A Kiap’s Chronicle: 11 – Vanimo
08 August 2016
IT WAS May 1955 and I’d been on leave in Australia for six weeks when a letter arrived signed by Director of Native Affairs JK McCarthy.
The letter read: “Due to the exigencies of the service, it is now necessary that you take up duty in the Sepik District and not in the Central Highlands District.
"Your posting is to replace Mr TW Ellis who has been transferred to Madang for special duties. A warrant for Wewak has been authorised.”
I had reservations about the veracity of that letter. The Central Highlands had ceased to exist as a district in 1951, and I doubted I was going to replace Tom Ellis.
I had no intention of proceeding direct to Wewak. If I was leaving the Highlands, I needed to travel to Kainantu; the ghosts were still there and I needed to pack my gear.
I did not realise it then but I was to be stationed in the Sepik District for eleven years.
The China Navigation Line's recently refurbished cargo ships were said to be a fine way to travel and I managed to secure one of the two single-berth staterooms, with an ensuite bathroom and a bed instead of a bunk, on the Shansi sailing from Sydney via Brisbane to Port Moresby, Samarai, Lae and Madang.
From there, I would be able to hitch a ride to Goroka on one of the many government air charters carrying supplies to the Highlands.
Two hours after the ship berthed in Madang, I was in Goroka talking to District Commissioner Ian Downs.
In the District Office, he could be demanding, forceful and aggressive, but that morning he was smiling and cheery and could not have been more helpful.
He organised two charters: a Territory Air Lines Dragon to fly me to Kainantu that afternoon, and a Gibbes-Sepik Norseman to pick me up the following morning, return to Goroka and then fly me to Wewak.
And he went even further. He would arrange that my load was topped up with potatoes and any other vegetables that were available while the plane was being refuelled at Goroka.
It didn't take long to assemble my gear at Kainantu. Most of it was already packed into a cabin trunk and patrol boxes. But four cane chairs and table, a large seagrass mat and some odd and ends had to be wrapped in hessian and sewn into packages.
I was waiting at the airstrip at seven in the morning. The Norseman arrived soon after and we were on our way back to Goroka. While the plane was being refuelled, I visited the District Office, said my farewells and picked up letter from Downs that he wanted me to deliver to Elliott-Smith, the Sepik District Commissioner.
It was still early in the day. The cloud had not built up on the mountain ranges and we were soon through the Bena Gap, flying just above the forested 2,000 metre high ridges with peaks soaring skywards on either side of the aircraft.
From that altitude, I could see the braided Markham River winding its way east towards Lae and, on the left, the Ramu River, flowing north-west and delineating our route towards the Sepik.
Pilot Roy Shaw had trimmed the aircraft to gradually descend and we flew low over the Sepik River, passing over Angoram on the left bank 110 kilometres from the mouth.
We were on a level trim and the nacelle of the large, nine-cylinder radial engine obscured much of the view ahead. It was incredibly hot in the cockpit, prompting Shaw to comment, “These aircraft were designed for freezing Canada but I bet that they were just as bloody hot and uncomfortable over there.”
Eventually, Wewak Point came into view. Surely the name was a misnomer? From the air, it looked more like an upturned pot or pan squashed a little out of shape, the handle, a long strip of narrow road running between the sea and a mangrove swamp.
Cadet Patrol Officer Max Duncan was waiting with a truck at Wirui airstrip, only a few minutes’ drive from the small town. He said his instructions were to take me to the hotel to drop my bags and then to deliver the fresh vegetables—and me—to the District Office.
The narrow foreshore road, barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass, took us to Wewak, where a few houses stood on top of the hill. At the base of the hill was the Government Stores’ warehouse. The swamp reclamation which would open up a larger town would not commence for another three years.
I was told that the native hospital and Tang Mow’s trade store, which catered for the expatriate population, were on a loop road to the left; that the police barracks was to the right; and that the tiny foreshore cemetery was equidistant—left or right—from the intersection.
On top of the hill, a hotel occupied the cliff edge on the north-west corner of the headland. An unimpressive narrow entry led to a sitting room and small adjoining dining room. A small bar opened onto a grass lawn.
On the cliff edge, a row of skillion-roofed buildings, each built on a raised cement slab, provided the bedroom accommodation.
I walked to the Sub-District Office next morning down to the road running round the top of the hill and past three or four houses on the cliff facing seawards towards Muschu Island. On the right was the expatriate hospital with its half-a-dozen beds.
My destination was tucked behind the main building, out of sight and seldom visited by anyone. David (DRM) Marsh, acting Assistant District Officer responsible for the Wewak Sub-District, assisted by Patrol Officer Barry (BT) Copely, was supposed to be the point of contact between the government and the local people.
But it would have been a hot walk for the local people, and taken hours for anyone to traverse the foreshore road and climb the hill to report serious crime. Perhaps a rape or a murder may have warranted the effort, maybe not. Certainly nothing less.
The District Office, a long rectangular single-story squatting on a cement slab, had been part of the hospital built towards the end of World War II. Two senior District Officers, both with the surname White but unrelated, occupied separate offices at one end.
In the middle, three or four rooms that had been wards led off the concrete walkway and now housed a sprinkling of clerks and female assistants.
At the far end of the building, on the corner, the Post Office lurked almost in obscurity; and - in even more obscurity, further around the corner - there was another White, didiman Jack, the District Agricultural Officer and District Education Officer Fred Barron.
David Marsh said I should call on the District Officers as opportunity occurred but should seek a formal appointment to see District Commissioner.
District Officer J P White, who liked to be addressed as Mr Preston White, declined to talk to me in the office but invited me to dinner.
It was a fascinating evening. He cooked a good curry and lubricated it well. He and his wife Mary talked about the high profile Telefomin murder trials following the slaying of two patrol officers and two police in November 1953, and they knew their subject.
He had presided over the preliminary hearings and she sat through all the proceedings, drawing on her experience as a journalist with a Sydney daily newspaper, to compile the official report.
When I left after a fascinating evening, I wondered how Preston White could possibly have gained the sobriquet ‘Pissed-On White’.
My call on District Officer Joseph Richard White - known and addressed as Dick - was an eccentric experience. Dick had a rough and ready manner and quickly told me that the District Commissioner and Preston White suspected him of drinking on the job.
To prove his point, he noisily opened a small bottle of lemonade and within minutes Preston White hurried into the room. When he’d left, Dick asked me to accompany him to his house “to open some confidential documents” which turned out to be bottles of beer.
When the day of my appointment with the District Commissioner Elliott-Smith arrived, he kept me waiting in the anteroom as the secretary played gatekeeper and screened visitors.
I was eventually guided into the inner sanctum where the walls were painted a shining buttercup yellow and the doors and window frames enamelled in white.
A gold-framed photo of Queen Elizabeth hung on one wall and opposite, strategically placed over the visitor’s chair, was a mounted quotation from Plutarch extolling the virtues of conscience and morality. It would turn out to be false advertising.
Sydney Elliott-Smith exhibited all the aplomb of a former wartime commander of the Papua Infantry Battalion. He opened the letter from Downs, read it, found something very amusing and burst into rumbling belly laughter.
He muttered something that sounded like “pious rectitude” and passed the letter to me to read. Downs had given me a glowing report, listed my experience and spoke about my capabilities and said he regretted having to have me transferred.
He was sorry to let me go but I “was socially heavy at moment [having] become involved with an older woman.”
I had thought Downs was helping me. I did not realise he was giving me the push,
At the end of the interview, Elliott-Smith said I was posted to Vanimo to reopen the Patrol Post closed three months earlier when Patrol Officer Jock (JW) McGregor departed on leave.
Vanimo was just 35 kilometres from the border of Dutch New Guinea and it had been the poor relation of the Sepik District since Patrol Officer John (JW) Wakeford first re-opened the government station in February 1947.
In those days there was no airstrip and there was no teleradio; the only contact with the outside world was a four-day, police runner service to Aitape. Wakeford managed to open a small airstrip, suitable for Auster aircraft in March 1948, but never got his hands on a teleradio.
Patrol Officer Jack (JW) Sims replaced Wakeford, undertook five patrols - the first in April 1948, the last in May-June 1949 - before committing suicide at Vanimo on 14 July 1949.
Assistant District Office Jim (JW) Hodgekiss, posted to Vanimo following that tragic event, commented that "communications between Aitape and Vanimo [are] good, the weekly charter plane from Wewak via Aitape is the end of isolation as far as Vanimo is concerned.”
It may have taken a suicide to end the isolation but Hodgekiss's posting was only for a short period and marked the beginning of more short stays: ten officers in six years including long intervals when the station was unmanned because no one was available.
I flew to Vanimo on the regular weekly government charter, a Norseman, on Friday 19 August 1955, three days after my interview with Elliott-Smith.
The flight path followed a string of narrow grey beaches broken by headlands with the occasional large river spewing muddy water into the dull-blue sea.
On our left the Torricelli mountain range rose abruptly from the narrow coastal plain and parallelled our westward course. We passed over But, Boiken and Dagua airfields fringed and pockmarked by water-filled bomb craters.
An hour later we landed at Tadji, once a bomber and fighter airstrip used by the Japanese then captured by the Allies, now desolate except for a corrugated iron lean-to.
Father Dennis Dobson, the Father Superior of the Order of Friars Minor, looking nothing like a Catholic priest and even less like a Father Superior, met the aircraft.
He was dressed in baggy shorts and a sweaty tee-shirt, a floppy cotton hat perched on his head, and wore grey plastic sandals but not of a Franciscan pattern. Fr Dennis introduced himself and helped unloaded the Aitape cargo; some bags of mail, six or seven calico bags of freezer and a few cartons.
After another flight of almost an hour, we approached Vanimo over the sea. The airstrip, a narrow ribbon of grass, spanned the isthmus between the ocean shore and the harbour.
We passed over a thin beach and touched down immediately. The airstrip was barely long enough for the Norseman and it was either land short and brake hard or finish up in the sea.
An impressive collection of single-storied buildings: the huts and barracks of the Pacific Islands Regiment abutted the beach at the south-eastern corner of the airstrip. The Commanding Officer of B Company, Major Kayler-Thompson MC, his Adjutant (a Captain) and some Australian Warrant Officers met the aircraft.
They probably met every aircraft; it broke the monotony. Theirs was the prestige side of the strip with modern conveniences: 24-hour electric power, reticulated water, refrigeration, weekly movies, freezers and a canteen.
The Medical Assistant, Reg Collins, and Lance Corporal Korin of the Royal Papua and New Guinea Constabulary with a detachment of five police constables, walked me across the strip to the Administration side, where there was no electricity and no running water.
Most of the staff lived in grass huts nestled among the coconut palms and kerosene lamps provided illumination at night.
Collins' house was the exception. Adjoining the hospital and virtually on the waterfront, it was built from imported materials and painted white with royal-blue trim. I spent the first night there and subsequently enjoyed several meals. Collins had served with the British Occupation Force in the Japan and sukiyaki, cooked in a stainless steel hospital tray, was his speciality.
The kiap's house, where I would live, was higher up the hill, sited there by Alex (AJ) Zweck in late 1949 to escape the heat and catch the ocean breeze. It was a long building in an almost Oriental style: high hipped-roof without a ceiling, sawn timber frame and walls of plaited cane.
The front steps opened to a large lounge dining room with push-out shutters on three sides. A long corridor with the same style of shutters stretched the length of the house past the three bedrooms and bathroom.
The house was spotless and the timber floor, polished with coconut husks, gleamed as if burnished; Collins had organised that. Three Highlands police constables, Bary, Kimsavi and Kamgru, had unpacked my gear.
They opened the crates and boxes and stacked the contents on the floor for my mankimasta Gena (a Chimbu from the Kamanaku) to arrange in their final location.
The next morning I was up early to see the police, all six of them, at the morning parade in front of the office on the hillside just below the house. It commanded a clear view over the coconut palms to Daulimge Bay and Narimuru Island.
Posts set upright into ground supported plaited sidewalls and sago-thatch roof. The front wall, two sheets of corrugated iron, divided the open porch from the one-room interior. Inside there was a table, chair and safe and nothing else. No office equipment, no typewriter and no stationery - not even a pencil.
The beachcomber floor, fine white beach sand, was raked smooth. An incongruous large metal sign proclaimed that it was a Commonwealth Bank.
The Army controlled the Administration radio and that morning they delivered my first message.
John (JC) Williams, Assistant District Officer at Aitape, had sent me a precise instruction. Because of the proximity of the Dutch New Guinea border and the international implications, I was not to leave the Patrol Post for any reason until he visited and briefed me.
I wondered what the Army had thought of that signal – I, the new officer-in-charge, was confined to base and not permitted to do my job.
And there was very little for me to do. There was no radio, no cash book - and no bank. I visited the wharf, and talked to group of people from Krissa, Vanimo and Warimo living there operating the station's small coconut plantation.
Their leader, retired Sergeant-Major Kiama, asked me if I liked fresh rock oysters and the next day, about midday, 10 ladies arrived, each carrying two large beer bottles - long necks - full to the brim with fresh oysters and hanging on cords from the women's wrists.
I paid their two shillings (20 cents) a bottle, kept two bottles and asked the Army to freeze the rest so that I could send them to Wewak on the next aircraft.
My suggestion that the number of ladies collecting oysters be restricted to one, two or even four was met with incredulity. One lady on her own would be raped. If two ladies went, they would both be raped. And if there were four, they would all be raped.
My conversations with Kiama and his group helped relieve the boredom and led to me joining in night fishing activities. My pressure lamp replaced the bombom (a burning coconut frond) used to attract fish and I was allowed to sit down and hold it skywards.
I was never allowed to stand or to throw the multi-pointed spears. Back on the beach well into the night, we barbequed the catch, large garfish, and ate them whole, not cleaned or scaled.
During the daylight hours, I explored the station, the reef, the tracks around the crest of the Cape Concordia (a flat-topped hill behind the house) and tunnels left by the Japanese.
I organised for the undergrowth to be removed from around the kapok and fruit trees that some pre-war kiap had planted (lemons, limes, custard apples and bullock hearts), and for the trees to be relieved of their heavy load of fruit.
At night, the trees were beacons flashing on and off, lit by fireflies. From the crest of the hill looking west, I could see the beams of car headlights in Hollandia, just across the border.
The Major from the Pacific Islands Regiment visited once or twice a week in the afternoons, driving his Land Rover - the only vehicle in Vanimo. The first visit seemed designed to inform me, with a malicious smile, that District Commissioner Elliott-Smith had flown in the Catholic Mission Cessna with a load of PIR stores twice that day, but had not been interested in visiting me.
Elliott-Smith had gained his pilot’s licence, with some notoriety, in 1951. Now he was building up his hours. The return flight Wewak-Vanimo–Wewak took about three hours, and two flights absorbed most of the working day.
I changed my routine and began to loiter around the airstrip, eventually waylaying Elliott-Smith in September and told him what I thought of my confinement. I also presented him with a handwritten list of things I’d requested that had been ignored and, to be on the safe side, mailed him a carbon copy the next day.
It did the trick. The typewriter and some stationery were despatched from Wewak two weeks later and, at the end of September, I was advised of my transfer from Vanimo:
“Mr WT Brown, Patrol Officer, at present Officer in Charge, Vanimo Patrol Post, will relieve Mr Williams as Assistant District Officer, Aitape Sub-District. Mr BA Ryan, Patrol Officer, will be posted to Vanimo Patrol Post at the earliest date to take over from Mr Brown. This arrangement will give Mr Brown suitable opportunity to fully install Mr Ryan as OIC of the Vanimo Patrol Post before proceeding to Aitape.”
I had done nothing for more than a month. There were no files and there had been very little contact with the outside world. What was I supposed to communicate to Barry Ryan while I used the “suitable opportunity fully to install” him?
I never ever received the briefing from Williams. I left Vanimo and flew to Aitape to take over from him.
Map of north-west New Guinea (Bill Brown)
(Photo 01) Wewak from the air, 1955-56
(Photo 02) Vanimo Airstrip, 1955. Daulimge Bay and Narimuru Island in the background. The Pacific Islands Regiment buildings are at the top right-hand corner of the airstrip.
(Photo 03) Looking across Vanimo Harbour (Dakriro Bay) from the Franciscan Mission towards Vanimo Patrol Post. Mid-frame are the slopes of Cape Concordia on the left and the airstrip on the low isthmus between the cape and the mainland on the right. (Victor Cavill, 1955, Softly, Wild Drums).
(Photo 04) Bill Brown in front of Vanimo Patrol Post office, 1955.
(Photo 05) The wharf at Vanimo, 1955-56.
(Photo 06) District Commissioner Sydney Elliott-Smith in his pilot’s garb.
Bill, you mentioned that the famous Tom Ellis had gone to Bam Island as it was going to erupt. Be interesting to look at Tom's patrol report to see what he wrote as the people were evacuated to the mainland in 1954 & stayed there for some years. Now on the 15th January 2018 they are being evacuated again.
"Tom Ellis had gone to Bam Island probably only in his second term as a kiap then. He had been a Medical Assistant pre-war, served in the RAAF from 1941 to 1946, and had re-joined the Public Health Department post-war. He did not stay for long, leaving to try his had as a gold-miner, joining Jack Thurston at Yamil, outside of Maprik.
"As a new kiap, posted to Madang, he had carried out long, thirty-day patrols in the then uncontrolled Adelberg Ranges with CPO Brian Proctor. District Officer C D Bates appreciated Ellis’s ability, but the starchy, upper echelon at Headquarters were less forgiving of his earlier career.
"Recalled from the Sepik to Madang (when I replaced him?) Ellis was assigned to Bam Island which was rumbling, smoking, and threatening to erupt. Ellis spent two to three months on Bam, and hated it. Which one of us had been banished?"
Posted by: Rob Parer | 15 January 2018 at 10:12 AM
Re fresh rock oysters. We were regularly buying them in the early 70's. Can't remember the price but very reasonable and they came in the same packaging, longnecks or wine bottles.
Posted by: Tony Wright | 16 August 2016 at 09:17 AM
So Ian Downs probably organised the whole transfer to save you from the clutches of a delightful woman but had to make up a story so you wouldn't cotton on to the real reason. He must have drafted the letter for McCarthy's signature?
There must have been lots of shanghaied kiaps over the years wondering why they'd ended up in particular postings.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 15 August 2016 at 12:45 PM
A response to an email enquiry about oysters, and to comments by Phil Fitzpatrick and Peter Sandery.
The Vanimo ladies collected the oysters at watasiton (water stone), a rock outcrop roughly half an hour’s walk away, eastwards down the beach towards Leitre.
I never got there, but I was told that the ladies harvested the oysters with a hammer; smashed the shells while still attached to the rock; plucked the oysters from them, gave them a swirl in the sea, and dropped them into the bottle. Any small pieces of unseparated shell added to the flavour.
There was no weekly aircraft the day Neville Jenkins, a recruiter from Wewak, walked into to catch the plane back to home. There had been no aircraft for over a week.
Jenkins stayed with me while waiting for the next plane to arrive, and I was almost out of food. Finally we were reduced to oysters.
We ate them for breakfast; we ate them for lunch, and we ate them in the evening—three courses—oyster soup, oysters and veg, and oysters dobbed with tinned cream for dessert.
Jenkins may have been revitalized by those oysters, and more appreciated, when he eventually got back home to his wife. The delightful, “Oh là là” Josette, worked part time behind the bar at the Wewak Point Hotel, and beguiled us all with her French chic.
Phil, I did not think that the letter was a practical joke. I suspected the gobbledygook—especially the phrase “due to exigencies of the service.” I thought the statement that I would be replacing Tom Ellis was a subterfuge, but nothing more than that.
Ellis was probably only in his second term as a kiap then. He had been a Medical Assistant pre-war, served in the RAAF from 1941 to 1946, and had re-joined the Public Health Department post-war. He did not stay for long, leaving to try his had as a gold-miner, joining Jack Thurston at Yamil, outside of Maprik.
As a new kiap, posted to Madang, he had carried out long, thirty-day patrols in the then uncontrolled Adelberg Ranges with CPO Brian Proctor. District Officer C D Bates appreciated Ellis’s ability, but the starchy, upper echelon at Headquarters were less forgiving of his earlier career.
Recalled from the Sepik to Madang (when I replaced him?) Ellis was assigned to Bam Island which was rumbling, smoking, and threatening to erupt. Ellis spent two to three months on Bam, and hated it. Which one of us had been banished?
Peter, I never thought that I was not being banished “for earlier transgressions.” The letter, written to DC Elliott-Smith by DC Ian Downs, was a very clear indication that Downs was attempting to rescue me from, what he mistakenly saw, as my own folly.
That I had not been banished was probably further confirmed when, six weeks after arriving in the Sepik, I was transferred from Vanimo to Aitape, to take over the Aitape Sub-district.
At the time, three POs, more senior than I—of immediate post-war vintage—were readily available in the District: Mert Brightwell, PO at Ambunti; Ken Brown, PO at Maprik; and Brian Copely, PO at Yangoru.
I remained at Aitape for a year, but more of that anon.
Posted by: Bill Brown | 15 August 2016 at 11:31 AM
Another fascinating episode, Bill.
It brought back some memories - Dick White was my first DC at Mendi in 1962.
In 1969 I was posted to Vanimo and John Wakeford was DC there.
Posted by: Tony Wright | 08 August 2016 at 03:57 PM
Agree with Chris, Bill - fascinating stuff, especially for us later kiaps.
Just curious about the "veracity" of the letter you received. Did you think it was a practical joke?
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 08 August 2016 at 01:13 PM
Another lovely piece Bill. You are conjuring up a vibrant and colourful image of a place and time now long gone.
Your story is unique to you yet, from an historic standpoint, an important contribution to the all too thin supply of first person accounts of how TPNG was explored and administered.
Please keep writing.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 08 August 2016 at 10:26 AM
If you are still musing about your Vanimo sojourn, Bill, might I suggest that you were banished there for earlier transgressions - much the same way the I was banished to Woodlark Island in 1968 for insisting on marrying a Papuan -my senior officers made their point by "posting" me to the only station in the District that did not have a double bed!
Posted by: Peter Sandery | 08 August 2016 at 10:10 AM