‘Lost for words’: Joe Biden’s tale about cannibals bemuses Papua New Guinea residents | Joe Biden


Joe Biden’s suggestion that his uncle may have been eaten by cannibals in Papua New Guinea during world war two has been met with a mixture of bemusement and criticism in the country.

Biden spoke about his uncle, 2nd Lt Ambrose J Finnegan Jr, while campaigning in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, describing how “Uncle Bosie” had flown single engine planes as reconnaissance flights during the war. Biden said he “got shot down in New Guinea”, adding “they never found the body because there used to be a lot of cannibals, for real, in that part of New Guinea.”

Official war records say Finnegan was killed when a plane on which he was a passenger experienced engine failure and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The records do not mention cannibalism or state that the plane was shot down.

Analysts in Papua New Guinea who were shown his comments described the claims as unsubstantiated and poorly judged, pointing out that they come at a time when US has been seeking to strengthen its ties with the country, and counter Chinese influence in the Pacific region.

“The Melanesian group of people, who Papua New Guinea is part of, are a very proud people. And they would find this kind of categorisation very offensive. Not because someone says ‘oh there used to be cannibalism in PNG’ – yes, we know that, that’s a fact.

“But taking it out of context, and implying that your [uncle] jumps out of the plane and somehow we think it’s a good meal is unacceptable,” said Michael Kabuni, a lecturer in political science at the University of Papua New Guinea.

Cannibalism was practised by some communities in the past in specific contexts, said Kabuni, such as eating a deceased relative out of respect, to prevent their body from decomposing. “There was context. They wouldn’t just eat any white men that fell from the sky,” said Kabuni.

The practice was not due to people lacking food, he added, pointing out that archaeological evidence illustrates that agriculture was practised in Papua New Guinea more than 10,000 years ago.

About 79,000 US soldiers remain unaccounted following the second world war, Kabuni added. “They’re spread from south-east Asia to the Korean peninsula and Europe. What is [Biden] implying? All 79,000 that were never found were eaten?”

Others were simply bemused by the remarks. “I am lost for words actually,” said Allan Bird, governor of the province of East Sepik, who was recently selected as the alternate prime minister for the opposition. “I don’t feel offended. It’s hilarious really. I am sure when Biden was a child, those are the things he heard his parents say. And it probably stuck with him all his life.”

Maholopa Laveil, economics lecturer at the University of Papua New Guinea, said the claims were unhelpful, and pointed out that it comes after Biden cancelled a brief trip to the country last year. “It paints PNG in a bad light. PNG has already had a lot of negative press around riots and tribal fighting and this doesn’t help, and [the claims are] unsubstantiated,” he said.

“For a US president to say that – particularly after a lot of deals have been struck with PNG and the work they’ve been doing in the Pacific – even off the cuff, I don’t think that should have been said at all,” said Maholopa.

According to the Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Biden’s uncle died on 14 May 1944, while a passenger on an A-20 havoc aircraft that departed Momote Airfield, Los Negros Island, bound for Nadzab airfield, New Guinea.

“For unknown reasons, this plane was forced to ditch in the ocean off the north coast of New Guinea,” the agency says. “Both engines failed at low altitude, and the aircraft’s nose hit the water hard. Three men failed to emerge from the sinking wreck and were lost in the crash. One crew member survived and was rescued by a passing barge. An aerial search the next day found no trace of the missing aircraft or the lost crew members.”

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