PORT MORESBY - As a kid, the Busoo River in the Bukawa area of Morobe Province was the best place in the world to be.
In Wagangluhu village, on the banks of the Busoo, the river was our swimming pool, fishing ground and playground. This and the surrounding lush tropical rainforests provided my friends and me with countless adventures.
Even better, each year the Papua New Guinea and Australian defence forces used the banks of the Busoo River for joint military exercises, and the excitement of watching these after school was a bonus.
The sound of machine guns, bazookas, M16s and helicopters drove our little minds crazy, and all we could think of the next day was to come back again.
Although we were just third and fourth graders, we knew the names of most of the military equipment and the types of action taken by the soldiers.
We also knew the role of the radioman and learned by heart the words he spoke during the exercises.
After this was over and the soldiers left, we usually struggled to fit back into our routine village and school lives.
And if you saw three or four heads clustering in one corner of the schoolyard during lunch break or after school, you could be sure the discussion was about the latest military drills along the banks of the Busoo River.
To get this out of our system, after school we would gather at the river and act out the military drills using whatever resources we could find in the nearby bushes.
We would act out army patrols along the banks of the river and when dusk set in we would return home.
This went on for some time until the military madness flushed out of our system and life returned to normal.
But of all the military enactments, what happened one fateful day is implanted forever in my mind.
It was Friday and we were let off early at 10 am after completing school work parade because our teachers needed to go into Lae to collect their pay cheques.
The school bell rang and it was time to head home, but we all knew where we would meet and what we would do that day.
There was a certain spot along the banks of the Busoo River where we would gather for our military patrol.
This one would be special because the fifth graders had heard our stories and were enthusiastic in joining us third and fourth graders.
We all gathered and everyone went about preparing for the patrol. Wild banana stumps, sticks, vines and stems of golgol [giant ginger] were deployed as substitute machine guns, bazookas, M16s and a wireless radio.
There was silence as every kid in the platoon worked to make the best gun he could. As each crafted his gun, he would glance at the others to ensure his gun was best.
I should add that everyone made a gun except Wayakwa, he was tasked by the platoon commander to make a wireless radio.
Wayakwa was a boy bullied over trivial matters by other kids and most of the time you would not find him mingling with kids after school.
But on that day Wayakwa came to join the platoon and somehow was appointed to be our radioman - and was accorded some respect.
I had crafted an M16 for myself, but its quality was not at par with the other kids. I could not comprehend how they could craft guns that were perfect replicas of real M16s, bazookas and machine guns.
There was something special about this patrol, but I could not work out what it was. I had a hunch something big was going to happen.
As preparations progressed, all eyes were fixed on the radioman and his wireless radio.
Everyone wanted the radio to be a perfect replica of a real wireless radio, and once in a while somebody would comment on what had been left out or what needed to be done to improve its quality.
When he was done, Wayakwa stood beside a replica made of wild banana stumps, sticks, vines and stems of golgol. I reckoned it would have weighed in excess of 20 kilograms.
For third graders, 20 kilograms was usually beyond our carrying capacity, but I could tell Wayakwa was not bothered by the weight. He had been assigned the task and it was his responsibility to carry the wireless radio despite its weight and earn the respect of the platoon.
Finally, everything was in order and the platoon was ready to head downstream. Everyone had their faces painted with charcoal and heads covered in banana leaves or some grass species. Their weapons were at the ready.
Wayakwa was raring to go. His 20 kilogram wireless radio was still on the ground and he gazed at it with a smiling face.
The platoon commander and his subordinates gathered 10 metres away and discussed the patrol plan while we waited anxiously for their instructions.
The plan was that platoon commander Namun was to take the lead and his subordinates Geding and Uyac’ were to strategically position themselves in the patrol line to give necessary instruction should we encounter enemy patrols.
Radioman Wayakwa was to be the last person in the patrol line so he could call for a helicopter from Igam army barracks in Lae if there were any casualties.
Slowly the platoon headed downstream. There was silence as we cautiously scanned surrounding bushes for signs of the enemy.
Once in a while the platoon commander would turn around and signal for us to sit in the bushes and wait for some villagers to pass by.
The patrol had walked for three kilometres and seemed to be progressing smoothly with no casualties.
Villagers returning from their gardens or fishing did not spot us, and we were anticipating a successful patrol when the commander called off the mission in the next couple of kilometers.
Then there was a scream from the front of the line and the platoon came to a halt.
The troopers in front whispered to each other and passed the word down the line so all members were aware of the situation.
Platoon commander Namun was hurt. He had stepped on some rattan spikes and his foot was bleeding badly.
“Quick, get the radioman to call Igam barracks,” said Geding. “Ask headquarters to send a helicopter as soon as possible, our platoon commander is down.”
As the rest of the platoon waited patiently, our medics began work on the casualty. The rattan spikes were removed from Namun’s foot, the wounds were cleaned with clear sap extracted from some nearby vines, and juice from the leaves of the piper plant was squeezed into the wound to dry the blood.
While this was going on, troopers began preparing a stretcher using sticks and vines to carry the injured person to the riverside for the helicopter to come and extract him to Igam barracks for further treatment.
At the same time the radioman began making frantic calls to Igam for a helicopter to be sent immediately.
“This is Alpha 1 calling Bravo 2, over. Bravo 2, do you read me, over? This is Alpha 1. Please send helicopter to Busoo River, over. We have a casualty; the platoon commander for Alpha Company is injured, over.”
Then Wayakwa changed his voice to answer, “Roger, this is Bravo 2 Igam calling Alpha 1, over. Message copied; do you read me, over?”
While the medics were preparing the casualty for evacuation and Wayakwa was calling for help, the rest of us were on alert in case an enemy patrol crossed our path.
Then good news. Wayakwa, after making frantic calls to Igam, informed the platoon that a helicopter was on its way.
It was all thumbs up for the platoon, and there were smiles all round as we waited for the helicopter to arrive.
After 30 minutes or so, there was no sign of a helicopter.
Platoon commander Namun had been placed in a stretcher and he was impatient and wanted to know if the helicopter was really coming.
So Uyac’ whispered to the trooper next to him to send word down the line to the radioman to again call Igam barracks.
“This is Alpha 1 calling Bravo 2, over. Bravo 2, do you read me, over? This is Alpha 1. Please send helicopter to Busoo River, over. We have a casualty; platoon commander for Alpha Company injured, over.”
The platoon intently listened. Then Wayakwa enthusiastically informed the platoon that a helicopter had been dispatched and would soon land to pick up the casualty.
As the platoon anxiously waited, we heard in the distance the sound of an approaching helicopter.
As the sound got louder, there were smiles and Wayakwa was given praise for his efforts.
But the sound of the helicopter engine faded. It was no longer headed in our direction, but for the headwaters of the river.
“Maybe it missed our location,” somebody said. “It would come back if Wayakwa radioed our exact position to Igam.”
We agreed that Wayakwa should get back on the radio and pinpoint our exact location to Igam.
Enthusiastically, Wayakwa called again. “This is Alpha 1 calling Bravo 2, over. Bravo 2, do you read me, over? Please inform the helicopter pilot to head downstream, over.”
Even as Wayakwa was calling, we could hear the sound of a helicopter approaching.
It was heading down the Busoo towards our position.
We could hear Wayakwa back on the radio. “We are located some four kilometers downstream from Wagangluhu village, and eight kilometers from the sea. Do you read me, over?”
We watched anxiously for what would happen next. The helicopter was above us and we could see white men inside. The helicopter was attempting to land on the riverbed.
The helicopter landed on the riverbed only 30 metres away when somebody shouted, “The white men are going to steal us and take us to Australia.”
Part 2 tomorrow