IT WAS 7 October 1955 – a Friday - and once again Gena, my Kamanaku mankimasta, and I were passengers on the weekly government charter.
But this time we were on our way to Aitape from Vanimo. Sitting in the cockpit next to the pilot, I had an embracing view of Aitape as we flew past on our way to Tadji airstrip.
I could see the waves breaking on the beach fronting No 2 Passage and crashing on the rocks below a solitary house which was perched on the cliff near Rohm Point.
Just around the point, a murky stream divided the shabby red roofs of the hospital from the government station and far into the distant east extended the black sand beach. Somewhere beyond the horizon was Wewak.
The 1,600-metre steel carpet of Marsden matting which was Tadji airstrip had been laid soon after United States forces landed to evict the Japanese on 22 April 1944. The lengths of steel linked together were now furred with grass but still radiated the sun’s heat.
I had not anticipated that the short (15 kilometre) trip into Aitape would be so difficult. First by jeep to the Raihu River; then across the river in an outrigger canoe paddled by the resident ferryman; and finally another jeep to the Sub-District Office.
The jeeps belonged to the Parers of Tadji Plantation and were wartime relics. They had been recently painted and daubed with silver frost but had no windscreens, headlights or, because they were not registered, number plates. As the tail pipes rattled beneath my feet, I gained the clear impression that life was a little informal at Aitape.
In fact I was cock-a-hoop about taking over from Williams - he of the “don’t leave Vanimo until I have briefed you on how to patrol near the international border” fame.
I had envisioned that the life at Aitape would be more vibrant than at Vanimo, but Williams dispelled that notion, telling me that, shortly after his departure, I would be the only expatriate left on the government station.
Medical Assistant Bert Carra would soon leave for Australia, to join his wife who had preceded him on leave and Patrol Officer Bill (WM) Purdy, who had resigned some months earlier, would also soon go pinis with his wife.
Time had not been kind to Purdy since I had last seen him in the Goilala in 1951. A large right-angled scar, depressed deep into his forehead above his right eye, was testament to the severity of recent invasive surgery and now, after only six months back in the Territory, he and his young bride were about to leave forever.
When he was absent on patrol, she had found the isolation of the house on the cliff edge unbearable. Her only neighbour - on the other side of the hill - Rose Williams rarely went outside her own house and disliked visitors.
The Williams were a strange couple. Rose had an almost translucent pallor, perhaps the result of her housebound existence and the humidity, while by contrast John’s skin was pasty and splattered with light and dark freckles.
I shared the ADO’s house with them for three days; hiding in my bedroom to avoid their constant disagreements and rants about how difficult life was at Aitape.
One Sunday afternoon, there was a fracas somewhere down below on the station. Williams jumped from the Land Rover when we reached the soccer field, grabbed a tomahawk from a bystander and attempted to chop up the ball. Each time he struck a blow, it bounced away and he pursued it around the field.
“Screaming Johnnie’’ was living up to his nickname.
The Williams departed soon enough and I had the house to myself. Jock Gilbert, the Wewak works supervisor, was responsible for its design. He should have stuck to carpentry.
Overlooking the station, it sat on two-metre high concrete piers which did nothing to make it less of a weatherboard hotbox.
The two rear bedrooms faced west and got steadily hotter as the day progressed. The lounge-dining room, on the seaward side at the front, had frosted glass louvre windows and fly wire, all of which totally obscured the view.
To take in the vista to the government station or the ocean, I had to go outside to the kitchen stairs.
I drove up and down that hill twice a day. Two wheel tracks, gravelled in places, otherwise bare rock—part of the massif below. It was bordered by a manicured hibiscus hedge.
No matter how slowly I drove, the rickety Marsden matting bridge across the creek would rattle noisily and disconcert me with its shaking.
The silver-painted Sub-District Office had been a trade store in an earlier incarnation. Inside, the week’s languor was disturbed only by the morning and afternoon radio schedule (sked) with Wewak, Friday’s arrival and opening of the mailbag and the myriads of sand flies raising lumps that itched for days.
Bill Purdy and the clerical assistant Jimmy Kalel shared the main office housing the post office, the Commonwealth Bank agency, and the tele-radio. Jimmy had worked in the office since 1946 and knew all the shortcuts and where to find anything that was lost, missing or hidden.
For many years, I thought Kalel came from Chinapelli village but Rob Parer, who spent most of a lifetime in the region, tells me he came from Yakamul. Fellow kiap Harry West nicknamed him Scrotum—a sly reference to wrinkled old retainers.
In the government store—a red-painted corrugated iron remnant of the wartime hospital—Bennie Kombe also led a tranquil existence, occasionally dipping his pen into an ink bottle to record on well-worn cards the movement of rations like tins of bully beef and sticks of twist tobacco.
Over at the Franciscan mission, Superior Denis Dobson was building the Father’s house; labouring with a hammer, nailing hardwood noggins into the newly erected wall frame and sweating profusely.
I lunched with him once and that was enough. It was the worst meal I ever ate at a mission, comprising cold soup made from green pawpaw followed by what Dobson called Bloody Baked Beans (out of a tin, heated and served with mashed sweet potato.)
There were 11 days before Purdy’s departure, so I decided on a quick patrol. While I was away, Purdy would run the station and pay the wages at the end the month but there were other matters that demanded an early return to Aitape: a visit by the Assistant Administrator, the opening of Vanimo Hospital, the submission of an ASOPA assignment and the ASOPA course’s finale in Wewak, known as the Local Examination.
When I left for a patrol of the east coast on 25 October 1955, I took with me Sergeant Major Ubom and three other police. Ubom had been Jim Taylor’s point man—the scout ahead of the column—throughout the 1938-1939 Hagen Sepik patrol and had a distinguished reputation.
Now, perhaps 50 years of age, he was almost too old for active patrolling but I needed to get to know him and he probably needed to get to know me. After week or two in the bush, we would know a lot about each other
Under a searing sun, we walked more than 60 kilometres along the beach visiting six villages and staying at least one night in four of them. We crossed eight major rivers and 25 smaller streams, one or two by canoe and fording the others.
I ran out of time before completing our intended itinerary and turned back from Ulau. The remaining villages on the coast (Suian and Matapau) and the inland villages could wait. I planned to visit them in the New Year.
Early in December, I had to sit that Local Examination. I was one of only 23 Patrol Officers who had not been permitted to attend the Long Course at ASOPA and were directed to undertake its correspondence course and submit monthly assignments.
It was said that those who did not pass the examination would never be promoted. In fact, those who failed or did not sit the exam spent the next 12 months at ASOPA in Sydney. If I’d have known that, I would have made sure I failed.
I flew to Wewak on the Friday charter and had to wait until the following Friday to return to Aitape. I managed to wriggle out of District Commissioner Elliott-Smith’s offer to fly me to the Vanimo Hospital opening in the Catholic Mission Cessna.
The event was some weeks away, but I had no confidence in the DC’s flying prowess. I had seen some of his landings, and I knew that he had crashed in an Auster at Fisherman’s Island (off Port Moresby) when qualifying for his pilot’s licence in 1951. He was hospitalised and DCA Regional Director John Arthur had two teeth knocked out, and suffered back injuries.
Vanimo airstrip had a recent history of aircraft accidents and I did not want to be added to the list. In March 1953, medico John McInerny, piloting his Auster aircraft, had crashed into the sea on take-off and did not survive. His two passengers, kiaps Ian Skinner and George Wearne, were hospitalised. A few months later Peter Manser had crashed on landing, overturning a Norseman.
Back in Aitape, I crossed the Raihu River again as I made my way to the station. I was sick and tired of crossing it and all the others that had slowed my passage in the past month: the Harech, the Nigia, the Driniumor and the Dainamor.
They all had a long record of fatalities of people drowned in floods or taken by crocodiles, but the Raihu particularly annoyed me. It was the barrier between the airstrip at Tadji and the government headquarters at Aitape.
Returning from pre-Christmas drinks at the Parer’s house was the decider. The Raihu was not in flood but still two metres deep at the crossing. The ferryman was slow to appear with his canoe and I knew he would take two or three trips to transport us.
So I decided to swim to the other side; handing my watch, sunglasses, cigarettes, matches and other items to a mission lay worker who would come by canoe. I dived in, not realising the lay worker, who was a little simple, would leap in after me with my gear. The sunglasses survived but everything else was ruined.
That was when I decided to build a bridge.
Sergeant Major Ubom came with me as I searched for a bridge site. We found one about a kilometre upstream from the ford, at the first bend where the river narrowed, forced between the hills on the left bank and a high stone outcrop on the right.
Ubom looked at me rather quizzically when I said that we were going to build a kanda [cane] suspension bridge. He became more enthusiastic when I told him the Chimbu police would build it under his direction and that I would borrow extra Chimbu police to assist.
We both knew that some of those police would not even have seen a kanda bridge let alone built one, but we also knew that Chimbus could always tell other people how to do the things they did not know how to do themselves.
There were only four working days before Christmas but there was time enough to re-open the old wartime track on the right bank, prepare the approaches on both banks and to send word to the nearby villages of Lemieng, Chinapelli, Pro, and Yako that we would like to buy as many lengths of long kanda as possible and even more lengths of bush rope.
I envisioned a bridge with a one metre wide deck that would be well clear of floods - at least seven metres at its lowest point above the normal river height, and 60 metres in length between the suspension points.
Construction would start immediately after Christmas by when, hopefully, the people would have delivered many lengths of kanda.
The Christmas season had benefits. In his youth, Monsignor Doggett, the Franciscan Prefect Apostolic, had been taught that whisky was the ‘devil’s drink’, so when a kind soul sent him a case of whisky as Christmas gift, he passed it on to me.
It came with a gift card addressed to ‘Bill Brown BHP’. The acronym BHP stood for Black Hearted Presbyterian, a payback for my occasional light hearted remark that OTF (Order of Thieving Friars) might be more appropriate than OFM for the Order of Friars Minor.
Christmas was barely over, when the people started bringing in the kanda to sell; thicker, longer and stronger lengths than I had imagined. The first of my borrowed Highland police arrived: two Chimbu constables, Aina and Kimsave from Vanimo, accompanied by Bary, another Highlander, who was determined not to miss out on the fun.
On New Year’s Eve, John Williams' prediction came to pass. I was the only expatriate on the government station. At midnight, I stepped outside the house, fired my shotgun skyward, and went to bed, wondering if somebody would come and check to see if I had committed suicide. No one did.
The bridge was completed towards the end of January. It was not one of the world’s wonders but the Aitape people had never seen anything like it. They had speculated about failure while it was being built. Now they came to test it and they marvelled. They had never before looked down on a river from such a great height.
February brought some staff changes. Fred (FPC) Kaad, due back from leave and two years at ASOPA, was posted to the Sepik and, as a senior Assistant District Officer, would take over Maprik.
Kaad had served under Bob (RR) Cole MC in the 1944-1945 Sepik campaign, under District Commissioner Ian Downs as ADO Goroka but, more importantly in this instance, under District Commissioner Elliott-Smith in the clean-up and rehabilitation following the eruption of Mount Lamington and the consequent disaster.
To make way for Kaad at Maprik, Arthur (AT) Carey, the ADO at Maprik, was moved to Aitape as Assistant District Officer and I reverted to my substantive position of Patrol Officer. It was Carey’s second sojourn at Aitape; he had been a Wireless Operator Air Gunner in an RAAF Beaufort bomber squadron operating out of Tadji in 1944.
A number of other kiaps and kiaps to be had served in the Aitape campaign in World War II: Bob Bell, Bob Cole MC, Max Denehy, Don Eisenhauer DFC, Dave Fienberg MC and Des Martin.
I vacated the ADO’s house before Carey’s arrival and moved over the hill to the Patrol Officer’s house on the cliff. The vista extended 180 degrees from Lapar Point, the ocean view broken only by three royal palms clumped on the cliff edge.
In the foreground, the swell surged over the bombora at Lamak Rock, and beyond were the islands, Tumleo and, almost on the horizon, Ali, Seleo and tiny Angel.
On the long front verandah at night, the eerie silence was broken only by the sound of the waves thumping on the rocks below.
And inside, as I was lying in bed, the only sound the ticking of termites as they chewed the Masonite lining of the bedroom walls. I could imagine why Bill Purdy’s wife had been so lonely, maybe even terrified, when he was away for weeks on patrol.
With Carey now in charge, it was time for me to complete the outstanding east coast patrol. I spent five days at Yakamul trying to solve a land ownership problem with the Seleo Island people and then moved to Matapau, on the eastern boundary.
As we trudged through the water up the Damap (Damnap) River, the people warned us to be careful, telling us of a flash flood that had swept down in 1945 drowning seven Australian soldiers.
When we saw villagers working alluvial gold above Wolihiga village in the headwaters of the Atob River, I was told that Maprik was klostu. Since it was said to be so near, I decided to walk there and spend the weekend with Patrol Officer Ron (RTD) and Coleen Neville. Ron was holding the fort, waiting for Fred Kaad to arrive.
Well, the crest of the range was klostu but it took 10 hours, following the Screw (aka Amogu) River to reach Maprik. After the weekend we had to retrace our tracks.
Carey left Aitape and I was back as acting Assistant District Officer, but still in the cliff house, when I was asked to host a luncheon for Arthur Calwell (left), the Deputy Leader of the Labor Party, and the Federal Parliament Opposition. He would be travelling alone; would I meet and greet, arrange a public meeting with the local people and host a private luncheon to which only Monsignor Doggett should be invited.
The response to my radiogram that Monsignor Doggett had declined my invitation was a peremptory “Try Harder!" The Mons, as we called him, had been quite abrupt, “Tell them that I will not have lunch with that ‘b’ or even talk to him, under any circumstances.”
I visited the Mons a second time, told him I was under pressure, and that our friendship was on the line. I had not known, until then, that there had been a rift in the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party and that many Catholics had left to form the staunchly anti-Communist Democratic Labor Party.
Calwell, a devoted Catholic, had remained in the ALP, but it had cost him his friendship with Melbourne’s Archbishop Mannix. He had even been denied communion in his local parish church.
Calwell arrived. I met him at Tadji airstrip and took him to Aitape where, garbed in a long-sleeved white shirt, suit trousers held up by braces and no coat and tie, he inspected the police guard of honour and addressed a small gathering of village officials.
He gave them a non-stop explanation of Australia’s financial contributions to New Guinea, waited for me to interpret and interrupted to tell me that I had made an error with the first of his budget figures. It was at that point I lost the thread.
We moved on to lunch. I had boiled lobsters from Tumleo before breakfast and gone through the menu again with Gena before leaving early in the morning to meet Calwell at Tadji. For the first course we would eat chilled lobsters dressed with mayonnaise accompanied by a cold salad of tinned vegetables and asparagus and followed by a dessert of tinned peaches and cream.
Gena was not at his best with cold salads, his signature dish was roast chicken, and maybe he was having an off day. The previous day he had turned the barrel of my shotgun into a balloon when he tried to shoot a stingray with the muzzle of the gun underwater.
The lobsters were served covered with a mass of fiercely hot mustard. The dressing was almost too hot to eat, Gena having forgotten to add the condensed milk when preparing the mayonnaise.
I decided to cancel the dessert when I saw it on the plates in the kitchen - slices of cold beetroot topped with tinned cream - and I departed leaving my guests on their own for coffee and a private conversation.
District Officer Tom (TG) Aitchison took up duty in the Sepik under District Commissioner Elliott-Smith on 17 May 1956. Maybe it was a loss of status that made him irascible (he had been an acting District Commissioner since 1949 with a term in Manus, relieving duties in Morobe and Madang, and more than a term in New Ireland) or maybe he was just being a new broom. Whatever the reason, it was not long before he announced a series of transfers.
Ron Neville would be transferred from Maprik to take over from Dave (ED) Wren as ADO at Telefomin, and Wren would transfer from Telefomin to Aitape and take over from me. I would revert to Patrol Officer and re-open the Dreikikir Patrol Post in Maprik Sub-District after I had undertaken a special patrol along the Dutch New Guinea border.
Monsignor Doggett was quick to protest, writing in a letter to Aitchison:
“True it is that over the past four or five years Aitape has been singularly blessed with excellent officers of your department but Mr Brown has been the ‘Daddy’ of them all. I would like to mention in a special manner the work he has done on the Raihu Bridge and which is only half complete. He has developed this work into a community effort and both the mission and business interests of Aitape have made manpower, material, equipment and money for the project. I feel that if Mr. Brown is taken away suddenly this whole effort will lapse.”
The second Raihu Bridge, like the first, was started from frustration. You could ride a motorbike over the narrow kanda bridge but I wanted something to drive across.
Peter Hughes and I began with one seven-metre by 457mm rolled steel joist. We stood it vertically in the river near the right bank adjacent to the kanda bridge, thinking it would sink into the sandy riverbed. It did not. We needed a pile driver.
Brere Awol from Malol, north of Aitape and nowhere near our site, found one and organised his people to carry it to the site. He also found the weight, the hammer and a winch to complete the package. The Aitape community was like that. Given a challenge, they all responded.
Before leaving Aitape to tackle the border patrol, Hughes and I and our work force of police and volunteers had driven three piles - a pair almost seven metres from the bank and the first of another pair almost another seven metres further out into the river. Those piles were constructed from two rolled steel joists welded end-to-end and driven deep into the riverbed.
But the Monsignor’s confidence was unfounded. There was a flaw in my design and the project was doomed to failure.
The river was going to demolish the piles, but Aitchison’s decree ensured I would be in Dreikikir, not Aitape, when that happened.
Aitchison’s instructions were precise. Before I left Aitape, I was to proceed to Vanimo, and with Patrol Officer Barry (BA) Ryan, follow the unmarked border with Dutch New Guinea (the 141st degrees of longitude) and ascertain the location of the villages near the border.
Maybe it was Aitchison’s own brainwave, maybe other interests were involved. The dispute between Indonesia and Holland over ownership of Dutch New Guinea had been fermenting since Indonesia gained its independence in December 1949 and there had been three military incursions before Indonesia finally gained United Nations support for its claim in April 1955.
Whatever the reason, we were told to set out from the Wutung on the coast and follow the border south until we met up Patrol Officer Robin (RA) Calcutt, who would be following the border north from Green River Patrol Post.
We were instructed to light a signal fire at 9:00 am each day so that the pilot of an aircraft, which would search for us every day at that time, could locate the smoke and indicate the location of the border.
I flew from Tadji to Vanimo by Norseman on Wednesday 15 August 1956 with three police from the Aitape detachment, my mankimasta, a tent fly and the rest of our gear. At Vanimo, Barry Ryan added three more police, rations for the trek - rice, tinned meat, sugar and tea. Two days later we set off in a fleet of 17 hired canoes.
The Vanimo canoes, with very little freeboard and only a small platform on the outrigger supports, were loaded to the gunnels but the sea was smooth, almost oily, and there was no wind.
We were paddled slowly westwards along the shelf that fringed the shore, never far from land. A few hours into the journey, however, one canoe was swamped by a slight wave and went under. Constable Aina, a non-swimmer, rescued himself and his rifle but the rest of the cargo went to the bottom.
We had lost axes, tomahawks and a lamp that would have been useful in the bush.
After a six hour paddle, we reached Wutung and walked the 400 metres to the border. We then arranged for the surrounding vegetation to be cleared and organised some volunteers to flash mirrors from this position when the aircraft came searching.
The Wutung village officials (luluai Ni-Ala and tultul Uni) had volunteered to accompany us southwards. They were incredulous when we told them of our intention to climb the cliff behind the coastal marker. Nobody would climb that cliff, not surefooted villagers and certainly not laden carriers or clumsy kiaps.
The next morning, they led us from Wutung, through the limestone south-west into Dutch New Guinea. Five hours later we made camp at Kapalemou, a small village two or three kilometres inside the border.
From there it took a little more than two-and-a-half hours the next day, a Sunday, for them to lead us, directly, to a tree emblazoned with the letters X 111 1Y, L 11 0 and, 400 metres further on, to a cement block marked 141 00 13 005, 2 40 34 34. For some reason, the symbols for degrees, minutes and seconds were missing.
Two days later, after trekking through thick forest and limestone outcrops, we arrived at Kapou, a small village of 18 houses about two kilometres inside Dutch territory and flying the Netherlands flag by way of welcome.
We were now trespassers and, knowing what was ahead, I wistfully wondered whether the Dutch authorities would arrest us - take us to the fleshpots of Hollandia (Jayapura) which was only 25 kilometres away.
I wanted to be certain of the position of Kapou vis-a-vis the border and was determined that the promised aircraft should find us. It took the rest of the day and into the early hours of Wednesday morning, to build a huge signal bonfire in the middle of the village square. We lit it early.
By 8:30am a huge column of smoke was soaring skywards, thickening each time green branches were added to the blaze. But no aircraft appeared.
On Thursday 23 August 1956, we crossed the Kohari Hills, climbing through limestone ridges, reefs and coral encrusted clam shells in a blinding thunderstorm. Barry Ryan was continually assaulted by wasps that stung him even behind his horn-rimmed glasses.
It took three more days to reach Sekofro, a small village of ten houses and perhaps 75 people. They had no flag but displayed a large framed colour photo of the Dutch royal family. We had climbed through limestone crags and sinkholes, crossed the flooded Puian (Tami) River and wandered through sago swamps and waterlogged rain forest.
My intuition told me that we were three or four kilometres on the eastern side of the border, inside Papua and New Guinea. The next village, Sekotchiau, perhaps ten kilometres inside Papua New Guinea contained only five houses.
We spent eight more days trying to penetrate the buttresses of the Bewani Mountains, with small parties probing up numerous watercourses to find a path. Others in the party scrounged and hunted for food along the many watercourses.
But we came to realise that, while seeing some incredible displays by birds of paradise and walking through an incredibly beautiful gorge, we had achieved nothing.
The police and carriers were all suffering from bruised and bleeding feet. We had lit the signal bonfire each morning but had only seen an aircraft on the first day. As far as I was concerned, it was time to go home.
We arrived back at Vanimo after spending 23 days in the bush; Robin Calcutt arrived with his Green River contingent the following day. He too had been unable to penetrate the Bewani Mountains at the border, reporting that because of the ”vertical stone cliffs, narrow valleys, and heaps of stone sent down by landslides, it developed into a question of getting the laden carriers out of this area, rather than holding to the original intention of keeping to an approximately northerly course along the border.”
Both patrols had wasted at least two hours of each day preparing the signal bonfire and waiting for an aircraft which failed to appear.
Aitchison commented later that “it was unfortunate that air ground liaison failed after the first successful contact with the patrol from Vanimo [on the first day]. Unfortunately … I could not partake in the two latter flights.” I wonder if he realised how demoralising it was to the people on the ground that the aircraft had constantly failed to appear.
I returned to Aitape from Vanimo, handed over to Dave Wren who arrived at Aitape on 26 September 1956 and departed for Dreikikir.
Map of the Aitape region, Wewak to Wuting (Bill Brown)
Photo 1. Kittyhawks from 78 Wing Royal Australian Air Force lining the Marsden Matting airstrip at Tadji, April 1944. Photo US Army Signal Corps 1944
Photo 2. From near Tadji, an aerial view of St Anna plantation (foreground), and Aitape (Rohm) Point. . Bill Brown 1955-56
Photo 3. ADO John (JC) Williams standing outside the Aitape Sub-District Office; Bob (WH) Parer’s daughters in an old jeep, on the right, 1954. Photo Rob Parer CMG MBE
Photo 4. The road down the hill. Photo Harry (JH) and Betty (ER) Roach 1965-66
Photo 5. The Sub-District Office at Aitape, Photo Harry (JH) and Betty (ER) Roach 1965-66
Photo 6. Vanimo airstrip, 1955 (Bill Brown)
Photo 7. Arthur Calwell
Photo 8. A Vanimo Canoe with the typical stylised prow
Photo 9. The Bewani Mountains