By Gregory Bablis
Cultures around the world have different concepts of history and of time. The historicity of a people or place crystallizes in many forms etched in the environment, landscape, language, stories, and material culture. Legends, myths, fairy tales, creation stories or origin stories are just some examples. They are historical “artifacts” that can be analyzed for non-fictive content or for universal truths and morals. In the title of this report the phrase “fairy tale” is used to draw a contrast between the word “history”, the former carrying a slightly negative connotation of being more fictive and of less use for present generations – apart from providing amusement and scaring young children into adherence. The articles’ title was in fact a sharp comment made by Mr Ephraim Kavon when I recently spoke with him about local development issues in the Pomio District of East New Britain Province. Kavon is a local leader in the Tol-Masarau Ward 15 area, Sinivit LLG. He serves as Chairman of the school board of the St Paul 2/22 Lark Force Battalion Tol High School (THS) which is run by the Catholic Education Agency. Kavon struggles with the fact that the high school and the Tol Station area in general provided the scene for some major events and atrocities of the Second World War (WWII) and yet there is not as much recognition given by the governments of Papua New Guinea, Japan and Australia as there is to places in Oro and Central provinces through which runs the well-known Kokoda Track.
The THS lies about halfway along a six kilometers stretch of coastline between Tol and Masarau. The glistening white sandy beaches of Henry Reid Bay lie invitingly under the cool respite of shade-giving trees that were purposely left standing when bush and shrubs were being slashed to clear the way for development projects and human settlement.
Henry Reid Bay is the present name given to the inner reaches of the much larger Wide Bay that forms the southern side of the “throat of New Britain Island” – Open Bay forming the upper part of this topographical “throat”. Before WWII and the First World War (WWI) Masarau was known as Waitavolo and this is the name still used on most maps. One interpretation is that Waitavolo is a localized form of the description of the sparkly white sandy beaches which English speakers exclaimed as “whiter flow” when one apparently grabbed a handful and saw the fine white grains pouring out through the gaps in his fingers. The original place name, Masarau, is of (Simbali) Baining origin, from Mẽsrau – mẽs meaning “food” or “to eat” and rau referring to small crabs that can be found along dry creek beds or by the sea. It is the name Bainings use to refer to a nearby creek where the small crabs can still be collected and eaten. The name Tol is a diminutive of the Baining name of the nearest mountain ridge, spelled Tholia. This ridgeline rises some 200-250 meters and forms the backdrop of the thin Tol-Masarau coastline with a larger cul-de-sac indent that accommodates the school grounds and two Sulka villages – Gumgum immediately behind the school and Koki which lies immediately west towards Masarau. The high school was established in 2017 and is fast expanding its building infrastructures. It now boasts two double-story duplex classrooms, a staffroom/administrative building, teacher’s houses, two girl’s dormitories, a boy’s dormitory and an assembly hall. A quadraplex to accommodate living quarters for more teachers, a library building, another duplex dormitory and a double story science lab are currently under construction. These have all been made possible through funding from the Government and the Catholic Church. The THS has grades 9 and 10 and will soon be upgrading to secondary status to include grades 11 and 12.
The first coconut plantations were set up in the area shortly before WWI; foreign logging companies came to the region in the 1980’s, and large scale operations began, with the consent of landowners, in the 1990’s. The first logging companies to arrive were Japanese but from the 1990’s most of the logging in the Wide Bay area has been conducted by Niu Gini Lumber, a subsidiary of the Malaysian logging company Rimbunan Hijau (Tammisto 2010: 44). Today Tol Station lies at the crossroads of a number of district and national government schemes. In 2005 it was selected by former Member for Pomio, Mr Paul Tiensten, to be a Growth Center under the Pomio Economic Development Strategy (2005-2012). With the national government’s Public Private Partnership program, resource developers were supposed to link up and maintain road networks in the Pomio District in exchange for logging concessions. Under the now-failed Special Agricultural Business License concept the Ili-Wawas Road Project was agreed upon and the Department of Environment and Conservation (now the Conservation and Environment Protection Authority) issued an agro-forestry permit to Tzen Niugini (another Malaysian company) to carry out logging followed immediately by oil palm plantations and smallholder estates. But there are many environmental and workers’ rights abuses being perpetrated by resource developers as government authorities lack the capacity or perhaps the will to do proper monitoring and evaluation. These issues will however be the subject of a separate report.
The Japanese landed at Waitavolo not long after taking over Rabaul in January of 1942. They soon set up a base, building military infrastructures that included tunnel networks similar to those found in many places in Rabaul and Kokopo. The largest Japanese tunnel in Masarau can be found not more than a kilometer from the sea at an elevation of 35 m above sea level. The entrance of the tunnel has a width of 7.2 m, a height of 3 m to 4 m in places and burrows into the mountain some 84 m. The tunnel then branches off for an estimated 30-40 meters but the actual depth cannot yet be determined because there is not enough crawl space to make it further in. Today the only occupants of this tunnel are bat colonies, snakes and other nocturnal critters since no sunlight reaches its inner depths. Less than 100 meters away from the tunnel is oil palm plantation belonging to Tzen Niugini.
Japanese soldiers also constructed other tunnels on the ridgeline behind Masarau and the school at 182 m, 185 m and 203 m altitudes. These tunnels are smaller and their entrances are all partly caved in but then open up to heights of 1 m to 2.5 m once one gets in. The largest of these tunnels lies at the highest altitude of the three and goes into the mountainside about 28.3 m at the end of which is a 7.8 m vertical drop and a further 30-40 meters branch into the mountain. There are a few more tunnels in the ridge yet to be found and mapped. Apart from storing things and providing safe shelter during WWII, these tunnels could have also been used to keep prisoners – both soldiers and locals.
The Australians took over Tol and Waitavolo later in 1944 and held these areas until the end of the war. Their graded roads and fighting positions can be found on the same ridgeline on the western saddle and eastern terminus. All these and other war surplus materials now lie under jungle and in the mountains overlooking Tol, Masarau, the high school in the middle and skirted by expanding oil palm and logging activities.
By popular consensus the THS was in 2017 bestowed the lengthy name it now bears. Kavon has been board chairman since March of 2020. The story of the ill-fated members of the 2/22 Lark Force Battalion is well known locally. A small regiment made up mainly of members of that battalion were left to guard Rabaul Town after it had been evacuated early in 1942. When Japanese soldiers of the South Seas Detachment invaded Rabaul on 23 January, soldiers and civilians alike fanned out escaping over the Baining Ranges. About 200 Australian soldiers trekked all the way to Tol to wait for a rescue that never took place. They were instead met by Japanese soldiers who had pursued them by boat. In the events that occurred from 3 February, 160 Australian soldiers were massacred between Tol and Waitavolo. And of these only nine of their remains have been found and reinterred at Bitapaka War Cemetery in Kokopo.
Kavon knows the importance of keeping local histories alive and building important national and international relationships through such histories and naming practices. Through recognition of the high schools name, Kavon has established a sister relationship with Tallarook Primary School in Victoria, Australia, which is near where the Lark Force Battalion had a training base in the war period. In 2018 Kavon proposed the name Daniel Ousley Memorial Early Childhood School for a startup that has a classroom not far from the wartime airstrip at Tol Station. Daniel Joseph Ousley was one of the youngest soldiers of the 2/22 Lark Force Battalion to be killed by the Japanese at Tol. A contingent of the Ousley Family visited Tol in 2018 to honour their ancestor and see the place where he was slain and where his body still remains undiscovered among 151 other of his comrades. The early childhood school is run by the Seventh-Day Adventist Education Agency.
Kavon has proposed to name the new high school oval – to be graded and constructed later this year – after His Royal Highness Prince Henry (William Frederick Albert 31/03/1900-10/06/1974) who served as Australia’s Governor-General from 1945 to 1947. In the photograph below, which is dated 02 July 1945, he can be seen inspecting a parade of local soldiers attached to the Allied Intelligence Bureau in Wide Bay. At the time he was visiting the headquarters of the 13 Infantry Brigade and Tol Plantation camps.
A locally-renowned war hero will also be honoured in the name of a proposed museum for Tol Station. The Hon. Sergeant-Major Paranis Kawatpur was a Sulka man who during WWII served in the Australian Military Force and the Allied Intelligence Bureau. He was later awarded the King George Medal, the King George Star and the Independence Medal in 1975.
In the photograph below Sergeant-Major Kawatpur can be seen walking with his wife at the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit District Services Tol Refugees Camp at Sipilangan Village, Wide Bay. The photograph is dated 29 July 1945.
Apart from the more recent military heritage, evidence of the areas ancient history can still be found. Some years ago a local man in Masarau found in his garden, not 100 meters from encroaching oil palm plantations, two club heads with holes drilled in the middle.
The club heads are believed to be of Baining origin. Locals say that papait (magical incantations) would have been used to make easier the task of drilling holes into the hard rock. They suggest that the club heads would not have been latched with rope as is done with stone adzes. Rather, a suitable sized stick would be fashioned and wedged into the hole in a tight fit and this would be sufficient to hold the club head in place. The longer end of the stick would then serve as the handle. Locals suggest that the clubs were used for close quarter combat. The local who found these stone artifacts has agreed to donate them to the National Museum & Art Gallery in Port Moresby for proper preservation.
Having a three dimensional concept of time is the hallmark of the successful metropolises and institutions of this world. Many traditional African religions for instance are said to have a two dimensional concept of time that consist of a long past and a present. According to Mbiti, for many African religions, time moves backwards from the present and so the future which lies beyond the horizon of the present is not thought about or considered “actual time” (Mbiti 1969: 17).
The more successful and so-called universal religions of the world on the other hand provide a third dimension in their theologies that take into account the future and which provide for the opportunity of spiritual redemption and resurrection after physical death. So too must our development pursuits be three dimensional allowing for the revitalization of our histories (the past) in the present. These histories must be given new life and significance for the present in the way that Kavon’s naming agenda or a museum exhibition allows for the rekindling of old connections for new relationships. Said differently, three dimensional development projects must be carried out sustainably so that future generations can continue to benefit from the same land and resources without losing something of the cultural and biodiversity values of the place and environment known to peoples of the past. Kavon’s striking comment, “Don’t make history a fairy tale!” is as much a caution to protect our local cultures and histories and the materiality of these left in the environment and on the landscape, as it is a critique of the destructive tendencies and one dimensional approaches of government and corporate developers.
Mbiti, J. S. 1969. African Religions & Philosophy. London: Heinemann.
Tammisto, T. 2010. Strengthening the State: Logging and Neoliberal Politics in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 1/2010, 44.
Disclaimer: The views in this report belong solely to the author.