PORT MORESBY (TR) – Local birds on spindly legs dash between the marble headstones set within the manicured green lawn of the Bomana War Cemetery. The only sound is that of a very gentle wind ruffling the surrounding trees.
Caretaker James Kuk says that there is usually one reason why people visit Bomana, a nineteen-kilometer drive outside of Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby.
“Most tourists,” says the groundskeeper, “want to come here before going to the Kokoda Trail. Travelers will be asked by relatives in Australia to get a photo of a certain friend or family member’s grave.”
The battles of World War II in PNG pitted Australian and New Guinean troops against the invading Japanese. Japan’s landing on the mainland in 1942 began along its north coast, the opposite side of the strategically important capital of Port Moresby. The steep grades of the Owen Stanley Mountains that lie between the two formed what is known as the Kokoda Trail.
Bomana is the final resting place for many of those Australian soldiers who prevented the Japanese from marching over the treacherous ascents and through the mud and thick forests of the trail to Port Moresby.
Quiet and tranquil, Bomana offers a pleasant respite from the dusty and noise-filled streets of nearby Port Moresby. But for returning veterans, the grounds can bring back bitter memories of brutality.
Australian veteran John McKay, 82, who served in Z Special Unit in World War II, visited Bomana during a return trip to PNG in 1963.
“I was looking for a particular friend of mine, John French, who won the Victoria Cross,” said McKay at a recent Remembrance Day ceremony in Brisbane, Australia. “He came from Crow’s Nest in Queensland. I wanted to get a photo of his grave.”
The Victoria Cross, the highest commendation awarded to British and Commonwealth forces, is presented to those who have shown great bravery in the face of tremendous danger on the battlefield.
This distinction has made French’s plot one of the most popular at Bomana, says Kuk, one of the cemetery’s 11 groundskeepers.
A member of the 2/9 Infantry Battalion, French was killed in the PNG’s coastal city of Alotau in 1942. During a charge against three Japanese machine gun posts, which the 28-year-old was able to subdue with a pair of hand grenades and a sub-machine gun, French received severe injuries, causing him to collapse in front of the third post — where he died.
Like the rest of Bomana’s graves, which are arranged according to nationality in three blocks of rows, French’s place of burial includes a rectangular marker with the location and date of his death etched into the face. Native plants in yellows, purples, and reds fill out the bare earth around the stone.
Special messages from relatives are sometimes included. “His duty nobly done for those he loved,” reads the stone of C.C.P. Nye, who served in the 2/14 Infantry Battalion and died on September 8, 1942 at the age of 25.
McKay entered the military in his late teens. In PNG, he served between the eastern mainland’s Milne Bay area and the northern islands of New Britain.
“We carried out special operations behind enemy lines,” he remembered at ANZAC Square just prior to a ceremony to honor Australia’s veterans. “It was mostly surveillance and demolition.”
Wearing a green beret and crisp blue jacket adorned in shiny medals, McKay had harsh recollections of his PNG tour.
“I think they did some shocking things,” he said of the Japanese, “like cutting flesh off our fellas who were wounded. I’d never forgive them for that, frankly.”
The Office of Australian War Graves oversees the resting place of over 20,000 graves across the Pacific for the men and women who served in Commonwealth countries during the World Wars I and II. Of the 3,779 honored at Bomana, the age of death ranges from 16 to 69.
Last year Bomana, which receives between 200 and 300 visitors a day, saw thirteen additions. On September 18, 1945, a Douglas Dakota transport plane originating from the island of Morotai, a former Japanese airbase, plowed into an isolated mountainside at an elevation of 14,100 feet. The wreckage was first discovered in 1970. But because of the difficulty in ascending the peak, the recovery required three missions, the last of which took place in June 2005.
In August of that year, a full military ceremony honored the loss of the 19 servicemen onboard. Among them is Marie Craig, Bomana’s lone female. One of the thirteen graves is communal, collecting the unidentifiable remains of 7 who perished that day.
On a hill behind the cemetery is a circular arrangement of 10 stone columns to honor 770 unfound soldiers. From this perch, all the white stones in the field below come into view.
Despite the impact that the war still holds to this day, McKay is not convinced that it was all worthwhile.
“There was never a victory really,” he said of World War II. “So many lives lost. We didn’t gain all that much I don’t think. I lost a brother in a bombing raid over in Germany. I don’t think his death proved anything. He was just one of many who were killed.”
Note: This article originally appeared in November 2006 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.