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A Kiap’s Chronicle: 10 – Incident at Obura

Obura patrols (Bill Brown)BILL BROWN MBE

WE ALL make mistakes, and Patrol Officer Bruce (BWP) Burge was no exception.

He was engaged on a routine task, revising the census in Baira village, when he heard about tribal fighting in which two people had been killed.

Accompanied by his small detachment of five police, he crossed to the left bank of the Lamari River to Atiera village, but by the time he got there the death toll had increased.

Four Obura and two more Atiera warriors had been killed.

That evening, Burge tried to convince the Atiera men that they should accompany him to Obura village to make peace. The next morning, when they refused to do so, he arrested the luluai and another man.

All hell broke loose; the Atiera warriors launched a fusillade of arrows at the patrol and the police returned fire.

Burge then made his second mistake.

He decided to retreat through Obura taking the Atiera prisoners with him, virtually delivering them to their enemies.

At Obura, the patrol was surrounded by some 150 warriors carrying fighting shields and armed with bows and arrows

Burge grouped his carriers in front of the rest house, placed the two prisoners in their midst and deployed the police around the whole group.

The Oburas issued an ultimatum: unless Burge surrendered the prisoners to be killed, he and his patrol would be attacked.

When the Oburas saw the patrol was making preparations to leave, a warrior pranced forward and, Burge’s report recorded, fired an arrow “at about fifteen foot range into the centre of the huddle of carriers … he missed the carriers but struck the prisoner, the Atiera luluai in the back.”

Another 25 arrows were fired from a range of about 20 yards and the Atiera luluai was hit again and the other prisoner wounded by two arrows.

Lance Corporal Pakau and another policeman, Kaupa, led the breakout, leading the laden carriers and carrying the two prisoners, now wounded and unable to walk.

Pakau fired several shots to clear a party opposing the retreat. Burge and the other three constables stayed until last; acting as a rearguard.

Assistant District Officer Harry West and I set out for Obura three days after Burge’s return.

We took a force of 20 police—even the station bugler—and 30 carriers. Burge was left with five police to look after Kainantu.

He had wanted to return to Obura but his family circumstance, a recently arrived first-born— or the imminent arrival of one—dictated otherwise.

Photo 01As we wound around the track, I could see from my position at the end of the single file that ADO West in the lead had stripped down to his favoured walking attire: shorts, a white sleeveless, cotton singlet, socks and boots.

He had covered his head and ginger hair with a well-worn green fedora but his pinkish neck, shoulders, and arms glowed in the sun.

At Obura, the women and children were being led out as we neared the village—evacuated to distant hiding places.

The men, as West’s subsequent report told it, “armed heavily with bows and arrows and shields, retired to the hills surrounding the rest house. … They refused to come near [and] when approached, retreated to the next spur.”

We arrested 10, then released five, sending them to join the recalcitrant with the message that I would be returning again in six weeks’ time.

Photo 02It was different at Atiera. Within a short time of our arrival, men women and children had assembled to greet us and bring food.

They discussed the recent events, claimed the Oburas were the aggressors and suggested that two Atiera youths return with the patrol to Kainantu to learn Pidgin English.

The people were calmer when I returned to Obura five weeks later, but I was also constrained.

Only five of my 12 police were experienced, three others were recent graduates from the training depot and four were in their first year of service.

I also had some concerns about Lance Corporal Pakau, a Chimbu with 12 years’ service, who may have been responsible for Burge’s successful withdrawal but who might also have had an over-zealous trigger finger.

Photo 03(Two years earlier, when he had shot and killed an escaping prisoner, the Coroner had exonerated him, accepting his story that the bullet had passed well above the escapee’s head, struck a branch and ricocheted back striking the escapee in the forehead.)

Two men had been wounded by rifle fire in the attack on Burge’s party. One had a bullet wound in the forearm but the bullet had passed between the bones and there was no permanent damage.

The other had his ear lobe clipped by a bullet that had passed so close that it caused temporary loss of hearing.

Almost everybody from the Obura group appeared when I called the roll from the census register. Perhaps the 56 who failed to do so had guilty consciences.  

I stayed eight days in the area, visited Atiera and talked a lot but achieved little. I could see that no one village could withdraw from the conflict.

Photo 04If any village group opted for peace and ceased defending itself, it would be annihilated. I suggested that a strong patrol visit the five villages - Obura, Atiera, Himarita, Ahea, Anima and Tou-intena - and enforce the cessation of tribal fighting.  

It was not all patrolling and work. In mid 1954, the newly-formed Territory Rugby League commenced its season and District Commissioner Ian Downs drafted me into his Goroka team.

Each alternate Friday afternoon, some time after four, pilot Les Taylor would pick me up in a Territory Air Lines Dragon and fly me to Goroka to train before the Saturday game.

It was almost an all-kiap backline with Cadet Patrol Officer Paul (PK) Healy playing scrum-half, Ian Downs at five-eighth, ADO Fred (FPC) Kaad at inside centre and me at outside centre. Notables in the forwards were ‘Young Danny’ Leahy (later knighted) and Merv and Les Gillies.

I was not always available to play as I was sometimes on patrol and missed one home and two away games but played away in Madang and Lae, where the heat and humidity almost flattened me.

Goroka was the biggest town in the Highlands but still very small—not yet even a one-pub town.

Mrs Pitt (widow of kiap Mark Pitt) had a licensed guest house where Downs’s young, old-maidish secretary, Doreen McGee, moonlighted behind the bar and in the dining room, treating the guests with disdain.

I stayed there when on duty travel—with the government paying—but Fred and June Kaad looked after me on football jaunts and one Sunday afternoon they took me to a barbeque at Bobby Gibbes’ homestead on a hill outside town. June was pregnant at the time.

We arrived in a flurry of gravel—Kaad had his foot hard on the accelerator driving uphill—to be greeted by the rambunctious former RAAF Wing Commander Bobby (RH) Gibbes DSO DFC and bar.

“Your wife is going to have another daughter, Kaad,” Gibbes bellowed. “The way you drive would shake the nuts off anything.”

In August, Harry West was about to go on seven months leave and Ian Downs was manoeuvring to ensure he returned to Kainantu afterwards. His strategy, opposed by some at headquarters because of my lack of seniority, was that I would take over as acting Assistant District Officer while West was absent.

Downs got his way. The Administrator Donald Cleland authorised him to administer the oath of office to me and I took over on 7 August 1954 and Downs told headquarters: “I am particularly anxious to consolidate in Obura area and I will accept full responsibility for anything that occurs.

“Patrol Officer McArthur has outstanding record in uncontrolled areas and Mr Brown is experienced and competent to lead such a patrol. It will be six months before West returns and this imposed restraint of normal activity will make the task much harder. If you will not let Brown and McArthur go, will you at least allow me to go personally?"

McArthur and I undertook the patrol. McArthur, accompanied by 20 police and 45 carriers, left for Barabuna on 1 December. I followed a day later, delayed by a visit by Downs and newly appointed Assistant Administrator Rupert Wilson.

I was under instructions to be back at Kainantu by to escort a New Guinea Goldfields’ surveying team two weeks later on 16 December.  

McArthur and I completed the task. There was no opposition; indeed we were welcomed with enthusiasm. The aircraft from Goroka - that flew overhead, circled and dropped a note - added to the awe.

When we encouraged each group to send some individuals with the patrol to see the sights of Kainantu, we were swamped with volunteers and limited the number to 12 from each group.

Thirty of the 60 sightseers went on to Goroka and some of that group went further to see Port Moresby.

Photo 05I was relieved to be home after sharing a tent with McArthur for 14 days. I hosted the after-tennis party and dance on the Saturday but this time there was a difference. I clicked with one of the ladies.

She was the last to leave and asked me to take her home; the beginning of six torrid weeks of late nights and early mornings. We spent each Sunday together and then there was a spate of Christmas activities.

It seared me—I think it seared us both—and then it was over. One night she announced we were both getting too involved, too committed and that the difference in our ages—almost 15 years— was too great.

“It is wonderful now, but what will it be like later, when I am old and you will still be young?”

It did not matter how I argued but the next day she was gone.

There was no good-bye, only a note to say that she was in tears but leaving, flying to Australia. And so she was gone but the pain and the void remained.

That brief romance was going to change my future.


Map of the Obura patrols (Bill Brown)

(Photo 01) Assistant District Office Harry West in his preferred patrol attire of hat, sleeveless white singlet, shorts, socks and boots. Kainantu 1954

(Photo 02). ADO West having a breather, sitting on a patrol box in front of the village rest house, Obura 1954

(Photo 03) Lance Corporal Pakau, Obura June 1954

(Photo 04) Lance Corporal Pakau with youths from Obura area, June 1954

(Photo 05) Aspiring sightseer from Obura area, groomed for his first visit to Kainantu and Goroka


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Robert Mawe

My father was a colonial police constable (Mawei Kamane 0943 Senior Constable) from Chimbu. He was stationed in Obura from 1960-73 after being transferred from Bogia.

I was born in Obura in 1972 just before he got transferred to Yonki as part of the resident police to look after the newly commissioned Yonki hydro power plant.

He did patrols within the Lamari, Okapa, Menyama, Marawaka and Kainantu districts. It was sad that he passed on without any photographs.

I grew up in Kainantu, however always made pilgrimage to Obura to pay homage to my father's favourite past.

Arthur Williams

Good day Bill. In 2007 I was flown into Purossa by Governor Kela Smith in one of his helicopters. An attempt at making a fixed wing airstrip having failed.

Ex Kiap Craig McConaghy's Coffee Connections was showing two Hollywood Coffee buyers where their organic, freetrade coffee was grown. I was a possible recruit to his operation there.

At Purossa we were greeted with small welcome singsing and then, after a look around, overnighted there.

The next day I was awoken by 'bush mechanic' making a wooden spring for one of the Hilux vehicles. Amazingly it lasted all the way over 'the road to hell' as one writer has described the Purossa – Okapa road.

Craig has a video still online of that trip on the website and the link is the 'Vournas Coffee visits PNG 2007' and there is a similar earlier trip too.

A memorable trip but nothing like your post of the 1950s patrols.

Really enjoy your tales and the history you have reordered for PNG. Always look forward to next.

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