’George Washington’ and the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel: legend-making in wartime Papua

By Dr Jonathan Ritchie and Gregory Bablis

My colleague from the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, Gregory Bablis, was unable to get to Finland to present his section of our joint paper and so I will read his contribution later in the presentation. To begin with, however, I will provide some preliminary notes.

This photograph was taken on Christmas Day, 25 December, 1942, by the New Zealand-born photographer George Silk, who was working – now we would say embedded – with Australian soldiers during the New Guinea campaign in World War Two. It depicts a wounded Australian soldier, Corporal George ‘Dick’ Whittington, being escorted to a first aid station at the rear of the fighting that was under way as Australian and American forces attacked entrenched Japanese positions at Buna, on Papua New Guinea’s northern coast.

Silk was resting under a tree at the time he took the photograph, taking a break from the fighting at the front line. Looking up, he saw the two walking and, as quickly as he could, snapped the photo.

Like his colleague Damien Parer and many other war photographers, Silk followed the maxim attributed to Robert Capa that went ‘if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough’. He had been with the Australians at the front line as they fought desperately to overcome fierce Japanese resistance. To demonstrate what I mean, Silk took this photo a week later as the fighting continued:

Photos such as these were often not allowed to be published, due to their graphic nature. In Australia, the Department of Information acted as the government’s chief propaganda outlet and kept tight control on what the Australian public was allowed to see. The photograph had to be cropped before it could be published, to prevent the Australian public seeing the dead body to the left of the soldier manning the machine gun.

Silk’s photo of the wounded soldier was also deemed inappropriate to be released in Australia, but there was no such concern in America, where Life magazine took it up and published it in its March 8, 1943 issue. The photo rapidly became recognised as one of the iconic images of the War.

The Americans were so impressed with the photograph that they hired Silk, who went on to accompany US forces in Europe and in Japan. Silk remained Life magazine until 1972 and became well known for his sports photography, winning two National Press Photo awards. He became an American citizen in 1947 and died in 2004, in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Following its initial fame, the photo slipped away from public view after the War. Its two protagonists didn’t see it published: George Whittington died in February 1943, while his Papuan guide remained unknown.
Until the 1970s, that is, when Australian interest in World War Two in PNG started to grow, part of a wave of Australian nationalist sentiment. The unknown Papuan guide was ‘discovered’, living a traditional life in his village of Hanau, close to the Buna battlefield. He was identified as Raphael Oembari, and shortly afterwards George Whittington’s widow flew to PNG to meet the man who briefly cared for her late husband.

By the 1990s, many people in Australia began to see the War in PNG as fundamental to their identity. A number of popular historical books and films appeared that foregrounded the Australian role in defeating the Japanese, in particular during the Kokoda campaign that preceded the fighting at Buna. At the same time, it became fashionable for young Australians to retrace the steps of their fathers and grandfathers over the formidable mountain range that lies between Port Moresby and the northern coast. Part of the rhetoric that surrounded these recreations was a glorification of the part played by the Papuans, who were seen as faithful and loyal supporters of the Australian soldiers.

Silk’s photograph came to be seen as exemplifying this image of the Papuan as the dedicated servant to the valiant, if bloodied, Australian hero. Versions of the photo began to appear in many different contexts, each one however implying an unequal relationship between Australian and Papuan.

The image of the Papuan, who we now know to have been Raphael Oembari, escorting the wounded Australian soldier has been appropriated by trekking and tourism companies, and can be seen on medallions, key rings, t-shirts and posters. It has acquired a life of its own, almost entirely divorced from either of its subjects. So the opportunity to visit his village, as part of the oral history research project on Papua New Guineans’ experiences of the War, represented a means of reconnecting the iconic image with one of the main players (or his family, as Oembari died in 1996). My colleague and co-presenter, Greg Bablis, and I were part of the research team.

This section of the paper partly describes the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery’s (NMAG) Oral History Pilot Project as a measure of the degree to which oral history methods and approaches promote Papua New Guinean perspectives within conventional history. Such a project is undoubtedly late in the making for the PNG Government but the intent is to institutionalize and qualify oral histories which can be used by historians to enrich archival and anthropological materials when writing histories. The audio recordings and transcripts will form the foundations of a Papua New Guinean historiography that can be a catalyst for more oral histories and more historical research within appropriate cultural frameworks.

In the writing of PNG history, it is clear that PNG has still not gained independence from Australia, despite political independence in 1975. Australia’s hegemony over, firstly the management of PNG’s archival materials and second with regard to the contents of the documents has meant a keen Australian narrative has always pervaded any history of PNG. Portelli highlights that ‘oral sources therefore are a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for a history of the non-hegemonic classes, while they are less necessary for the history of the ruling class who have had control over writing and therefore entrusted most of their collective memory to written records.’ Because most archival materials were not written or made for or about Papua New Guineans, stereotypes and generalisations are what Papua New Guinean researchers must work with.

World War Two in PNG and the Kokoda Campaign are two areas of history that are saturated with Australian accounts and books about them. Given the right political support and the unlikelihood of archival research alone producing a Papua New Guinean narrative, the need for oral testimonies was clear to researchers and the NMAG from the outset.

An important objective was to break the stereotypes and add depth and context to classical Australian narratives and perceptions of Papua New Guineans and their experiences and involvement during WWII. The most enduring stereotype being the Australian ‘myth’ of the fuzzy wuzzy angels, which seemed to even encompass the role of the Papuan Infantry Battalion and New Guinea Infantry Battalions. The fact of the native carriers being used as a “human transport train” to carry wounded Australian soldiers and supplies back and forth along the Kokoda Track stands firm but that was not the only way that Papua New Guineans contributed to the Australian and American war efforts during WWII. Through the oral testimonies, researchers were able to engage with narratives of how Papua New Guinean men, women and children experienced the war or contributed to it in support of or against one of the fighting factions – including the Japanese.

The myth of the fuzzy wuzzy angels has been crystallised and promoted through the years initially and most prominently by Sapper Bert Beros’ poem of the same name and George Silk’s photograph of Oimbari and Whittington. While the photograph later became an iconic piece of imagery of the Kokoda Campaign, it inevitably excluded and drowned out the full story of the events of that day, 25 December 1942, when the photograph was taken.

The image shows only Oimbari escorting Whittington that day leading to Oimbari achieving national and international acclaim for his actions. However, as our oral histories in 2014 uncovered, there was actually a group of men who had assisted Whittington that day. John Phillips writing about the same event in 2006 explicates:

Raphael Oimbari was one of 14 Hanau Village men who were ANGAU carriers, taking supplies of food and ammunition forward, returning with wounded soldiers. George Whittington was being evacuated from the area with another Digger, who was a stretcher case. They were being taken along the track passing through tall kunai grass and leading away from the Japanese Air Force “Old Strip” near Giropa Point.

This Fuzzy Wuzzy team consisted of five members, who shared the responsibility of taking two patients, one stretcher and one walking wounded, back to Dobudura. Their names were Raphael Oimbari, Fabian Javoambo, Stonewight Haita, Noah Javoko and Adam Ware. Raphael Oimbari, in his late twenties, was the oldest member of the party and was the third one to escort Pte Whittington on that day, following Haita and Javoko. Ware had cut the stick for Whittington, to assist him with his walking.

Aircraft were flying low overhead and carriers, concerned for the patients’ and their own safety, at times moved off the track into the Kunai grass. These stops resulted in the changes in those caring for George Whittington.

Finally the four younger Hanau carriers, who could walk faster with the stretcher case, left Whittington in the care of Raphael Oimbari, and so the two patients were taken back independently of each other.

When researchers did oral histories in Hanau Village in 2014, we uncovered even more stories from the grandchildren of those involved in assisting Whittington in 1942. Some of those stories even seemed to clash. While Ware’s grandson, Matthew, backed up Phillips findings in 2006, another testimony was collected from one Dennis Itari who claimed that his grandfather, Soni Goto, gave the walking stick Whittington is pictured using. Matthew Ware’s testimony is that:

The wounded soldier George Washington, given by Mr Fabian Jawoambu, Heita, Sirima, Anamo, Oanda, Hibiti, Ware, Jaboko, Kokoro, and Gomba, they helped all the dead bodies and the wounded soldier. They helped them and they put it on the stretcher to pick it up, carry it out to Dobuduru aid station…. At that time, my father, Ware Toja, broke the stick and he came and give to George Washington to support him to come to Dobuduru…. The carriers they carry the bodies up until that time when they hand over the wounded soldier to Mr Oembari. At the same time the filmer took the photograph.

Dennis Itari’s oral testimony is that:

[In] the photo of Raphael Oembari and George ‘Dick’ Washington, the wounded soldier, was walking [with a] stick… the stick was given to him by Soni Goto. Soni Goto and Mr Raphael Oembari were in fact walking side by side, with the wounded soldier, George ‘Dick’ Washington. While they were walking, carrying… Soni Goto went into the nearest bush for relief, toilet. And that was how Mr Oembari and the wounded soldier were caught by the photograph.

For more than 70 years these stories lay dormant but are now struggling for the recognition that the limits of a photograph and written military documents have denied them. So who gave the stick that Whittington was wielding in the photograph? I doubt either is lying. What quite possibly happened, from analysing the interviews, is that Whittington used two sticks that day. The first one was given to him by Ware when they first picked up Whittington and his comrade from near the battle site. Along the way, while ducking in and out of the bushes to hide from low-flying aircraft, Whittington may have dropped the first stick or left it behind. Shortly after, Goto, who was by then escorting Whittington along with Oimbari, would have noticed and cut him another stick. Further along the track, Goto unfortunately missed the opportunity to be immortalised along with Oimbari by the Silk photograph when Mother Nature called him to relieve himself in the nearby bushes.

There were many other stories from Hanau Village surrounding this one particular day and the famous photograph. What the oral histories there remind us is that history is much more complex than the written word and a photograph can be able to capture alone. The historical texts so far mostly tell, sometimes quite shallowly and superficially, of two men but the oral histories show that a group of men all had a hand in helping one soldier. As a symbol of the friendship and bond built during WWII between Papua New Guineans and Australians, the image probably suffices, however it falls short of portraying the full and diverse range of Papua New Guinean experiences.

The oral histories surrounding the photograph even go as far as delving into clan lineages and land rights. The evening after completing the interviews at Hanau Village, I heard a knock at my hotel door (back in Popondetta Town) around 9 o’clock in the night. It was a gentleman from the neighbouring village to Hanau. He lamented that we had not interviewed him and asked if we could find time to do so. He said that when Whittington was being escorted to Dobuduru, Oimbari and the other carers stopped at a little water hole along the way to fetch Whittington some drinking water. He asserted that the water hole was on his father’s land and that he was the landowner. “How comes you guys went to collect stories from Hanau and did not come to interview me in my village?” he questioned. The plot thickens and more oral histories need to be carried out.

After the interviews with the Hanau men, we were struck by how much the photo resonated with them. As the exchange that Greg noted suggests, there is a close connection between how they regard the past and what they see as their contemporary challenges. If the photo which has been used and misused in the cause of promoting some kind of national identity, while at the same time to sell the idea of Papua New Guineans as Australia’s loyal friend in the region, well, why shouldn’t the people whose fathers and grandfathers helped make it happen, benefit?

The story of George Whittington, Raphael Oembari, and George Silk illustrates how tangible memory markers such as photographs can become commodities that are valued differently, depending on the cultural and economic drivers of the valour. Also that nothing is what it seems, in history.

In partnership with Deakin University.
Portelli, A 1981, ‘The Peculiarities of Oral History’, History Workshop, no. 12, p. 104.
From the PNG and Australian Government’s.
As described by Maclaren Jude Hiari, MBE, in Voices From the War: Papua New Guinea Stories of the Kokoda Campaign, World War Two, Department of Environment, Canberra, p. 16.
Phillips, J 2006, The story behind the picture, website article, Papua New Guinea Association of Australia, Roseville, NSW, viewed 06 June 2018, https://www.pngaa.net/Library/Phillips.htm .
Commonwealth of Australia 2015, Voices From the War: Papua New Guinean Stories of the Kokoda Campaign, Public Affairs, Department of Environment, Canberra, p. 22.

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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