During the 1940s, war dead buried throughout the New Guinea were relocated into the three major war cemeteries at Port Moresby (Bomana), Rabaul (Bita Paka) and Lae.
Port Moresby (Bomana) War Cemetery
Those who died fighting in Papua and Bougainville are buried in the Port Moresby (Bomana) War Cemetery. Among the 3,826 burials are the remains of 703 unidentified servicemen. This war cemetery, established in 1942 by the Australian Army, is the only Papua New Guinea cemetery with white marble headstones and a Stone of Remembrance.
This Memorial to the Missing commemorates 740 men of the Australian Army (including Papua and New Guinea local forces), the Australian Merchant Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force who lost their lives in operations in Papua and who have no known grave.
Rabaul (Bita Paka) War Cemetery
This cemetery, located 48 kilometres from Rabaul, is the smallest of the three war cemeteries in Papua New Guinea, containing 1,147 burials of which 500 are unknown. Each is marked with a bronze plaque set on a low concrete pedestal.
An avenue of bronze-panelled stone pylons forms the Rabaul Memorial to the Missing. The pylons are inscribed with names of those who died in New Britain and New Ireland, including 1,216 Australian casualties with no known grave.
A large number of Indian Prisoners of War from Malaya and Hong Kong were liberated from the Japanese by the Australian Army during the 1945 campaign in New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville. A total of 614 casualties of the old Indian Army are buried at Bita Paka.
Bita Paka War Cemetery is near the site of the German wireless station captured by the Australian Naval and Expeditionary Force on 11 September 1914, during the first Australian action of the First World War to seize New Britain. Five naval personnel who died in the operation at Rabaul are buried here. A sandstone memorial within the cemetery commemorates this event.
Lae War Cemetery
The Australian Army Graves Service established this cemetery in 1944 within the town of Lae adjacent to the Botanic Gardens. The entrance is made of stone pillars joined by stone latticework. Rising from the forecourt is a wide flight of steps leading to a flat-topped colonnade which frames a view of the Cross of Sacrifice.
The war cemetery contains 2,819 burials, including 426 Indian soldiers who were taken prisoner in Malaya and Hong Kong, and brought to New Guinea by the Japanese. There are 442 graves marked as unidentified.
The Lae Memorial to the Missing commemorates 328 officers and men of the Australian Army, the Australian Merchant Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force who lost their lives in Papua New Guinea and have no known grave.
History of the Second World War in Papua New Guinea
Japan entered the Second World War on 7 December 1941 with attacks on Pearl Harbour and the Malay Peninsula. Its forces then swept southward through the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). To secure those gains, Japan had to deny the operational bases offered by New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to the United States and its allies.
The Japanese forces occupied Rabaul (which became their most important base) on New Britain, and Lae and Salamaua on mainland New Guinea. A major Japanese force landed at Gona and Buna in July 1942 with orders to advance across the Owen Stanley Mountain Range, via the Kokoda Track, to take Port Moresby. Within a week, the strategically important village and airstrip at Kokoda were in Japanese hands.
Allied Commander General Douglas MacArthur set up a defensive front that extended through Merauke, Wau and Kokoda to Milne Bay, where an airstrip was hurriedly constructed, and a squadron of RAAF Kittyhawks established. On 25 August, the Japanese attacked Milne Bay, but during fierce fighting over several days, the invading force of 2,800 marines was driven away by the Australians. It was the first defeat of the Japanese on land and it sent a heartening signal to all Allied commanders.
The Japanese advance from Kokoda penetrated as far as the Imita Ridge, within 48 kilometres of Port Moresby, before the Allied offensive drove them back along the Kokoda Track, down their overstretched supply lines.
The Australians re-took Kokoda, and by the end of November the Japanese attempt to cross the Owen Stanleys had been utterly defeated. During the four months of battle the four Australian brigades lost 625 killed and 1,055 wounded.
American and Australian forces pursued the Japanese forces in the northern coastal areas until, by the end of January 1943, all enemy resistance in the Gona/Buna area had been broken.
The Japanese forces, having failed to reach Port Moresby by advancing over the Owen Stanley Range, reinforced Salamaua and made a rapid march on Wau and its strategic mountain airfield. That thrust was repulsed by a force of Australians and New Guinea Volunteer Riflemen who drove the Japanese forces back towards the coast.
In February 1943, the Japanese commander at Rabaul moved to reinforce Lae by sea with 7,000 troops. However, the fleet of light transports and eight destroyers was detected and in the ensuing Battle of the Bismarck Sea destroyed by US and Australian air attacks.
By May 1943 the Allies' objectives were to:
- continue the advance westward to Madang
- seize the Markham Valley (which extends 608 kilometres westward from Lae)
- secure the Huon Peninsula prior to a move eastward to the island of New Britain.
From June to August 1943, American and Australian forces engaged the Japanese forces at Salamaua, to the south of Lae. In a co-ordinated offensive, Allied forces landed at Nadzab and fought their way down the Markham Valley. Lae was captured on 16 September 1943 and two weeks later Finschhafen was also occupied. The Japanese began a fighting retreat westward and by 15 December 1943 Japanese forces had ceded command of the Huon Peninsula to the Allies.
By 24 April 1944, the Allies had taken Madang and had driven the Japanese forces from the mainland of Australian New Guinea, except for a part west of the Sepik River.
Wewak, the last of the Japanese strongholds, was eventually captured on 11 May 1945. After the fall of Wewak the Japanese again retreated westward and by June were totally defeated.
New Britain and Bougainville
In January 1942, Rabaul, the principal port and Allied base on the island of New Britain, was captured by the Japanese and about 800 Australian Service personnel and many civilians became Prisoners of War. In addition, Indian and British Prisoners of War were later moved to Rabaul from Hong Kong and Singapore. By mid 1943 Rabaul had become the main Japanese base in the South Pacific, the centre from which their campaigns in New Guinea, the Solomons and surrounding waters, were directed. It was therefore a prime target for attack by Allied air and naval forces.
The Allied offensive to retake New Britain began in earnest in October 1943. Night attacks by Australian bombers continued until January 1944.
By March 1944, the American and Australian forces had made large gains in western New Britain and by November of that year the Japanese were concentrated around Rabaul and the northern extremity of the island.
Meanwhile, on Bougainville, Allied forces landed on the west coast and began a sweep southward and northward. Although the Japanese forces on Bougainville were not defeated, they suffered very heavy losses and Bougainville was neutralised as a base from which to mount operations against the Allies.
Similarly, the Allies were content to isolate the Japanese forces in New Britain rather than retake Rabaul by military action. At war's end, in August 1945, about 83,000 Japanese surrendered in the Rabaul area and the island of Bougainville was occupied by Australian forces.