How our forefathers failed them, and we fail to see them

Issue TenIssue Ten NonfictionNon-Fiction

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by Holly Erin Jane


A personal learning of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels



Growing up, my favourite story was of my grandfather who was a Sergeant on the Kokoda Trail. Having died before I was born, I never met this dashingly tall yet stern figure, but he lived between the words of my father’s stories. An ever-changing element of these tales that never failed to enchant me was that of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels. When I first heard these stories, I was too young to grasp the gravity of courage and human kindness, and later the sadness, within them—I just loved hearing of angels. Now, thinking upon these stories, I see that I not only owe my grandfather’s life but my own life as well, to these people whose efforts have only recently been recognised and whose struggles have been seemingly written out of history. 

When I was young, my dad would recount the words his father told him while drunk at the RSL. I imagine my grandfather told these stories with the same Australian nonchalance my father told them to me in—rattling off terrifying events in a manner so matter of fact. I imagine that when my grandfather was sober his long face would sit expressionless, his eyes locked ahead—not because he was arrogant (though that’s how some saw it), but because he was conditioned to be too proud to look down or show vulnerability. I can see his countenance changing at the RSL, with the security of alcohol and a few fellow veterans he allowed himself to be seen, to share stories incomprehensible to those who have not experienced war. When my father accompanied my grandfather to the RSL, he saw this side of him and heard words that he later passed onto me. 

The stories always started in the same place: Rabaul. My grandfather’s battalion was outnumbered 40 to 1 by the Japanese (actually 4 to 1, but my father never let facts get in the way of a good story). The Aussie troops were split up, many were captured and sent to prisoner of war camps. Only 400, a third of the original battalion, managed to escape. My grandfather and his best friend, Jack Hedlam, were two of the fortunate ones. They went into hiding in the surrounding jungle. 

With no one but each other and the dwindling hope of being rescued, they battled tropical diseases, malnutrition and delirium. My grandfather would get large ulcers on his legs and Jack would find shells to sharpen, then use to dig out the puss while my grandfather held himself down and screamed in pain. My father remembered seeing the scars down his father’s legs, a kind of proof of these seemingly impossible stories. 

After about six months in this foreign jungle, having lost hope of being rescued from the dense foliage—they were saved. A group of Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels found them and, while nursing them back to health, walked them across the country until they found an Australian rescue team. My grandfather, who was over six-feet-tall, weighed around 40 kilos when he was found, or so the legend says. 

In my father’s retellings, this is where the story lost its glamour. Details were glazed over, the glory of his father’s trials ended—The Angels appeared, Australian rescue arrived and took my grandfather home where he met my grandmother. I used to ask about The Angels, but my father didn’t know much else. So, as a child, without any details to help my imagination, I pictured shining angels surrounded by light, gliding through the forest. I thought they were our family’s guardian angels. 

It wasn’t until I questioned the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy’ aspect of their name that I found out these angels were human. This realisation beaconed the question ‘why were they called angels?’. My dad off-handedly answered, ‘I guess, as the soldiers looked up at them from the forest floor, the sunlight would shine through their frizzy hair and look like a halo’. The story reels in my head changed—human-angels—my grandfather was saved not by divine intervention but by real people. Although this was not the fairy tale I had once thought it to be, as I entered high school and began to learn about the cruelty of the human race through the World Wars, it was a fairy tale of human kindness during the darkest hours that I was desperate to hear. 

I was 20-years-old when I first saw the face of one of these Angels. It was only a photograph, but it impacted me all the same. Looking at an article about the death of the ‘last Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel’ (Pagan Hill Media, 2020), a picture of an elderly Papua New Guinean man filled my screen. Post-publication this was found to be incorrect (as other Angels were still alive), but nevertheless I sat, dumbfounded. The story reels in my head changed again. I was no longer lying on the forest floor looking up at a shadowed face with a halo—now, I could see a face, I could see a person. In that moment, these abstract figures in history became three-dimensional humans, not just plot lines in someone else’s story, but figures who had stories of their own. 

Despite my shattered hope of guardian angels, my intrigue about these figures didn’t change, so I began to research their history for myself. First, all I came across were letters home from Australian troops. In the letters, the troops praised these gallant figures for their efforts as war carriers, who tirelessly carried supplies to the front line and injured troops back to aid. The fondness within the letters was unmistakable. Australian troops sent home poems and stories they’d written about them. One such story tells of a wounded soldier who, while being carried back to aid by the Angels, had to sleep in the forest. The Angels made a shelter for him on flat, dry land and gave him clothes for warmth, while four of them huddled together on a single stretcher. Pictures formed of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels as eager workers, wishing to help wherever they could and putting others’ suffering above their own. 

I began to sense a kinship between the Papua New Guinean war carriers and the Australian troops. But stories are always clearer when only told from one side. The truth and the fanciful become harder to separate when you look at the same tales from different eyes, which is what I began to do. I discovered how most of the Papua New Guinean war carriers were conscripted under false pretences, by force or fear. More than 49,000 Papua New Guinean war carriers were conscripted, their orders stated they were to be employed for up to three years without leave. Absence or desertion carried grave consequences if found, graver still if they deserted to join the Japanese (which they did for fear of being on the losing side at the end of the war). There were records of brutal whippings and brandings of Papua New Guineans who tried to escape. These were no longer stories of voluntary workers.  

While working, many of the Papua New Guinean war carriers died of pneumonia from the extreme conditions on the trail. Having lived their whole lives near the beach, they were not used to the cold mountain climate. They were underfed, records stating they had less than a cup of rice as a meal, and were underdressed. Over the course of the war along the Kokoda Trail, approximately 20,000 Papua New Guineans died—over three times the number of Australian Soldiers. On top of this, their villages were senselessly pillaged by troops. Both the Japanese and Australians would trample their crops, and steal their food and livestock. Then, when the war was over, when these people had sacrificed so much for a cause that was not theirs, and they asked for the pay they were promised for their efforts. It was not given. The battle for both compensation and official recognition was long and when they were finally given it, it was inadequate. 

Sinking back into the crushing realisation that wherever there are colonial forces there is corruption, I hold onto one strand of (possibly false) hope. That despite the ill-treatment done unto them and their villages, while they were walking through the jungle after the war on their land was over and found my grandfather, with all the ill-blood I can imagine would have flown between them, they picked him up. 

As I was about to delve further into my research, I took a breath while I could still hold onto something good. To take a breath and recognise the complexity of this story, like so many other incorrectly told colonial stories. To recognise that there is no singular truth, but rather many individual truths. To hold onto the thought that, despite all the horrors that take place during a time of war, there were still remnants of human kindness on that bloody trail.