The First World War had relatively little impact on Papua New Guinea despite the fact that the British and the German colonies of New Guinea lay side by side. In 1914, an Australian naval expeditionary force of 2,000 men was sent to Rabaul, the capital of German New Guinea, where the small contingent of German soldiers were asked to surrender. In the skirmish that followed, one German, six Australians and thirty New Guinean enlisted soldiers lost their lives. From that point on, not another shot was fired for the remainder of the war. When Germany surrendered in 1918, Australia took over the task of administering both halves of the country. Even after the newly formed League of Nations appointed Australia as guardian of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, it governed both halves independently.
The years between the two great wars were full of excitement and activity in PNG. The search for gold had led administration patrols deep into the country and previously unknown peoples were encountered and filmed. Further searches for minerals and oil began in earnest, following up on earlier indications that the country had vast reserves. Minerals were discovered in large quantities whereas the oil boom had to wait another fifty years.
When war broke out again in Europe in 1939, it looked as if Papua New Guinea would be as little affected as it was a quarter of a century earlier. But the Japanese had other plans. On December 7, 1941 the Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbour and Papua New Guinea suddenly found itself the only barrier between the invaders and the Australian mainland. This was the beginning of the New Guinea Campaign, generally acknowledged as one of the bloodiest battle arenas in the entire South Pacific War. In 1943, Admiral Yamamoto, the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet and the architect of the raid on Pearl Harbour, was shot down over Buin on the island of Bougainville.
The Japanese launched an air attack on Rabaul on January 23, 1942. After bombarding the town, they landed 20,000 soldiers and made Rabaul the South Pacific headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army. The Australians, and the Americans who were later sent to reinforce the ‘diggers’, were only too aware of what might happen if the Japanese invaded the Australian mainland and they fought ferociously in the forests of PNG to prevent them. The Japanese tried to capture the capital, Port Moresby, but were severely defeated at the famous air battle of the Coral Sea. As a final effort, the Japanese threw all they could into a last campaign, the Kokoda Trail, but to no avail. The allies had won, but thousands of Papua New Guineans and Australians had lost their lives. The Japanese numbers of killed and wounded were equally high.
The Papua New Guineans served the war effort both as soldiers and as carriers. More than 3,000 men were engaged on the Kokoda campaign alone, toiling up the track with supplies and back down again carrying the wounded on stretchers. Many a soldier owed his life to these ‘angels’, as they were called, ordinary villagers who risked their lives to help the military. September 1995 is thus not only the twentieth anniversary of the independence of Papua New Guinea, but the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war.