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Army exercises & civic action in the Ningerum area, 1967

Caribou at Aseki Airport  1967JOHN STRINGFELLOW

IN JUNE 1967, Delta Company of the 1st Battalion of the Pacific Islands Regiment, under the command of Major Colin Adamson, flew to Ningerum to conduct military training and to win the hearts and minds of the local people by carrying out civil aid.

Adamson was a graduate of the Officer Cadet School in Portsea and a professional soldier who was preparing himself for a tour of Vietnam and he trained 1PIR's Delta Company as if it was off to war.

Often we were sent into the hills near Taurama Beach to prepare defensive positions by digging rifle pits into the rocky ground, a difficult and worthless task. We did an 80 kilometre route march at night from Rigo back to the barracks at Taurama, ordered to carry only a tooth brush in our battle gear.

Some night we would go to the 25 metre shooting range in platoons and blaze away, rifles at the hip, at empty tin cans. I became quite adept at hip shooting but it possibly ruined my hearing. It had another disadvantage - if you were going to conduct a night shoot, you could not have a beer at the regular five o’clock sun-downer.

Ningerum was an administrative town in the Western District about 15 km from the border of Indonesian Papua. Surveyors were working along the border during our stay. It is located on the bank of a large S-bend in the swift-flowing Ok Tedi River, which at Ningerum was about 100 metres wide.

The downstream river bank was a white-and-brown clay cliff face some 10 metres high whilst the upstream bank was low and the jungle went to the water’s edge. The airstrip ran parallel to the downstream bank.

At the strip some humourist had erected a sign displaying ten of the town’s statistics. Everything was 365: elevation in feet above sea level; population; distance in miles from the ocean; distance in miles from the District Regional Office and so forth. But most significantly, 365 inches of rain a year.

D Company had spent the previous November in the Western District in the Lake Murray region and returned with great tales and numerous incidents had been recounted in the mess. It gave me a sense of excitement for the adventure to come.

I was told the story of a ration resupply made to my platoon. My predecessor had arranged for the Army’s Cessna to carry out a ration drop in a village open area. He had cleared the area of people but at the crucial moment an old man had wandered across the drop zone and been hit by a falling package which knocked him senseless.

This caused great excitement amongst the people and they came out with bows and arrows. The platoon commander pacified the mob and attended to the old man who was still unconscious. His relatives took him into a smoke-filled grass hut and began singing for his soul.

The platoon made camp near the village and stayed in a defensive position until morning as they feared the villagers might attack them during the night should the old man die. Fortunately this did not happen. The old man regained consciousness and was compensated for his injuries by being given some of the ration packs.

The patrol gave a demonstration of the fire power of military equipment shooting at and destroying wooden targets and then departed on its way.

Brian Green, who led the 10th platoon, told me another story. His platoon was walking between two villages and came across a lot of blood on the track. When they arrived at the next village, the people had on display seven bodies of their enemies.

Brian got the villagers to take him back to where the killings took place and they showed him how they had carried out the ambush. Brian was amazed that the tactics they used were identical to those provided in the Australian Army’s infantry jungle warfare manual.

My 11th platoon left Port Moresby by RAAF Caribou and flew to Ningerum via Mt Hagen where the plane refuelled. It was my first flight in a Caribou and we flew at 10,000 feet with the back door partly open for ventilation as the planes were not pressurised.

I was able to look at mountain sides around the plane without being able to see the mountain peaks. We landed on the dirt strip at Ningerum that was about 300 metres long, just big enough for the Caribou to land.

We were greeted by Captain Tim Britten and an Army pilot who had arrived early in an Army Cessna 180 and were told where to make camp on flat ground between the landing strip and the Ok Tedi River.

Tim and the pilot had use of the kiap’s guest room which was comfortable with hot and cold running water while our bathing facilities were a 100 metres away in the cold and fast flowing Ok Tedi.

That night the young kiap and his bride, an attractive blue eyed blonde, entertained us three white visitors with a home-cooked roast meal washed down with beer and tales of his adventures in the region.

I believe he was the government official that collected the copper samples on one of his patrols and bought to the attention of the government the mineral potential of the area that eventually led to the discovery of the OK Tedi Mine in the Star Mountains to the north.

As he told of his patrolling activities, I was thinking how brave was his wife living in such a remote area by herself for up to six weeks while he was away. She was guarded by a small police force and as I later found out had the company of a German couple who managed the Lutheran mission at Ningerum.

The rest of the company arrived the following day in three Caribous at half-hourly intervals taking turns to land and depart from the strip. John James commanded the 12th Platoon but the 10th platoon was without an officer as Brian Green had been promoted to lieutenant and reposted as the battalion intelligence officer.

The light drizzle continued on and off during the day and the strip now had multiple wheel tracks in its soft muddy surface. The Army pilot was so concerned that he expressed doubts as to whether his Cessna would be able to take off if the rain persisted. This became Colin Adamson’s worry as we were all dependant on his judgement.

My platoon, under the direction of the sergeant major, helped set up the company headquarters’ tents and dug latrine and rubbish pits.

During the day curious locals came to see what was happening and exchanged fruit and vegetables for our ration pack. Tinned meat, sugar and salt were in demand. Not having seen such primitive people before I was fascinated by their clothing and the way the women carried large bundles of goods in bilums.

The women wore grass skirts about 15cm long and very thick giving it the appearance of a straw broom. The men wore a penis gourd kept in place by a piece of twine and nothing else other than a string necklace with a shell attached.

They all had tattoos, body scar markings and pierced noses. Most of the children and some of the adults had a skin disease (grilli) caused by poor nutrition which led to the skin flaking in small patches about the size and shape of a five cent coin. It gave them a frightful appearance.

Their village was about a kilometre from our camp so I decided to pay a reciprocal visit. In the first grass hut a young woman was breast feeding a piglet just inside the doorway. My men later informed me that a woman’s age was described in Pidgin according to her breasts: “Susu i pall down” an old woman; “susu i stan up” a young woman.

Somebody in the village must have put a curse on me as the next day I came down with fever. Tim took my temperature and said it was 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Another degree and I could have been dead.

Anyway he somehow got hold of a woollen jumper which I put on, gave me two anti-malaria tablets washed down by a stubby of beer from the kiap and put me to bed fully dressed and wrapped in a blanket. I woke up 24 hours later without any side effects and felt as fit as a fiddle. Since that day I have sworn by beer as a medicine.

Our war games commenced with a briefing by Colin. Tim Britten was to lead 10 Platoon and act as the enemy and we were to cross the Ok Tedi and carry out search and destroy operations for a fortnight looking for Tim and his men in an area where three local villages were located.

Crossing the Ok Tedi involved a 10 man canoe ride in which local paddlers paddled upstream close to the river bank before swinging out into the midstream current and steering diagonally across the river to where the track started. If they missed the track they had to paddle up river again to the landing point.

The canoe always had 5-10 cm of water sloshing around in it which meant to stay dry you had to sit on your haunches. On the track heading to our designated area I saw at least four deadly Papuan black snakes getting out of our way. They were only about 50cms long when fully grown and as thin as a pencil.

Stupidly I gave the first three a hit with my machete as the soldiers were, for good reasons, terrified of snakes and I felt I was doing the right thing. But after the third snake I stopped doing this as there were too many of them. After this first day I never saw another snake in the Ningerum area. It was disconcerting at night to think of them crawling around but I was so physically tired and soon fell asleep on my inflatable mattress.

As we were searching for Tim’s ‘enemy camp’ we came across a foul stench just off a track. On investigation I was relieved to find it was just the carcass of a large wild pig crawling with maggots. After Brian Green’s experience, I was glad it was not human remains.

On another occasion we came across two women with their faces painted white who were sheltering in a small grass hut in the middle of nowhere. They had what seemed to be their worldly possessions in the form of two chipped enamel bowls, various digging sticks and articles of clothing and adornments.

The ground in the shelter had been disturbed with the red soil showing. I asked my batman what this meant and he advised me that it was a new grave for one of the husbands and the women were in mourning for a short period of time before they would return to the village.

My Dad had been in Dutch New Guinea during World War II and had warned me to beware of making camp in the jungle near trees as they often fell at night. Sure enough one night we were awakened by the crash of a tree 10 metres from where we camped. Its centre had rotted out but its appearance was no different from the other trees. Dad also told me to be aware of falling coconuts, but that is another story.

One day we were walking in a deeply eroded creek bed and came across a place where water was seeping out of the steep bank. One of the soldiers in the section ahead had placed a narrow palm leaf into the earth wall which created a lovely stream of clean water gushing 15cms out as if it was a hose pipe. I refilled my water bottle. It was jungle plumbing at its best.

One of our tactical tasks was to seal off a small village and search for “enemy buried supplies”. Amongst the village houses Tim had planted empty kerosene tins that were supposed to represent the supplies. I deployed my platoon around the village to ensure no one could escape whilst I, platoon headquarters and three other soldiers with an accompanying interpreter, conducted a search amongst the houses to find the buried tins.

There were a large number of disturbed earth sites away from the people’s houses which had obviously been dug recently. We excavated and recovered a number of tins. Under the houses were freshly dug shallow pits and several pigs which I assumed were responsible for most of the pits.

There was one that looked deeper than the others so I asked the interpreter if a pig had dug this hole. He replied that it was a burial hole for the occupants’ dead child whose spirit would live with the family. I accepted his explanation. We finished our search and returned to company headquarters with the recovered tins.

I got a blast from Colin as I was two tins short. I felt rather uncomfortable searching in the village, for to me it was a great intrusion on their privacy. I was later told by one of the soldiers, but it was not confirmed, that company headquarters went back to the village and extracted a child’s skull from a hole under a house.

Another tactical task was to lay an ambush on a track between villages for Tim and his enemy team to stumble into. We set the ambush and waited. It was rather pleasant lying in the warm jungle hidden by shady trees. The downside was that you were not allowed to move about so it became hungry and thirsty work without any toilet break.

In mid-afternoon, after we had been there for six or seven hours without any sight of the enemy, along came a group of 12 locals on their way back from gardening. We lay in silence as they walked past talking and laughing in their traditional dress with tools over their shoulders. It was a great sight to see them so happy and relaxed in their own environment completely uninhibited. Tim and his men never turned up.

Another tactical task was a dawn assault on an enemy position. Tim and his men had set up a camp on top of a small hillock deep in the jungle. My platoon mission was to find this camp and destroy Tim, his men and the camp. I had been given an area on the map where the enemy’s camp might be found so we headed off towards it creeping furtively through the jungle and found it late in the afternoon.

My platoon sergeant (Guri) and I had to do an undetected reconnaissance of the camp and then work out a plan of attack. My platoon made camp about 150metres from Tim’s camp on a compass bearing and we made preparations for the next morning’s assault. Dinner that evening was biscuits as no fires were allowed.

I had a restless night’s sleep as I did not have an alarm clock and we had to be on the move before “the number one balus he savvy cry out”, or in English “before the cock crows”. Somehow we managed to achieve this but in the dark I had trouble reading my compass bearing so every now and then, I turned on my torch to check myself. As I had gone down the route twice in my reconnaissance I was pretty confident of finding my way in the dark.

After I had shone my torch in cupped hands, two or three times to read the compass Sgt Guri pointed out a line of phosphorescence fungi that he had laid out on his return from our previous day’s reconnaissance. From then on we followed this line up to the start point for the assault. We crept up the hill until we were about 20 metres from Tim’s camp before we made our charge on the surprised (?) enemy.

All good fun like cowboys and indians games as a youngster. Tim was kind to me and said it was a good attack but that he heard me lining the men up for the attack. Next time I will be less vocal.

The military games ended with a company cordon and search led by Colin of a large village. The three platoons were assigned positions on a clock to get into in order to surround the village before dawn.

We all crept into position well before day light and lay in wait. Like my encounter with the gardening party it was an experience to see the villages wake up and stir to life. The chickens started to crow, the smoke from the houses’ roofs became thicker as the fires were stoked up and every now and then a man would leave his house to relieve his bladder by wandering out across the village square.

Then the dogs began to bark and the village came alive as Colin and his search party arrived. We lay in position and watched Colin and his interpreter talk to the village elders then after short time we were told to come out of hiding and make our way back to the Ok Tedi. I guess Colin would have recompensed the villagers for our use of their village in a material manner with the usual coin and tinned food.

On our return to Ningerum, Tim departed and flew back to Port Moresby in the Cessna for a well-earned rest. My platoon had our first decent bath for two weeks in the Ok Tedi - 30 naked blokes frolicking in the cold water having a great time.

After a day’s rest the platoons were given civil aid projects. My platoon was tasked to build a bridge across a small creek so the missionary could drive his tractor across for easier access to the kiap’s office and the landing strip.

I had never been given the responsibility to build a bridge before, so I let Sergeant Guri take the lead. The other platoons had to build a community hut and to clear access paths through the jungle.

Apart from bridge building I was forced to try my hand at dentistry. Sgt Guri got a bad toothache and was in a great deal of pain. Company headquarters had only aspirin but Sgt Guri needed something more. I sought the missionary’s help and he gave me some oil of cloves, a bud of cotton wool, a steel dentist’s pick and instructions on how to place the oil of cloves on the tooth.

No matter how I tried I could not achieve a result to Sgt Guri’s satisfaction so I went back to the missionary and he did the job. As a consequence I have great admiration for the skills of dentists poking around in peoples’ mouths.

While we were carrying out these civil aid tasks light, rain continued to fall intermittently during the day and steadily at night. The evening we completed our bridge building we were entertained by a magnificent lightning display in the distant Star Mountains. The sky was being continually lit up but it was so far away we could not hear the thunder. When we awoke the next morning the Ok Tedi was in a raging flood. I had never seen anything like it before or since.

Huge trees up to 30 metres long raced down the river with their foliage exposed above the water at one end and their root system at the other. The sight of these trees being swept by so quickly reminded me of the Paddlepop stick races we had in the street gutters as schoolboys. We looked on, spellbound, counting trees hurtling down the river. Every now and then a section of the clay cliff upstream would collapse into the river which the soldiers would all greet with a great cheer.

Two days later, after the river had subsided, we had to clean up. Across the Ok Tedi the missionary had set up a sawmill which had been flooded and his log stockpile had been washed away. Once again we toiled like Egyptian slaves and recovered the sawn logs, up to two metres in diameter, from the jungle where they had been swept from the mill site.

It was an enjoyable task sloshing around in the mud, manhandling the logs back and thinking at the same time of how powerful Mother Nature is to reap such destruction. The missionary was extremely grateful for our efforts. But now, having spent four weeks at Ningerum and winning hearts and minds with our civil aid, we were looking forward to our return to Port Moresby.

The Army pilot returned in his Cessna, which made an uneven landing on the air strip, had a discussion with Colin about the suitability of the strip to take a fully loaded Caribou and then took off again.

An RAAF Caribou landed the next day and unloaded rations for the company to keep us supplied until the strip dried out sufficiently for a fully loaded Caribou to take off. It was disappointing and frustrating not to be loaded on the empty plane’s return journey.

It rained solidly for the next six days and I began to think that the signage at the airstrip had under estimated the annual rainfall. Fortunately Colin had got hold of a large quantity of paperback novels, mostly Zane Grey type cowboy yarns, and we killed time in the headquarters tent reading these books, looking out at the rain and eating bananas. The soldiers sat in their hutches, told stories and ate bananas.

At the end of a week, Colin made the decision to take the company to the town of Kiunga where an all-weather airstrip had been built. As the crow flies Kiunga is 46 kms from Ningerum but along a jungle track more likely 60 -70 kms. We set out in high spirits as our prolonged stay at Ningerum was at an end. Our route march training was to be put to good use.

The next day developed into a shambles. Tiredness was apparent and the novelty was wearing thin. To make matters worse, in the afternoon the track entered a swampy area which required walking in ankle deep mud. If you lost your footing and fell into the mud you would sink to knee level and it was a difficult task to extract your leg.

Crossing the swampy area took all afternoon and the platoon got strung out over a long distance. The quicker and fitter soldiers pressed on as fast as they could but there were three or four stragglers in my platoon who found the going tough. Just before dusk I reached the area where the company had set up camp on some dry land in the swamp.

The tailenders from all platoons were still arriving hours after dark having been shepherded by Sgt Guri in the pitch black of night. No bathing that night, just falling exhausted into a stretcher bed. The next day we cleared the swampy area and soon the walking was easier. We finally arrived in Kiunga late in the afternoon making camp in the jungle on the outskirts of town.

Kiunga is a large town situated on a bank of the Fly River. It was an administrative post with most of the buildings being made of sawn timber and corrugated iron. The Catholic and Anglican churches had established missions and schools in the town. The Fly River at Kiunga was about 200 metres wide, brown, straight and flowing at a moderate speed. I can understand why it is considered one of the world’s significant navigable rivers. A large grassed public park had been created next to the river and a quaint jetty built to load and unload goods transported by boat.

Next day, John James and I had a lazy time wandering about and talking to the European residents which culminated in us being invited to the Catholic Mission for dinner that night. To my amazement the mission was staffed by Canadians and English people. It seemed strange to me that they had come halfway around the world to live with primitive people and provide education facilities.

Three of our fellow guests were from the USA. They had a valid reason for being in such a wilderness as they were on assignment from National Geographic magazine and were there to do a story on the wild tribes of Papua New Guinea. I felt privileged to be amongst such people of different nationalities yet sharing the same culture and the excitement of being in such a remote part of the world.

While John and I were relaxing, Colin was organising our extraction. At 8 o’clock the next morning I received orders to have my platoon ready to be airlifted to Port Moresby as a RAAF Caribou was due in a couple of hours. It was a case of first in first out.

We hastily broke camp, packed and went to the airstrip. I believe it was built during the “confrontation” with Indonesia that had ended the previous year and was designed to take Mirage jet fighters.

Kiunga receives its fair share of rain and despite the recent two days of fine weather the strip was wet and muddy. Eventually a Caribou appeared and flew over the strip at low level twice before circling around to make its landing approach.

When the Caribou lands the pilot puts its engines into a reverse thrust which causes a loud noise and slows the plane down rapidly. This the pilot did but, instead of slowing down, the plane aquaplaned and slid sideways up the strip for some distance sending up an enormous spray of red mud which almost obscured the plane.

The pilot corrected the skid and the plane resumed a normal landing and taxied to where we were waiting with horrified looks on our faces as we had all anticipated the plane rolling over and crashing right in front of us.

The pilot was a squadron leader and no less than the most experienced RAAF man in Papua New Guinea. He got out and with his navigator walked around the plane a few times to look for any damage, had a chat to Colin and asked me to get my platoon aboard. As I sat near the cockpit the loadmaster gave me a set of earphones to wear so I could listen and talk to the pilot over the intercom if necessary.

The OK was given for a take-off and the squadron leader did as all Caribou pilots do. He revved the engine and held the brakes until the plane was shaking all over then let her go. I will never forget the feeling of relief when the plane left the ground and I was amused to hear the squadron leader say to his navigator, “Well that’s a relief. I was worried we wouldn’t get off”.

Another of his remarks I shall never forget was him saying after about 20 minutes in the air, “What’s for morning tea?” After a short interval he followed these words up by saying “Not ham and salad sandwiches again”. I would have killed for a salad sandwich after six weeks of brown rice.

We flew the 800 km direct to Port Moresby and landed at Jackson’s airstrip. A surprise awaited me there as amongst the welcoming group on the tarmac were Brigadier Hunter, commander of the PNG army, and our battalion commander Lt Col Hearn.

After we disembarked and moving off I noticed that one side of the Caribou was military green paint and the other mottled military green and Kiunga red mud. It looked impressive and decorative. I am sure the brass hats were equally impressed by the plane’s appearance.

Ningerum had been a great adventure.


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