Wartime journalists wrote that our diggers often feared the jungle of Papua and New Guinea more than they feared the enemy. It was a hell of place to die.
There were times when the badly wounded were given morphine and a gun and left to the mercy of the enemy to cover their mates escape. ‘Goodbye cobber, may God Bless You’ was whispered as a farewell salute.
Others had to be left where they fell. When time and circumstances permitted they were given a burial service and the site was recorded on crude sketch maps for recovery at a later time. Many were never to be found.
‘I have seen the time when you dig a number of holes in the ground and bury your dead’ wrote Laurie Howson of the 39th Battalion. ‘Nothing would be said, but you think ‘maybe it will be my turn next.’
Seventy years on our veterans of the war in Papua and New Guinea are at rest in three beautifully manicured cemeteries in Port Moresby (Bomana), Rabaul (Bita Paka) and Lae.
The architectural design of these sacred places has its origin in the principle of commemoration in perpetuity which was adopted by the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917. The core ideology was that there should be no distinction between officers and men. All Commonwealth war cemeteries were to be based on principles of equality and uniformity. There is no distinction in style of commemoration of headstones, plaques or memorials made on the basis of military rank, civil rank or wealth of the veteran or his family.
A Cross of Sacrifice is a feature in war cemeteries with 50 or more burials. It is a tall, carefully proportioned, sandstone Latin cross usually standing on an octagonal base with a downward pointing bronze sword attached to its face. Together the sword and cross embody the military and spiritual nature of the cemetery. The Cross was intended to represent the faith of the majority of the dead it overlooked.
A Stone of Remembrance denotes a war cemetery with over 1,000 burials. It is featured to capture one of the key purposes of commemoration – to forever remember our war dead. A Stone of Remembrance is a simply-edged slab suggestive of a sarcophagus, set at the top of three steps. Non-denominational and universal in its design, it is a monument to represent those of all faiths and of none. Its design was based on complex geometry from the Parthenon. All Stones of Remembrance are 3.5 metres long and 1.5 metres high. ‘Their name liveth forevermore’ was chosen by Rudyard Kipling from the Book of Ecclesiasticus in the Bible.
White marble headstones and bronze plaques are set in orderly rows within war cemeteries and designed to be uniform and permanent.
A Memorial to the Missing was first inspired by the words of Field Marshall Lord Plummer at the unveiling of the Menin Gate Memorial in 1927. ‘He is not missing. He is here.’
Over two thousand years ago Pericles wrote of his fallen Greek soldiers:
‘Each has won a glorious grave - not that sepulchre of earth wherein they lie, but the living tomb of everlasting remembrance wherein their glory is enshrined. For the whole earth is the sepulchre of heroes. Monuments may rise and tablets be set up to them in their own land, but on far-off shores there is an abiding memorial that no pen or chisel has traced; it is graven not on stone or brass, but on the living hearts of humanity.
‘Take these men for your example. Like them, remember that prosperity can be only for the free, that freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.’
He could well have been writing of our Australian soldiers in the Papua and New Guinea campaigns in 1942..
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War Cemeteries in Papua New Guinea