George Silk’s Papuan samaritan
Friday 23 January 2009
George Silk was one of Life magazine’s best photographers and he worked for them from 1943 until 1972. He gained an international reputation overnight from publishing his poignant photograph of a wartime samaritan assisting a wounded soldier to safety. While Silk had been born in New Zealand’s town of Levin in 1916, he immigrated to Australia as a young adult and is well-known there as an artist.
During 1939, Silk joined the Ministry of Information and soon was working offshore as a combat photographer for the Australian military, firstly in North Africa, then in Greece and finally in New Guinea. Late in 1942, he made this remarkable photograph which immediately brought his combat photography to a wide audience when it was published by Life in March 1943.
This famous image is, arguably, one of the most moving photographs from the Pacific war. George Silk made it by chance when he was walking over Papua’s arduous Kokoda track, very near the battlefield site of Buna-Gona. It was Christmas Day 1942 and he chanced upon the blinded Private George ‘Dick’ Whittington, an Australian Soldier of the 2/10th Battalion (commission number QX23902), being helped by Raphael Oimbari, a Papuan orderly. Dick had been wounded in battle and needed to reach the Australian field hospital at Dobodura.
Bearers like Raphael had already become essential to the Australian war effort in Papua and were already affectionately known to soldiers as ‘the fuzzy wuzzy angels’. (click here for more on this)
Whittington had been blinded on 24 December in the battle for control of the Buna airfield. His eyes recovered from their wounds but he soon contracted scrub typhus and died suddenly at Port Moresby on 12 February 1943. Therefore, when Lifepublished Silk's photograph Dick had passed away a few weeks earlier.
The National Gallery of Australia organised a retrospective exhibition of the artist's work and the curator noted ‘Silk recalled that standing alone near “the front” in a field of tall Kunai grass he saw two people walking towards him. A New Guinea volunteer was tenderly helping a wounded soldier. Silk was deeply affected and his response as a photographer was purely instinctive. He took only one shot. Blinded soldier, New Guinea was a powerful replay of the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan and it vindicated the efforts of the New Guinea native volunteers whose involvement in the war was pivotal to the allies’ success.’ National Gallery of Australia
Raphael Oimbari (1920 -1996) was a member of the Papuan Koiari tribe and he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his wartime assistance to Australian soldiers. He became renowned in both Papua New Guinea and Australia and is considered one of Papua’s greatest citizens. George Silk’s photograph brought Raphael fame and respect and he has become the international ‘face’ of Papuans during World War II.
'The men of the tribes of Papua and later of New Guinea flocked to help the Aussies.... Some fought in organised Units... .However, they acted as bearers, mostly. They carried food and ammo forward and the wounded back. By so doing they created a legend.' Digger History Website
George Silk (1916 – 1943) New Zealand/Australia/United States of America
Blinded soldier, New Guinea
Private George ‘Dick’ Whittington being led to an aid station by Raphael Oimbari
25 December 1942
gelatin silver print
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1975