TUMBY BAY - How often have you heard the admonition to always read the fine print before signing anything?
And how often have you had some sneaky little paragraph in the fine print pointed out that you never read excusing a manufacturer or insurer from honouring what you thought should have been an obligation on their part?
When we signed up to become kiaps we all swore an oath of allegiance but very few of us actually queried what that actually entailed.
Not only did we not read the fine print but we didn’t ask whether such a list of obligations existed.
As I recall I was more interested in making sure I swore my undying allegiance to queen and country in a statutory way rather than on a bible in which I didn’t believe.
It was only while patrolling along the border with Irian Jaya, as it was then known, with an Australian Army Warrant Officer based in Kiunga that I became aware that I might have agreed to some sort of military role as part of my kiap duties.
This was just after the Act of Free Choice conducted by the Indonesians in 1969 that led to fleeing refugees and intense guerrilla activity along the border.
During that time quite a lot of our correspondence with Port Moresby related to border issues was done using a secret coding system issued to most administrative centres, including patrol posts.
My vague memories from that time was that we were somehow connected to the Royal Australian Navy and that our duties could involve coast watching if Australia ever declared war on someone.
Out of curiosity I recently canvassed the issue on the Ex-kiap website to see if anyone remembered the exact details.
(I’ve modified the grammar in the following comments slightly, without changing their meaning, so that they make sense in the narrative.)
Terry Kelliher responded by saying:
“Your memory is correct Phil - I certainly signed a document which effectively placed us in what is now called the Inactive Reserve ready for call up in the event of war or other threat - it was mainly intended for Navy and Coast Watching but could also be used for other services such as the reporting and military liaison that some of us carried out. As you say it also gave us access to codes.
“I should also mention that signing many of our oaths and employment agreements/contracts automatically made us subject to the "Official Secrets Act" which was, in fact, various sections of the Commonwealth Crimes Act and also the Qld Criminal Code (TPNG Adopted).
“We were Midshipman whilst Cadets, advancing to Sub-Lieutenant when Patrol Officer and, if you remained in contact with RAN, you made Lieutenant when Assistant District Officer.”
This fitted in with my memories but I wondered whether I was still in the navy at the ripe old age of 72. Terry had the solution to that too: “The RAN politely retain all Reservists until age 65 (unlike the Army and RAAF who give them the boot at 50 years) so I think we might miss out on any future call-up.”
He then added: “These things were all handled by Naval Intelligence so I had better shut up before I breach some bloody Act or another.”
George Oakes added the information that in February 1959 when he was posted to Pomio in New Britain he was “signed in as a Coast Watcher and given a code. I believe something similar was done on all coastal government stations in the New Guinea Islands to the Officer in Charge. At this stage kiaps were appointed for life.”
Max Heggen recounted that:
“Whilst OIC at the Kalalo Patrol Post in 1966, towards the end of my first term, I received a telegram from Head Quarters in Lae instructing me to rendezvous with HMAS Banks at Wasu on the morning of 28th March.
“I dutifully made the bone-jarring journey from the station along the corduroyed road in the Land Rover to Wasu. There was quite a thick sea-mist if I remember correctly, and the HMAS Banks eventually loomed up through the mist and hove-to in the deeper water before sending a tender ashore to collect me.
“The Captain introduced himself and a couple of the senior crew members to me and we adjourned to a wardroom where I was advised that as part of my duties, I was also to be a Coast Watcher.
“I can't remember signing any documents, but I was duly presented with a Coast Watcher's badge (No.37), and informed that code books would be forwarded to me in due course.
“The only reason I can think of to explain this requirement for Coast Watchers at that time, was perhaps some nervousness about the intentions of the new `occupants` of West Irian.”
John Brady says:
“I recall one Sunday morning in late 1965 wending my way back up the hill at Namatanai after Mass … looking back out to sea only to see a naval ship rapidly approaching from the Tanga Islands direction.
“It hove to for a short while a couple of miles off the coast and then headed off at speed in a North Easterly direction towards the Tabar Islands. This being the time of the Cold War and being the only officer on the station at the time I thought a report would have to go in.
“I headed up to the office and grabbing the Code book and the ship identification book did my best to report the situation as I saw it to the Navy at Lombrum. I woke up Rabaul Radio, sent off the coded message and sat back and waited.
“A couple of weeks later I received a congratulatory letter from Bill Seale and OIC Lombrum confirming the ship to be the HMAS Dampier, which was on its way from The Solomons to Manus and that my report matched the ship's log. There the matter ended.
“I don't recall ever signing any documentation linking us to the Navy but we all understood that "Coast Watching" was a seldom used part of our role.”
Col Young also had occasion to resort to the use of the Code Book. He says:
“At Lake Murray I only had two occasions for using the code to report relevant incidents.
“The first followed a complaint by a local that wantoks from across the now West Papua border had kidnapped his teenage daughter and taken her back across the border. Naturally he wanted her back.
“I wrote a note to my counterpart Indonesian military officer explaining the situation. As gris, I gave the father a packet of Rothman’s cigarettes to give with the note to the officer but warned him to be careful. This took place, I think, in 1967.
“The father returned a few weeks later, lashed to a cross made of bamboo poles and found floating in the Bosset swamp area on the border where a Catholic Mission was sited. He had been shot once in the right lung and once in the head.
“I code messaged the District Commissioner asking that something should be done regardless of international politics etc. He sent it on to Moresby. Nothing was done of course in those politically delicate border days of the mid-sixties. No cigarettes returned either.
“The second occasion was when an Indonesian Army helicopter crossed the border and landed in an APC oil exploration camp near the junction of the Fly and Strickland Rivers. Only a short visit with the excuse they had misread their map.”
I can endorse Col’s description of the brutalities that the Indonesians were using in Irian Jaya at the time. Some of the stories we heard from the refugees were horrific.
They were still up to the same tricks in East Timor when my son was there as part of the Australian intervention.
This part of the kiap’s role throws up some interesting questions but I doubt whether we’ll ever get any answers.
As Ross Wilkinson reports:
“I was in the June 1968 intake and have absolutely no recollection of any mention of a RAN Coast Watchers commitment and there is no indication of any such preparedness or undertaking on my personal file.
“However, I do recall having to apply for an Australian government security clearance but there is also no evidence of this or the level of clearance received on my file. Perhaps these documents were kept on our respective ‘secret’ files.”
It seems we were the soldiers and sailors that never were.