John Yawe - Oral History interview recorded on 15 June 2017 at Salamaua, Morobe Province, PNG


John Yawe tells the story of his parent's experiences during WWII.



Warning: This site contains stories of war. Some of these interviews may include detailed and graphic descriptions of events and experiences that may be disturbing for some individuals.

[Interviewer]: Thank you for coming, and I would like to ask if it’s alright for us to record some of your stories about the war?
Oh yes, I’m glad to.
Alright I’ll only tell what my parents had told me. I even asked other people. I had asked some big men (elders) who were there during the war. They told me some stories about the war too.
So, my parents have told me some stories about the war which took place in Salamaua. My father witnessed everything with his own eyes. He said when the Japanese came to Salamaua, they came by boats and there were a great number of men that came.
He (father) said that like ants, the multitude came when the sun rose, they brought their machines and came ashore at the sea side and the people saw them. Before the war, warnings had been sent out to the village people.
But they stayed in the village for some time and forgot about the warning. When the Japanese came, the people were so surprised and shocked. They saw everything the Japanese brought and, so they cooperated with the Japanese.
Like helping in moving the guns they brought into the village. When the people saw the war planes and heard bomb blasts, they recalled the warning that came earlier and knew that it was that very war they’ve been warned about.
So, my parents’ parents brought them to the mountains and dug big holes to hide them. When they heard aeroplanes, they would quickly grab the kids and run away and hide. They hid in the holes or under the big tree barks until the bombs stop exploding.
Also, as already been told, we were not allowed to make fire, because the smoke from the fire would attract enemies.
They were treating both sides equally, not helping one and leaving the other. Because if they supported one side, the other would shoot them with guns. They said if you help Australia, Japan will become angry and shoot you. That is why they were helping both sides during the war.
It was difficult for the people to look for food because bombs kept coming so all they must do is run and hide. They lived like that till the Australians and Americans came, and they tried to make the people glad, not to fear them so they gave them some sweets like biscuits.
They also gave us sweet candies. They gave these confectionaries to develop friendship, so the people would not be frightened of them. This they did to show the people that they’ve come to help them from the Japanese. So they were bombing Salamaua till all the Japanese fled.
My mother told us that the Japanese were the first to invade and occupy Salamaua and because they were camping there, the Americans bombed Salamaua. Before that, the village people were told to evacuate to a place down there.
They moved the people down to where the big barge was already waiting to move them to Morobe Patrol Post.
So, after everyone has been moved out, they started bombing Salamaua and a big fight broke out.
They fought until the Japanese were moved out. So, after they removed all the Japanese, the ship brought them back, however the war continued.
Lots of Americans came back to Morobe. Some of the strong men joined the soldiers to fight. They heard that some Japanese were stealing from their gardens.
When they saw the Japanese in the gardens, they secretly hid in the bushes and shot them with spears, killing them, and threw the bodies down the river.
They were glad that they fought with the Japanese and killed them because they were stealing from their gardens. When the Americans returned to Morobe Patrol Post, the people told them stories about how they killed the Japanese. After that, they started to go back to school. My parents said that the Australian government really took care of them well. The government supplied them with food and that’s what I heard from my parents and some other people too.
The Japanese didn’t make the people happy and so they didn’t like them so there’s not much stories about them. They only told stories about the Japanese stealing from them. They were angry at the Japanese for stealing foods from their gardens, so they killed some of them.
Other people have said that the Japanese came and made friends with the village people. Even some of their boss men used to go to church with them. They mixed around with the village people, attended church and went back. That’s about the Japanese.
They didn’t tell much about the Japanese but one bad thing the Japanese did to the people was stealing from their gardens and for that the village people didn’t like them. The other bad thing the Japanese did was when they bombed the Australian and American aeroplane down, they captured the pilot and killed him right in front of the people. They really felt for him and mourned.
This is one bad thing the Japanese did which my parents told me about. If they had taken him somewhere and killed him secretly, the people wouldn’t see and know, and it would be better. But they killed the man while the village people were watching. One day an aeroplane was bombed by the Japanese and fell into the sea. There were these two pilots who swam out from the crashed plane and over to the sea shore. The village people quickly took them away and tried to hide them. As they were doing that, Japanese soldiers ran down to the village to capture the pilots. The villagers took them away and tried to hide them, but they refused. They told the villagers if you hide us, the Japanese will kill you too, so let us go our way.
The people felt heartbroken but had to let them go. They went up the mountain and the village people could see them, since the other pilot was very tall. From there the Japanese caught up with them and captured both. The village people had measured the height of that very tall pilot man by using a long stick and put a mark on that stick where the height is.
So later they can use this height to identify the pilot. The Japanese captured and took them to the cemetery over there and chopped them. Some of our grandmothers came down and witnessed how the Japanese chopped the white men’s heads off. They mercilessly chopped them as our grandmothers watched on and cried bitterly for these white men.
This was one of the bad things the Japanese did, in which they later apologised for it was inhuman and disrespectful to kill those white men in front of the people. It would be less troubling if they had brought the white men into the Japanese base and killed them.
However, they did mix around with the village people and that’s one of the good things I heard people speak of. As I’ve mentioned earlier, they used to come down to the village and tell stories and chat with the villagers. Also on Sundays, they would come to church and have divine service with the people, which was a good thing they did which the people spoke of. But some people were not convinced at the way the Japanese were acting. They said that the Japanese only attended church service with us because they wanted to spy on us and see if we were hiding some white men in our houses. Some people in the village thought that it was the Japanese intention for coming to the village and attending church, to spy on the white men.
The people told themselves not to tell the Japanese that they were hiding some white men. They were scared the Japanese might kill them if they found out that they were hiding some white men. Meanwhile, the Japanese were being friendly to them and came down to mix around with them. They even told stories and gave sweet biscuits to the village people, to get answers about the whereabouts of the white men in return.
My mother told me that Australians and Americans were so kind to us. They had a good attitude towards the villagers and they helped the village people very well. When they travelled from another point to our village, they would line up along the big road with foods and other goods to give to the villagers. Before they bombed Salamaua, they evacuated all the villagers out and gave them biscuits and other foods to carry with them also and they gave big amounts of meat and food.
The biscuits were packed in long metal containers. These are the good things Americans and Australians did to the people in which they told us about. They gave us food, even when they go down to Morobe and came back they brought us food.
They looked after the people as they did their gardening and stayed with them till the foods were ready to harvest… so the Australians and Americans really helped the people a lot and … with good attitude in which the people were so pleased with.
Some of the man were asked to join the army to fight, while some were given cargoes to carry and if they saw that they can fight, they gave them guns, so they could also help in the fight. One story they told about an old man named Jimba. They said he was a very tough guy at that time and, so he helped Australia and America. He would in the night paddle up the river to the Japanese camps and spy on them and then back to us and report everything and he saw and heard to the Australian and American. He could understand and speak English, that’s why he communicated well with the Australians and Americans and was able to report to them about the Japanese.
He was a very strong old man who had no fear. He would travel in the night. In one episode, he bumped into the Japanese and they asked him about the Australians, but he was a spy, so he didn’t respond to them well. He kept quiet. So that was this old man.
This is the story my father told me, and some people tell this story saying that this man was a very fierce and brave man. The Australians and Americans saw that he was a brave and intelligent man, so they chose him to be their spy to spy the movements of the Japanese and report to them.
The community, the villagers, they said that the commander came down to the village every Sunday and worshipped and mixed around with the villagers. He would stay till the church service is over. So that is one way they got acquainted with the village people.
I’ve never heard of them making friends and getting close to a single person. But to come and mix around with the community I heard the commander did was good. There were several others who used to do the same.
However, they generally made friends and showed loyalty to the community and didn’t associate closely with any person. Only the tough guy was well acquainted with them than all of us because he was giving information about the Japanese to them. What I heard from the village people is that this old guy used to visit the Australians and Americans so often because they used him to get information from the Japanese.

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“John Yawe - Oral History interview recorded on 15 June 2017 at Salamaua, Morobe Province, PNG,” Voices from the War, accessed April 16, 2024,