Yaltom & his father discuss bringing Nil-mam into the family
The never-learning world of the litterer

Legendary district commissioner David Marsh dies aged 93

Lt David Marsh when an ANGAU officerKEITH JACKSON

DAVID Roger Milbourne Marsh OBE, Kiap and District Commissioner, who died on 19 May aged 93, lived a long and distinguished life which was full of achievement.

Papua New Guinea was Marsh’s life and passion. He was truly a nation-builder.

As the ranks of the wartime and early post-war kiaps thin, two verses George Ivanow sent me are especially poignant:

The great mountain ranges with rivers that run raging
The country beneath us folds and falls as we fly in the dusk
A once young Kiap who for years now has been aging
Leaving behind memories that will turn into dust.

May this country remember these men who once ventured
Into the hidden places where most would not go
And there on a ridge line calling aloud to the mountains
Is a Kiap and his policemen who are still on Patrol.

Lieutenant David Marsh (pictured), was a member of ANGAU, the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, which was formed to provide governance to PNG during World War II.

The Australian War memorial records how he led a party of searchers for six Japanese crewmen who landed three Japanese dive bombers on a beach in Papua in September 1942. The six airmen were subsequently discovered and shot dead while trying to escape.

Chris Overland wrote to PNG Attitude about the David ‘Swampy’ Marsh he knew:

Marsh was my District Commissioner in the Northern Province during the lead up to independence. Being only a humble Patrol Officer, my official dealings with him were few and fleeting, although I did accompany one of his daughters (Susan) to several social occasions and so made his slight acquaintance outside of work.

My enduring image of him was formed when, as sometimes happened, some of the local Orokaiva people became upset about a land issue and arrived en masse at the District Office for a noisy and potentially violent protest.

Swampy walked out of his office on the first floor of the District Office and stood facing the angry crowd at the top of the steps. Several other PO's joined me in taking up strategic but highly defensive positions near the bottom of the stairs, all of us seeking to appear as calm and confident as the DC.

The DC then launched into a long, rather declamatory speech in fluent Motu, the substance of which was that he would investigate the crowd's complaints provided they ceased and desisted from being a riotous assembly.

If they did not cease behaving badly, he advised them that he and his officers would be obliged to arrest them all and throw them in the kalabus. Just how we were going to carry out this mass arrest was not discussed.

Happily, his speech calmed the crowd and they then dispersed back to their villages. It was a bravura performance by a veteran kiap at the top of his game. True to his word, the DC did investigate and resolve their complaints and, if my memory is correct, actually went to the villages concerned to discuss the outcome with them.

It was little wonder that David Marsh enjoyed such high prestige amongst the Orokaiva: a combination of a lively intelligence, experience, exceptional language skills and a certain presence enabled him to exert authority in a way that was quite beyond the rest of us.

David Marsh made an enormous personal contribution to the development of PNG in the pre-independence period and was amongst the most outstanding kiaps of his or any era.

Marsh himself wrote of one of his most important assignments, Michael Somare’s instruction to organise the events surrounding PNG’s independence on 16 September 1975. March had less than three months to pull it all together:

Getting people to join me to get the job done was difficult. It had to be a PNG show, yet there was no expertise amongst the indigenous people, or the government for that matter, and government departments were reluctant to release their senior staff.

There were some early concerns over micro-nationalistic movements and cults that had sprung up, also emotional talk from University students.

But when I had a general picture in my mind of the ceremonies that were required, the people to invite, the security, transport, accommodation, and so on, I gathered a few staunch souls together and started on the detail.

We raised funds from business, organised fireworks for each district and provided cash to ensure activities in all districts. We also paid for the West Indies cricket team to play in Port Moresby and Lae, had an Independence Medal made and issued all sorts of literature and badges.

During the six days of celebrations from 14 - 19 September there were exhibits, church services, sporting events, bands, pageants, formal addresses, dinners and ceremonies.

The two outstanding ceremonies in Port Moresby were the flag lowering ceremony at sunset on 15 September 1975 and the flag raising ceremony the next day.

I selected Sir Hubert Murray Stadium for the flag lowering, as it was the closest possible place to Hanuabada where the British flag was first raised in 1884. That marvellous sunset, together with Sir John Guise’s words “We are lowering this flag, not tearing it down” made for a memorable occasion.

The flag raising ceremony was conducted on Independence Hill, a hill where there had been an anti-aircraft gun during the war defending Wards Strip. It is within sight of the administrative headquarters, Parliament House, the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister’s residence.

At one minute past midnight on 16 September, the Proclamation of Independence was announced by the Governor-General in a radio broadcast, followed by the National Anthem and a 101-gun salute provided by the Royal Australian Navy.

At 9.30 am the flag raising ceremony commenced. Prince Charles inspected the Royal Guard before taking his place on the VIP dais. Cultural groups then handed the PNG flag to the Governor-General who handed it to the Commander of the PNG Defence Force, asking him to raise it on behalf of the people of Papua New Guinea.

Two chaplains blessed the flag and it was raised at 10 am followed by a fly-past of Royal Australian Air Force and PNG Defence Force aircraft.

Prince Charles unveiled a plaque and joined Sir John Guise and Sir John Kerr in planting trees to commemorate the occasion. The officers in charge of each official occasion did very well and government departments – especially Public Works, the Government Printer and the Department of Information – all rose to the great occasion.

Many people say Independence came too soon, but a country growing up is, to me, just like any family of teenagers wanting to express themselves and resenting parental controls.

When their attitudes and demands reach a point of no return, the parent is wise to modify control and just provide advice when it is requested.

Marsh became Papua New Guinea's last District Commissioner, retiring in 1975 and being honoured with the award of the OBE.

David Marsh was the husband of Alison (deceased), father of Jillian, Susan and Diane and a grandfather and great-grandfather. 

With thanks to George Ivanow


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Jane Rybarz

The memoirs of David Marsh have not yet been published but will be so in 2021.

Finishing touches are being made to the book written by my mother Beverley Rybarz and titled, 'The Last District Commissioner, David Roger Milbourne Marsh OBE: Memoirs of Papua New Guinea 1940-1975'.

It is based on recorded conversations she had with David and the typed manuscript he reviewed prior to his passing.
She would like to reproduce the kiap big patrol poem in the book and seeks permission from the author to do so.

Keith Hopper

Have David's memoirs been published? Author and historian, Robert Kendall Piper passed away recently. I believe he may have been assisting David in publishing his story. Does anyone have any information on this?

J. Gladwell

The post by William Dunlop of 29 May 2015 needs some correction: ---

1. David Marsh was employed by Bert Kienzle on the Yodda goldfields of which Kienzle was the manager, not on Kienzle's Mamba Estate, and apart from a couple of days when David first arrived in PNG he lived in accommodation he made himself at the Yodda Goldfields.

2. Bert Kienzle's rubber plantation was struggling and he relied on the Goldfields to make ends meet. Thanks to David Marsh's agricultural high school training in Australia he was able to not only expand and improve the rubber trees planted but introduced improved tapping methods to improve the yield. This was not why he was employed, because he was taken on as a field assistant on the Yodda Goldfields, but he was so practical at seeing better solutions to problems and suggested better ways to Kienzle for improving the rubber enterprise ..... not bad for a lad of barely 18 when he arrived at the Yodda!

3. "and was evacuated out of the Kokoda area at the onset of the invasion by the Japanese" is a completely inaccurate version of the truth. David Marsh was ordered by Kienzle to take both Kienzle's father and father-in-law to safety in Port Moresby, while Kienzle travelled overland to Port Moresby to report to the Army prior to working out how to set up the Kokoda Trail. Kienzle's wife and children had already been airlifted out. David took the two men, and whoever was left of the civilian population of Kokoda to the coast at Sanananda, found a boat and travelled by sea around the North Coast of Papua, bound for Port Moresby under the noses of the advancing Japanese who landed at Sanananda shortly after. This journey also had them skirting the action of the Battle of Milne Bay, and they eventually reached Abau, and Kienzle's two relatives then flew to Port Moresby. David was not "evacuated" he evacuated others linked to Kienzle.

4. At Abau David Marsh was immediately taken into ANGAU as a Patrol Officer, and shortly after the Army took over ANGAU , with David initially as a WO II, and later as a Lieutenant. This was the beginning of the career which would eventually take him to District Commissioner, and the person chosen by Michael Somare to be responsible for organising the Independence handover and celebrations in September 1975

These facts will be found in the shortly to be published Memoirs of David Marsh.

Richard White

I met David Marsh in 2000 while working for a carer support service in Dee Why. David was the carer for his wife.

For five years David was a member of a Male Carers Group who met fortnightly to discuss issues arising from their care for the wives.

It was David who coined the expression 'creative whingeing' to describe the experience of voicing frustration, concern, personal ailments and stories about their own lives.

No 'program' that I devised came close to providing support, encouragement and companionship like 'creative whingeing'.

David provided leadership and compassion for his fellow carers and in turn was supported by them. They were a fine group of men and an inspiration to me of how loyalty, persistence and good humour can survive the challenges of growing old and reveal a life of steady and unpretentious dedication.

I was privileged to meet David at this time of his life and it was only gradually that I came to know of his considerable achievements and adventures.

Unfortunately, I missed his funeral and I would like to contact his daughter, Diane, to review an article I have written on David for a magazine to which he subscribed.

Richard White P O Box 586 Cootamundra NSW 2590

Doug Robbins

I well remember the occasion Chris Overland refers to – or at least Mr Marsh handling a similar confrontation in the same cool manner. I can’t find a specific date in my Field Officers Journal but that’s not surprising. After Mr Marsh wrote to HQ that my very first Patrol Report (1970 Tufi Familiarisation) was “a lengthy narrative approximating a travelogue rather than a report” (Tufi is beautiful!) I thereafter reduced anything in writing to the bare facts and nothing extraneous. I have always admired my District Commissioner Mr Marsh. In more recent times he said to me that I was “a wasted talent” and “always enthusiastic”, with “applaud” http://www.pngaa.net/Library/TigasoOil.htm (PNGAA Library). What better reference or compliment could I have from someone so experienced in PNG affairs, especially on the Papua side, during and after the wartime Papuan Campaign?

Peter Comerford

When living in Popondetta in the '80's I heard a story about a potential riot and the Orokaivans had occupied the streets and the main oval in town.

Evidently 'Swampy' sought the advice of Bishop George Ambon. He asked for advice and George suggested they drive into the middle of the rabble and address the crowd.

Marsh asked what might happen and George replied "they will possibly kill us".

Marsh evidently felt that if George was prepared to do this he was with him so they drove into the melee with George yelling in Orokaivan for everyone to go home.

It worked. Exaggerated or not it is a great story and a credit to both the late David Swampy Marsh and the late Bishop George Ambo.

William Dunlop

Marsh was initially an employee of Bert Kienzl of Mamba Estate in the late 1930's and was evacuated out of the Kokoda area at the onset of the invasion by the Japanese.

I had the pleasure of escorting Miss Sue Marsh in Port Moresby in 1974 socially and on a number of fishing trips in my game boat built in Popondetta by Jack Lyons. My very fond regards to Susan after all these years.

Comment substantially edited to remove unnecessary vituperation and correct numerous errors - KJ

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Thank you for your work and time in PNG. You have contributed to building a nation among different tribes.

May David's memories and legacy continue to live among the Orokaivas and the many tribes up north.

May his soul rest in peace.

Chips Mackellar

Farewell David, but we will meet you once again when we join you in that big Patrol Post in the Sky.

There's a Patrol Post up there in the sky,
Above the sea near Lae,
Nor'-Nor'-West of Samarai,
South-East of Hansa Bay.
It has palm trees waving in the moon,
Where mosquitos sting at night,
And canoes out on the blue lagoon,
Awaiting fish to bite.
It smells of kunai in the rain,
And smoke from the valley floor,
And you'll hear the pounding surf again,
On the reef beyond the shore.

It's the place where all the Kiaps go,
When their life on earth is through,
And they talk with all the friends they know,
Of the things they used to do.
They talk of all the times now past,
And of places far away,
And of all the memories that last,
Of Independence Day.
They talk of sights and sounds and smells,
And of people they all knew,
Of bugle calls, and mission bell,
And garamut and kundu.

Of days gone by in Samarai,
And windswept coral cays,
Of tribal fights, and freezing nights,
And misty Highland days,
Of black-palm floors, and tidal bores,
And life on the River Fly,
The Kavieng Club, and the bottom pub,
With a thirst you couldn't buy.
Of carrier loads, and Highland Roads,
At the time when we were there,
Of bailer-shell pearls, and Trobriand girls,
With flowers in their hair.

And when we say goodbye to you,
Don't mourn us when we go.
For the Big DC will call us too,
And this of course, we know.
That last patrol will take us all
Along that well worn track,
But the difference with this final call,
Is that we won't be coming back.
But our parting should not cause you pain.
It's not sad for us to die,
For we shall all soon meet again,
In that Patrol Post in the Sky.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)