Newman Mongagi - Oral History interview recorded on 11 June 2016 at Sanananda, Northern Province, PNG


Mr Newman Mongagi tells his father's story of the landing at Sanananda and the deaths of Sanananda people during the war at Veo Point.



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.

[VS] This is an interview with Mr Mongagi, it's the 11th of June 2016, and we are in Sanananda at the Sanananda Beach Guest House. So, please introduce yourself.
Thank you, Victoria. My full name is Newman Ambrose Mongagi. I was born on the 14th of February 1955, here at Sanananda. Originally from here and I am still back in Sanananda. I have worked for the government in Port Moresby and after that I returned home to Popondetta, and was elected as a Provincial Member of the Provincial Government. And eventually elected to the Premier of the province. Not quite the standard of Premier in the outside world, but otherwise we were still the Premiers of each Province and I was one in those days. And now I am a village man and I stay in my village and run a guest house.
[VS] And you have a story about the war that was passed on by your father who was a witness to some of the events here.
Yes, that is correct. I have a lot of stories. My father died in his early 90s. About three years ago he died. I was all the time with my father. So, actually whatever he told me regarding the war, I would like to pass that on for the future generation of this country and any other country for that matter. Firstly, I would like anybody who has access to this information to understand that at least 99% of what I am going to say is what my father told me. 1% in the course of translation from our language to English, it might be a little bit different. But the point is that eventually at the day, I will be talking about the same story or message that he passed on to me. Firstly, I would like to say, starting this way, not so much this is not what my father told me but, this is straight from me as Newman Mongagi, one of the leaders of this village and of the Province.
I would like to say that Oro Province and Papua New Guinea was not part of this war, and to be frank it's none of our business. Therefore, this information here, I would like it to be taken as our province, Sanananda, Buna, Gona, the beachhead, we must be treated or spoken about as a meat in a sandwich. We were meat in a sandwich, because we were not part of this war and we knew nothing about this war. So, this is how I would like to start. It is not our business and it is not our interest in the past, that's how I took it. To talk about the history of Papua New Guinea and specially Oro province and Buna, Sanananda, and Gona. We thought it is not very important, but as the world changes and as Papua New Guinea advances through the global family, I think it is important, so I am going to contribute not my findings but my dad's finding, who died three years ago from this date. With that I would start, like from where we are sitting right now, this village is not the original beach front where the Japanese landed. This is the formation of land after the eruption of Mount Lamington in 1951.
But, the original beach is 500 yards back from here on the other side of the lagoon, where the truck stopped, where the road ends. This is how it started, but my father told me. He never told me the date, because he didn't go to school. He never told me the date, the time or the hour that the Japanese landed at Sanananda. Japanese landing here, according to him, was the indication of the location of sun by my father told me or indicated to me, that it was between half past three, four o'clock, the Japanese landed here. There was only one person whose name, I'm proud to reveal here, from Buna and Sanananda he was the only person who spoke English back in 1942, and he was a mission boy, a student of Father Benson, and his name is Norman. His second name, slipped my mind so I cannot remember at this stage but as we go on I might recall. This man was the only person in Buna Sanananda area that could speak English, a little bit of English, and he communicated with the Japanese officers.
Anyway, that particular day he was with my father who happened to be his first cousin. They were along the beach trying to catch fish. They were fishing in fact, and Father Benson actually told him that one day the bad people will come. He described the bad people as having slanted eyes, short, small build. So, if you see these people, they are bad people. And he said 'when you see them approaching your village, they will be coming in big ships, much, much bigger than big canoes that you have here'. So, when the two of them, my dad and his cousin, Norman, after fishing Norman climbed the coconut and looked out, and while dropping some nuts down, he looked out in the open sea and found out that the ocean was completely covered by the landing crafts. All the way from Buna straight to Gona. And they were approaching in advancing manner, straight, by the big troop carriers. And one of the troop carriers that was heading for government Buna mission was actually bombed there by the Allied Forces. I am saying Allied Forces because at the time they were fighting [as] the Allied Forces.
It is not what my dad said. He said there was a plane that went out and bombed them and fire come out. Anyway that happened. Many of them jumped into their landing crafts, motor boats and they went ashore. So, the dispute about the landing of Japanese in the northern beaches still remains today as our old people argue that they landed in Sanananda. Some said they landed at Buna, some said they landed at Gona. But, today I realize that landing was in three parts, because we haven't got that enough communication, like radio, telephone, so we didn't know, my father didn't know, and these people didn't know what was happening next door and that is the Gona mission, they didn't know. They only knew what was actually happening in Sanananda. So, when they landed, just when they were approaching closer to the beach, the two cousins, Norman and Ambrose, my dad, returned to the village, and brought the news saying 'the bad people have now arrived'.
They asked them to look at the beach and when they turned around they saw all those ships approaching. Prior to that they were all sitting around happily, getting ready to eat a pork meat, a pig that was speared the night before and it was being cooked by the women folk, while the men folks sat down chatting away happily. When the news broke out from Norman, the mission boy, immediately there was two people, also again their names, what will I say their clan names, their names, no I cannot recall that. They immediately ran into their houses got the spears and their clubs and they wanted to retaliate, they wanted to fight against the Japanese with their spears and their clubs. While in the preparation the Japanese fired the first shell from the ship. That didn't get them. The second was fired and one fell down instantly and died. Unfortunately, the mission boy didn't have that time to tell them to move quickly. He was busy telling everybody when these two tried to challenge the Japanese with their spears and clubs. In doing so as a result of that, one died instantly. So, when he came he told them, 'you better move, we cannot fight them'.
So, they have to leave. But, the sad part was that, when they were leaving they didn't take their food, the pig that they expected to eat, the pork, everything was just left there, and they all ran into the bush. When this happened, they all moved up into the bush, at least 7 plus kilometres that evening. Many villagers, including my dad's family, my grandfather, grandmother, all my uncles, they took what they could take in a very short time and they had to rush out. It was time of confusion and they really don't know what was really happening. But they only listened to this mission boy, who was actually telling them to move. So they went, as I said earlier they went 7 plus kilometres and they spent the first night at a place called Bago. And Bago is now the government school. This spot where it is now, they spent the night there. There was no shelter, nothing. That is the first struggle of the first week of that war that started here in Sanananda.
Landing of Japanese here is also questioned by many people in the Gona area and Buna area. Many say that, no, they landed at Gona and from Gona straight up to Wairope [the place where a wire rope, flying fox, used to go across the Kumusi river, before a bridge was built], today called Kumusi river. Many of us disagree, and I for one totally disagree because that's not what my father told me. I confirmed that with a book, I forgot who wrote it, but it is in a soft cover, it's called Bloody Buna, and it's on page, if I remember correctly, it's page 168 of that soft cover. It clearly says that Japanese, before the war sent their reconnaissance patrol plane, that spotted a road between Gona mission and Buna government station, on place called Sanananda. And for that reason I will never believe anybody else, what my father said is true. And I confirmed what my father said, so I trust that any other information that my father said that I am going to reveal now is at least the truth. So, he said they landed this way and they did not waste time. Because, they knew the road existed there, and this road was actually built and used by Awala rubber planters, and this was the sea port where they were shipping or exporting the rubber out of this country, out of this province.
So, they moved straight there, and it did not take them more time, because the road was already in existence. So, the Japanese moved from here to Wairope, or Kumusi as it is today, by bicycle, by motorbike, by horse carts, and by trucks. And no time they were already out of this place. While that was happening they moved out of sight, the local people were there. They moved and they just slept in an open space, open air in the kunai patch, and hoping that the Japanese will not come and find them. But, prior before then to move, when they were in that kunai patch at Bago, the hunter who actually shot the pig had very fierce dogs, so when they were at Bago the dogs decided to attack the Japanese. While they tried to attack the Japanese the owners of the dogs held the dogs back, but the dogs bit the owner. So, they let the dog attack the Japanese. But, they were on instructions, maybe I don't know my father didn't tell me that, not to fire or shoot the dog. So, they were all moving up, ran. The mission boy instructed the villagers to move further away, and he came out to meet those Japanese.
But Father Benson was quite prepared and that's why he told all the students not to speak to any other Japanese soldiers. Because, they might be shot by the Japanese. So, he told them if you see any officer, an officer would have some stars, or some sort of medals, badges on their shoulder that is an officer, so come out and talk to him. So, this young man, Norman, was hiding and watching until the officer was in sight, so he came out and spoke with the officer. So, he said, 'so I understand you speaking English'. He said 'yes'. He said 'any white man here?' And he said 'no, I was a student of Father Benson at Gona mission'. So, he said, 'alright, while I am here go away'. So, my father assumed that if he stood there the Japanese private would have shot him. While the officer was there so he moved away and went into the bush. This is the first part of the Japanese landing here in Sanananda. According to the books which, you know, histories written by war correspondents was eventually collated and put together. In that they said first day landing was in Gona and second day was in Sanananda. But the most arguable case up until today's generations, is about the existence of the road that was built by the Awala rubber planters. So, that is how the Japanese landed here on that day. I can't quite remember the dates, if I can brush my memories I'll come back to that later. So, that is the landing part of it.
[VS] Did your father tell you much about what it was like for him and for his family to live through the period of the war after the Japanese arrived?
Yes, lot of stories he told me. Some are good stories. Some are stories that made me really angry and mad at the Japanese. And this is why in my opening remark, as I said Papua New Guinea was not part of this war, but we suffered mentally, physically, and I said Papua New Guinea and especially Oro province and most especially the people from the northern beach which is Buna, Sanananda, Gona, we became meat in a sandwich. Yes, we suffered from the first day, people, some ate, most didn't eat, they slept like that. Because, the landing was in the afternoon, so many didn't have time with the firing of the shell, mortar shells from the boats that caused them to run into the bush in total confusion. So, many didn't eat in the night, they all slept. It was very, very hard during the period of war. The period of war, many people tend to think and tell stories that Japanese were helped by Papua New Guineans and also Oro Province, and this is why many Australians or Allied forces started to pick some of those to be beheaded at Higaturu. Which some of them were wrong.
Because, that was from some hearsay stories. It was not their own will or wish that they did that. They were threatened by the Japanese to do that. So, the Japanese landing here really made life misery for the people of this village and surrounding villages. They made it very, very hard for women folk to feed their children, to move here and that was quite hard. Because, at that time the bombing was still continuing and the fear of being spotted by the Japanese was there. So, many people found it very hard, especially the women folk struggled to feed their families. And all this time they survived on edible vegetables in the bush, green leaves that can be found and eaten, even the grubs from the trees, from the sagos that was beaten long time ago. They had to eat to survive. Until, when the fighting started to continue up the hill toward Ioribaiwa, that sort of released them, so that they could settle down to find something to eat. But, while the landing was taking place it was not good. It was very, very hard for our people here on the beach. The bigger children never ate, only the kids ate whatever the women folk found, the mothers found.
But, as I said after a week or so when everybody, meaning the Japanese moved out of here, and when they crossed Wairope at this time, now Kumusi, heading for Ioribaiwa, and that's when they relaxed a little bit and when people can go and find something. Slowly by night, they never traveled by day, they traveled by night to get food from their own gardens. And when that food ran out they just had to eat what they got until the next nightfall, or next chance they had to go out. So, to make it clear for the rest of the people don't know, as I said this war has really caused a lot of problems for us. Had we known about the war, we would have got ready. We could have stocked up our food, prepared to run away and everything. But, this was all of a sudden, sort of thing, and that put everybody in total disarray. So, today I always continue to say that we were meat in the sandwich, and it's none of our business but we suffered.
[VS] Did your mother tell you anything about her experience during that time?
I think I already mentioned my father was not married at that time.
[VS] But, was your mother from this area too?
In fact my mother died when I was 6 years old.
[VS] Ah, sorry.
So, I didn't know. I can't recall her face. But, this is the story that my dad told me. But, yes my grandmother also told me, because when my mother died my grandmother became my mother. She was always telling me that 'when you grow up don't talk about war, fighting with guns is not good thing'. 'This made it very, very hard. I couldn't feed your uncles, and I couldn't feed your father. So, when these people, white men talk about fighting with their guns and all these, don't talk about it. It's not a good thing. It destroys the families'. She said this in tears also, because her own daughter was also killed in that war. Her own daughter which is third born, died in that war at place called Veo Point, which is further down this way from here. When they returned, as I said earlier they relaxed a little bit, and they came down to get mud crabs and other shells on the beach. And that's when there was a mistake and at that time because many of our people couldn't read or write, therefore there was a plane returning from bombing in Rabaul, dropped the bomb and killing 8 local people here.
And in that killing of 8 people, 7 plus my, her daughter, grandmother's daughter, my biological aunty, died. Her neck was actually chopped off by the pellets from the bomb or could have been machine gun. Because after dropping two bombs, they machine gunned everybody. During that time this mission boy Norman, we would have a lot of time for him, unfortunately he died many, many years ago before I was born. But he saved my father and he threw my father down on to the beach and he fell on top of him and covered him, so the machine gun fire or the pellets got the mission boy and he died instantly. And that cut off all their communication with the Japanese and other people, the Sanananda people. But, prior to death, he was there. Before he died, he was there. He was able to communicate with the Japanese and the Australians and help many of our people. So, the Japanese landing here immediately established their headquarters here in Sanananda. And the Awala rubber planters their sheds were used as Japanese storage sheds. And the high ranking officer was moved further, about a kilometre and a half into the bush, place called Jamba Egoro, and he used to stay there.
He was staying there and Father Benson was brought a prisoner and he stayed there. Father Benson together with May Hayman and Mavis Parkinson they were at Gona mission, they were supposed to, and other missionaries, they were to return back to England, and that was the instruction from the primate of England, Bishop Philip Strong, sent that message. That they had to find their own way back to Port Moresby where they would be shipped back to England. But, they refused to do that, they said, 'we have to come to serve our God so we will die here', and that's what happened. May Hayman was engaged to late Archbishop of Papua New Guinea, Bishop David Hand, before she came here. She was asked to leave by the Anglican primate of England, but she didn't leave, she died here. Therefore, late Bishop David Hand when he was a young priest he came and stayed here until he died here in Papua New Guinea.
[VS] I'm wondering if we can jump forward to more recent times. Could you tell me a little bit about the guest house here? Because I understand that part of what the guest houses do is to accommodate trekkers and tourists who are interested in the war. I'd be interested to hear your experiences of that and how the guest house came to be?
Yes, this was an idea, not so much an idea but a person named Frank Taylor from Melbourne. He was a police man. Anyway, he contacted one of the tour companies in Hagen and they contacted me and we organized the first trip out. Anyway, to cut the story short, the interest of tourism started then, and it's now about nearly thirty years or so, the flowing of tourist in this area. One of the things that they were interested in, the tourist and the trekkers, is the war history, and the remains and relics. So, Sanananda is no exception and that is why we built our guest houses here. When people come here we take them up and show them the relics, and other things that they ask. We also answer some of the questions of interest that they raise. And in doing so, we tell them the stories regarding the war history of what had happened here. When I say war history I am referring to our local history, I am not talking about the histories that were written from the autographs or war correspondents stories. No, I am not talking about that.
That history was written, so even though it was in 1942 it was still written, so you have that one in the archive or somewhere. But, what history I am referring to is our local history, where some good things and bad things happened to us during that war. So, this is why the company that comes here it's called Kokoda Historical. And Kokoda Historical always focus on history that has happened in Papua New Guinea and especially the northern beachhead, which includes Buna, Sanananda, and Gona. So, this is why that actually attracts many clients coming this way. We have students also coming and we tell them that because they are tourists and trekkers, so for a little fee they also ask us to tell them what had happened here in this village. We have students coming from Brighton Grammar, we have students coming from Trinity Grammar, we have students coming from Mentone Grammar, they all come here and stay in this guest house, and go. The recent one was Brighton Grammar, about 3-4 weeks ago. We have another group coming in August. When they come here I am surprised, but they don't know about the war. I thought they should be taught there, but they come and ask us a lot of questions. So, I'm quite happy here, releasing what my father told me that will help them and help our children here in Papua New Guinea.
[VS] What happened to your father after the war?
Maybe we go back again to the bombing at Veo Point. When that happened, 8 people from this village died. My father was lucky otherwise I wouldn't be here right now being interviewed. My father had a pellet wound on his leg above the tendon, and on his hand. My auntie died and a few others got wounded. After that, when the war was over, they all went back to Buna. Buna was the Government Station, so everybody went back to Buna on the instructions by the government officers at Buna. So, they were to go there and stay there, and continue to start and complete the restoration program at Buna and all the surrounding villages. So, by that time he was already a big boy. He was at Buna helping people and doing other work as well. Recently he was also given a medal. Unfortunately I haven't got the medal here, but as one of those Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels he was awarded a medal. But the medal is with my step mum and I think she is at Buna right now. I haven't got it, so I can't show it to you.
But, after that he came back home, when everything was back. He came back home and Father John Wardman came and replaced Father Benson at that time after the war. He started preaching the good news. And eventually he got my dad in to spread that news also as an evangelist. Though uneducated, but he struggled and he brought the church here, which now stands here, and I'm proud of him. [crying] And in doing so he actually brought many people together and because he was the eldest son of my grandfather. There is another thing that I don't like about the Japanese is that my grandfather, when you look at him he was like a white man. He was not an albino, but he was really white. They could see him from miles walking on the beach, and they knew straight away that was Terrance Mongagi. Anyway, one of the bad things that happened which I will not forget but I'm forced to forget and forgive, is that the Japanese people ripped off his ear. He said he was not an Australian but they didn't believe that. He showed his teeth stained with betel nut but they didn't believe that.
Eventually, when they found out about his ears they ripped it off. And this is why I said, if any Japanese were coming our way, I want to see friendly Japanese. But, any Japanese try to bully us around then show him out, he would be also bullied around here. So, this is one of those bad things that they did to my own grandfather. Anyway, my dad continued his work as an evangelist until three and a half years ago he died. Before he died he received the medal. As I said I will try and make the medal available when you come next time, so you will see it. He had a colourful time, because he helped during the war and he was awarded that medal. He also helped to try and bring people together by working with the church. But, as I said he was very strong young man, that's why he was not allowed by his father and mother to go out to Japanese camps. But, he ran away with this mission boy of Father Benson.
My, the other uncle, his second brother Kevin [Mongagi], was much younger than my dad. So, he was not allowed by his father and mother to move around. Though, he actually saw the Japanese, but to walk around and steal from the Japanese and all these things, he didn't do that. When Father Benson was at Sanananda, about a mile and a half from the beach, Sanananda actually is located right on the beach, and where father Benson was kept a prisoner of war by high ranking officer was about a mile and a half from the beach. So, this Benson mission boy used to take my dad and they used to come to that officer's place, asking permission and got the spade and helped Father Benson to do what work he was told by the officer to do. Because Japanese officers, because they were officers they respected the international law, so they used to ask the local people to come and dance. Using banana leaves and all sorts of scrub on their body and dance. After the dancing they would give them the Japanese food and they would carry them and go back again.
So, the relationship with the Japanese high ranking officer who lived near Sanananda beach and who was in charge of the shed here, was good. It was the ordinary soldiers and other ranking officers that caused bad things like raping the women. Here, yes that has happened. Unfortunately, that lady has now passed away and she has got descendants still here. This is why we keep on saying that Japanese came here and caught us by surprise and they did bad things, but at that time and up to today we can't fight back, because that's war. And even we couldn't because we haven't got that resources like the money or the guns and other things that we could use. My family, they changed their location three times because of the threats by the Japanese. Japanese also said, 'if you help the Australians we will shoot you'. Likewise, the Australians also said, 'if you help the Japanese this is what we will do to you'. So, again we were caught between the crossfire. So, I keep on repeating myself that it is no fault of that we became a meat in the sandwich and we had to cooperate with everybody. We had to play a game of friends to all, and enemy to none, in order to survive.
But, lucky there was a place where our people stayed, and that particular spot was an island and it had a lot of crocodiles there and the Japanese couldn't cross. Even though they had the guns. They built rafts, they tried to cross they couldn't cross, because the crocodiles attacked them there. The local people, my dad and his people believed that their ancestors had sent those crocodiles to protect them. Because it was not far but Japanese couldn't cross. So, they stayed there until Japanese surrendered here and left. My dad also witnessed the retreat of Japanese from Ioribaiwa. It is true, according to books I have, that there was a chain of ships from the Americans that cut them off at Guadalcanal, that made them really suffer, that's correct. According to my father he said, he didn't know why but 'they were not carrying their guns, they dragged their guns. They ate what they could find. If there somebody dying, Japanese dying, they ate'. That's true, he said. He actually also saw that they grabbed food from local people and even though if it was not cooked, but they just ate it raw.
Finally, they got to the beaches of Sanananda, and there was a finishing fight that took place. To sum it up, I am proud of Sanananda being one of those spot where a lot of heavy casualties on both sides, the Allied forces and Japanese. My dad was also around. They always came and saw what had happened. They ran away, and hid at distance. And one of the things that happened here, which also today is argued by Buna people and us, the Sanananda people, against us, we argue that 'Bloody Buna', whether it was 'Bloody Buna', or it was English grammar that was used by the author of the book, or was it the actual site where the Fixed Bayonet fight was, and that was the final fight after retreat from Ioribaiva. That fight just around that corner of the village and you will see it there later when you are taken there. So, today when they refer to 'Bloody Buna', the confusion is, was it the grammar of the English that was used, or expressing the kind of war that was fought here that became the title of the book, or was it the actual site of the fight.
But the actual site of the fight was not at Buna or Gona, it was here at Sanananda. We will show you that place. This was confirmed by my father. My father did not stand there and see the Japanese fight with the Australians with bayonets, no, if anybody says that, that's not true. Because that was very fierce at that time on the beach. My father arrived a day later when the water was covered by blood and crocodiles and sharks were feasting on the dead bodies that were floating on the beach, in the sea, and on the shores of Sanananda. So, that is one of those things that I want to clear, is that Bloody Buna it is not— if it is what I am saying, if it is where the war actually took place, then it was at Sanananda, but not at Buna or Gona for that matter.
[VS] I am very grateful to you for taking your time and for sharing your stories with us today, and I am very pleased that we have been able to record those for the archive. Thank you.
Before I conclude I'd like to say, why the Australian government or the NGO, not NGO, ANGAU at that time did not seriously look at the loss of life that took place at Veo Point by deliberate bombing maybe and machine gunning very innocent people, in which I lost one of my biological aunties and the total of 8 people from this village. That the Australian government, I believe, they didn't look at that. I am sure they all concluded that it was war, but many of us today we still don't forget that. So, today here in Papua New Guinea and especially here in Sanananda, and especially in our family, Mongagi family, ripping off my grandfather's ear and the bombing and machine gunning innocent people has never been forgotten by us, the descendants of those people. But again also I'd like to say thank you to late Father Benson, because he did the right thing by telling few of the mission boys about the war that might come up. With that I thanks you, and on your next return if there is any other information that you want I will tell you. Thank you.
[VS] Thank you very much.

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“Newman Mongagi - Oral History interview recorded on 11 June 2016 at Sanananda, Northern Province, PNG,” Voices from the War, accessed June 16, 2024,