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Commodore Sam Bateman's 'heart for the PNG Navy'

Commodore sam-bateman
Commodore Sam Bateman - a leading maritime strategist and friend of Papua New Guinea

| President, Australian Naval Institute | Edited

SYDNEY - On 18 October 2020 Commodore Sam Bateman AM, RAN passed away aged 82. He was one of the leading maritime strategists of his generation and has left a significant legacy.

During two stints in Papua New Guinea between 1967 and 1975, Sam was senior officer of the PNG Patrol Boat Squadron, where he knew Colonel Reg Renagi, and was later Naval Officer in Charge, Port Moresby, and Director of Maritime Operations in PNG.

Sam was born in Cottesloe, Western Australia, on 4 May 1938 and joined the Royal Australian Naval College as a cadet-midshipman in 1954. Among his class of 32 were a future Chief of Naval Staff, two Rear Admirals and four Commodores, including Sam.

As a qualified officer Sam was appointed Executive Officer of the armament store carrier HMAS Woomera. On 11 October 1960 the ship was disposing 140 tons of time-expired ammunition off Sydney Heads when an explosion occurred and a fire took hold.

Woomera sank with the loss of two sailors. The unconfirmed cause of the explosion was thought to be a parachute flare which contained a friction igniter which may have been triggered. Sam and his captain were both court martialled and acquitted.

Nevertheless, Sam‘s career prospects were now uncertain. To his good fortune he was appointed to the newly commissioned frigate HMAS Parramatta under the command of Commander Guy Griffiths.

Parramatta and the equally new HMAS Yarra undertook a busy South East Asian deployment in which Sam was able to meet his captain’s exacting standards. Happily, during his time in Parramatta Sam married Lois, and at the end of his time in the ship, Guy Griffiths recommended Sam for a sea command.

The first of Sam’s four sea commands came soon enough when he became commanding officer of the general purpose vessel HMAS Bass in January 1963. Soon after Bass was home-ported in Darwin.

During his time in Bass he rescued fishermen from the grounded Paleron, as well as discovering the wreckage of a missing RAAF aircraft on a remote stretch of the Arnhem Land coast.

New Guinea Division patrol boat  HMAS SAitape
HMAS Aitape, captained by Sam Bateman, steamed up the Sepik River in company with HMAS Ladava

In 1967 Sam was selected to commission the predominantly Papua New Guinean-manned HMAS Aitape, the first of the Attack class patrol boats destined for the PNG Patrol Boat Squadron.

Through engagement with his ship’s company, Sam developed a deep interest in the complexities of PNG and Pacific island societies and cultures.

As a newly promoted Lieutenant Commander, Sam was made Senior Officer of the Squadron and helped develop the operational and administrative orders for the new boats.

The five new boats were based at HMAS Tarangau, the revitalised Manus Island naval base.

These were happy days for Sam and Lois and their young family. During his tenure, Aitape, in company with HMAS Ladava, steamed 230 miles up the Sepik River.

Whilst in command of Aitape Sam studied for a Bachelor of Economics graduating in 1970, just before becoming Executive Officer of Parramatta.

In late 1971 he returned to PNG for a formative appointment as Naval Officer in Charge, Port Moresby, and Director of Maritime Operations.

ClipSam and Jim Nockels, the Australian Defence Representative in Port Moresby, advocated, largely unsuccessfully, for a more maritime focused PNG Defence Force rather than one that was more land-centric.

For Sam the links between defence policy, broader security and economic issues were clearly visible in PNG as the country approached independence.

In 1975 Sam joined the Australian Naval Institute one month after its formation. He would go on its Council as postings allowed, as well as being the editor of its Journal and a regular contributor to the Institute’s activities. He remained an active member for the rest of his life.

In 1977 Sam was given his third sea command, the trial ship for the Australian Mulloka sonar, the frigate HMAS Yarra. Promoted to Captain in June 1980 he served as Director of Naval Force Development and conducted a study on maritime trade.

Sam’s final sea command was the destroyer HMAS Hobart which undertook a deployment to Canada and the US West coast for the Royal Canadian Navy’s 75th Anniversary Review.

On the deployment Hobart visited Pago Pago where Sam was delighted that he and some of his men were invited to a traditional Samoan feast.

Sam returned to Canberra once more with the most significant of his final three postings being, in the rank of Commodore, Director General of the new Maritime Studies Program. This was a case of an officer brimming full of ideas supported by a Chief of Naval Staff.

Sea power logoSam was able to establish both the organisational structure that was to later become the Sea Power Centre Australia and provide the intellectual content and rigour for a world class organisation. Importantly, Sam was able to harness the energies of many officers and academics to produce works on contemporary and historical naval issues.

After retiring from the Navy, Sam took up the role of founding Director of the Centre of Maritime Policy at the University of Wollongong, established in 1994 as a joint venture between the RAN and the University, with a view to providing academic analysis and supporting training in maritime affairs.

Sam also completed a PhD at the University of New South Wales in 2000 entitled ‘The Strategic and Political Aspects of the Law of the Sea in East Asian Seas’. He proved to be a prolific author, writing and editing dozens of books and academic journal articles, on a range of maritime strategic issues in East, South-East and South Asia, and remaining in great demand as a conference speaker right up to the time of his passing.

In 1999 Sam retired from the University of Wollongong, and became an Honorary Professorial Fellow of the University. He also began what proved a long and productive association with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore. While his time in Singapore reduced over the years, Sam was still presenting seminars in his eightieth year.

While the study of maritime affairs remained a lifelong intellectual interest for Sam, he also retained a deep love of the sea. In his final days he was taking part in his beloved annual family sailing holiday in the Whitsundays.

Although not well, he had a great time “driving the yacht around like a destroyer and seeking out the elusive tuna”. As soon as the boat returned alongside, Sam said he needed to go to Proserpine Hospital where he died the following day.

Sam-bateman in later life
Sam Bateman in later life

Sam Bateman was generous in nature. His friendship and fellowship will be missed by all those who had the honour to have known him.

In expressing his sadness on learning of Sam’s death, Colonel Reg Renagi PNGDF wrote that Sam “had a heart for the PNG Navy from its very humble beginnings.” Sam has left an indelible mark on the RAN and the study of maritime affairs.

Sam is survived by his wife Lois, son Simon and daughters Emma and Sarah and their children.

The author thanks Captain Simon Bateman, Commander Alastair Cooper, Rear Admiral James Goldrick, Professor Stuart Kaye, Commodore Jack McCaffrie, Mr Jim Nockells, Commodore Lou Rago, Colonel Reg Renagi PNGDF and Mr John Perryman for their contributions in the preparation of this article


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