New Guinea is the world’s second-largest island. Given its proximity to Australia, it’s no wonder that the island was one of the most heavily contested battlegrounds of the Pacific War. Historians have called the 1942-1945 campaign for New Guinea “arguably the most arduous fought by any Allied troops during World War II.”
Field conditions on New Guinea during the war were also some of the hardest to endure. It’s estimated that 97% of the Japanese casualties from the campaign came from disease and starvation, not Allied troops. The unforgiving terrain played havoc on both sides of the war, but the Allies fared better for one important reason: the natives.
Native Papuans numbered around 1.5 million when the Japanese invaded the island in 1942. Like other non-Japanese peoples suddenly subject to Japanese occupation, the natives suffered extreme brutality at the hands of the invaders. On top of harsh treatment, Japanese forces would take food stores from entire villages, leaving the residents to starve in the harsh environment. Papuans were often drafted into slave labor or outright murdered by incoming Japanese troops.
Life was only slightly better under Australian control before the war began. Australians on the island still regarded the natives as little more than a child-minded labor source, but once fighting started, that perspective changed quickly.
Fighting on New Guinea meant combat in dense jungles, brutal heat, and all the diseases that came with living under those wartime conditions in the 1940s. To top it all off, Japanese ground forces fought with intensity there, and any Allied soldier that was captured could expect brutal treatment and torture if they were spared execution.
The Allies used native Papuans as supply carriers and often depended on their ability to move material through the tough terrain. They also served as stretcher bearers, carrying wounded men back to friendly lines.
If an Allied soldier was wounded or cut off from friendly forces and managed to connect with the natives, they could expect to be treated for their wounds, fed, sheltered, and carried back to friendly lines, even over impassable terrain. The natives did this without any reward and often with a lot of danger to themselves and their people.
Australians began calling the natives “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels” because of the care they provided and for their long, frizzy hair. The soldiers they rescued began writing letters home about the Angels, along with poems and songs. Journalists began to tell stories of the natives’ loyalty and devotion to Allied soldiers fighting to free them from the Japanese.
Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels worked in the same conditions the soldiers did, but often longer hours, overloaded packs, less food and even less clothing. Even facing those hardships, no Allied casualty was ever abandoned by the natives as long as they were still alive.
“Many a lad will see his mother and husbands see their wives, just because the fuzzy wuzzy carried them to save their lives,” said Sapper H. “Bert” Beros of the 7th Australian Division. “From mortar bombs and machine gun fire or chance surprise attacks, to the safety and the care of doctors at the bottom of the track.”
Papuans also served as guides and coastwatchers for Allied forces, providing information and intelligence about Japanese movements and downed airmen. They risked their lives providing this help, and sometimes paid for it – 25% of the native population of New Guinea died of starvation, disease, combat or murder during World War II.