People of New Guinea in WW2
from the scrapbooks of James O. Brewer, USAAF
By Stephen Sherman, April 24, 2012.When American forces moved into New Guinea in 1943, they stepped back in time, into a world of traditional native people: the Papuans and Motuans of New Guinea, who lived in stilt houses, wore grass skirts, sailed in outrigger canoes, and cooked their meals over open fires.
The pictures here were collected by James Brewer, a pilot with the 35th FS of the 8th Fighter Group, and made available by his son, Randy Brewer.
The photos are unlabeled. While I conclude from studying them that they were taken in southern coastal New Guinea (Port Moresby area), some of them might be from the north coast, the interior, or even the nearby island of New Britain, places where the 35th was also stationed. The original photos are 4½ by 3½, which I scanned at 600dpi. While the resolution is not great, you can make out a lot of detail by clicking to the full-size images.
It's fun to imagine being a young American serviceman in World War 2, not having seen much of the world, arriving at New Guinea in 1943, as James Brewer did. There is a village set right by the water, about twenty houses raised up high on stilts, shaded by tall palm trees. Most of the structures have yellowish-tan thatched roofs and walls, but one bright white building displays Western style shingles, roofing, and windows. A few native boats and natives are sitting on the beach.
Another group of stilt houses are set right over the water, high enough to stay dry in any weather. Porches face the land; long boats sit behind the houses, ready to be launched between or under the posts.
But not all of the them were built right on the water's edge; this group seems to be over dry land. If anything, their stilts are even higher than those on the waterfront. A small knot of kids looks at the photographer. The details of the construction can be seen, as well as the ladders leading up to each house.
The word "Papuan" includes the various indigenous peoples of New Guinea and neighboring islands, speakers of so-called Papuan languages. The "Motuans" are a large tribe/group of Papuans who live along the southern coastal area of the country. I assume most of the people in these photos are Motuans.
More people occupy this village scene than in the photos above. it looks more like what might expect. (As the photos are unlabeled, it is unclear how close to each other these various groups of stilt houses are.)
This scene shows more details of the stilt houses, in particular the very long external supports and (on the left) the covered open porch, for storage or any household activities not requiring interior privacy or shelter. Two soldiers have drawn a small crowd of local people.
Here a surprisingly large group of mothers and children tries to crowd into one raised grass hut. A Western-looking man also sits on the platform. Perhaps inside there is a doctor, or someone offering some other useful service.
The photo also gives a fairly good look at the Papuan people, with their bushy, kinky hair and wearing grass skirts. Must have made quite an impression on young American soldiers in 1943.
Here a family group of Papuans, sitting in a stilt house, seem to be trading with an American soldier.
A very revealing shot shows a hut interior at mealtime. Three large cans are in the forefront, while two women and two young children seem to be sharing food out of a large black bowl. The wooden box at left behind them reads " ...S TRADING CO, LTD. (ME)LBOURNE," possibly from the Steamships Trading Company, which was engaged in trade in New Guinea in those days.
One of the best pictures of young Papuan women wearing grass skirts (and little else). The admiring look by the Aussie in back speaks for itself. The two men are wearing shorts made of Western cloth.
Another clear photograph of a grass skirt, in this one of a young Papuan mother and her infant.
This image captures the grass walls of the building, its thatched roof, and the grass skirts of the women. I wonder what the arrangement of stones in the foreground is for.
This picture of a native helping two Americans(?) to launch an outrigger canoe reveals its construction. The canoe is about twelve feet overall, and the outrigger is about four feet from the hull proper. The presence of outrigger canoes in coastal New Guinea suggests an Austronesian (Polynesian) influence on the Papuan people.
It looks like they got into the water without incident.
A larger, possibly sea-going, outrigger canoe easily carries eight people. The Papuans use long poles to shove off from the shore.
Interactions with Allied Soldiers
This picture of some Motuan boys and girls with an American soldier certainly captures an idealized view of the relationship between the Allied forces and the local population. Indeed, none of Brewer's photos suggest anything but a happy, almost idyllic, situation. But my own jaded, post-Vietnam, post-Iraq perspective suggests that maybe things could not have been quite as rosy as pictured.
The next photo looks like an Australian soldier is giving supplies to some Papuans. Unfortunately we can't see the objects in his hands, which seem to be the focus of the group's attention.
This photograph also offers ample opportunity for speculation. What is this group of Papuans doing, lined up on the grassy hillside? I'd guess it's a family. "Dad," the man at left with the stick over his shoulder, is speaking. Have they presented themselves in some auxiliary, para-military fashion? It's hard to say. Certainly the man pictured at the top of the page, posing by tree, was some kind of local policeman or paramilitary.
I'm doubly grateful to James Brewer, who not only served our country in its time of greatest need in the 20th Century, but who also captured these images of a time and culture that has long since passed, preserving these photos for decades, so that we now, many years later, can still look at them, enjoy them, and ponder their significance.