RABAUL, 1970 – When I arrived in Rabaul with Sue and two-year old Simon in late January 1970, I soon discovered the most hated man in the Gazelle Peninsula was not one of the leaders of the feared Mataungan Association.
It was not the anti-colonial John Kaputin, who, despite his acclaimed prowess at rugby league, had offended the colony by marrying an Australian woman.
Not Oscar Tammur, whose inflammatory speeches against the Australian Administration ignited the passions of a large section of the Tolai people.
Nor Damien Kereku who once threatened that the gutters of Rabaul would run red with the blood of Europeans.
No, the man most reviled by the white settlers of Rabaul was Australia’s most mercurial politician, Gough Whitlam.
Whitlam had visited the town a few weeks before we arrived (he’d been there on my birthday as it turned out) and expatriates would quickly become abusive at the mere mention of his name.
“I don’t know exactly what kind of Australian it is that settles in New Guinea,” he was reported to have said at a cocktail party, “but it’s a very inferior breed.”
Whitlam may have been detested by the expatriates of Rabaul, and he could be arrogant and impulsive, but history records he did more to establish the agenda for political change in Papua New Guinea than any other Australian.
So in late January 1970, I arrived on the Gazelle Peninsula to take up my new position as assistant manager of the Administration’s broadcasting station, Radio Rabaul. My main role was to run the news operation.
For many of the local Tolai people, Radio Rabaul was an abhorrent symbol of the Australian colonialism which had deprived them of their land and, as their leaders increasingly understood, their sovereignty.
For much of my 10 months in Rabaul, armed police guarded the station and the homes of our popular announcers Puek Tonata and Samson Patiliu. Both men were particularly disliked by the Mataungan supporters because of the loyal following they had in the community.
1970 was a year of high drama in the Gazelle. There was anger and there was violence. I was at Matupit airport in early July when Australian prime minister John Gorton was confronted by 10,000 angry supporters of the Mataungan Association.
It was disclosed later that Gorton had a revolver tucked in his pocket, a typically gung-ho thing for the wartime fighter pilot to do but considerably foolish given the volatile situation he faced. Some years later he revealed to a journalist that he would have used the concealed pistol to shoot at anyone who threatened his wife.
When he stood on a baggage trolley to speak - along with Territories minister ‘Ceb’ Barnes, Tolai leader Mathias Toliman and district commissioner Harry West - his words were swept away by shouting and chanting from the agitated crowd. It was a tense moment
As well as running the news service for Radio Rabaul, most of whose listeners wanted to burn it down, I continued studying economics by correspondence through the University of Queensland.
Furthermore, Sue was pregnant with Sally, who in October was born at Nonga Hospital. Rabaul was then in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, so Sally entered the world as a stateless person.
We lived in a dilapidated two-bedroom fibro bungalow on 2nd/22nd Street, named after the ill-fated battalion that had garrisoned Rabaul and fallen to Japanese forces when they invaded in early 1942. The house still stood virtually unchanged when Sally returned to Rabaul a year ago.
It was located in a Chinese precinct where the loud clicking of mah-jong tiles reverberated deep into each night. The dwelling was built on its own water tank which would overflow through the rooms whenever it rained heavily.
The water taps would choke and splutter when turned on, eventually delivering a clear and steady flow when the remnants of geckoes and cockroaches had worked their way through the plumbing and spat themselves into the sink.
I consistently refused to yield to station manager John Waters’ daily invitation to join him for a session at the club (“Jacko, I really thought you’d be more sociable”), my, evenings spent bent over a desk in our microscopic lounge room.
A rusting ceiling fan stirred the thick air straight off the caldera, sweat gathering in my eyebrows to leak acidly into my eyes or trickle down my nose in a steady drip all over Watson’s ‘Price Theory and its Uses’.
As 1970 progressed, the civil situation deteriorated significantly on the Gazelle and, less than a week after Gorton’s visit, 2,000 Mataungans seized land near Vunapaladig and there was a serious, but ultimately bloodless, face-off between them and 500 police across the narrow Banaski River.
At this point a message was sent to Canberra recommending that police be reinforced by troops from the Pacific Islands Regiment. Gorton was agreeable but Army Minister Malcolm Fraser wasn’t. Fraser won the argument, leaving both men bitter enemies. Over succeeding days, the Vunapaladig incident petered out.
In the meantime, heading into the disputed area early one morning to cover the story, I inadvertently passed through police lines (the police having for some reason withdrawn overnight) and encountered a group of 15 men.
Tape recorder slung over my shoulder, I got out of my car to see if they might talk to me but quickly discerned two things: they were muttering angrily in Kuanua with the words ‘Radio Rabaul’ featuring prominently; and they were moving steadily towards me swinging their bushknives in a menacing fashion.
I retreated to the car, performed a spectacular u-turn on the dusty road and headed back to the safety of the studios and its police guard.
Soon after Sally was born I was despatched to Kieta in Bougainville for a month to act in place of station manager Sam Piniau, the Tolai who was being groomed to take over Administration broadcasting and had been assigned to head office in Port Moresby.
I had no sooner returned to Rabaul in late November when Controller of Broadcasting Jim Leigh rang from Moresby. “Congratulations, father,” he shouted down the phone. “We’re promoting you to station manager.”
“Gee thanks, Jim, where to?”
“No thanks required, father. Back to Bougainville. Get down there and fix the place up.”
I was 25 and was just about to run my own show.
After four years, I felt that broadcasting was indeed developing as my lifetime career. And most of the time I was loving it.
In case you missed them.....
You can read earlier gripping episodes of Broadcasting in Tongues here: