Friday, April 6, 2018

Don B. Snyder. Part 6: The Pygmies of New Guinea

Climbing My Family Tree: Don B Snyder
Don B Snyder
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This is Part 6 of a 13-part blog series sharing my Grand-uncle Don’s life story, in his own words, via an autobiography sent to me by Don’s grandson, Ron Oldfield, after Ron stumbled across one of my prior posts about his grandfather. It is shared with the permission of both of Don’s children and Ron Oldfield. [Note – Anything in brackets with green type is my added explanation of something in Don’s text. ]

Parts of this entry reflect attitudes of the times he lived in that are known today as not accurate or not respectful of others’ cultures. I’ve kept them as I wish to maintain Don’s story, as a whole, as he wrote it.


Don’s story: 

Part 6 – The Pygmies of New Guinea


Climbing My Family Tree: Map of Papua New Guinea By Burmesedays CC BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons
Map of Papua New Guinea By Burmesedays
CC BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons
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We spent six months in Hawaii and headed for New Guinea in the Southwest Pacific in an old tramp steamer, the ‘Howell Lykes’. We first headed south to avoid Jap subs and then headed towards Australia, then through the Coral Sea up to New Guinea. Nice trip. At the eastern tip of New Guinea, we spent four days in a harbor to form a convoy landing at Oral Bay near a native village called Buna. Everything was jungles and mountains. I read where it is the third largest island in the world. Since the war, the timber companies are ruining the eastern part. Papua was under the Australian mandate. They worked under, gotten taken care of, etc. by the Australian government. After the war Papua gained its independence. The western half is now in Indonesia.

Much to my surprise, I found out the natives lived in the mountains. If I remember, they wore little or no clothes. I saw one young girl nursing a baby on her left breast and also holding a pig, nursing off her right breast. I saw one walking down the side of the road. He wore a ‘G-string’ type and was carrying a spear. I thought they didn’t do that anymore, but in New Guinea, we passed a native with a spear and a small wild pig he had killed. A couple of guys came across a man and a boy. The man was teaching the boy how to track over rock. He showed him how to tell if a rock had been turned over. Hard to believe but I do. Also was surprised to see they were like those in Africa, dark, with wiry hair. A lot had big bushy hair (afro) and looked sometimes fierce but were not. They hated the Japs because they were cruel to them, but liked Americans who were not, and we liked them. They looked up to us and many of them had hardly seen a white man.

Climbing My Family Tree: ative bearers bringing injured to forward American Aid Station, New Guinea. WW2. Photo by George Silk, Australian War Memorial Archives No. 013993. Public Domain
Native bearers bringing injured to forward American Aid Station, New Guinea. WW2.
Photo by George Silk, Australian War Memorial Archives No. 013993. Public Domain
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They used to practice cannibalism with other tribes at war with them. I read after the war some in the interior still practiced it. One of the Rockefellers was killed and eaten in Southwest New Guinea, after the war. I read a book later on that gave an insight on why they did it. Each village had their own territory. When other tribes infringed upon that territory they had their own little war. They didn’t last long, but each side would have one or two that were killed. They would leave them and the other side would eat them. They didn’t put them in a kettle as the comic books show. They would build a fire and put the pieces in mud or stones and bake them. Also, the women would chew the pieces with squash and then put it in bamboo by the fire. When the bamboo split, it was ready to eat. How would you like that for supper? Sometimes they would give the skulls back to the family, then the family kept them in their huts, as they were family.

Climbing my Family Tre: By eGuide Travel (Papua New Guinea) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
By eGuide Travel (Papua New Guinea) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
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One thing of interest to me was that our intelligence section got permission to take a trip in the mountains and I was asked to go along. There was about ten of us with a Lieutenant in charge. We had a native guide that could speak their language. In all we visited three villages, spending nights there. We slept in a good hut that was off limits to the villagers but was for the Australians. This part of New Guinea was controlled by the Aussies at that time.


At one village one of our guys got sick. The native guide said there was a stream about a half mile beyond. The Lt. asked me to stay there with him till he got better, so I did. We were to then go on to meet them at the stream. There were no men in the village except the older chief. Probably a dozen or so women, and their kids. Where the men were I don’t know. I saw one with a spear-carrying a dead pig. I suppose maybe they were out hunting. The women and kids were all excited seeing us, as was the chief. I told this guy with me that I was hungry, so let’s eat. He said O.K., as he felt better. I got out of my pack a squad stove (gasoline). The metal containers served as bowls. There were all amazed as I pumped air in it and got it lit with a blue flame. Then the chief clapped his hands and they scurried about and then they rushed to bring us a mat and food for him so we sat opposite to him eating our food. I didn’t want to eat any of his and if I gave him some of mine he would eat it. One woman brought me a piece of fried banana. I did take a couple bites of it. This guy with me had a camera. I gave a couple cigarettes. Then they all wanted one so they lined up pretending to smoke and I have a picture of that. Later, I realized that I should have given them to the chief. With his prestige, he should be the one to pass them out. They really value cigarettes. At times they will line up in front of you with stuff they want to trade, like a coconut and a couple of bananas, etc. Then you go from one to the other and hold out a cigarette to trade. They nod no. Offer two cigarettes, and they break out a big grin, sale made. One woman insisted she give me a squash. I finally had to say yes but later threw it away as I couldn’t cook it, which I regret. We then went on to the rest of the guys.

Climbing My Family Tree: Vignettes of life in Papua, by Ellis Silas, 1922. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales. No known copyright.
Vignettes of life in Papua, by Ellis Silas, 1922.
From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales. No known copyright.
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At one village the chief had a stick through his nose about four inches wide. Today he would be right in style here. We finally ended up at a clearing and a small store. There a truck took us back to camp. The store was supplied by a small airplane. The native work crews were called  Angow [Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) ]. I never really believed it but someone said they got about 4PDS of Australian money a year. The Aussies were good to them, provided food, etc. [The tribes provided food to both the Australian and American Armies.]  I just believe there was an agreement as I never heard of any complaints. One thing I saw and was saddened by was a neat church (bamboo). Next to it was three earth mounds. We were told by our native guide that there was a priest and two nuns that had been murdered by the Japs. I hate to think of what those two nuns went through. The natives buried them.

Back at our camp, there was a native Angow village that was pretty close to us. It was off limits to us. Occasionally one would come to our camp and try to sell us one or two coconuts, still in the husk. We would say “how much?” They would reply “one bob.” That’s a shilling, worth about 30 cents. We would give them a bob and they would leave. One time a guy gave them two bobs. After that, they would ask for two bobs. We would say no, after that they would take them back. After a few days of that they came and we would say “how much?” and they said “one bob” and we would close the deal. I often wondered if the Aussies weren’t behind this, as what could the natives do with the money?

I kind of think they must have had good morals. Of course, the women wore nothing above the waist. We were surprised to see them, but after a while no one noticed. We had a guy in our company that was no good, a real slob. The native that had been friendly with me and wanted to give me coconuts pointed him out to me and said: “he bad.” I didn’t like him either but I asked the native why. He again replied “man, he bad,” and I found out he had a couple of magazines and was showing porno pictures to the natives.

I read in a book after the war that a native in New Guinea got mad at his wife and ripped off her grass skirt, exposing her to the villagers. She let out a scream and ran over to a tall palm tree, climbed it and jumped, committing suicide. I guess we aren’t the only ones to have pride.

Papua New Guinean Moth. Public Domain.
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New Guinea is known worldwide for its beautiful butterflies and moths. I made me a net and would go back into the jungle to catch them. I sent some home but they didn’t compare with others I’ve seen. I’d find them in the darkest areas. By that I mean hardly any light could penetrate the area for the trees and overhead vines. They were beautiful. Not like the others, they looked more like birds with red and blue colors. I tried to catch some but they flew too far over my head. After the war, I read in the newspapers of a woman that was an authority on them. I called her and told her about them, she agreed. Said she’d been to New Guinea and saw some. One more thing about them and I’ll quit. A fellow in our company caught a huge butterfly, knowing I was collecting them. He gave it to me. I got some cotton and a cardboard box to mail home. Just then we suddenly left for the Philippines and there was no one to mail it so I had to dispose of it. Back home I read in the Guinness Book of Records that the world’s largest was 11 ½ by 12 ½ inches while mine measured 10 ½ by 11 ¾.




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