NOOSA - When Angus Matheson ‘Gus’ Bottrill was awarded the OAM in September 2008, the citation read “for service to the indigenous community, particularly through research and assistance with land title claims”.
It could have gone much further because as a soldier, kiap, court officer and advocate for the rights of indigenous people, he was a man of high values and exceptional dedication to his fellow humans.
Gus Bottrill has died in Perth at the grand age of 94. I knew him only in Rabaul in 1970, when he was a kiap engaged fully in the civil unrest at the time – a stocky man of avuncular demeanour and unflappable disposition.
Those times, which ended in the murder of a district commissioner, unsettled us all. For Bottrill, they would also have offended his sense of propriety about how human relationships should be conducted.
World War II broke out in 1939 and, as a student at Christian Brothers College in 1941, along with his mates Terry Murray and Ted Fitzgerald, Bottrill joined the air cadets. When they all turned 18 in 1942, his mates joined the RAAF and were killed as air crew gunners in Europe.
Bottrill’s parents had refused to give their written consent for him to join the RAAF, so in December 1942 he enlisted in the Army, soon transferring to the Australian Imperial Force to be trained to join the Engineers.
During this period he and an Indonesia soldier, Johannes Rentor from the South Moluccas became firm friends. Bottrill learned some Malay and Rentor told him a lot about his island, his work in Dutch Papua as a Catholic catechist and his hopes for self-government for the Moluccas after the war. It was Bottrill’s introduction to the life of people beyond his own culture.
This was soon augmented by his experiences during further training with No 4 Field Survey Company based in Western Australia: “I was employed in field work at Galena. While at Galena I saw for the first time an aboriginal camp and it left an indelible and disagreeable impression in my mind.
“At the end of the railway line was a vermin proof fence and there were a number of lean-tos of corrugated iron and other materials. The fence was the lean-tos support that sheltered several large aboriginal families.”
In 1944, his unit embarked on a US Navy troop transport and proceeded through New Guinea to Morotai in Borneo to prepare maps of the area in preparation for the Australian landings there.
"When the war ended in September 1945, volunteers were sought for a Liberation Battalion to be formed to go to Ambon to disarm the numerous Japanese there. Bottrill joined them.
“We were received by the townspeople as heroes. They invited us to their houses in the daytime to partake of such things as cinnamon tea, fried sweet potato slices sprinkled with palm sugar or fried bananas.
"In early 1946, when the Australian troops were withdrawn a crowd of several thousand pushed through the barriers and occupied the wharves and shouted and cried and sang as we pulled away.
"We could only say that our business was finished and we were going home. I was very young and impressionable, I guess, but I have never felt so moved by such a spontaneous farewell.”
Bottrill was then sent as a reinforcement to the Engineers, carrying out post-war road re-construction near Nonga in Rabaul. There in April 1946, he learned of his father’s death, taking three days to get home to Perth. Soon after he was hospitalised with malaria and discharged from the Army in July.
He was accepted for a job with the Papua New Guinea Provisional Administration as a patrol officer and attended the 5th Short Course at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA), proceeding to PNG soon after New Year’s Day 1947.
“Administrator JK Murray invited us all, some 30 or 40 men, mainly ex-servicemen, to drinks at Government House, Port Moresby. The single drink provided was one warm gin squash! He delivered a welcoming address.
“Part of his speech said we would be judged as successful in our job if Independence was achieved before we reached eligibility for a pension. My career by that measure was a success, as my job ended in 1974 as Independence approached.”
It was the beginning of a notable peacetime career in which he served with great distinction the indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea and Australia.
I hope one of Gus Bottrill’s other comrades might pick up the stories of his eminent PNG and Australian careers.