The 1988-1998 conflict on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville saw use of WWII weapons. While this alone was remarkable just before the turn of the millennium, what is absolutely astonishing was that the weapons had been “resurrected” from the WWII battlefields.
(Fighters of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army in 1997, near the end of the conflict. The heavy weapon with it’s barrel pointed towards the camera is a WWII Imperial Japanese Army Type 96 25mm anti-aircraft gun recovered from the jungle. Almost unbelievably, it still functioned.)
The Pacific island of Bougainville passed from French to German colonial control in the 19th century. In 1918, it was awarded to Australia, which was maintained until March 1942, when Bougainville was occupied by Japan. In November 1943, a joint American-Australian force landed on the island with the objective to secure only part of it, as a staging area for other operations. The Japanese resistance was much more fierce than anticipated and the island turned into a nightmare quagmire for both sides. The Japanese were not defeated until August 1945, shortly before the end of WWII.
The island was briefly administered by the USA in 1945. After the war, the United Nations awarded Bougainville back to Australia as a UN Trust Territory. When this arrangement expired in September 1975, the island was transferred to Papua New Guinea.
This was not at all popular with the natives of Bougainville. They had little in common with the Papuans far to the east, whom they call “redskins”. The people of Bougainville identify with the people of the Solomon Islands, a separate country to the south. The problems increased when rich mineral deposits were discovered under the former WWII battlefields and the government built a massive strip mine. For Papua New Guinea, the tiny island suddenly became critical as Bougainville generated 20% of the country’s entire exports despite being only 1% of it’s area and far removed from the mainland. All of the profits were routed to the main part of Papua New Guinea; the citizens of Bougainville saw nothing despite having to deal with the side effects of the strip mine tearing up their island.
In 1989, an insurgency started aiming to shut down the mine (which was successful) and then later, to break away from Papua New Guinea altogether.
(Francis Ona, the leader of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, with a WWII Imperial Japanese Army officer’s katana in the late 1980s. Ona (who referred to himself as “King of Bougainville”) sometimes told foreigners that he captured the sword in WWII. Actually he was born several years after WWII ended. He died of malaria in 2005.)
The little island of Bougainville obviously has no arms industry but the natives soon discovered that the long-rusting relics of WWII still had some fight in them.
Without a doubt, the most remarkable was a Japanese Type 96 25mm anti-aircraft gun found in the jungle. Other than some surface rust, it was complete, including the magazine, from when it was last fired in 1945.
It is absolutely astonishing that this Japanese AA gun still functioned after five decades in the humid jungle. None the less, it did. The Bougainville fighters scrounged all over the island’s forests and beaches for Japanese 25mm ammunition, which had been out of production worldwide for almost half a century by then. Each round was inspected and hand-cleaned. This functioning relic was amusing to WWII historians when photos of it began to surface worldwide in the late 1990s. It was less amusing to Papuan soldiers, as the WWII 25mm rounds could still penetrate the skin of their modern vehicles.
Other less exotic, but none the less remarkable given their age, guns were brought back to life by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.
Bougainville is littered with downed WWII warplanes, both Allied and Japanese. These turned out to be another source of recoverable firearms. They also served as little “aluminum mines” for the Bougainville fighters to use for other purposes.
(A AN/M3 .50cal machine gun being cleaned after being mounted on a makeshift mount – note the welder’s mask. The Bougainville fighter with the civilian hunting shotgun is wearing a WWII-era M1 pot helmet and has a WWII-era cotton web belt.)
Fifty-cal’s proved quite popular as Browning guns, or at least parts and pieces of them, were all over, and the 50BMG cartridge is still in worldwide production and was obtainable via smuggling, in addition to any WWII-vintage ammunition found on the island.
(A Bougainville Revolutionary Army member with a AN/M3 loaded and ready for action in 1997. The end of the barrel has been repaired locally. The fighter said that the gun had been recovered “from the turret on an American bomber”.)
The rebel’s opposition was the Papua New Guinea Defense Force (PNGDF). One of the most ill-equipped, underfunded, and undermanned armies in the world, the PNGDF was given more than a run by the Bougainville rebels.
(In the conflict’s first months, the PNGDF was still using WWII-veteran C-47 Dakota transports supplied by Australia.)
Although complete and functional WWII guns were the most exotic finds, far more common were wrecked, rusted, and broken weapons. When the Bougainville fighters took control of the mine, they captured intact it’s maintenance shop which was turned into a makeshift arms factory. By cobbling together parts of broken weapons, and handcrafting missing parts, functional firearms could be produced.
(This gun is hard to figure out. The main (rusty) body is a Bren light machine gun, as used by the Australians on the island during WWII. The forward section of the barrel and the flash suppressor are locally-made by the Bougainville fighters. However the Bren was clip fed, and could not accept belted ammunition. It appears that the action and trigger assembly are possibly from a M1919, grafted into the Bren. The M1919 used the fabric feed belt as shown. Another possibility mentioned is the firing action of a Yokosuka Type 97 aircraft gun, which was the 7.7mm weapon carried by the Japanese “Zero” fighter and “Val” dive-bomber, both of which were used over Bougainville in WWII. The rebel fighters were proud of their creations – note that the rusty front sight of the Bren has been welded back onto the new forebarrel, in the proper offset-left location. This was probably more for pride as accuracy of this contraption must have been terrible.)
Custom-made weapons and WWII ammunition
Using equipment from the overrun mine, the fighters began to make some of their own weapons to utilize WWII ammunition found on the island. Found ammunition was used outright if it was in decent shape. Otherwise it was salvaged. The explosives in dud bombs and artillery shells was extracted and used for demolition charges. If a rifle or machine gun cartridge had a bad primer, the bullet was carefully unscrewed and the powder extracted for use in custom-made ammunition. Likewise, if the primer was still good on a damaged round, it was extracted and reused.
Obviously, foraging for decades-old ammunition and trying to handle it was extremely dangerous. Not only was there the risk of the ammunition, but as the island’s medical system stopped functioning during the war, any malaria-bearing insect in the jungle, or even a broken ankle, could be fatal.
(A custom-made bolt-action cannon produced by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, using steel tube and shop machinery at the seized mine. Judging by the breech orifice, it maybe fired found WWII-era M74 rounds. This 37mm ammunition was used in the main gun of the M3 Stuart tank and M3 37mm towed anti-tank gun, both of which the Americans used on the island during WWII.)
(A custom-made single-shot 12ga shotgun. The Bougainville fighters managed to make a casing press for 12ga ammunition, with powder coming from unusable WWII-era ammunition. Guns like these were obviously of limited potential but they did allow the fighters to obtain modern FN FAL and M16 assault rifles from dead or surrendering PNGDF troops.)
End of the war / Fate of the WWII weapons
The conflict did not go well for either side. For the people of Bougainville, it resulted in the almost complete destruction of the island’s modern infrastructure, and the loss of tourist revenue. For Papua New Guinea, besides the cost of the lost mine, significant military setbacks were suffered. In 1990, four of the five UH-1 Iroquois helicopters sent to the island crashed, and the fifth was damaged by ground fire from the WWII guns of the rebels. For the cash-strapped PNGDF, loss of five Hueys was very significant. The PNGDF commander on the island, Brigadier General Jerry Singirok, later said that he concluded that the conflict was unwinnable by either side. In January 1998, a cease-fire was signed. It called for Bougainville to remain a self-ruling part of Papua New Guinea, with an election on independence before 2020.
An organization called the Torokina War Relics Association was set up to try buying and collecting any remaining WWII weaponry on Bougainville. It has met with limited success, as some of the former Revolutionary Army fighters took their guns deep into the jungle, for possible future use. These WWII relics may still see further combat in the 21st century.