(Original article posted June 19, 2018 6:18 AM via abc.net.au, © 2018)
Seventy-five years after shepherding Australian soldiers to safety on the Kokoda track, Papua New Guinea’s ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ have been remembered by the two countries via a joint memorial.
The plinth and plaque was funded by a PNG company and built earlier this month by a team of Australian and PNG volunteers.
It was built at the halfway point of the Kokoda track in the isolated village of Naduri, in consultation with local residents.
Naduri was also home to Idiki Ovoru, a Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel well-known to visiting Australian trekkers who would speak to them about his memories of the war.
While Australian teams have built memorials to honour Australian efforts on the Kokoda track, this is the first memorial built by Australians acknowledging the vital help of their PNG counterparts.
A total of 49,500 PNG war carriers were deployed to help Australian soldiers as they defended Port Moresby on the Kokoda track in 1942 during World War II.
The Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels carried supplies to the front and escorted the wounded back, sometimes transporting stretchers under enemy fire and across mountainous terrain.
Former Lieutenant Colonel Rick Moore, who helped build the memorial, said that their help was “critical” to the campaign.
“The battle could not have been won without logistic support,” he said.
“It was certainly impossible to land aircraft to pull the wounded out.”
Around 2,000 Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels and 650 Australian soldiers died in the effort.
“It was a gruelling task,” Lt Col Moore said.
“Everyone was under extreme pressure.”
First Australian memorial to angels
Australian guide Nikki George has trekked Kokoda 67 times and said current memorials on Kokoda were mostly focused on Australian contributions.
“It’s very important for these plaques to be here to acknowledge the sacrifices of the men that fell and survived on Kokoda, but it’s generally orientated more to [acknowledge] the Australian soldiers,” she said.
She said that Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels and Australian soldiers had a close bond.
“They cared for the Australians and the Australians cared for them,” she said.
“You have to imagine those men carrying men that are wounded up and down those hills and valleys, also the supplies, and it’s a continuous slog.
“They gave their heart and souls, you couldn’t want for anything, if you were cold they would hand you their shirt, if need be.
“That spirit lives on, [and] hopefully with a plaque to acknowledge the assistance, that name will continue to to be recognised and respected.”
How to build a memorial in an isolated village
The village of Naduri lies at one of the uppermost points of the Kokoda trail, at 1550m above sea level, and is four days by foot either way to the start or the finish of the Kokoda track.
Volunteer Zac Zaharias said the expedition required extensive logistical planning and consultation.
“I thought to myself ‘it couldn’t be that hard’ as I’ve organised the logistics for an Everest expedition,” he said.
“Then I said ‘how much does this plaque weigh?’ a hundred kilos.
“And then we need fifty [20 kg] bags of cement.
“When I started to add all of this up, I thought ‘how am I going to do this’.”
The Kokoda Memorial Foundation provided materials for the memorial and a Royal Australian Air Force C130 transported the crew and supplies to Papua New Guinea.
Elders of the four clans in Naduri determined the location of the memorial, which lies ten metres off the Kokoda track, and also contains a time capsule.
“Like all communities, everybody needs to be consulted and have a say, because it will affect people in different ways,” Lt Col Zaharias said.
“It would be overwhelming for [the local community] for us to just fly in and say ‘the plaque is going there’, that would just be a terrible outcome.
“It’s really about them taking ownership of it, working out which site is going to be acceptable for everybody.”
‘Piece of PNG within their heart’
Naduri’s “most famous” resident Idiki Ovoru was one of the last surviving Fuzzy Wuzzy angels before he died in 2013.
His final resting place will overlook the new memorial.
Ms George said Mr Ovoru was well-known to Australian trekkers passing through.
“Anybody that passed through Naduri that he met would have a piece of PNG within their hearts forever,” she said.
“He was very special, warm, beautiful man and he spent many hours talking to many trekkers along the way.
“He would talk about the atrocities that they had come across…and he would also talk about the pride that he had working with the Australians.”
After the war he was the village’s only police officer and used to proudly wear his PNG colours.
“What used to get me right into the soul is when he started to sing a song that he used to sing to the Australian soldiers as they were carrying the wounded off the track,” Ms George said.
‘Daddy’s now smiling’
Mr Ovoru’s son Andy said the community was “very happy” with the new memorial.
“I’ve seen the plaque and it’s been so amazing, it’s very hard to express my feelings toward it,” he said.
“I think I will put up flowers, make sure our flowers are decorated around the plaque.
“I’m very happy about it, all of my family is happy too.”
He said his father would be proud to see the recognition of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ contributions.
“Daddy’s now smiling,” he said.