Breaking his father’s silence … Deveni Temu at the Australian War Memorial. His father never spoke of his experience as a carrier.DEVENI TEMU’S father never spoke of his devastating experience as a carrier on the Kokoda Track. The only references he ever made to the war were the names he gave around their Central Province village commemorating places he had been – his nephew Warisota; the family dog Buna; the pet pig Higaturu; a new banana variety, Koitakini.
The father, Temu Purikei, stayed silent until his death in 1990, not just because it was painful to speak of but because he also did not want to bring the Australian soldiers into disrepute.
Mistreatment of forced carriers is now established as fact, says Mr Temu, a librarian at the Australian National University.
As a lone Papuan voice at the Australian War Memorial’s conference this week to mark the 70th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign, he says the ”so-called fuzzy wuzzy angel” was a myth.
His father, like many of the Papuan carrier/labourers, was third or fourth-generation Christian, educated in a Christian school and an emerging leading man of the village, Mr Temu said. He was from the middle class of Papuan society. ”These were the pastors, deacons, elders and mission teachers.”
When recruited by army officers who came looking for young, fit-looking men, they went because the village pastor, whose orders it was customary to obey, told them the London Missionary Society headquarters would appreciate their contribution to the war effort.
Some made their escape but his father was tracked down. The village pastor told Mr Temu’s mother that her husband lost most of the flesh from his back during the bitter fighting around the beachhead at Buna and only survived because his cousin refused to accept the doctor’s pronouncement of death and cared for him in a hideout.
Eventually Mr Purikei was taken to the Gemo Island Native Hospital, where he composed a traditional lament in the Hula language, part of which translates as ”Longing to come out of my mountain hideout/Feeling overwhelmed, bereft of my kinsfolk/Self pity and loneliness/This is not a job of my own choice”.
Mr Temu says it is hard to describe his feelings about his father’s experiences. ”It is difficult for me to imagine what he went through. Obviously it was not done in a humane way,” he said.
His father returned a changed man in 1945, determined to devote his life to developing the village church and working for the welfare of the people. He taught them skills he learnt, including how to construct pit latrines and open-air showers, cook rice and bake damper. He had six children who became engineers, medics and MPs.
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