For those who have read my “Battlefield Remnants” series of stories on the Kokoda Historical Website (www.kokodahistorical.com) you have learned that a trekker with a keen eye – may be fortunate enough to spot an artefact or two on the Kokoda track, as they walk along. Alternatively – attention to detail in one of the many “Private Museums” along the way is likely to reveal many artefacts which manage to catch one’s eye.
As the Administrator of the Medals Gone Missing website, not only does my interest lay in the vast list of medals that have gone astray over the years. But also any items of ‘Missing Militaria’ that happen to turn up on the open market or in far flung battlefields, once an army has moved on. Keeping in mind that items of Military Equipment often go missing on a battlefield during the confusion of battle – sooner or later somebody is going to stumble upon these artefacts. And nothing sets the pulse rate of a Battlefield Archaeologist racing quicker, than a possible dumping ground or ‘rubbish tip’ where an army buries it’s refuse.
During my travels in Papua New Guinea; I have found (or have been shown) many items that have sparked my interest. But no other item has gripped my imagination more, than some seemingly insignificant pieces of dried out leather on a shelf – in a tiny museum at Buna. Indeed, the average trekker may barely notice the existence of these pouches. Certainly Gibson, the museum’s owner did not comprehend or understand the historical significance of his find – whilst digging in his garden!
What Gibson managed to un-earth was the remains of some leather pouches; referred to as Australian “Pattern 1915” Infantry Webbing. A vital piece of history which links his countrymen to the active fighting of 1942.
PHOTO RIGHT: The pouches discovered by Buna land owner Gibson, whilst digging in his garden. He has also uncovered numerous other small items, which indicate that his land was likely to have been a waste dump after the village was liberated.
The “Pattern 1915” Infantry Webbing was an Australian version of the Pattern 08 (woven cotton) Web Equipment manufactured by Britain during the First World War. This Pattern 1915 equipment was made from ‘Chrome tanned’ leather, due to the fact that Australia had a well established leather industry before the Great War. Whilst a number of firms were tasked with manufacturing this item of kit, the major producer of Australian Pattern 15 equipment was the Commonwealth Government Harness Factory in Clifton Hill, Victoria. In fact, the vast majority of equipment that survives to this day is stamped with the letters C.G.H.F. to signify that it was made by the harness factory. Though occasionally, you will come across some other stampings – from the smaller manufacturers who also produced certain items of this kit. Whilst it never proved popular with front line troops during the First World War, it was produced in sufficient numbers – that much of this equipment survived the First World War and was subsequently passed into storage.
PHOTO LEFT: Front view of a ‘Left side’ Australian Pattern 1915 leather Infantry ammunition carrier in it’s complete state (as per Military specifications). This particular carrier has survived in an ‘unissued’ state and is of a light tan colour. The dyes used to stain the leather before manufacture, was varied in colour. It is not uncommon to find this same type of equipment manufactured in a green (almost olive) colour. I have even seen pieces which have been thrown together during the manufacturing process, so that they are made from both tan and green components. This suggests that there was no strict ‘quality control’ and that so long as the item was sound in it’s construction – it would pass the Army Inspectors and sent forward for issue.
PHOTO RIGHT: Rear view of a ‘Left Side’ Australian Pattern 1915 leather Infantry ammunition carrier in it’s complete state (as per Military specifications). Note the ink stamping of the letter “L” to indicate that it is a left side configuration.
During World War Two, it was commonly re-issued to Australian Home Defence units – but it was also sent over to Papua New Guinea to equip members of the P.I.B ( Papuan Infantry Battalion). Ample photographic evidence also exists to suggest that it was locally modified and issued to the Papuan Constabulary. This modification was done by dissecting the body of the ammunition carrier horizontally, so that the upper two pouches were removed. The lower three ammunition pouches could then sit on the 3 inch leather belt, without the need to support the weight of the belt with the shoulder straps.
The importance of these crumbling leather pouches to this country’s heritage cannot be overstated. They are a tangible reminder that Papuans also took an active role in the fighting to rid New Guinea of the Japanese invader. The fighting involvement of the Papuan people is often overshadowed by the vital work done by the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy’Angels who carried our wounded out and brought in valuable supplies.
PHOTO LEFT: A photo of a bugler of the Papuan Constabulary, showing the ammunition pouches of the Australian Pattern 15 variety, all made from leather. The photo shows that the upper 2 ammunition pockets have been removed. This effectively eliminated the rear 2″ buckle through which a shoulder brace was normally attached when in the standard configuration – as per the British 08 Pattern. (The shoulder brace supported the weight of the belt and ammunition carriers). It is likely that the rotten pouches uncovered by Gibson at Buna, were of this modification, as the two upper pouches were not found at the time. Based on this, one may conclude that they were issued to a Policeman of the Papuan Constabulary and worn during the fighting at Buna.
PHOTO RIGHT: Another photograph of a member of the Papuan Constabulary, clearly showing the 3″ waist belt and how the two ‘upper’ pouches have been removed. This man, Sergeant MERIRE (service number 3233) of the Waria District has been awarded the B.E.M (British Empire Medal). The photo is taken at Lae circa 1944. (Please see the image and medal description at the bottom of this page.)
In the big picture that is ‘the New Guinea campaign’, it is essential that we recognise the fine work exhibited by the men of the Papuan Constabulary and the Papuan Infantry Battalion. Australians often forget that it was the P.I.B. who first engaged the Japanese on the Kokoda Track near Awala. There are also numerous accounts in history of Papuan Infantry Battalion individuals, coming to the assistance of Australian Troops. On page 50 of Lex McAulay’s BLOOD AND IRON, he first writes of”a large, brave Papuan – Lance Corporal Sanopa” who fearlessly guided Major Watson’s men of the P.I.B near Oivi, in the early stages of the campaign. Lance Corporal Sanopa later guided ‘A’ company of the 39th Battalion from Deniki to Kokoda when they re-occupied the village on the 8th of August, 1942. A position which would have earned him certain death in the event of a Japanese ambush.
PHOTO LEFT: Papuan Infantry Battalion soldiers on parade. Whilst their kit is the obsolescent Australian Pattern 15 leather equipment, these troops are still fairly well-equipped by Papuan standards. Despite the fact that his ‘sloped arms’ obscure part of his rig, he is clearly wearing an unaltered and near complete set of gear. It is understood that in most cases, an entrenching tool was not carried. Hence the ‘kidney’ shaped helve carrier and helve handle carrier did not form part of their issue.
When Australians plan their journey over the Kokoda Track, it is a pity that consideration is rarely given – to extending their visit to take in the beach head battlegrounds of Buna, Gona and Sanananda. It could be argued that a trekker merely receives ‘half’ of the story; should their trip only encompass that part of the track between Owers Corner and Kokoda Station. Many acknowledge that the Kokoda Track actually starts and finishes at the beach heads – a point pressed by the Papuans who live in this area. I myself have been fortunate enough to have guided here a number of times – at the invitation of the trekking company Kokoda Historical. The hospitality of the people of Sanananda, will ensure my return at every opportunity. And I am glad to say that each time I visit – the locals have discovered something new for me to examine.
PHOTO RIGHT: Gibson’s mother standing out the front of the museum in Buna. Note the Marsden Matting being used as part of the wall. MARSDEN MATTING was the steel sheeting with multiple perforations which interlocked together, to form a hard surface – suitable for driving vehicles over soft sand or mud. A primary use for this concept was to create a solid surface for airstrips and aircraft dispersal areas within the South West Pacific Area. It is also known as P.S.P or Perforated Steel Planking (also pierced steel planking). The ever ingenius Papuans have adapted it for numerous uses….it is even bent to form a ‘tube’ and used for vertical fence posts.
But this small memento of the Papuan Constabulary, will always continue to be a favourite of mine; which I will ensure is viewed by every trekker that I escort to Buna. I just find it ironic that an item of leather equipment…..conceived by the Australian Government during the First World War …..deemed “unsuitable” for front-line military service (especially when the leather gets wet) should find itself issued, during World War Two…..in the high rainfall area of New Guinea – one of the wettest climates in the world !!!
IMAGE LEFT: The B.E.M. (British Empire Medal) as awarded to Sergeant MERIRE in the photograph (centre of story). This award was known in full as:- the medal of the Most Excellant Order of the British Empire for Meritorious Service. Instituted in 1922, the B.E.M continued to be awarded for meritorious service after 1940, but also for gallantry.
MEDALS AWARDED TO THE PACIFIC ISLANDS REGIMENT during World War 2(Which included the Papuan Infantry Battalions) This includes both European and Papuan – Islander recipients.
D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) 1
M.C. (Military Cross) 6
G.M. (George Medal) 2
D.C.M. (Distinguished Conduct Medal) 3
M.M. (Military Medal) 20
M.I.D. (Mentioned in Dispatches) 9
U.S. LEGION OF MERIT 1