Archival research is never more revealing than when it causes you to reconsider your own knowledge, beliefs and memories. And so I left the State Library of Queensland yesterday trying to recall fragments of a childhood spent growing up in Port Moresby in the early 1970s, my interest piqued by an earlier resident’s astonishingly comprehensive album of black and white snapshots.
A keen amateur photographer, twenty-two year old Hugh Geves Peachey had no sooner graduated as a civil engineer in 1946 when he found himself posted to Port Moresby, employed by the Commonwealth Department of Works. Then, as in the 1970s, expatriates like Peachey (and myself) spent much of our spare time on or near the ocean—either fishing or swimming. Trips to one or more of the nearby islands were routine with the largest of these, the imaginatively-named Fisherman’s Island (known locally as Daugo), being a favoured destination for expats (i.e. colonial residents) keen to escape the town’s dry and dusty streets.
It was here that I spent many weekends with my family, much of that time water skiing in the Island’s turquoise waters. In those days the Island appeared flat, featureless and uninhabited, its highest point being just 10 metres above sea level. Although I had a healthy adolescent interest then in the region’s wartime history I could see no possible reason for ever wanting to venture inland, beyond the Island’s brilliantly-white north-western beach. Had I done so, and wandered just 150 metres beyond the shoreline I might have come across the Island’s wartime airstrip. And had I ventured further, I might have also found the remains of several American aircraft that had crashed there during the Second World War.1These include B-25C 41-12486 , P-39D 41-6800 and C-47A 42-100628.
Decades would pass before I eventually learned about this airfield and its several wartime dramas. It was only yesterday however, after chancing upon Hugh Peachey’s monochrome memories of Port Moresby in the late 1940s that my interest in these distant events was rekindled. I have seen many wartime images of Moresby and the allied aircraft that had defended the town, so many it seemed that they had begun to appear predictably familiar. Far less common however were images that revealed both the town’s appearance in the war’s immediate aftermath, and how its residents were able to integrate the war’s abundant detritus into their daily lives.
Thankfully the young Comworks civil engineer shared my peculiar interest in such things, his albums peppered with images of un-dismantled hilltop radar stations and gun emplacements; of streets lined with surplus military vehicles; and a harbour occupied by former army landing barges and air force Catalinas (and an overturned Machduhi). By documenting sights he had previously never seen, he had also unwittingly revealed—for me at least—a Port Moresby that was strikingly unfamiliar. While the geography, vegetation and infrastructure had changed little in the three decades that separated us, it was evident from his images that many of the war’s vestiges must have disappeared in the intervening years. The war zone that I could still distinguish three decades later was in fact a mere shadow of what remained, even after the war.
Peachey also visited Fisherman’s Island in the late 1940s, his record of that trip revealing a landscape far removed that I had known. Gone by the 1970s was the large stand of coconut trees, the fallen [wartime] radio tower, and the wrecks of several substantially complete U.S. military aircraft. I can comprehend how grass fires, locals and souvenir hunters might reduce a small fighter to remnants in that time, but struggle to see how a large twin-engine transport could have altogether disappeared from a sparsely populated island some twelve kilometres offshore. Even if it had wanted, the Commonwealth Government had to await the Lend-Lease Settlement of June 1946 before it could have begun cleaning up (i.e., scrapping) the many abandoned U.S. military aircraft scattered throughout what would later be renamed the Territory of Papua New Guinea. Another five years would pass before the Territory Administration finally invited tenders (in December 1951) for the removal of wrecked aircraft in and around Port Moresby, the Fisherman’s Island wrecks having possibly been disposed of then.
Post-war Moresby I now realize was a foreign land, as unrecognizeable to me as Moresby in the 1970s would have seemed to Hugh Peachey.