Peter Lawrence
Alf Conlon and the discoverer of penicillin

Mysterious office gave rise to ASOPA

In 1941, Alfred Austin Justin (Alf) Conlon, medical student and bon vivant, was asked, as a civilian, to form the Army Education Service to improve the literacy and numeracy of recruits. Conlon soon convinced his superior that the Army needed its own research section. So, in April 1942, Conlon, who had not even been in school cadets let alone the university regiment, was appointed a major in the Army to do just that.

A first-class networker, Conlon was able to convince commander-in-chief of the Australian Army, Sir Thomas Blamey, that the research section should be upgraded to the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs (DORCA), reporting directly to him. Years later Conlon was to tell author and publisher Peter Ryan MM, who had been a clerk in DORCA after service in PNG, that it was “pathetic” to see how out of touch Blamey was when he returned from the Middle East. “Poor old bugger. He didn't have a clue who was up who in Canberra.” As if that meant anything in the Western Desert.

DORCA prepared studies which Blamey had ordered and provided reports on a broad range of topics which Conlon judged to be of national importance, including Army health and nutrition, the study of terrain, dietary standards for Papuans and New Guineans employed by the army, trends in international relations, and a host of other matters.

For administrative convenience, when it was formed in February 1943, the directorate was slotted into the broad category of Military Intelligence. This was short-lived but created a ‘cloak-and-dagger’ aura which clung to the unit and led to later claims that Governor-General Sir John Kerr, who had been Conlon’s second-in-command, was a war-time intelligence officer and that the CIA was behind the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975.

Around him, Conlon assembled a bright young team. In addition to Kerr there was anthropologists WEH Stanner and Camilla Wedgewood, lawyer Julius Stone, banker James Plimsoll, later to become head of External Affairs, poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart, and librarian Ida Leeson. As a result of its mandate and its personnel, DORCA was regarded as mysterious, odd ball and bohemian.

One of its main roles was to provide policy advice on the government of PNG. Conlon's imagination extended far beyond military needs, however, even anticipating PNG independence. Work of enduring value was performed: the territories were placed under one administration, their laws were consolidated and codified, and the School of Civil Affairs, established in Canberra in 1945 to train service personnel to be colonial administrators, became in peacetime the Sydney-based Australian School of Pacific Administration.

The notable journalist, Tom Fitzgerald, later wrote of Conlon: "The greatest achievement arising from the kind of influence that Conlon exercised is the standard he set of disinterestedness in pursuing the right, without show or fuss, as a man opens a window in a stuffy room."

It is a shame that none of DORCA’s records survive. But perhaps this only adds to the mystery behind the organisation that was ASOPA’s progenitor.

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