Project Canterbury

South Sea Epic: War and the Church in New Guinea

Compiled by Ruth Henrich

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1944.

Chapter VII. Papua Invaded

In the middle of July, 1942, Japanese troops landed at Gona, in the north of Papua, after a naval engagement. For the next few months fierce fighting took place in the Owen Stanley ranges, in which the natives won fame as carriers and stretcher-bearers. Our missionaries in the northern areas were caught in the thick of the campaign. Some succeeded in evading capture and standing by their people; one party, a married couple with nurse and baby, managed to cross the mountains to safety; several were taken prisoner and killed.

The Country.

The fighting took place in country of an exceptionally difficult nature.

The Japanese who fought their way across the Owen Stanley Range last September don't seem to have appreciated the scenery. Their commander, Lieut.-General Horii, who was later reported killed in action at Buna, painted a rather grim picture of the Owen Stanleys in an order-of-the-day which he issued to his troops on September 20th. He said: "For more than twenty days every unit forced its way through deep forests and ravines and climbed over scores of high peaks in pursuit of the enemy. Traversing mud more than knee deep, clambering up steep precipices, our men overcame the shortage of supplies and succeeded in surmounting the Owen Stanley Range. No pen or word can depict adequately the magnitude of the hardships they suffered." The Owen Stanley Range was certainly one of the [45/46] most unfriendly battlegrounds on which men have ever fought.

From Broadcast by Chester Wilmot, printed in A.B.M. Review, February 1st, 1943.


Native stretcher-bearers won high praise from American and Australian troops for their care of the wounded. Large numbers of them were trained in our mission schools.

"Native stretcher-bearers were among the heroes of the Owen Stanley campaign," said General Blarney. "When the supply of young men was overtaxed some villages had offered their old men for the work. Five to a stretcher, the natives carried our wounded men back through miles of jungle and mountain trail. At the many overnight stops two of them always sat up with each wounded man. I pay a tribute to those Papuan natives. The men told me they were as gentle as mothers."

Damien Parer, war correspondent, said: "The natives of Papua and New Guinea are doing a magnificent job. They will carry loads to the limit of endurance, and just as willingly tend our wounded. It is wonderful to see those sturdy, powerful brown men gentlv caring for our boys. They are great nurses."

It is not an unreasonable assumption that many of these are mission boys, and showing the fruits of their Christian teachings.

A.B.M. Review, October 1st, 1942.

During the war, the pro-native policy of the last fifty years has brought its own reward in native goodwill. The natives have taken a positive personal interest in Allied victory. They have carried stores and ammunition almost to the front line. They have rescued wounded and carried them on stretchers for days across the mountains. They have done all this day after day--uncomplainingly, smilingly. I remember one day moving along the Owen Stanley track behind a team of stretcher-bearers. We came to a narrow, steep pitch. The boys' feet slipped as they climbed and fought to hoist the stretcher up the last few yards. As I came up I could hear them chanting, as the Arabs do when [46/47] they are hauling barges along the banks of Egyptian canals. I thought it must be some native chant, but when I got near I found they were saying: "Papua, New Guinea!" "Papua, New Guinea!" A little further on they came to a creek. Gingerly, they set the stretcher down, filled a dixie with water for the wounded man and lit him a cigarette. Just then up came a native policeman, who noticed that the bearers had put the stretcher down on the wet sand beside the creek. He turned a flood of words on to them, obviously telling them off severely for putting the stretcher down in the wet. Very shamefacedly they moved it to a dry spot, murmuring apologies to the Digger. I remember another time an Australian officer of the New Guinea Administrative Service, who was stationed at a village on the Kokoda track, had his leg broken by a flying biscuit tin dropped from a supply 'plane. The villagers were so upset that every fit man insisted on accompanying the stretcher-bearers who carried him back to hospital.

This goodwill is largely the result of the work of the missionaries in the last fifty years. The London Missionary Society, the Roman Catholic Mission of the Sacred Heart, the Methodist Missionary Society, and the Anglican Mission of the Australian Board of Missions have been operating in Papua since the end of the last century. Most of the recent fighting in New Guinea has been in the Anglican Mission sector on the north-east coast. Large numbers of the native boys who have been helping the Allied troops were trained in the mission schools, and learnt their smattering of English there. Even natives who haven't been to mission schools know the good work done by the mission hospitals and their doctors and nurses. The troops have frequently been surprised at the extent of the education the natives have received in the Mission.

When the first Allied troops went to New Guinea they believed they had gone to a land of headhunters. However, cannibalism and head-hunting have almost completely disappeared from New Guinea under the influence of the missionaries. Their influence on the natives has been so great that we found it difficult to believe that the mild, friendly, smiling natives whom we saw were actually the sons or grandsons of men who had been cannibals.

From Broadcast by Chester Wilmot, printed in A.B.M. Review, February 1st, 1943.


(Without any apology to Kipling.)

Here's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy! In the fight against Japan
You have taught us all a lesson in the brotherhood of man;
Where the aching Owen Stanleys taunt and daunt us on the track,
We have seen the white soul shining out of faces ebon-black;
And as one we've worked and suffered, and as one we've lived and died
By the rapids of Wairopi, in the swamps of Gona side. So here's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, savage men of tender heart! We, the fighters--we, the wounded--we've seen you play a part
That will ever be remembered when the warrior tales are told--
How you showed us in New Guinea something finer than its gold. H.P.

From A.B.M. Review, February 1st, 1943.

Missionaries in the Fighting Area.

Practically no news about our missionaries in the northern sector came through until October.

Since the last issue of the Review our anxieties have been increased by news that the Japanese are in occupation of much of the Solomons, including Tulagi, which means that all Melanesian missionaries are now cut off from the home base.

There is reason also for some disquiet from the position in some parts of Papua, for whilst news is scanty and inconclusive, one is led to believe that the Japanese have now extended their hold in a south-easterly direction from Salamaua in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea to Buna in Papua. If this is correct it means that Archdeacon Gill, on the northern-most station of the mission--Mamba, the mission station at Ambasi, and the hospital at Gona, must now be regarded as within enemy-occupied territory. The position cannot be stated with certainty until further news is received from the Bishop of New Guinea.

A.B.M. Review, August 1st, 1942.

[49] In the last Review we mentioned the dangers which had recently developed in connection with the northern stations of the New Guinea mission--Gona, the Mamba, Sangara, Isivita, Ambasi. Unofficial reports have been received indicating that the various members of the staff, are safe, that they had some previous warning, or at all events had made an obvious deduction that what actually happened was bound to occur, or at least be attempted, and they made preparations therefore to meet such an eventuality. We sincerely hope that these reports are correct. Archdeacon Gill, on the remote Mamba river--the nearest of our stations to Salamaua and Lae--seemed in the most exposed position. Infiltrations, however small, of Japanese soldiers, could place him in a helpless position. In a recent letter he mentioned that he was surprised that he had not been "eliminated long ago." Even at Dogura, as late as August 4th, no definite news had been received. However, Archdeacon Thompson sent on that date the following message:--

"We are not a little concerned for the northern members of the staff. The general news seems to indicate that they had ample warning to enable them to make to a place of safety, but some definite news of their well-being would be very acceptable. We hear unofficially that all is well with them, but we are daily hoping for some confirmation of this."

A.B.M. Review, September 1st, 1942.

It is with great sorrow that we have received the news that the Rev. H. Matthews has been reported "Missing, believed killed or drowned."

In all the Rev. H. Matthews gave 33 years of his life to active missionary service, 18 years at the Mitchell River Mission as Superintendent, and subsequently as Chaplain, and 15 years at Port Moresby as Vicar and, since 1939, as Garrison Chaplain.

A.B.M. Review, October 1st, 1942.

As the Japanese penetrate further into Papua our anxieties about our missionaries in the North of the Diocese of New Guinea increase. Towards the end of August rumours were reaching us that the Rev. Henry Matthews had lost his life, and this was confirmed later by the Bishop, who reported that he was missing and presumed killed or drowned. We are still not sure of the facts, but it looks as if Mr. Matthews [49/50] was on a boat on which half-castes were being removed to another locality, and that in an attack from a Japanese submarine his life was lost.

Since about July 29th the Bishop has not been able to give much information about missionaries in the areas that have been overrun or threatened. He says in a recent letter: "We cannot disguise the fact that if their lives have been spared they are likely to be undergoing great hardships, whether they be in enemy hands or not. . . . We can only know for certain that God will not have deserted them, and that His hand will have been upon them for good to sustain and help them in whatever they may be called upon to endure, and that His Divine Providence is able to supply all their needs, spiritual and material." ... I wish L- could convey to you more of what the Bishop writes. All his letters breathe the same spirit of courage and faith and are a benediction to me.

Chairman of A.B.M., in A.B.M. Review, October 1st, 1942.

Telegraphic advice has been received that three of our women missionaries have arrived in Queensland from the New Guinea Mission. They are Mrs. R. L. Newman, from Eroro; Mrs. Dennis Taylor and her young baby, and Miss Dorothea Tomkins, from Wanigela. It is expected that they will go to their homes in Queensland.

A.B.M. Review, October 1st, 1942.

Mrs. Jones, wife of the Rev. Robert Jones, who built Dogura Cathedral and was ordained in it at the time of the Jubilee, refers to a letter from her husband at Sefoa, dated August 4th. Mr. Jones said he was safe and well at that date but was prepared to "go bush" at any moment, but if the worst came to the worst he would be taken prisoner, so that she was not to worry if no word came again for a long time. The school at Sefoa had been closed as the natives had left the villages all around and had gone to safer places in the bush, but in spite of this there had been an attendance of twenty-seven at the service of Holy Communion on the previous Sunday. The natives were much disturbed about the enemy landings. At the time of writing no further supplies of food, etc., had been received, so that the diet was becoming a little monotonous. The week of the Gona landing, Mr. Jones had [50/51] given about forty injections for yaws, and he was glad he had been able to do this before they left their villages. Mr. Jones referred to the wonderful loyalty of the native staff.

A.B.M. Review, October 1st, 1942.

Archdeacon Gill's Adventures.

Archdeacon Romney Gill, stationed at the Mamba, in the extreme north of the diocese, was in the thick of the fighting, but succeeded in evading capture and standing by his people. His adventures were not fully known until he visited Australia in February, 1943.

Archdeacon Gill, at present in Brisbane, and planning the reconstruction of his mission station close to the borders of Papua and New Guinea, had the unenviable experience of seeing 20 years of work blown to atoms by Japanese bombs. He has been a missionary in New Guinea for 34 years.

Soon after the Japanese invasion of Rabaul, Jap planes were sighted over the mission, and it became apparent that Mamba mission station--a conspicuous landmark, situated prominently on a hill--was the rendezvous for Jap bombers from Rabaul and their fighter escort from Salamaua, when on their way to strafe Port Moresby.

Allied planes, too, soon found the rendezvous, so that life at the mission station was enlivened by daily dogfights, with everyone dispersed down the side of the hill. A food dump was made in the bush and after June, when the supply schooner could no longer run, this proved invaluable.

At the end of July the Japs evidently decided that the mission had outlived its usefulness. Some incendiary bombs were dropped, but they did little damage. Then a Zero came over at eye-level, and machine-gunned the buildings thoroughly. Next, Japanese launches appeared in the creek below, and the Japs could be heard at night. No fires could be lit during this period, nor any light shown--any movement immediately drew fire. At last, the Japs apparently decided to finish off the place altogether. Seven bombing attacks were made--and the Mission was no more.

Twenty years' planning and work were destroyed with the extensive dispensary, hospital (where 7,000 treatments a year had been administered), the school, workshops, £200 worth of tools, power house, electric lighting plant, water system, four telephones, and wireless, mission house, and the church, where all had been baptised.

[52] The fifty native helpers at the mission got away by canoe, and at isolated outposts in the bush are carrying on mission work, pending reconstruction.

Pacific Islands Monthly, March, 1943.

Here is his own story, as recorded by a War Correspondent, beginning about the time the Japanese landed at Gona in July:--

"About July 30th the first detonations of battle disturbed the expansive peace of All Saints' Mission. The Japanese had been prowling around the station for some weeks, when suddenly, on July 30th, an enemy aircraft dropped two incen-diaries which fell wide and did no damage. Then, on August 1, about 3 p.m., when I had just completed a jig-saw puzzle with a twelve-year-old mission girl, she cried out: ' Father, father! There's a plane coming! ' It came directly towards us, just skimming the tree-tops, and opened fire. One burst of machine-gun fire hissed between the little girl and myself without injuring either of us. A single bullet lodged in the wall behind us, just above my head. I identified the plane as a Zero, and I knew this was the beginning of things."

That afternoon the natives were disturbed by the sound of a small launch nosing about the mouth of the Mambare. Soon after other boats arrived, and the Archdeacon and his staff, with the fifty odd natives, withdrew quietly to their hideout. After a few hours the Japanese left, and the party returned to the mission. On August 3rd, after the native teachers' wives had finished the washing, the cry again went up that 'planes were coming.

"There were three of them," said Archdeacon Gill. "When two of them wheeled over to show the red insignia under their wings I knew that the new world order had arrived! They dropped five bombs, but did no real damage." Once more the Archdeacon thought it time to move his charges to safety. At this stage, he said, the Japanese never went farther than five miles upstream. They left about the middle of August, and went down the coast to Gona.

After having stayed in their jungle retreat for four weeks, he and his staff returned to the mission for another six weeks, exercising rigid vigilance. The Archdeacon was determined to hold his flock together, in the hope that some day they would be able to return to the mission. Then by some [52/53] mysterious network known only to the natives, he learned that the Japanese had designs on the Mambare region. This was brought home to him emphatically when one of his most trusted boys told him of enemy activity off shore. The time for general evacuation of the mission had arrived, so they embarked on canoes and travelled upstream to another village. There they made another bush hideout, and once more they were strafed. The party stayed there until late in December, then again returned to the Mission. Aerial activity began again two days later.

From P. A. Rayner, War Correspondent, quoted in A.B.M. Review, April 1, 1943.

In a letter written on December 18, 1942, Archdeacon Gill describes how they lived at this time. My last letter was written on November 27th, and I hope the news contained in it has reached you. We (my family of 33 and myself) are now well and truly nomads, though still in the vicinity of the old spot. We are now in our fourth temporary encampment and have had exciting times, but, thank God, are still all intact. . . . That ... (at this point I had to run off to the base of a nearby tree, as two enemy planes rushed past directly overhead only a few feet above the tree tops; one never knows whether or not the camp has been spotted. Among other things, you can imagine some of our cooking difficulties on account of the smoke danger.) To resume, I said we were all intact; but that cannot be said, alas! for the station. In my last letter I mentioned one bombing and three attacks by machine guns and cannon; but since then it has been quite destroyed, and all its fittings. In one of the cross members of the altar, enclosed in an airtight phial, was a memorial document. This altar and its accessories was made as a thankoffcring at the completion of my first thirty years in New Guinea--October 19th, 1938.' In this church practically all the Christians of my twenty-eight years were baptised.

A.B.M. Review, February 1, 1943.

With the mission buildings in ruins, and the position dangerous, Archdeacon Gill evacuated everything in three nights under cover of darkness. Native teachers, with their wives and the mission children, were allotted to several out-stations. At the end of January he was told some Japanese [53/54] had escaped from Sanananda, and that if he remained where he was he would be in their path. He declined to move until he had consulted his head man. This he did, and the natives were obviously relieved because the Archdeacon would be cared for by his own people. Soon arrangements were made for him to be brought to Port Moresby.

Now Archdeacon Gill was recently in Australia on a brief visit, but has returned, and hopes soon to take up his old work.

From P. A. Kayner, War Correspondent, quoted in A.B.M. Review, April 1, 1943.

Archdeacon Gill has just completed the Revised Holy Communion Service in the Wedauan language for the Church in Papua. This work has taken him four years to complete, and is one of the few things he saved when having to evacuate his beautiful and well-fitted Mission Station in Papua.

A.B.M. Review, April 1, 1943.

Escape across the Owen Stanleys.

One missionary brought his wife and six months' old baby to safety by crossing the mountains after the Japanese invasion, and then returned to his post to carry on his work.

Across the Owen Stanleys some months back a small party of civilians managed to make their way in escaping from the Japanese. The leader of the party was a young Anglican missionary. He brought with him a mission nurse, his wife, and their six months' old baby. With them, too, was an American Sergeant who had parachuted from a bomber just before it crashed. Before he met the mission party he had been wandering in the jungle for nineteen days.

As the Japanese had pushed in from the coast, this small part}' had been forced to leave the Anglican Mission, where the missionary, his wife and the nurse had been stationed. They had a long, severe walk of fourteen days through more than one hundred miles of jungle, forest and mountain. They got through, even though the women had to cross mountains which few white men had ever crossed.

The baby thrived on the journey. He was carried all the way in a small wooden box, covered with a mosquito net, [54/55] and slung from a pole carried by two natives. According to one of the party, "he behaved marvellously all the way through--he seemed to think the trip had been arranged just for his benefit!" Throughout the journey he was fed on a few tins of condensed milk which his mother had been hoarding in case of some such emergency. The last tin was nearly finished the day they reached safety. The rest of the party lived entirely on native foods and spent their nights in native villages; but they were used to that.

Their greatest hardship was that their shoes were practically worn out by the time they reached the end of their journey. They were rotted by being continually wet and badly torn on the rough rocks over which they had to walk from time to time. One of them said later: "We crossed and re-crossed rivers, and in one section we walked for about two and a half days upstream, walking in the stream itself. This was really tiring and played havoc with our shoes, for the stream was full of stones and boulders." In some places they had to wade streams which were so deep and swift that they had to cling to each other and help each other across. In other places they had to scale and descend slippery cliffs by a narrow mountain path. Going up was often easier than going down, because of the danger of slipping and falling. But they all escaped unharmed. The missionary who led the party wasn't satisfied with having escaped once from the Japanese. He returned immediately to his post in an area then still threatened. . . .

His action is typical of the work the missionaries have been doing in New Guinea in spite of the war. I know of more than one missionary who was taken prisoner by the Japanese because he preferred to stay on and risk capture rather than leave his people. On one occasion a missionary was about to conduct a Sunday morning church service when a native from a nearby village arrived to say that the missionary had better flee, as the Japanese troops were only an hour away. The missionary heeded the warning, but he held his church service first. Even when he left this village he did not leave the district and was later captured. The natives won't quickly forget the devotion of the missionaries who stayed with them even after the Japs came.

From Broadcast by Chester Wilmot, printed in A.B.M. Review, February 1, 1943.

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