An enduring image

22 December 2017 by Claire Hunter

George Silk's iconic image of George 'Dick' Whittington being led by Raphael Oimbari.

George Silk's iconic image of George Whittington being led to safety by Raphael Oimbari on Christmas Day 1942.

It’s one of the most iconic images of the war in the Pacific, but George Silk’s photograph of a blinded Australian soldier being led by a barefoot Papuan on Christmas Day 1942 was captured by chance.

Private George “Dick” Whittington of Queensland was with the 2/10th Battalion when he was wounded in action during the vicious and bloody beachhead battles around Buna. He was temporarily blinded after being shot by a sniper above the eye and was being guided by Raphael Oimbari along a track through the tall kunai grass to a casualty clearing station.

It was mid-afternoon and New Zealand photographer George Silk was walking along the track towards the beachhead battles when he saw the column of wounded men coming towards him. He stepped to the side, quietly took a photograph of Whittington and Oimbari, and the procession moved along. Silk wasn’t going to disturb them, but at the last minute ran back to get the wounded soldier’s name.

"It's one of the most iconic images of Australia in the Second World War," said Dr Lachlan Grant, a senior historian at the Australian War Memorial

"It’s so powerful because it’s got that humanitarian element to it … It’s a photograph during wartime, but not of the conflict; it’s of someone helping out someone else who is in need.

“I always remember the date that the photo was taken on because it was on Christmas Day, but one of the things that is interesting about the photo is that although George Silk documented the name of the Australian soldier at the time, Raphael Oimbari wasn’t identified.

“His identity was unknown until the 1970s when ‘Dick’ Whittington’s widow put a call out in the media because she wanted to identify who the Papuan was so that she could give her thanks. Whittington had recovered from his wound and returned to his unit, but he died from scrub typhus just seven weeks later.

“Through the work of ‘Dick’ Whittington’s widow they were able to find out the identity of the carrier, and Raphael Oimbari went on to become quite a strong advocate for remembering the Papuan contribution to the war effort through the 1980s and into the 1990s.”

An official photographer with the Australian Department of Information, Silk went on to take a dramatic series of photographs of the fighting at the beachheads, but his powerful image of Whittington and Oimbari was originally censored by the Australian Department of Information.

“The Australian authorities were very strict with their censorship, particularly with images coming back from the front line,” Grant said.

“I think Australian audiences probably found out less about Australians at war than perhaps American and British audiences did about their troops. Roosevelt in America was very strong about wanting the American public to see what kind of conditions the American soldiers were enduring on the front lines, and he was very strong on them showing the images of Buna and the fighting there. But in Australia there was much more reluctance to show images depicting the fighting and the war.

“There was great frustration among Australian journalists, and some of them left Australian agencies to work for the BBC or other agencies where they felt they had more freedom to report on what was happening on the front lines.”

Silk’s photograph was eventually published in the American magazine Life in 1943, and became an enduring image of the conflict. Together with Damien Parer’s award-winning films of the Kokoda campaign and Sapper Bert Beros’s poem Fuzzy wuzzy angels, Silk’s photograph helped shape Australia’s view of the role of Papuans during the war.

“Pictures like this helped transform the way in which Australians thought about our nearest neighbours, and it is something that is still quite enduring to this day,” Grant said.

“For Australians at home, they saw the Papuans as caring, and helping to look after the Australian troops who were in need and had been wounded … These iconic scenes show that humanitarian aspect, and it really was quite significant. Australians probably hadn’t thought much about their nearest neighbours before the war, even though Papua and New Guinea were territories administered by Australia at the time. It really put the plight of Papuans in the forefront of the minds of Australians at home and painted them in a way that showed they were there helping the Australians.”

After Oimbari was identified in the 1970s, he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire within the Papua and New Guinea honours system and became a figurehead for the carriers. The image of Oimbari and Whittington forms the basis of the national memorial in Port Moresby and features on a medal the Australian government issued to the carriers.

“A photograph such as this is used as a symbol by both countries to emphasise the friendship and the very close history that Australia and Papua New Guinea have,” Grant said.

“But it’s often a lot more complex and that’s something that is often widely misunderstood … Silk’s image is one of the great Australian images and one of the most iconic Australian images of the war, but there’s a much bigger and more complex story behind the Australian and Papuan relationship during the war than what is conveyed in just this one image.”

Papuans also served as combatants with the Papuan Infantry Battalions, and others undertook technical training, working as radio operators and nurses at medical facilities.

“From the Papuan perspective, it would have been a very confusing period, and certainly the war that was being fought, wasn’t their war,” Grant said.

“The war was very disruptive for many villages around Papua New Guinea. Often all the men had gone to work as labourers, or had been taken away. Sometimes whole villages were moved when they were building things like airfields. And in other parts, particularly in the Japanese-occupied areas, the Japanese army took away all the food that had been collected and all the crops, so it was a very difficult time for the Papuan communities living on the front lines during the three and a half years of war in New Guinea.

“They had to choose the side they thought would be best to help to them, their families, and their communities survive the war. They had to make very difficult decisions, and I think that’s one of the reasons this photo is comforting for Australians at home; it shows a Papuan who’s obviously assisting an Australian in his time of need.”

Dr Lachlan Grant’s book, Australian Soldiers in Asia-Pacific in World War II, is available through the Memorial shop.