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50 years ago: A month-long army patrol through Oro & Milne Bay

Boarding the Caribou  Wanigela-NorthernDistrict
D Company 1 PIR boards an Army Caribou at Wanigela in the then Northern District


This letter home was written by then Sergeant Edwinsmith on 8 May 1968. It offers a colourful description of an army patrol in Papua New Guinea pre-independence. In the letter, Sgt Edwinsmith describes a civic action Patrol from Wanigela to Gurney in April 1968 by D Company, 1PIR based at Taurama Barracks

PORT MORESBY - I thought that I would write a long letter to everyone who regularly corresponds with me, at home in Brisbane and South Vietnam, and since I have just arrived ‘ in from the bush’, I have quite a bit, I wish to say, I decided to short cut it and have my ‘ works’ published via the spirit duplicators.

Anyway, the aim of the patrol was to collect information for, a) suitability of road building, b) condition of inhabitants, c) numbers in villages and the size of villages, d) let the people see the Army, since an army patrol had never passed through here before. (Correction! Japanese army and Australian diggers in WWII.)

On April Fool’s Day, I arose, breakfasted and was ready to move at 6:15am. We left 1PIR for Jackson’s Airport to board an RAAF Caribous. After boarding, we headed for Northern District to Wanigela, which was the beginning of our 200 mile march. I was able to look at the Anglican Mission and school before having lunch with a medical sister, resident there. In all, I saw quite a deal of their work.

After all our supplies came in, we set out on our walk. We began our trek with a full pack and 6 ration packs. (Wow! What a weight.) We passed a seaside village with a crocodile skull displayed. This, we learnt later, ate a young girl (meri, in pidgin) before a villager shot it several days later.

We proceeded along the coast, avoiding the swamps further inland. We hired 3 canoes to carry our heavy ‘37’ packs to a village where we were to make camp. We caught up with the canoes some 5 hours later at the village.

We had to cross a small river to our proposed camp site. I boarded a canoe with the gear, but found myself, mid-stream, bailing water out with a coconut shell. We camped in a coconut plantation that night amid rain, sand flies and falling coconuts.

The Anglican mission station at Wanigela

Next morning, (Wed 3.4.’68), we encountered our first swamp. (What a smell! We walked through slimy water.) A river, we had to cross, was very deep but the boys <PIR Soldiers> found a sandbank out to sea and we waded to the opposite side in an arc. (Water was up to my chest.)

An hour later, we encountered a delta and swamp inland. This was crocodile country. Being a deeper, faster stream, we stripped, tied our clothes with our gear, in a water tight bundle, sprayed the opposite bank with 7.62mm shell fire, tied all our ropes together as a lifeline, posted several crocodile shooters on the embankment and then we started to cross (using ‘flotation’, remember Canungra boys??) (This was better than Tarzan and Jungle Jim.) I survived!

Later on after several hours in the swamps, we walked just under an hour on a mud bank. (With full pack on and boots sinking into the muddy water, I was exhausted. What a march! Before we camped for the night, a guide showed us fresh water, but we had to walk for a mile on a log bridge (single logs) through the swamp. I nearly died! At this point we left the coast. (At Sinafe??)

When we stopped, villagers would often sell or give us fruits, coconuts, yams, native foods, bananas etc. We moved into the mountain regions and stopped at a village with a space for an air drop of supplies. I slept in a native guest house that night (wow!) At Bininguni, we received our re supply and were now in the Milne Bay District.

Rain forest and razor back mountains became our change of scenery. The native tracks and trails led us in, over and down these tremendously steep ridges and mountains after mountains, it never stopped, one after the other, up and down. Since it rained every night or afternoon, the mountain streams were swift, fresh and cold.

Later that day, I received a pile of fruit for a razor blade. These mountain men (unlike the coastal ones) have had little to do with whites or civilisation. Palm Sunday was one of the hardest walks ever. On Monday, I loaded up with pineapples from the villagers. Tuesday we walked about 7 or 8 hours nonstop breaking only for 10 minutes each hour as we walked to the coast to a mission at Sira Sira in Goodenough Bay.

I went to bed (made by my batman) at the usual 6-6:30 pm. I did not freeze like I did in the mountains. We rise at 5am every morning. We started out early for the government station at Raba Raba and camped that night by a stream. Here we saw our first whites in 10 days. A trade store was handy for supplies and goodies.

Lt John Alcock and I (the only whites on this trip) had tea at the kiap’s house (District Commissioner and Patrol Officer). An air drop came the next day. This was where I was to leave the patrol, but the powers to be decided to let me keep walking.

On Good Friday we rested and made damper from the items we bought at the trade store, which was better than rice as we were on P.I rations which was 90% rice. (However some European rations were flown in. Very generous!!)

Easter Saturday, we walked and walked. I had blisters all over my feet as they were continually becoming wet at every stream; every half hour or so a stream had to be crossed. Some of the boys’ feet were giving trouble also. Late Easter Sunday, we made camp at Dogura, the headquarters of the Anglican Mission, with hospital, teachers’ college, school and church.

I went for medical treatment the next day followed by morning tea with the 25 whites working there. I was shown the school and later invited to dinner. I met 2 bishops and other key staff. Lt John and I were invited back for drinks and tea. The boys played the school sport and took out the teacher trainees. In the evening we had drinks with 3 young teachers, 2 Australian and 1 English lass. We then dined with the Bishops. I met a friend of Br Williams there. Everyone was pleased to entertain the Army. What a time!

2nd Lt-John-Adcock and patrol
Second Lieutenant John Adock and his unit walk along a beach towards a village in Milne Bay Province

Next day it rained and we were climbing over cliffs, which was a bit dangerous. You could look straight down into the sea and watch fish, dolphins etc. swimming in the coral and rock reefs. Truly magnificent! It rained all day. We stopped in a grass church.

My foot, although it was attended to, became worse. I had no skin on the foot pad as I walked on raw flesh. The 2Lt had to hire a carrier to carry my pack. This helped a lot. Wednesday 17/4/1968 we rose at 4am and walked until lunch time. At a nearby village, we received our final resupply of rations before walking until 8pm along the peninsular towards East Cape, to catch up on lost time.

The people here were very friendly and they freely gave us coconuts and other food. The scenery was magnificent. Some of the coconut plantations were very large. At the end of the week, we were almost at the eastern tip. Many of the boys were having foot trouble and we were losing time. The carriers refused to walk a 5 mile stretch because of the terrain so a canoe was hired. I took some of the gear and helped paddle the canoe for much of the morning. It beat walking.

The reefs and scenery were magnificent. Later we crossed the mountains into Milne Bay. War remains still litter parts of the coast. A day or so later, we reached an Agricultural Station and had tea with the ag officer. Next day, as the road was open, we completed the last 15 miles by Admin. truck, reaching Gurney near the island of Samarai.

Gurney was our temporary headquarters where the remaining platoons of D Company meet up. I rested my feet for the next 3 days. We held several parades for ANZAC Day with the Lt Colonel and Brigadier in attendance. At our camp, I resumed the position of pay sergeant for 2 days updating paybooks and paperwork.

On Wednesday 1/5/68, I returned to Port Moresby via the RAAF aircraft. Civilisation at last! I certainly saw very beautiful country. Unfortunately my camera broke 9 days into the rugged trip. I have 5 days of ‘stand down’ before resuming work again. What a fabulous experience for all concerned.


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G C Kasokason

An interesting read. Especially about Wanigela. Sadly the airstrip is no longer in use and the only means to arrive there is via Tufi.

The mission station and its infrastructure remain (albeit no longer in it's former glory). Would love to see pictures from then to compare to its current state.

Lindsay F Bond

Those were the days Daniel as you say, all on side with stride and pride.
Similarly, then, many landing strips like Wanigela, were complete and neat.

Daniel Kumbon

Interesting reading Terry.

I saw two army patrols (at different times) walk past my school - Kandep Primary 'T' School - in the 1960s. I don't know exactly when. They were headed south towards Mendi in the Southern Highlands.

Later, I heard how they were resupplied from the air and how fast their food cooked. Maybe they were boiling noodles and not rice at Kambia where they camped.

These patrols, if I may guess, must have come from Moem Barracks in Wewak. I stood my ground and gazed at them with wonder as they filed past in two neat columns (nobody staggered behind) with their loads complete with a rifle each.

They looked tough and fit unlike today's soldiers - most of whom seem to have potbellies at young ages.

Lindsay F Bond

Terry, that 'medical sister' Helen Roberts, stayed on and her remains are there interred.
Mid 1970 for a few days, I was accommodated by Sr Helen, but without a camera.
Any chance you might have a photo or two showing the then Mission infrastructure, school and such?

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