Discord marked struggle for Bougainville referendum
Sam Basil rats on his voters - & democracy

A Kiap’s Chronicle: 15 – Around the Sepik


THE first three days of October 1957 were momentous for me but much more so for Patrol Officer John (JW) MacGregor, two years my junior and who had been deeply involved in the Anderson Affair.

While I was flying out of Wewak to go on leave, MacGregor was in Port Moresby trying to salvage what he could of his career.

In August, magistrate Fred (FJ) Winkle RM had dismissed two charges of assault brought in the lower court against MacGregor, concluding that they were trivial, but MacGregor had also pleaded guilty in the Supreme Court to two other charges, one of ‘deprivation of liberty’ and one of ‘setting fire to a native house’.

On the first charge, deprivation of liberty, MacGregor was convicted - and then discharged.

In his summing up, the Chief Justice remarked:

“The Patrol Officer was in charge of, and solely responsible, for a major development project at Woitape [in the Goilala] involving the construction of a new airstrip. The task was urgent and required an amazing amount of native labour from the District which is well known for its difficulties, geographical and administrative.

“The difficult task was completed and I have no doubt the accused deserves great credit for the undertaking…

“The accused was dealing with a serious source of trouble by what amounted to be a technical offence. It is possible that the accused might have justified his action by going into substantial evidence, but in the circumstances, I think it proper to discharge the accused.”

On the second charge, ‘setting fire to a native house’, MacGregor was convicted and discharged on his own recognizance of £50, the Chief Justice commenting:

“There are many things to be commended about Mr MacGregor. He has commendable self-control under difficult circumstances and genuine regard for native welfare… I don’t think he will feel any difficulty in carrying out his duties loyally in the future.

“His service was motivated by the right principles and I would be sorry to be compelled to inflict any punishment which would make it impossible for the Crown to continue to employ him.”

At 9:30 on the morning of 1 October 1957, MacGregor called on the Director of Native Affairs Allan (AA) Roberts to notify him of his intention to resign.

Maybe he thought his past achievements would help his cause and rule out a conviction. He had been officer-in-charge of Dreikikir Patrol Post in 1953, Angoram Sub-District in October 1953 and Vanimo Patrol Post in 1954-55. He had also located and built the airstrip and Patrol Post at Woitape in 1956.

But Director Roberts was not interested in those youthful achievements. He told MacGregor of his failings: the recent charges, unfavourable reports submitted by District Commissioner Elliott-Smith during 1954, earlier reports of instability and failure to qualify after his first term at ASOPA.

Roberts said MacGregor’s resignation would not be accepted and recommended he be dismissed, even though this would result in the forfeiture of his entitlements including overdue long-service leave.

Did the Director have an uncompromising streak or was he just protecting his rear?

This was the same Allan Roberts who had told my 1949 ASOPA intake that any form of liaison with ‘native females’ was forbidden and warned that any breach of this unwritten rule would most likely result in instant dismissal.

Yes, he was an uncompromising man with a clear view of what he expected of his field officers.

It was all over by the afternoon, with one major change. The Public Service Commissioner rejected Roberts’ recommendation and allowed MacGregor to resign.

As for Anderson, his role in the controversy that bore his name was still being discussed when I flew from Lae en route to Sydney on leave. Speculation had heightened about Anderson’s forthcoming appeal to the High Court of Australia.

Anderson was stationed at Tapini in 1955. In July 1956, while he was on patrol, there was a shooting at the station. A man named Avila, in company with Koupa, shot Koupa’s wife. The men, who had no right to possess a firearm or ammunition, claimed they had mistaken her for a cassowary.

Anderson returned from patrol to find Avila in gaol and Koupa at the hospital where his wife was being treated for a gunshot wound. Anderson interviewed the two men separately and when they persisted with the story pf mistaking Koupa’s wife for a cassowary he struck them both and handcuffed them to a flagpole for the remainder of the afternoon.

On 23 July, Chief Justice Alan Mann sentenced Anderson to six months with hard labour on each of two charges of assault, and to 18 months with hard labour on each of two charges of deprivation of liberty.

In new proceedings the following day, Anderson, having given up hope, changed his plea from “not guilty” to “guilty” on the charge of unlawfully keeping Avila in gaol, and Mann sentenced him to a further 21 months with hard labour.

In determining the appeal, the five judges of the High Court said that Anderson must have known he was acting illegally when he assaulted the men and had them handcuffed to the flagpole. But they said neither man had suffered pain nor harm, and Anderson had been severely punished by the conviction and loss of career.

The judges noted that Avila, and perhaps Koupa, might well have been committed for trial and held under arrest pending committal. Anderson’s actions had been unusual, but everything that he had done he could have done legally if he had followed the correct procedure and completed the paperwork.

Avila had not been detained in gaol but had been held under a form of open arrest, worked around the hospital and accompanied patrols.

The judges said the imprisonment of eight weeks that Anderson had already suffered was as great as any of the five offences could justify. Many people would think it was too great. The periods of imprisonment was reduced so as expire on the day Anderson was granted bail.

The judges were critical that Justice Mann had released Avila and Koupa without charge. They may well have commented that Mann had no experience in the criminal law. One wonders why it was that Territories Minister Paul Hasluck had appointed him to the role of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

I was six months overdue for leave when I left Ambunti to head south, but there was not a lot of money in my bank account. Almost a quarter of my leave cheque had gone to Tang Mow and Burns Philp to pay outstanding accounts.

Now I had to survive—live and play—for eight months at Sydney prices and to add to my woes the used car I bought had a cracked cylinder head needing immediate repair. Fortunately, though, I had found the lady who was to become my wife and she applied some financial acumen to my situation.

Pamela and I had flown in the same Sandringham flying boat from Sydney’s Rose Bay to Lord Howe Island. We did not know each other nor meet during the noisy, three-hour flight. We were to meet for the first time a day later, at the weekly dance in the local community hall, then at the beach the following day, and then every day thereafter for the next two weeks.

In the beginning it was not hard to find Pam, especially if you were downwind. Like other young ladies of that era, she was bent on obtaining a suntan and had sought a pharmacist’s advice.

02 - PamelaThat misguided soul had suggested she rub mutton bird lotion into her skin before exposing it to the sun. The oil may have had dietary benefits if swallowed but it did not produce a tan. Furthermore it had a foetid, fishy smell guaranteed to repel potential suitors and other beasts.

The weeks and months passed and in May it was time to think about returning to the Territory.

I wanted to determine where my next posting would be but also needed to stay below the radar. I didn’t want to give headquarters any ideas about transferring me to another District. So I mailed a short note to the District Officer in Wewak advising of my impending return and saying I would be returning to Sydney to be married 12 months into the term.

The reply arrived in Sydney as a telegram: “Proceed Wewak. Final posting indefinite probably Ambunti then Maprik. Regards Tom Ellis”

By the time I arrived in Wewak, ten days later, the plans had changed. I would be relieving as acting Assistant District Officer at Aitape for three months, then Maprik, then Ambunti and finally Wewak, from where I could fly south to be married if my plans had not changed.

Ellis’s parting remark, before I left for Aitape, was rather typical, “Get in there for three months, clean the place up and get out before they kill you!” He knew full well, that nobody could make enduring changes if the previous incumbent was returning to pick up the reins after three months away on leave.

Not much had changed at Aitape in the 18 months since I had last been stationed there, but the territorial jousting between Father Superior Denis Dobson and the former Prefect Apostolic, now Bishop Ignatius Doggett, as to who controlled and directed the friars, seemed to have ceased.

Perhaps I had seen the last of it at the Bishop’s ordination that Father Ivo Reuter had flown me from Ambunti to attend. My mind kept returning to that event. It was the luncheon that stuck in my mind. Halfway through the meal the newly ordained Bishop had left the table and returned with a skull cap embroidered with green mountain firs and red deer and with the Austrian resort of Innsbruk’s name spelt out in black

Calling for silence, he placed the zucchetto-like cap upon my head, announcing, amongst much laughter, that he was appointing me a cadet cardinal and henceforth my Black Hearted Presbyterian post nominal, BHP, would be discontinued.

We were seated at a table at one end of the long front verandah which stretched the entire width of the very wide house. The Bishop at one end, the Superior at the other, with 15 or more priests, brothers, lay workers and invitees seated on either side.

At the conclusion, the Bishop thanked everyone for attending and said, “We will have coffee up the other end.”

“My Lord, I would prefer to drink it,” riposted the Superior Denis Dobson, at which there was a sudden muted silence.

Geoffrey Burfoot, the ADO I was relieving, was already on leave. It was not only the Superior who referred to him as ‘the Boy Bastard’. There were many complaints that he had destroyed the community’s spirit of cooperation amidst reflections on how they had all been involved in my attempts to bridge the Raihu River, and how, when a ship arrived, Administration, Mission and the Parers had all participated in its unloading no matter what the difficulties.

They were fond reminiscences but, upon Burfoot’s return from leave, there would be worse to come. He closed all the ramshackle bridges without warning during his next term at vast inconvenience to the area. True, those bridges were rickety and dangerous, but vital to move copra from Tepier Plantation to Aitape beach and to the Franciscans’ supply line to Malol and Sissano in the north.

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, or who was with me at the time, but there was another unrelated incident while I was back at Aitape.

We received a message through the Mission that an aircraft had made a forced landing on the beach at Malol. I took the station LandRover and drove over Aitape Hill as fast as the track would allow, speeding past Tepier Plantation and to the end of the road at the Yalingi River.

Gibbes Sepik Airways pilot Roy Shaw and his Norseman were on the beach a few miles further on.

“The cause of the Norseman coming down at Malol was that Roy Shaw had noticed that the indicator on the oil pressure gauge had plummeted,” Rob Parer said later. “Most pilots would have tried to get back to Aitape, but not super cautious Roy.”

Parer remembered Shaw saying, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots but there are not many old, bold pilots. I don’t want to be the best pilot, only the oldest.”

Forty-three old Shaw had every reason to be cautious in his golden years. He had joined the RAAF at 27, had flown two hazardous tours of operations in Lockheed Hudson and Martin Baltimore bombers with 459 Squadron against enemy shipping targets in the Mediterranean and against land-based targets in Greece and Crete.

He had been promoted to Squadron Leader and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in January 1944.

Good fortune had continued in his post-war years. As a pilot with Gibbes Sepik Airways, he had walked away from a crash on his first flight to Telefomin. He was being checked out by Robin Grey when the Norseman hit a soft spot on touchdown and turned over.

The date was inauspicious - Friday 13 November 1953, and three days after the massacre in which kiaps Szarka and Harris and Constables Buritori and Purari were butchered.

On 23 June 1954, Shaw’s ticket in the Queensland Golden Casket Lottery won the first prize of six thousand pounds (more than a quarter of a million dollars today).

The landing at Malol was another piece of good luck. While the beach was too soft and steeply sloped to the sea and unsuitable for an aircraft to take-off, there was a piece of solid ground across the small lagoon behind the beach.

Shaw examined it and specified the clearing that was required and local leader Brere Awol and his people were organised to manhandle the aircraft from the beach to the edge of the lagoon, where they loaded it by placing the wheels on small canoes.

Pushing those canoes carefully across the shoulder-deep lagoon was simple until we encountered Shaw on the other side. He was furious. He had not been consulted. We had risked dunking his aircraft, engine first, into the saltwater lagoon. He was still fuming when he flew off into the sky and did not talk to me for a long time after the event.

Around this time I sent Cadet Patrol Officer Michael O’Connor, who had transferred to Aitape after an initial three months at Lumi, on his first solo patrol. If he observed my instructions to make a leisurely census patrol of the East Coast and Inland Census Divisions, it would still test him, and he would not return until after I had departed for Maprik.

I did not see his patrol report but the hierarchy was eloquent in their praise. ADO Geoff Burfoot wrote O’Connor was “to be commended on first solo patrol – an informative well-written report.” DO Wewak Tom Ellis congratulated him “on the way he carried out the patrol and on his report”, and Tom Aitchison at Headquarters noted the “remarkable maturity in his appreciation of the attitudes of people.”

Burfoot returned from leave on 11 August and the quick handover I wanted occurred allowing me to take over at Maprik at the end of the month.

There was nothing to clean up, my predecessors Kaad and Carey being dedicated, hard-working officers. Even so, Maprik was no sinecure. It had one established Local Government Council and two more on the horizon; two Patrol Posts; two Agricultural Stations; and four missionary groups, Roman Catholic Society of the Divine Word, Seventh Day Adventist, South Seas Evangelical Mission and Assemblies of God.

It also had the densest population (over 78,000 people) in the lowlands of mainland New Guinea, and was beset by constant tribal battles with armed warriors fighting over land.

Kaad, transferred to Maprik in early 1956, had moved into the seriously dilapidated house that had been constructed for Bob (RR) Cole by the Army in 1945. Kaad organised the design, approval and construction of a new residence but as he was transferred to Wewak before its completion he never got to live in it.

Arthur and Jean Carey were the first occupants of that beautiful house, sitting high on the hill above the Screw (Amagu) River, with a view straight down Maprik airstrip. They moved in just a few months before I arrived to relieve them, in August 1958

The house was far too big for me. I used one of the three bedrooms, spent some of my time in the lounge/dining room, and virtually lived in the huge breezeway that had been added to the standard M-type design, to separate it from the added guest wing

The house originally built by the Army for Bob Cole in 1945 had deteriorated, the green, freshly-cut, unseasoned timber had twisted and turned. But it was still habitable and was occupied by the new Sub-district clerk, Bob Laybutt, and his wife, Marise.

Having spent their first term at Daru in the Western District, they were delighted to be at Maprik but were overawed by the house with its wide sweeping verandahs and the cement obelisk at the front steps with its copper plate dedication:

In appreciation of the gallant services
Rendered by the natives of New Guinea to
17th Aus. Inf. Bde. In operations against
the Japs in 1945.

Another innovation turned out to be a disaster. Fred Kaad’s pride and joy, large fish ponds, built with high earthen walls near the river, had been swept away by floods. The tilapia fingerlings, foisted on him by some technocrat, had flushed into the river system and washed into the Sepik where they multiplied dramatically and changed the environment forever.

One of Dr John (JT) Gunther’s final initiatives before leaving his role as Director of Health to become Assistant Administrator had been to recruit a highly qualified medico to create the Malaria Control Division in Port Moresby.

Dr Wally Peters - an English-born physician and biologist who had been working with the World Health Organisation in Nepal - decided Maprik was a more suitable base for his operation than Port Moresby and had laboratory and houses built in a flash.

A swimming pool alongside a house was an unusual feature in the 1950s, and Peters paid for that himself. Nobody but an Englishman would have built a pool without drainage, it was filled by rainwater from the roof, but Peters was determined that his wife Ruth was going to enjoy the third year of their marriage with more comforts than during the first two years in Nepal.

I was not the only one to enjoy the Peters’ hospitality, but the memory of Ruth’s Swiss charm and her cooking - poolside meals of rosti and ravioli in the Zurich style - lingers with me to this day.

We had a galaxy of young Cadet Patrol Officers in the Sepik, all destined to be stars. At Maprik, Rod Donovan (vintage February 1957), having learnt the ropes under Arthur Carey, was operating on his own between June and September 1958, leading a 40-day patrol from Dreikikir to the Bumbita/Muhiang.

Peter Wright, of similar vintage, had already completed one patrol to the Wosera under the guidance of Patrol Officer Stan Pegg when I arrived at Maprik to take over in August. While I was approving Pegg and Wright’s second patrol to the Wosera on 25 August, I decided it was time for me to give our newest arrival, CPO Harry Redmond (vintage February 1958) some patrol experience.

Although this would only be of short duration and in intermittent bursts to the villages in the Tamaui Census Division, which occupied the quadrant immediately to the south-east, it was good experience and exposure to the Abelam culture and to census and council tax collection.

We started on Thursday 28 August with a day visit to the villages of Yeningo and Narango, then I was tied up in paperwork and courts. After two more one-day exercises, we eventually got away for an eight-day stretch on 9 September. Redmond, who compiled the report, noted “the reception to the patrol was good… in some cases there was a holiday atmosphere prevalent suggesting we were welcomed as a diversion to the regularity of their lives.”

I compensated a little for the shortness of that patrol by instructing CPO Peter Wright to proceed on patrol to the Maprik Census Division. “Take all possible steps to find out how and what the people are thinking,” I wrote on 30 October, “visit each and every hamlet, visit subsistence and economic gardens and record details, and submit a detailed report and map.”

By the time Peter Wright completed that patrol on 14 January 1959, I had left Maprik and had been at Ambunti for more than a month. Its lethargic climate and atmosphere had not changed. Morning mists on the river, and the river itself, contributed to the humidity, but the ADO’s house on the top of the spur was still a special place even though it was exposed to the sun all day and searing hot inside.

Even on Sundays, the chorus of the birds in the gulley below the bedroom—seemingly there were millions of them—woke me at dawn. It was time to enjoy the house, and an early-morning cup of coffee enhanced the view of the river; infrequently heightened by the appearance of a floating island drifting downstream or a pig or a cassowary swimming across to the other side.

Normally later in the day on Sundays, I escaped from the house down the spur to the airstrip and the river and joined the anglers - men and women - on the bank. It was the place to catch up on station gossip, learn some bawdy jokes but, for me, not the place to catch fish.

I was using live bait, worms and grasshoppers. The police anglers moulded globules of Sunlight soap onto their hooks and caught fish. I did not!

Early in January 1959, Roger (RM) Claridge, Vince (EV) Smith, Chris (CJT) Normoyle, Dave (AD) Steven and I were on the list of 25 Patrol Officers promoted to Assistant District Officer Grade 1. We had nudged our way ahead of seven others of our ASOPA intake and leapfrogged a handful more from earlier intakes.

Now confirmed as permanent ADOs, never again would we revert to a PO’s salary when we were transferred or proceeded on leave.

Kiaps living on remote outstations that were fortunate enough to have an airstrip had a special relationship with aircraft pilots. They would deliver the essentials of life: mail, meat and veg, lighting kerosene and booze. And they occasionally took pregnant wives to the main centres for medical checkups and to give birth.

On the flip side, kiaps provided pilots with the weather and airstrip reports, the occasional overnight bed and, less frequently, we recovered them from mishap.

Owner-operators like Bobby Gibbes of Gibbes Sepik Airways and Dave Robinson of Madang Air Services were held in special regard. So when Robinson overturned his Cessna and destroyed a complete wing while landing on the newly constructed Yellow River strip, it was axiomatic that we would be involved.

The new wing was delivered from Madang to Ambunti by a coastal vessel, packaged in an immensely heavy wooden box. Our job was to convey the box up the Sepik River to the Yellow River junction by boat then have the wing carried overland through the jungle river to the strip. The overriding instruction was precise: the box must not be opened. If it was the insurance on the contents would be void.

I gave another of the stars, CPO Ross (RR) Allan (vintage June 1958), the task of delivering the wing to its destination. I watched the box and its contents loaded on to the roof of Onyx, the station workboat. It was a difficult process because of its bulk and weight. Then I waved goodbye as the team set off on the three-day, 250 km run upstream.

Seven days later, Allan called me on the radio to report that they had carried the box along the narrow winding track, clearing obstructions and cutting down trees as they went. But now the box was stuck in the jungle.

Even with all the local people helping his crew of three police constables, boats crew and labourers from Ambunti, the box could not be moved in any direction. The only solution was to take the wing out of the box but he would not do this without my approval.

It took me a few minutes to decide to ignore the instructions about insurance and the lightweight wing was on its way to its final destination, which it reached unscathed.

On 12 May 1958, four days after I had moved into Wewak from Ambunti, I was hanging around the District Office on top of Wewak Hill, waiting to see DO Tom Ellis, as was my kiap colleague Robin Calcutt.

Eventually deciding we were wasting our time, we headed downtown to the Sub-District Office. As ADO in charge of the Wewak Sub-District, I had taken possession of the Sub-District Office Land Rover and was driving it.

I don’t know why we decided to drop into the Sepik Club before going down the hill. Maybe it was for a cup of coffee, maybe it was for a hair of the dog or maybe it was just to look out over Burns Philp’s MV Malekula, loading and unloading by lighter to the beach.

Irrespective of our reason, the Club was empty except for the manager behind the bar and the captain of MV Busama, Mike Greggor, standing on the verandah looking out over the bay below.

We had barely joined Greggor outside when there was a flash of light—a starburst—on his vessel followed by a massive cloud of smoke and human bodies soaring vertically into the air, one visibly white, the others not so clear. As the bodies fell into the sea, the sound wave, an almighty boom, reached us.

I wasted a few moments unsuccessfully trying to call in an emergency by telephone, then drove down the hill to the foreshore. The surface of the sea was alight with patches of burning oil, even wavelets breaking on the shore were aflame.

Blue Hannon, who ran the Administration transport pool, stripped to his briefs, was in the water swimming freestyle between flames looking for survivors while, further out, Cadet Edwards from Malekula had abandoned his other tasks and was crisscrossing the waves in the ship’s pinnace pulling bodies aboard.

Tom Ellis and District Agricultural Officer Jack (MJB) White were next to arrive, chugging around in an Administration workboat, but the initial drama was over. There were no more bodies floating on the surface, a crowd of spectators spreading along the narrow, coastal strip while the Busama was a flaming, smoking inferno wracked by spasmodic explosions.

The vessel had arrived at about 9 am and anchored close to shore to allow her cargo—170 drums of dieseline, 200 drums of avgas and 450 drums of petrol in drums to be swum ashore as Wewak did not have a wharf.

The drums, chained together in groups of three, were being lifted from the ship’s hold by crane. Some were uncoupled on the deck and rolled overboard to be swum ashore and others were uncoupled by swimmers in the sea. Unloading had just begun when the explosion, a lethal cocktail of almost 164,000 litres of inflammable fuel, occurred.

Next morning the assessment and evaluation began. At least 14 people had been killed by the explosion: 13 bodies had been recovered from the sea and Chief Engineer George Riik’s body was found floating in the shallows near the shore. A further 11 individuals, including the local stevedore Jon Stuart, were in hospital with serious injuries—some unlikely to survive.

How many people were missing was unknown: no one knew how many of the crew had gone ashore and no one knew how many local people had been employed as casual stevedores and swimmers.

I was appointed ex-officio undertaker. Wewak did not have a morgue or any storage facilities and so I arranged for the bodies that were recovered to be buried. I predicted there would be more in a few days’ time when those that were submerged began to float to the surface.

Discussion turned to the next moves. District Commissioner Bob (RR) Cole thought the Busama should be left to burn out where she lay at anchor but acting District Officer Tom Ellis demurred.

He had a phobia about wrecks obstructing harbours and wanted the Busama moved from where she lay, before she sank. As a Beaufighter pilot in the Pacific War, he had deliberately sunk enemy ships in harbour and knew what mayhem it caused.

Some idea of Ellis’s fearlessness and determination is indicated by the citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross he was awarded in March 1945:

“He had relieved another aircraft which was covering survivors in a dinghy, and under intense enemy fire remained as cover while rescue was effected by Catalina. During this this time his starboard engine completely failed…

“He made two strafing runs on active enemy anti-aircraft positions and deliberately drew shore fire which was harassing the rescue operation. He remained until the Catalina and the survivors had departed then set course for base, covering the entire 400 miles (640 kilometres) on his port motor.”

Early on Thursday morning, Ellis and I went out to the Busama to have a look around. We had dressed in old clobber and were wearing heavy boots and planned to climb aboard if we could do so, and if it seemed safe.

The vessel was lying into the breeze held by a single bow anchor. The deck above the forecastle looked cool and unscathed but it was too high for us to reach. We managed to clamber up over the bulwarks, near where the main deck met the forecastle but we did not stay there for long; the metal deck was searing the soles of our boots.

It wasn’t as hot on the bow. The anchor winch was undamaged and, if we were going to move the vessel, we had to haul up the anchor and its heavy chain. But the only way of doing that was to use a winch that had to be turned by hand. It did not take long for the two of us to realise that the task was beyond us.

So we moved to the next option and let the anchor chain run free, hoping it was not coupled to the vessel and would disappear into the sea. That was wishful thinking, the anchor chain was firmly affixed to something somewhere in the vessel’s red hot bowels.

We were back to winding the winch by hand, attempting to recover all that chain, until Goya Henry on the Thetis—our transport and our escape route—asked we were doing.

Ellis’s reply was terse. “Use your [expletive] eyes. We are travelling across Wewak Harbour powered by [expletive] winch and chain. Do something useful; throw across an [expletive] hacksaw!”

Maybe it took 30 minutes to cut through the anchor chain and then we were drifting in the breeze. Goya Henry decided to assist and push the Busama along with a thrust from the Thetis. His one and only attempt flattened Ellis and me to the deck and we urged him to desist.

We now a new set of problems as the ship turned in the breeze. We no longer had a cool refuge; the fire and smoke began to move towards the bow. Newly exposed material started to burn and gas bottles exploded, opening flat like sheets of paper, as we raced across the red-hot deck towards the stern.

Our new refuge, the bridge, was higher, but not as cool as the bow. Fortunately we had only a little more than 1,500 metres to drift before we could abandon ship and watch the Busama go firmly aground almost at full tide.

We left a function at the District Commissioner’s that evening and returned to the Busama. The tide had receded, the ship had listed and was lying almost on its side. For some unbeknown reason Ellis wanted to pump the vessel out and had commandeered the town’s portable fire pump despite the protests of its custodian, Sub-Inspector John Purcell.

The suction hose was long enough to reach the liquid slopping around in the hold, and the pump’s petrol motor kicked over at first pull. But despite all our efforts, even with the petrol motor running at full bore, the pump would not suck and we abandoned the attempt.

We had just returned to the DC’s function and were outside on the lawn when there was another almighty explosion and the sky glowed. The Busama had exploded for the last time. The fluid that we had being to trying to pump out was more lethal than we had known.

In those days, there was nothing projecting into the sea along that long narrow stretch of beach but I understand that in more recent times the Wewak wharf was built there. The Busama skeleton still rests there, where Ellis and I beached her unaided more than half a century ago.

Ralph (RG) Ormsby, District Officer-Magistrate flew from Madang to commence the coronial inquiry. At 205 kilograms, he was a man of gargantuan proportions except for head, hands and feet.

To my concern, he seemed determined to have some fun at my expense by threatening to impede my departure to get married. It did not come to that and the inquiry was still continuing when on the 29 May 1959, I flew out of Wewak bound for Sydney and my wedding.

Photos & notes

Map of the Sepik District as it was in 1958 (Bill Brown)

Photo 01 - Sandringham flying boat prior to landing on lagoon, Lord Howe Island. Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower in the background

Photo 02 - Pamela at Lord Howe Island, 1957 (Bill Brown)

Photo 03 - Bishop Ignatius Doggett OFM and Father Dom OFM (Rob Parer)

Photo 04 - Unloading a ship at Aitape through a light surf on one of Parer’s canoes (Rob Parer)

Photo 05 - Squadron Leader Roy Shaw (Australian War Memorial)

Photo 06 - Looking from new ADO’s house at Maprik towards the airstrip, 1957 (Bill Brown)

Photo 07 - The ADO’s house at Maprik, organised by Fred Kaad, 1958 (Bill Brown)

Photo 08 - Bill Brown, Ambunti, 1959 (Arthur Marks)

Photo 09 - The Busama ablaze at Wewak, 1959 (press photo)

Photo 10 - Flying Officer Tom Ellis (Australian War Memorial)


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

John Ross

Really enjoying reading your reports, Bill. I'm not related to any of these people but I was a teacher in ESP over four years in the 70's - Brandi High School, Wewak.

I know the area well - from Dagua to Pagwi, Kambot to Angoram.

Just looking back at my time there, recollections for my kids.

I had a request 1976 or 1977 to visit the calaboose in Wewak and pick up the last convicted "cannibal" (imprisoned for 12 years, I think, after his village murdered (and ate?) a kiap. I cannot remember his name.

I took him up to Maprik in my LandRover and passed him over to an ex-kiap - returning to the Wosera, I think.
Memories are a bit shaky but more or less as above.

Any comments - here, if possible, but perhaps better directed to jnc-ross@hotmail.com

Bill Brown

Hi Bob - I assume that you are aware that all the post-war Patrol Reports held by the PNG National Archives have been digitised and can be freely accessed on line.

If you have not caught up with them, it would be worth your while to do. You will not only be able to read what your father wrote, what he thought at the beginning and how his knowledge and appreciation developed over time. You will also see the comments and commendations that the people at Sub-district, District and Headquarters made.

It may take some digging, but if you have not done I think it would be worthwhile to do so. The list below may help you get started. The first url will take you the overall list, the remainder are self-explanatory, and each contain at least one of your father’s reports.

Patrol Reports P&NG

Maprik 1958 - 1959

Ambunti 1960 - 1962

Ambunti 1961 - 1962

Ambunti 1962 -1963

Bob Wright

Fascinating article Bill. Peter Wright (deceased 1994) was my dad, so I was really interested to see him get a mention in your chapter.

I would greatly appreciate it if you are able to send me any other comments or memories you might have about my dad and his work in PNG.

Arthur Williams

I am always happy to see another of your stories Bill. Great they are written down for us and the future generations of PNG people to flesh out stories they may hear from their grandparents etc.

Chips Mackellar

Terrific story Bill. Thank you for your memories. In 1957 I shared a unit with Jock MacGregor when we were both doing the ASOPA long course that year.

It was from here at ASOPA that Jock was summonsed to return to PNG to face trial over the Tapini incident.

Although he emerged from the trial relatively unscathed his forced departure from the kiap service left him bitter and twisted, and he never really adjusted to life beyond the service.

Like all of us, he had dedicated himself to serve the people of PNG for the remainder of his working life, and I guess his unhappiness following the trial contributed to his untimely death.

You were a good kiap, Jock. May you rest in peace.

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.)