The following story was told to me in 1976 by a Numbami man who was a noted traveler and storyteller whose nickname was “Samarai,” because he had once spent time there. (My late West Virginia uncle had also spent time as an Army cook on nearby Goodenough Island after spending time in Australia. He had a lot of respect for the Aussies, and he’d been in fistfights with more than a few of them.)
In this first, rough translation, I’ve tried to capture the storyteller’s idiom without presuming too much specialized knowledge on the part of my readers. We can be sure the story has “improved” over countless retellings, but it nevertheless conveys a third-party perspective on the Pacific War that is too rarely heard. For more local reactions to the Pacific War, consult the Australian-Japan Research Project for Australia and PNG, and the book Typhoon of War for Micronesia.
While were were in school [around March 1942], the Japanese came and took over Lae, took over the Bukaua coast [the south coast of the Huon Peninsula], all the way to Finschhafen. But we stayed there at school for another year. Then, okay, the Australians and Americans seemed to be planning to come back. Their number one patrol officer, Taylor, sent a letter saying, “Natives, don’t stay in your villages any more. Build huts in your hillside gardens and stay there. A big fight is coming.”
So here’s what we did. We people at Hopoi abandoned Hopoi. We took our school, our desks, and everything and set them up in the forest. We stayed at a place called “Apo.” We kept going to school and, okay, the Australians came from over on the Moresby side, they came all the way to Wau. And they came down that little trail and they and the Japanese fought each other over at Mubo and Komiatam [above Salamaua].
And they sent word to us Kembula [Paiawa], Numbami [Siboma], and Ya [Kela] villagers to go carry their cargo to Komiatam. And they did that and the fighting got harder. The Australian forces got bigger. And some Numbami went and carried cargo over at Salamaua. They went at night. They went there and the Australians came down and fired on the Japanese so the Numbami ran into the forest.
They ran into the forest and there was one guy named G. “G, where are you? We’re leaving!”
So, okay, they went and slept overnight and the next morning arrived at Buansing. And a Japanese bigman there named Nokomura [probably Nakamura], he heard the story so he came down and talked to me. He talked to me and I said, “Oh, that was my cousin, my real [cross-]cousin.”
So the Japanese guy said, “Really? Your cousin? Oh, your cousin has died. The Australians shot him dead.” And he spoke Japanese, and he said, “One man, bumbumbumbumbumbu, boi i dai.”
I said, “Oh, you’re talking bad talk.”
Then he said, “Tomorrow, you go to school until 12 o’clock, then come to me.” So I went to school until 12 o’clock and I went to him.
So, okay, I took it and I went. And he wrote out my pass. And there were bigmen with long swords the Japanese called “kempesi” [probably kempeitai, the dreaded military police]. One man, his name was Masuda [possibly Matsuda]. This man had gone to school over in Germany. And he really knew German well.
So I came by and he saw me, “You, where are you going with that gun?”
So I said, “Oh, a bigman gave it to me to shoot birds for him to eat.”
“Let me see your papers.”
So I showed him my papers and he said, “Okay, go.”
So I went and found a friend of mine. His name was Tudi. I said, “Hey, Tudi. A bigman gave me a gun and I haven’t shot a bird yet. Could we both go and you shoot?”
So we both went and stopped at an onzali tree and two hornbills were there. So he went and planted his knee and shot one and it fell down. So I was really happy and ran and got it. We kept going until he shot a cockatoo.
So after I thanked him, I said, “Give me the gun and I’ll see if I can shoot.”
So he gave it to me and we kept going until we saw some wala birds, and I said, “I’ll try to shoot. Shall I shoot or not?”
So, okay, I fired and I shot a wala bird to add to the others. So I said, “Okay, we have enough, so I’ll take it and go.”
So I tied the wings together and hung them over the gun and carried them back over to Buansing. I went and all the Japanese bigmen were sitting in a, dakine, committee. They were talking about the coming battles. They were sitting there talking and their bigman said, “Look, here comes my man,” and the guards saluted him. And I was invited in.
So I entered the building and the guard at the door said, “Ha!” When he said that I replied, “Ha!” And I bowed three times and he bowed three times.
After we finished, okay, I went up to the second guard and he went, “Ha!” And I said “Ha!” And I bowed three times and he bowed three times. Okay, then I walked on.
So then I went up to the man who stood at the steps up to the bigman. When he said, “Ha!” then I said, “Ha!” and we had both bowed the third time, I went up the steps.
I went up the ladder and the people who were sitting in the meeting, they stood up and went “Ha!” to me and I said “Ha!”, then I went up and they gave me a chair. I sat down.
And the bigman glanced at his cook. And, okay, he took smokes and opened a pack and passed them around until they were gone. Okay, then he struck his lighter and gave everyone a light, then we all sat down. We sat and sat, maybe a half-hour. Then he told his people, “Okay, the talk is over.”
So they all split up and went out leaving just him and me still sitting. We stayed sitting until he said, “I’ve already given you a blanket and a mosquito net. Here’s a knife. Here’s your lavalava. Over there are your bags of rice and dried bonito, two tins of meat, a tin of fish.”
I said, “Oh, you’ve given me so much. How will I carry it?”
He said, “Oh, it’s all right. Take it away.”
So I asked him, “You’ve given away so much. What does it mean?”
“Oh, there’s a reason. I guess I’ll tell you. After you leave, a ship will come tonight, a submarine will come and I’ll board it and go to Rabaul.”
I said, “Why are you going to do that?”
“Nothing. All us bigmen are going up to Rabaul because the bigmen and a whole lot of soldiers are at Rabaul. And these people, their job is to stay behind, and fight the Australians and Americans when they come, and destroy them, destroy them here. And us bigmen will be in Rabaul.”
“Oh, all right.”
Then he told me, he said, “You go get a good night’s sleep so that when you see the crack of dawn you’ll get up quickly.”
So I listened to him and left.
For a very well-researched Japanese account of the defense of Lae-Salamaua, see here.