On Christmas Day, 1942, George Silk, a New Zealand photographer working for the Australian Department of Information, took the photo above a Papuan man leading a wounded Australian soldier. They were near Buna at the trailhead to the Kokoda Track on the island of Papua New Guinea, where the Australian forces had been defending against the Japanese assault across the Kokoda aimed at taking Port Moresby, the island’s capital.
There were many poignant photos and images from Kokoda. Damien Parer won Australia’s first Oscar for his Cinesound newsreel Kokoda Frontline and took an iconic photo of “Wally” — the blinded Digger being led by his mates across a river. However, general public forever associates Kokoda with ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ — the native volunteers who helped the soldiers to safety, and Silk’s photo was the perfect exemplar of sacrifice and ‘mateship’ displayed on the track and of those uncertain few months in 1942 and 1943, when war arrived on Australia’s doorstep and the country feared a Japanese invasion.
Only months earlier, a sapper working on the track had written a poem titled ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’, which was mailed to his mother and widely republished in Australian papers. With Silk’s photo, the press now have a simple and powerful image to accompany the poem. As the great Australian war correspondent Osmar White acerbically noted, “the public image of a New Guinean was transmogrified from that of a bloodthirsty cannibal with a bone through his nose to that of a dusky-skinned, mop-headed, sexless Florence Nightingale.”
After taking the photo, Silk ran back to ask the name of the wounded private (George Whittington, who later died of bush typhus in February 1943) but not the name of the native. The latter’s identity was not discovered until decades later when he was identified as Raphael Oimbari and made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
In 1943, Silk’s photograph was published in Life, which also recruited him. Frustrated by the strict Australian censorship, and following the example of other local journalists who left Australian agencies to work for the BBC and other agencies where they were given more freedom to report about the war, Silk left to work for Life and remained there until the magazine folded in 1972. His photo was later featured on a war memorial in Port Moresby and the medal the Australian government issued to the native carriers.
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