NOOSA – Early on the morning of Wednesday 17 March 1971, the black-hulled royal yacht HMY Brittania slipped slowly into Kieta harbour through the narrow main channel abeam of Pok Pok Island.
On board was Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, visiting for a two night stay on Bougainville after a voyage through the Panama Canal and the Pacific islands and on to the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea.
That Wednesday morning heralded one of those sublime tropical days in Bougainville you wished would go on forever.
The Brittania anchored behind a small freighter waiting for a vessel to vacate Kieta’s tiny wharf.
Radio Bougainville’s staff had arrived early at work to prepare for our coverage of the Duke’s visit to be broadcast on the Government Broadcasting Service. We had an outside broadcast team on the harbour foreshores adjacent to the jetty from which the Duke and his party would make their landing from the royal barge.
And, aboard a small launch in the harbour, we had the skipper and a two-man team to broadcast the entry of Britannia into harbour and the Duke’s short trip to shore.
I’d received ample warning of the royal visit and asked our headquarters in Port Moresby to send a wireless microphone and a parabolic dish to enable us to broadcast from the launch.
Both items of equipment were new to the broadcasting service and had never previously been used in action. We trialled the new-fangled equipment the day before the Duke arrived.
There was a wireless microphone, something we’d never set eyes on before, which would transmit a radio signal to shore where the parabolic dish, about one meter across, would capture and focus the sound waves into a microphone facing the centre of the dish.
The dish was connected to the announcer-operated outside broadcast panel, itself linked to a telephone line to carry the broadcast signal to our transmitters at Toniva, just south of Kieta, from where it would be disseminated to Bougainville and beyond.
In addition to the two presenters on the launch, we had a larger outside broadcast team onshore ready to cover the Duke’s arrival at the small jetty near the centre of town.
He was scheduled to spend the day visiting the Panguna copper mine, St Joseph’s Catholic School and, in the evening, a reception at the District Commissioner’s home on a ridge high above Kieta with a grand view of the harbour.
The announcers on the Radio Bougainville launch described the entry of Brittania to the harbour with a flawless running commentary. We onshore smiled at each other with quiet satisfaction. The broadcast, reliant on a technology we had not previously used in action, was perfect.
Then abruptly the voices coming from the launch dissolved into ugly static. It took us just a few seconds to work out why. The launch had disappeared behind the small freighter both out of sight and out of the line of sight of the parabolic dish.
The signals from the wireless microphone were now presumably bouncing off the freighter’s steel hull and bouncing back off Brittania in an endless repetitive loop going nowhere. And there was no way we could communicate with the guys on the launch to tell them to move into our line of sight.
Onshore, announcer Justin Kili, new in the job at the time but later to become a much loved radio voice throughout PNG, launched into a creative impromptu commentary about the cloudless sky, the swooping seabirds, the gentle wind, the sparkling water, the brightly-coloured crowd and the well-clad dignitaries who were just starting to arrive to greet the Duke …. anything he could discourse on.
Eventually the royal barge bearing the Duke emerged from behind the small freighter and made its way to the shore.
The dignitaries assembled in a neat line in front of the jetty and at the end of this line, I rubbed my eyes, yes, it was Justin Kili, neatly dressed as usual, holding a microphone with a long cord stretching back to our broadcast position and continuing his commentary.
Justin was still in the line as the Duke came ashore. He shook hands with the dignitaries one by one and, when he came to the end of the line, also shook hands with Justin and chatted with him awhile. I don't know what the protocol officer thought about this unexpected interview with the Duke, but he probably didn’t approve.
The Duke then set off on the rest of the day’s itinerary accompanied by District Commissioners Des Ashton and Bill Brown.
Later in the day, as eminent a group of people as Bougainville could muster at the time attended a late afternoon reception for the Duke at the District Commissioner’s residence.
Ashton had been due to leave Bougainville in January but delayed his departure so he could participate in the royal visit. He left on leave the following day.
Brittania graced Kieta harbour in the afternoon light and the small township directly below us was of picture postcard beauty. No thunderstorm threatened. It was colonial life at its most idyllic.
As I stood there sipping on the free beer, the Duke circled towards me for a chat, beginning by asking me what was my purpose on the island.
When I told him I was the manager of Radio Bougainville, he responded, ‘but you’re so young’.
I jokingly retorted that after the perils of broadcasting his visit here I didn’t feel so young. We laughed, spoke a short time more and the Duke moved on to the next conversation
At that time, I was 26. If I’d better educated myself, I would have realised that, when Prince Philip had been my age, he’d packed in much more adventure and achievement than many people do in a lifetime.
As a Royal Navy sub-lieutenant he’d been mentioned in dispatches for his courageous action while under fire controlling the searchlights of the battleship HMS Valiant during the battle of Cape Matapan against the Italian fleet.
A year later he was promoted to first lieutenant and second in command of the destroyer HMS Wallace, at 21 he one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy.
During the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, he saved Wallace from a night-time bomber attack by loading a liferaft with smoke flares and propelling it away from the vessel, successfully deceiving the bombers and allowing his ship to slip away unnoticed.
On the destroyer Whelp, his final posting in World War II, he was present in Tokyo Bay in September 1945 when the Japanese surrender was signed.
He returned to England the following year to ask King George VI if he would agree that he, Philip, could take Princess Elizabeth’s hand in marriage.
The king agreed but first told Philip he must renounce his royal title of Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark and become a British subject.
At the time he married the princess who became Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip was just 26. So young.