Loftus, 1998.
Stationed in the New Guinea Islands at the time of the Japanese attack, No 1 Independent Company men were captured escaping from New Ireland, but the small force on Bougainville joined the coastwatchers and fought a protracted war. The detail on the war on Bougainville where the men were living close to villagers and police is most valuable.

Ron Garland, Nothing is Forever: The History of the 2/3 Commandos, privately published, 1997. The 2/3 was an independent company until renamed in 1943, and is therefore similar in origins to the No 1 Independent Company. As the 2/3 did much of its fighting in the Wau-Salamaua area, its members were involved in some of the same events as those involving the NGVR.

Bill Spencer, In the Footsteps of Ghosts, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, .
Spencer served in the 2/9th, a Queensland battalion that served in North Africa, Papua, the Ramu and Balikpapan.

Peter Dornan, The Silent Men: Syria to Kokoda and on to Gona, Allen and Unwin, Sydney 1999.
This is not a unit history but follows a section of the 2/14 Battalion through the fighting in Syria, Kokoda and Gona. Bruce Kingsbury, who won a VC near Isurava on 29 August 1942, was a member of the section. Doran has done research on the individual men, but he has invented conversations.


Gordon Abel, To War and Back: A Young Soldier’s Journey through the Terrors and Boredoms of World War II, privately published, 1999. Abel, from Tasmania, joined the coastal artillery and was sent to man the guns at Praed Point, Rabaul. He escaped down the east coast, passing through Tol Plantation and was rescued by Ivan Champion on the Laurabada.. Abel was serving in small ships at the end of the war. This 100 page reminiscence is typical of many of the personal war narratives.

Clarrie James, ANGAU: One Man Law, Australian Military History Publications, Loftus, 1999. James, a public servant and student at Canberra University College before the war, went to Port Moresby with the militia and in 1942 volunteered to join Angau. James had wide experience as a field officer: Wau, Markham Valley, Goroka, Abau, Misima, Milne Bay, Goilala. He returned to the Australian public service in 1946. He makes interesting comments on people and incidents, and brings a frank assessment from someone who was not a member of the pre- or postwar administrations.

Arthur W. John, Fortune Favoured Me, privately published, 1999.
From a poor London family, John came to Queensland in 1923 to work on a dairy farm. He shifted to NSW, became a clerk in Sydney, and went to New Guinea as a secretary in Bulolo Gold Dredging in about 1930. Most of the volume is concerned with his work at Bulolo in the 1930s. During the war John returned to New Guinea as a member of the Army Education Service.

Charles Harle, A Rising Son of Empire, Mostly Unsung Military History Research and Publications, Melbourne, 1993. Harle went to New Guinea at twenty-one and worked on plantations, as a clerk at Salamaua, and then had two years on a gold dredge in the Bulolo Valley. He enlisted immediately war broke out, and after service in North Africa, Greece and Syria he came back briefly to the north coast of New Guinea in the 30th Battalion. For students of New Guinea his prewar memories are of greater significance as they reflect common attitudes of the time. For example, he puts the view that Christian missions had an unfortunate influence on the ‘simple folk’ of New Guinea leaving them as misfits likely to turn to crime.

Derrick (Taffy) Rees, By Then I was Thirteen, privately published, 1999. The first 150 pages are a story of extreme poverty in Wales and England. Rees came to Australia as a thirteen year old, entered a farm home, and generally flourished. He joined ther RAAF and having trained as an armourer, went to New Guinea as a member of groundstaff where he and other members had a lucrative side-line making and selling souvenirs.

Tod Schacht, My War on Bougainville: War Under the Southern Cross, Australian Military History Publications, Loftus, 1999. Schacht served in the 9th Battalion, a Queensland militia unit as a private, and was in Milne Bay and Port Moresby, before going into action on Bougainville.

Leon Stubbings, Mercury’s Mate, privately published, 1998.


David Horner, Blamey: The Commander-in-Chief, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998. David Horner wrote the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Blamey published in 1993, and he has commented on him in Crisis of Command (1978) and High Command (1982) and elsewhere, but this is a comprehensive work of detailed research covering over 650 pages. It takes the reader well beyond John Hetherington’s 1973 biography. All the (many) controversies of Blamey’s career are covered judiciously, and the footnotes and bibliography are extensive.

Bill Edgar, Warrior of Kokoda: A Biography of Brigadier Arnold Potts, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1999. Potts migrated to Western Australia with his family as a young boy, fought at Gallipoli and the Western front in World War I, farmed in between the wars, commanded a battalion in Syria, and in 1942 led the 21st Infantry Brigade in the early fighting on Kokoda. Potts was transferred from his position by those who had little knowledge of the difficulties faced by him and the troops. (Horner in Blamey also deals with the dismissal of Potts.) In 1944-5 Potts was back on Green Island and then Bougainville.

Rob Mitchell, One Bloke’s Story, 1937 to 1946: Henry Mitchell’s MM Escape from Rabaul, privately published, 1998. This is a son’s story of his father’s escape from Rabaul in 1942. Mitchell was with the controversial Alan Cameron. Cameron’s party left separately by boat from the north coast and landed at Salamaua.

Anne McCosker, Masked Eden: A History of the Australians in New Guinea, privately published, 1998. Stan McCosker sailed to New Guinea in 1924, married Marjorie in Rabaul, and the McCoskers went to plantations in the Witu Islands and then to Matala on the east Gazelle Peninsula. Anne, the daughter of Stan and Marjorie, was born in Rabaul, and she tells the story of her parents with skill and sympathy. Through her research she provides much context to her accounts of prewar ex-servicemen on plantations, the evacuation of women and children, and the impact of World War II on black and white civilians. Particularly valuable are her accounts of Rombin who had worked for the McCoskers in the Witu Islands and then at Matala. Rombin was a resourceful agent rescuing Allied airmen and obtaining intelligence.

Roma Wood, The Young Soldier from the Goldfields, Hesperian Press, Perth, 1995.
This is a brief family history and it is only the first chapter that gives a summary account of Ted Woods in the army in the Middle East and New Guinea.

Other books

John Coates, Bravery Above Blunder: The 9th Australian Division at Finschhafen, Sattelberg, and Sio, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1999.
The Australian landing at Finschhafen was soon strongly opposed. The number of Japanese in the opposing force had been underestimated, resulting in tough, prolonged fighting. Coates is critical of ‘MacArthur’s bad decisions’ and questions his standing as military commander.

Jim Eames, The Searchers and their endless quest for lost aircrew in the Southwest Pacific, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1999.
The search for over 900 missing Australian and American aircraft in Australia and the islands to the immediate north began during the war and the last mentioned by Eames took place in 1995. Eames, an experienced journalist, writes engaging prose and exploits the narratives of the searches.

Hiromitsu Iwamoto, Nanshin: Japanese Settlers in Papua and New Guinea 1890-1949, Journal of Pacific History, Canberra, 1999. The small prewar Japanese community was either interned by the Australians or forced to make some accommodation with the Japanese army. Mixed-race Japanese were in a difficult position with both Australians and Japanese. This is a detailed study based on Hiromitsu’s doctoral thesis.

August Kituai, My Gun, My Brother:The World of the Papua New Guinea Colonial Police, 1920-1960, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1998. Kituai’s doctoral thesis, mentioned in the Guide in 1998, has now been published. While it does not provide detail on the police in the war, it does gives much pre- and postwar context on the Papua and New Guinea police forces.

Mark Johnson, Fighting the Enemy: Australian Soldiers and their Adversaries in World War II, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2000. By making comparisons with other nationalities, the Australian attitudes towards the Japanese are shown more sharply. This is a valuable work extending scholarship on the behaviour of soldiers and the way that they talk about their experiences and explain them.

Roy Macleod, ed, Science and the Pacific War: Science and Survival in thePacific, 1939-1945, Kluwer Academic Publications, Dordrecht, 2000. The collection of papers interprets ‘science’ broadly, and while most papers are concerned with Australia does move outside national boundaries.

James Sinclair, Golden Gateway: Lae and the Province of Morobe, Crawford Publishing House, Bathurst, 1998. Sinclair, an ex-government officer in Papua New Guinea, has been a prolific writer on Papua New Guinea. In 470 double-column pages Sinclair adds much detail to Ian Willis’s earlier history of Lae. His central chapters on the war are more concerned with the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, the evacuation, the impact of the war on various communities, the return of the Australians and postwar reconstruction than with battle histories.

Neil McDonald and Peter Brune, 200 Shots: Damien Parer George Silk and the Australians at War in New Guinea, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998. As McDonald has written a biography of Parer and Brune has written of battles in Papua, both are well-qualified to select and caption this selection of photographs. The familiar and unfamiliar photographs with their careful dating and location make a visually attractive and scholarly book.

Hank Nelson

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