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Reminiscences of rough times: May River & the Mianmin


Map - the mighty Sepik

Bill Brown, 1968IN AUGUST 1956, THE PEOPLE FROM MAY RIVER, a right-bank tributary of the mighty Sepik River, invited their upstream neighbours, from the Yellow River to a feast.

They neglected to tell their guests that they were to be the main item on the menu and, on a Sepik River sandbank, they slaughtered at least 29 Yellow River people and cooked and ate them.

Patrol Officer George Oakes, 22 was based at Lumi where, in his second year of service, he had been thrown in the deep end, including solo patrols into the Yellow River area.

Oakes, born in New Britain in 1934, had, along with his mother and younger brother, been evacuated to Sydney on the Macdhui in July 1941. His father, the Rev Dan Oakes, died on the Japanese prison ship Montevideo Maru when it was torpedoed in July 1942.

Oakes returned to PNG as a Cadet Patrol Officer in January 1954, and was first assigned to Mendi. Two years later, he was posted to Lumi.

He later wrote:

About the beginning of August 1956 some bodies were found floating in the Sepik River with parts ... cut out. They were identified by their tattoos as coming from a long way up the Sepik River. … About the same time, Kit Kitson, a recruiter... returned to Lumi with the story that some Yellow River people had been killed and eaten by May River people.

Under the headline ‘Head-hunters kill 28 in New Guinea massacre’, the Sydney Morning Herald of 22 August 1956 reported:

One native, with a gaping wound in the forearm staggered into Lumi … He told the Lumi District Officer that the victims were members of a fishing party. … The witnesses who brought the story back to Lumi carried bundles of sweet corn to indicate the numbers of men and women who had died.

Then came another shocking headline in an Australian newspaper, ‘N. Guinea Woman sentenced’:

An Administration post-office employee, Patricia Robertson, was sentenced today to three months' imprisonment … charged with having disclosed the contents of an official radiogram … [she] had sent the Sun a message about the murder of 28 natives in the Lumi area.

It was a bizarre event, a white woman, a teletype operator employed by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, had been sent to gaol, and the town of Port Moresby was horrified.

Robertson was sentenced on Friday 31 August and, because the gaol had no suitable accommodation, spent the weekend in the gaoler’s residence with Inspector George Gough and his wife while “works department carpenters worked around the clock ... erecting accommodation … at Bomana Gaol” near Port Moresby.

Meanwhile George Oakes was recalled from a patrol west of Lumi to accompany Assistant District Officer Frank Jones to the Sepik River, which they reached on 28 August 1956. There they waited for ADO Mert Brightwell to arrive, by boat from Ambunti so they could travel to the crime scene of the mass slaughter.

Jones, in charge of the Lumi Sub-district, during his previous term as ADO Telefomin, had crisscrossed the ranges and valleys in pursuit of the murderers of patrol officers Harris and Szarka and policemen Buritori and Purari, after another notorious incident.

Jones was to lead a dawn raid to capture the last of ringleaders in 1954. Following long-leave and marriage, he took over Lumi at the end of January 1956.

Mert Brightwell became a Cadet Patrol Officer in June 1947 following war service as a RAAF Wireless Operator/Air Gunner. Posted to Ambunti, in 1954, when it was still a Patrol Post in the Angoram Sub-district, he spent months escorting an oil-search expedition to the Sepik headwaters, before assuming control of the newly created Ambunti Sub-district, in June 1956.

He had wide shoulders, a barrel chest and no neck – attributes he credited to his long line of furniture-removalist forebears. But, despite his stature, Mert was light on his feet and the life of the party when he would sashay from behind a screen, straw boater in one hand, cane in the other, tap dancing through his own sung-rendition of Father In His Life Was Ne’er A Quitter.

Far away in Port Moresby a bizarre event was in train. Young Patrol Officer Tony Redwood “was called to headquarters at Konedobu, told [he] had been selected to lead the May River patrol [and] was sent to Police headquarters to select 12 native police from anywhere in the Territory, the best [he] could identify.”

It was bizarre because, less than three years earlier, in November 1953, the Department had been publicly criticized when junior patrol staff Harris and Szarka and two police constables were butchered near Telefomin.

This led to a headquarters edict, in force in 1956 and for many years after, that Telefomin patrols must comprise at least two officers, one “an experienced Patrol Officer, Assistant District Officer, or District Officer.” The May River headwaters were in the Telefomin sub-district.

Redwood had just commenced his second term, was posted to the District Office in Port Moresby and was located more than 1,200 travel kilometres from May River. He had no river experience, and he no special attributes other than youthful exuberance.

By contrast, there were ten seasoned patrol officers and two others of Redwood’s vintage readily available in the Sepik District. One of the latter, Oakes, had just completed a 44-day patrol of the Yellow River, and knew the area.

The instruction “to select 12 native police from anywhere in the Territory, the best [he] could identify” - at Police headquarters – was also bizarre.

Redwood could only have undertaken a cursory search of some of the 3,500 members’ files - a random paper exercise. But he was lucky; one of the constables selected proved to be outstanding.

AmbuntiRedwood related that “several days later [he] was on the plane to Wewak, where [he] spent a week organizing supplies and assembling [his] police group as they arrived from all over. … flew into Ambunti … and left there several days later in the workboat for the three-day trip up the Sepik to the May River.”

George Oakes tells us that Redwood’s patrol took 93 days. My own records show that he established May River Post on 1 November 56, and left it on 18 January 1957, when he contracted hepatitis.

Redwood recalls that it took [him] about a month to capture the culprits (about 42 he recalled). In fact, 40 men from the May River were sentenced on 11 February 1957 and went to prison for long terms.

The Yellow River people were spoiling for revenge, the mountain-dwelling Mianmin were poised to strike, the May River community had been left defenceless; May River Patrol Post had to become permanent.

By March 1957, Brightwell was about to go on leave, and I had just arrived at Ambunti. Peter O’Sullivan, in Wewak, had drawn the short straw and was posted to May River.

Brightwell’s plan was simple. We would take O’Sullivan to May River, and, at the same time, re-supply the post. We would then head upstream, visit Green River Patrol Post, and turn around at the Dutch border - 1,000 km from the mouth of the Sepik. Brightwell would then go on leave.

ML MalaAnything that could not get wet had to go inside the cabin; bags of rice, sugar, salt and wheatmeal - tea, ships biscuits, twist tobacco. And on either side of the stern, a 44-gallon drum - one benzene, the other kerosene.

The overflow, cargo that could withstand rain, and police, a medical orderly, some wives, went into the 50-foot (plus) canoe strapped to the starboard side.

We slept on board, on canvas bed sleeves stretched over the cargo. We were into bed before dusk, before the mosquitoes, and we stayed under the net till morning. Then, with still no room in the cabin, it was up to chairs on the wheelhouse roof, and breakfast ‘cooked’ on a single-burner brass primus.

There were no home comforts on the workboat. The river was churning mud and we floated on it, we drank it and we washed with it. A canvas flap at the stern gave some privacy for the morning shower - a bucket, tossed into the river, filled with water and retrieved with a rope. The ‘hangout’ seatless toilet: a thick rope with numerous large knots and tied to a cleat.

Redwood described May River as a “desolate place … [the] base camp on the highest ground in the area, on the river bank. The rest was swamp, all movement was by canoe, and all villages had elevated houses.”

And the operation: “Hard slogging. Early morning raids to trap them in the men’s house, pursuits for hours through the swamp, and the like. Millions of mosquitoes, and croc ridden. My nearest colleague, Max Allwood at Green River.”

Redwood did not use enough words - it was much worse than he described. He had only had four months to get to May River and build a base at the end of a shaky supply line - three and a half day’s travel by workboat from Ambunti.

At the same time, he had to establish the detail of murders, victims and culprits, and then thrash through the swamps to catch the murderers.

Not surprisingly, May River was not much of a station. The bush material houses, hemmed in by jungle, perched above a tepid stream and a muddy bank. The atmosphere was hot, humid and dank. The myriads of daylight mosquitoes seemed to have teeth. At dusk, they seemed a different breed: they were stingers.

Compared to May River, the dreaded patrol post at Green River was a tourist resort with a weekly aircraft, regular mail, groceries – even frozen meat and fresh bread. There was a permanent material house, tank water and solid ground to walk on.

A few months later I was asked to deliver an urgent letter upriver to Peter O’Sullivan. Another upset. It was a ‘Dear John’ letter from his friend Sue Rowlison, soon to become Sue Becker, later Australian TV fitness guru and host of the BBC program Boomph with Becker.

Redwood was back in the limelight in May 1957 when a question was put in the Australia Parliament:

Will the Minister confirm or deny reports that 24 New Guinea natives who were sentenced to death by the Supreme Court at Wewak yesterday were defended by a patrol officer who had participated in the apprehension of the accused? Are patrol officers generally regarded as legally qualified and as being sufficiently competent to defend persons accused of murder and was the defence counsel in this case so qualified to appear for 25 natives on a murder charge?

The Administrator telexed his advice to the Minister:

Accused defended by Patrol Officer Redwood who did not participate in any way in apprehension … Patrol officers are not legally qualified legal practitioners but undergo legal training and have considerable experience in presiding over legal proceedings as magistrates.

The Minister had a final waspish word, however, noting on the file:

I think the Administrator’s action in leaving the defence of the accused in the hands of a 22-year old officer with three years experience is indefensible ... in future more senior and more qualified experienced officers and, in major cases, qualified counsel should be engaged for the defence.

Redwood’s clients, the Mianmins, were the graziers and their neighbours were the herd, which the Mianmins periodically culled, slaughtered and ate - saving only the comely females for breeding stock.

Their foray into the Atbalmin in December 1956, when they killed and ate 17 men women and children and abducted two females, provoked a strong patrol.

ADO Ron Neville, Patrol Officers Geoff Booth and Paul Conroy, Medical Assistant Allan Kelly and 34 police undertook an operation in January and February 1957 during which the patrol was twice attacked, a police constable wounded, two Mianmin shot and 27 taken into custody.

ADO Len Aisbett and CPO Jim Fenton established the link between Telefomin and the May River Post in July-August 1958 - a 40-day patrol that worked its way through the Mianmin in the May River headwaters then travelled for three and half days in no-man's-land before meeting up with PO John Cochrane and his powered canoes some 50 km upstream from May River Patrol Post.

Mianmin peopleThe Mianmin - garbed only in narrow cane waist bands, 15 centimetre working-dress phallocrypts, testicles in the breeze - considered the May River people to be under-clad “bush kanakas” - their attire being a small marine shell perched snail-like on the end of the penis.

Some six months after Aisbett’s patrol had passed through, a group of Mianmins made the next foray, selecting “the small settlement of Suwana in the Abaru group near May River Patrol Post.”

It took the raiding party the best part of five days, trekking, then drifting down the river on rafts and then trekking again to reach their objective.

The Miamin surrounded the village at dawn, killed three men and one woman, cut up the bodies and set off for home with seven female captives and the butchered bodies - leaving only the heads and entrails behind.

One of those women had difficulty keeping up so she was killed and parts of her body taken to be eaten.

Another of the abducted women subsequently escaped and reported to May River Patrol Post.

We sent a small expert team from Telefomin to Ambunti by air: Patrol Officer Jim Fenton, Interpreter Suni and Constable Kusinok (a Telefomin). Their brief was to proceed to May River post and assist the OIC, Jack Mater, in the investigation and pursuit of the Mianmin raiding party.

Hopefully, that would save many days of slogging through the Telefomin ranges, give the Mianmins a lesson about the government’s reach and accord with the headquarters edict of patrols by two officers.

Using outboard motor powered canoes, Mater led the patrol to the headwaters of the May River, and then they took to the hills. In all, it only took 14 days to reach the Mianmin settlement and surround it.

At dawn, they apprehended the 15 Usage men involved in the massacre, including the men who did the killings.

The operation went without incident and, thanks to their A510 portable receivers, District Officer Des Clancy in Wewak and me in Telefomin kept in daily radio contact with Mater and Fenton.

Mater later paid tribute to Senior Constable Augwi’s role in the operation, saying he was “the most outstanding NCO I have seen … largely responsible for the successful arrests of nine of the 15 prisoners.”

He may not have known that Augwi was also very well travelled, having visited London as part of the RP&NGC 1953 Coronation contingent. Augwi had sailed to England via Sydney in April 1953, returning by air to Sydney from London in June, and travelling back to Port Moresby by the MV Shansi.

Interpreter Suni MBE LSM, originally from Olsobip but adopted by an Eliptamin, missed accompanying only one Administration patrol to the Mianmin: Jim Taylor’s in December 1939. Instead, as a youthful camp follower, he had accompanied John Black from Telefomin to Wabag.

Suni did not see Telefomin again until a brief wartime stint when he and Mick Leahy were part of the US team that was dropped in by gliders. He next visited Telefomin, by a special Qantas flight from Goroka in December 1948 to join Des Clifton-Bassett at the newly opened government station.

That assignment, supposed to last for six months, continued for more than 30 years. Suni was to visit the Mianmin on many occasions, including with the first ever patrol to focus on the Mianmin led by Harry West in May 1950.

Nautical footnote

In October 1964, Captain Wally Blumenfeld RAE (32 Small Ship Squadron) took the AV1354 Brudenell White - an ex-World War II US LSM - up the Sepik River to the May River junction – a distance he calculated to be 595 km. The vessel was 62 metres long, with a beam of 10.4 metres, and no other ship of that size had ever reached so far up this river.

Blumenfeld recorded that the deepest water under the keel was 30 fathoms (55 metres) when the vessel was passing through the “Yambon gate”, 11 km upstream from Ambunti, where there was a 5 to 6 knot current. Overall the current varied between 1 and 6 knots and was 2.47 knots at the May River Junction.

A Tony Redwood footnote

While I was the Patrol Officer at Kainantu in the Eastern Highlands (Harry West was Assistant District Officer), the Police Sergeant Major, a veteran of the 1936 Hagen-Sepik patrol, reported a rumour that the station carpenter, from the Mekeo, had a revolver in his house.

At my behest, the brand new Cadet Patrol Officer Tony Redwood and the Sergeant Major investigated. The carpenter did not have one revolver, he had two, and, as the officers arrived, he stormed from his house waving the weapons.

Redwood took off. Almost six feet tall, with some puppy fat, he was a large, fast-moving target, but he could not outrun the fusillade. Fortunately, the carpenter’s Wild West gunslinger style sent the bullets in all directions and Redwood survived to later participate in the May River expedition.


This memoir is drawn in part from May River Cannibals by George Oates (Una Voce No 3 September 2009) which describes the prelude to the establishment of the May River Patrol Post. Oakes put that story together from his patrol reports, his memory, and from an email he received from Tony Redwood.

I have also drawn on Jim Fenton’s records and communications (including his copy of Ambunti Patrol Report 13 of 1959-60), on my own records and on other archives.

W T (Bill) Brown MBE is a former District Commissioner with the Administration of Papua New Guinea. He now lives in Sydney


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Elizabeth Dumu

Just wow!
A well-written piece.
Good to read a line about Jim Fenton, who I believe was also in Kandep in the Enga Province.

Graham Harris

I have an 11 year old's recollection of the Geoff Harris murder, and believe there are many "old" Kiaps that have chosen the Lismore/Ballins/Byron Bay area to retire in.
I was Geoff's brother, and would be happy to meet any of your fellow Kiaps for a yarn.
All the best,
Graham Harris
Contacts are;
117 Chickiba Drive East Ballina
[email protected]
0478 214 638

Marty Silk

It is a great article, Bill, it's really facinating to read about what PNG was like when my grandfather was on the Sepik and May Rivers. I didn't know it was so dangerous. Thank you.

Marty Silk

Hi Bill,

My dad recently took photos of Patrol Officer Harris's grave in Wewak, those of others murdered on duty and members of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles killed in action.

They were laid to rest in a very small cemetery facing the Bismark Sea on Wewak Point. The cemetery is partially overgrown and some graves have been desecrated. My dad often wonders whether born and bred PNGeans or Australians should be repatriated to their particular homes.

My dad is sure that Senior Constable Augwi was also on my grandfather's patrol. My granddad Peter Wright was a Cadet Patrol Officer in Wewak then or shortly afterwards, but had his own problems with the Mianmin when posted in Ambunti when my dad was a kid.

There were more murders and, while tracking the culprits, he was very nearly ambushed by the interpreters who were actually the murderers.

Luckily an NCO, possibly Augwi, noticed they were carrying human shinbone daggers and reported it to my granddad. He ordered saftey catches off and when the trap was sprung it was sprung the other way and the cannibal interpreters were captured and returned to Wewak for trial. The Mianmin were feared warriors.

My dad has always wondered where Kiap Harris's family are now?

Harry Topham

Well crafted Bill. I thought your article is extremely well written without any sense of embellishment or self-aggrandisement.

And not too dry with just enough of a human-interest component to portray it as being a good old yarn from taim bipo

David Wall

Bill, a breathtaking account of the happenings in the Sepik in the fifties.

The nature of your duties when you were ADC Maprik in the sixties by comparison, while being dramatic at times,were perhaps a little more mundane - disorderly expats and problems caused by over keen malaria control personnel and their DDT spraying operations!

I hope and trust that all is well with you, with all good wishes.

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