Home Movies from the War Front: The First Fighters in New Guinea

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. 

Home movies aren’t usually thought of as a rarity – especially these days as we happily capture our kids, friends, families, and pets on our smartphones– but home movies taken during war on the front lines are few and far between. In 1981, NARA was fortunate to receive Lt. Col. Ken Gerrish’s home movie (Local Identifier: GERR-GERRISH-482) of the time he spent on Papua New Guinea between 1942 and 1944. As the Engineering Officer, Mr. Gerrish had a unique vantage point from which to observe preparations for being stationed on the contested Pacific territory, outfitting men and equipment for battle, as well as being able to get to know the men and interact with the indigenous people of the island. Mr. Gerrish was responsible for maintaining P-39s for the 36th Fighter Squadron and P-38s for the Eighth Fighter Group of the Fifth Air Force Division.

Lt. Col. Ken Gerrish shot 16mm color home movies of his World War II experience and later added music and narration to create this film.

While there’s not a historic focus on Papua New Guinea like there is on the Pacific islands of Midway, Iwo Jima, or Tarawa, it was an incredibly important strategic location. With only about 100 miles of ocean between the southern coast of Papua New Guinea and the northeastern tip of Australia, it was a vital stronghold for the Japanese after they captured the town of Rabaul on the northeastern island on January 23rd, 1942. The Allies – Australian and American – held Port Moresby on the southeastern edge of the territory. The climate and the terrain were almost as brutal as their foes. Over the course of two and a half years the soldiers were plagued by dysentery, dengue fever, malaria, daily rains, monsoons, swamps, punishing topography, and irregular shipments of supplies.

Wanting to secure a foothold on mainland Papua New Guinea the Japanese dug in along the northern side of the main island on July 21st, 1942. Though the Gona Buna airstrip, held by the Japanese, was just 120 miles from Port Moresby, the Owen Stanley Range stood between the armies and the only way to cross between was over the treacherous Kokoda track. Both air offensives and land maneuvers were aimed at Japanese targets with the Allied Forces finally prevailing on August 31st, 1944. Over the course of the New Guinea campaign, approximately 14,000 Allied soldiers died and over 202,000 Japanese died.

Mr. Gerrish’s home movie shows little of these conditions aside from the rains and mention of the mosquitoes, malaria, and dengue fever during a ceremony where everyone is wearing long sleeves despite the heat. What Mr. Gerrish does focus on are particular individuals including Gen. George Kenney, commander of the Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area, and WWII flying ace, Lt. George Welch. Other scenes focus on the men as they prepared equipment, enjoyed leisure time, and interacted with their Australian comrades. The films also contain quite a bit of footage of the native people of Papua New Guinea. A young child is given cigarettes in exchange for cutting down coconuts, a hospital built for the natives is shown, and Gerrish captures the reactions of a tribe when they see photos of themselves for the first time. According to the narration, some of the native people also helped to rescue a downed pilot and were enlisted to help kill the Japanese on the island.

Gerrish’s home movies show the lighter side of living on the front lines as officers play against enlisted men in a 1943 baseball game.
(Still from First Fighters of New Guinea)

Perhaps what interests me the most about these reels is how Mr. Gerrish was able to make them. According to Gerrish, the raw film stock came from the Army Air Corps supply for which he traded a bottle of gin, or whisky, for four rolls of film. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t regulation! The films may have been developed on the island (we see a “photo lab” sign), while on leave in Australia, or they may have remained sealed until his return to the States. We do know that the narration was added sometime after 1954 as Gerrish references Lt. Welch’s death, which occurred that year. We’re also not sure whether or not Mr. Gerrish compiled the A&B rolls on his own, or worked with someone else to edit them.

The original reels are 16mm Kodachrome and perhaps because of the time the reels spent in hot and humid conditions in the jungle the film exhibited a high level of shrinkage and was warped. There was also perforation damage, deterioration, and heavy scratches which are most noticeable in the second reel. Luckily, we were able to preserve these films despite their poor condition. We created a protection preservation copy as well as a new print and digital copy for access.

Ken Gerrish passed away in 2002; we are indebted to him, not only for his service, but for the unique record that he created and donated to the National Archives.

3 thoughts on “Home Movies from the War Front: The First Fighters in New Guinea

  1. As a kid who grew up in Queensland,Australia during Ww2 I have a keen interest in the exploits of Allied servicemen.Particularly when they were serving in places known to me like North Queensland and New Guinea. These amateur films are a treasure trove indeed.
    I have had great pleasure in on-forwarding this material to friends with similar Ww2 interest also
    A couple with New Guinea background.

  2. They don’t mention the Bomber Groups that are stationed there. The Jungle Air Force as it is called. B-24’s, B-25’s, P-38’s,P-47’s. The Big Boys Took on the Japanese Fleet, Barges, helped Landings. I have the whole History of all the squadrons on the Island of New Guinea thanks to my DAD who also was the Historian for the group. He has a list of all the Bomber Crews in his book and Papers which is interesting.. His name is in the National Archives in Washington D>C>

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