PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea - Leaders of the Wisconsin National Guard and Papua New Guinea signed a State Partnership Program agreement Dec. 2.
The partnership officially began in 2020, but COVID-19 travel restrictions delayed the formal signing ceremony conducted by Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp of the Wisconsin National Guard and Maj. Gen. Mark Goina of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force.
“The Wisconsin National Guard was really excited when Papua New Guinea applied for the National Guard State Partnership Program,” said Knapp, Wisconsin’s adjutant general. “Our history and experience with the Papua New Guinean people during World War II made it the perfect fit.”
Papua New Guinea joins 94 other nations from Europe, Asia, South America, North America and Africa in the Department of Defense National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program.
Under the program, National Guard units from U.S. states collaborate with partner nations on military and civil affairs, including disaster response.
Collaborative visits between the Wisconsin Guard and Papua New Guinea began in 2021.
The signing ceremony was held at National Remembrance Park at Port Moresby’s Ela Beach. It featured a wreath laying at the site’s World War II memorial.
“While pandemics and other events may have delayed this formal ceremony, they have not delayed us building this partnership over the past two years,” Knapp said. “Service members of both of our nations have done important work through virtual conferences and in-person visits here in Papua New Guinea, Hawaii and Wisconsin.”
Knapp explained the program’s strategic purpose.
“Militarily, this partnership is very important for the United States,” Knapp said. “Papua New Guinea is a strategically important nation in the Pacific, and a secure and peaceful Pacific free from aggression is our nation’s primary strategic focus.”
Knapp discussed the history of the 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Division in Papua New Guinea in World War II, which Goina also recognized in his remarks.
“The relationship between Papua New Guinea and Wisconsin was forged in blood 80 years ago” when Wisconsin’s 32nd Red Arrow Infantry Division arrived in Port Moresby in 1942, Goina said. “The contribution of Red Arrow Division and the ultimate sacrifice paid by many of the young men from Wisconsin will never be forgotten, so it is fitting that it will be enhanced by our bond with the Wisconsin National Guard through this partnership.
“For Papua New Guinea, the chance to be part of this great program and to contribute to regional and international peace and stability is important,” Goina said.
The visit included several engagements at Port Moresby’s Murray Barracks between leaders of the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs and the PNGDF.
Lt. Col. Penny Ripperger, director of the Service Member Support Division, met with Lt. Col. Brendan Creer, an Australian Defence Force adviser to the PNGDF, to collaborate on gender integration strategies and health and wellness initiatives in the PNGDF.
The partnership includes more than a military component. Knapp invited Greg Engle, Wisconsin Emergency Management administrator, on the trip to learn about opportunities to collaborate on natural disaster response.
Command Sgt. Maj. Curtis Patrouille, state senior enlisted advisor, and Command Sgt. Maj. Aaron Johnson, 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team command sergeant major, met with the PNGDF senior enlisted advisor, Chief Warrant Officer Donald Yalum, about enlisted and noncommissioned officer roles in upcoming exchanges.
“This partnership is a great way for Wisconsin Guard personnel to learn new ideas and experiences from our newest partner — and to share our own expertise,” Patrouille said.
The delegation also joined Goina and several hundred PNGDF soldiers in his monthly morale march around Port Moresby.
The delegation traveled by helicopter to the Isurava Memorial in the rugged Owen Stanley mountain range. The memorial marks an August 1942 battle between the Australian and Papua New Guinea forces against the Japanese. Local villagers welcomed the group with flowers and songs.
The group then visited Boregaina, Goina’s home village, and attended a mumu.
“A mumu is a traditional ceremonial meal where yams, plantains and a pig are cooked in a pit covered with banana leaves,” said Maj. Sara Czepczynski, Wisconsin National Guard State Partnership Program coordinator. “It is the highest honor to be invited into a village for this type of celebration.”
The delegation also attended the opening ceremony of the new U.S. embassy in Port Moresby that supports U.S. diplomatic efforts in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
The group concluded the trip with a wreath-laying at the Bomana Memorial Cemetery. The cemetery honors Australians and Papuan New Guineans killed during World War II along the Kokoda Trail in a grueling campaign that prevented the Japanese from capturing Port Moresby.
Knapp honored the sacrifice of both nations and recognized Papua New Guinea’s recent agreement to locate and identify missing American World War II service members.
“I profoundly appreciate Papua New Guinea’s work with our Defense Accounting Agency to find and identify our missing service members here,” Knapp said. “Currrently, there are 54 Wisconsin service members missing in Papua New Guinea — 12 of whom were members of the 32nd Division.”
Knapp said the trip “created new connections and friendships that will make this a strong and powerful partnership, which will benefit both of our organizations for years to come.”
Goina summed up the weeklong visit.
“You came here as friends and partners, and you now leave here as family,” he said.