Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Home of Fiji's Brave- Bita Paka Cemetery - Wednesday, November 11, 2009

BITA Paka was a place of great strategic importance when World War I broke in 1914 since it housed Germany's most powerful wireless station in the Pacific.

New Guinea then was under German rule.

Only two days after Britain declared war on Germany on August 6 1914, Australia was urged to disable the Bita Paka wireless station.

Thirty-five days later, an Australian advanced party of 25 men landed near Kokopo and slowly made their way through thick jungle to Bita Paka. The German wireless station was eventually taken down at around 7pm the same day, but at the cost of six Australian lives.

They were members of the Australian Navy and Military Expeditionary Force and believed to be among the first Australian casualties of the Great War.

All six are buried at the Rabaul War Cemetery in Bita Paka. The Cemetery is well kept as it comes under the oversight of the Office of the Australian War Graves.

An information plaque inside the cemetery explains that out of the 28 soldiers from WWI who are interned in Bita Paka, 27 were Australians.

The 28th soldier was Briton.

During World War II, more Australian casualties came to have Bita Paka as their final resting place.

These included bulk of those that attempted to flee the Japanese army invasion of New Britain in January 1942.

A group of enthusiastic volunteers now want to map the Australian soldiers 'Escape from Rabaul' trek and turn it into a tourist attraction similar to that of the famous Kokoda Trail in mainland PNG.

Writing in a travel blog, Australian tourist Jacinta Bowman reflected on the Australians' trek to freedom.

"Their meals were taken on the move. Supper could consist of one can of meat between eight and a single biscuit. They were in unfamiliar territory with no guides and no plan other than to find freedom.

"Rest was an unaffordable luxury as enemy patrols kept them on the move. Fires often had to be hastily extinguished as scout planes buzzed over head. They were poorly clothed and ill equipped, with no protection from thick undergrowth, a relentless wet season and bitterly cold nights at altitude.

"Some drowned in the swollen rivers. Others perished from heat exhaustion, malaria, dysentery and pneumonia."

It is said that of the 1300 Australian soldiers that were stationed in New Britain before the Japanese invasion, only 339 survived. With the help of a local guide, Bowman and her husband recently walked the proposed 'Escape from Rabaul' trek, which they said is 80 kilometres in length and cuts through the island's treacherous Baining Mountains.

The information plaque at Bita Paka points out that bulk of the dead buried in it was from the army division, some 1042 lives. Point of interest is the 614 Indians who are also buried here.

These were said to be prisoners of war from Malaysia.

So Bita Paka might be so unlike Sukanaivalu's little island of Yacata, but its rich history and what it stands for makes this wooded settlement a fitting place of final rest for Fiji's brave.

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