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Builders: The story of Mendi’s Royal Engineers

The Ialibu-Kagua built by 12 CE Works was sealed in 2019
The Ialibu-Kagua road built by 12 CE Works in the 1970s was finally sealed in 2019

KEVIN PAMBA
| Harim Tok Tok

MADANG - By the time the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) unit left Mendi in 1999, most parts of the former Southern Highlands Province (Hela was created from its western region in 2012) were connected by basic roads while the more outlying areas had airstrips.

Members of the Australian Army’s engineering corps had been deployed to Mendi in 1970 to run the Provincial Works Division.

The unit was previously based in Popondetta and had served in various parts of Papua New Guinea since 1963. It moved to Mendi under the leadership of its commanding officer, Major IM Wells.

In its December 2017 magazine, the RAE Association of Victoria noted about the Mendi contingent:

“Nation building tasks continued at an impressive rate and more name changes occurred (when they moved to Mendi): District Engineers Office (1972-76); Provincial Engineers Office (1976-78) and 12 CE Works (1978-2003).

“PNG’s Independence occurred in 1975. 12 CE Works celebrated its silver jubilee between Sept 15 and 20, 1988. 12 CE Works (of Mendi) was awarded an Institute of Engineers Australia Excellence Award.”

[12 CE Works was the Army’s abbreviation of the 12th Chief Engineer Works.]

The Australian colonial administration deployed the 12 CE Works team to Mendi under its defence cooperation program to help open up the frontier province through an elaborate public works building program.

This included roads, bridges, airstrips, schools, health centres, aid posts, government offices and housing, electricity supplies and the management of the government vehicle fleet.

Among the landmark infrastructure built by 12 CE Works was the Mendi School of Nursing and the provincial government headquarters, later burned down in the wake of the 1997 national election dispute over the position of provincial governor.

The provincial government subsequently constructed the seven-storey Agiru Centre to replace the former headquarters.

Captain Mark Dando, an RAE officer who served in Mendi from August 1978 to December 1980, posted online a recollection of his time with 12 CE Works:

The unit built schools, government buildings and built and maintained roads.

The transport and vehicle workshops were managed by five (Australian) army personnel with a local staff of approximately 70.

The unit numbered 21 and controlled a staff of up to 200 full time and casual locals.

Our families came with us with the exception of children above Grade 5 who had to attend boarding school in Australia.

There were no supermarkets or little shops in the town of Mendi. The nearest supermarket was 155 km away at Mt Hagen (gravel road). The RAAF would bring in supplies from time to time.

Power was intermittent and most of us purchased 2.5 KVA generators to ensure refrigeration and lighting.

Mark Dando (The Border Mail)
Mark Dando (The Border Mail)

As a Transport Corps Officer, I was responsible to a Major for two workshops and a fleet of vehicles ranging from motor cycles to bulldozers and this included the government vehicles for the province.

The Major was responsible for millions of dollars.

Probably the most challenging army posting for the majority of those who served in 12 CE Works.

The officers commanding (two in my term) of the 12 CE in Mendi both received an MBE and deservedly so, however the rest of us did our job and it would be nice to receive the same recognition as those who came before us.”

Ross Eastgate in a column published in the Townsville Bulletin made these remarks about 12 CE Works in Mendi:

The sappers built and maintained roads and bridges throughout the province as well as providing essential town services like power and water they and their families required to survive in this remote locality.

Initially they built their own married quarters as well as the offices and buildings from which they worked.

They also built and maintained provincial facilities such as health clinics. Road access to Mt Hagen and the nearest port, Lae, was limited so they often required RAAF heavy airlift support to deliver essential supplies.

The army provided family medical kits so health needs were self-diagnosed and treated. Serious health issues required aero-medical evacuation. Wives too, particularly those who were nurses and teachers performed vital community functions.

An important role was training locals to be able to assume 12 CE Works roles when inevitably the unit would be returned to Australia in 1999.

My father, Simon Papu, who worked building and maintaining roads under the leadership of the 12 CE team, spoke of how disciplined and work-conscious the Australian soldiers were.

In January 2019 I drove from Ialibu to Kagua, a road initially built by the 12 CE Works in the 1970s. Upon my return, I asked my Dad when he and his 12 CE superiors along with the PNG contingent finished constructing this road.

We worked hard through mud and rain and reached Kagua station in 1976,” Dad replied. “We worked long hours trying to get the road to Kagua from Ialibu and complete it.

“When we reached Kagua station, my boss, Dougie Fadden (an RAE officer), promoted me to Mendi in 1977 so I was not involved in building the rest of the road from Kagua to Erave.

Dad started with 12 CE Works in Mendi as a plant operator driving dump trucks, bulldozers, graders and front-end loaders belonging to the Department of Works that was managed by the 12 CE team.

He was recruited by 12 CE Works after he left employment with pioneer kiap and politician-turned-businessman, Ronald (Ron) Neville.

He was promoted as a roads foreman and posted to the construction site of the Mendi to Tari section of the Highlands Highway when construction was near Det in Poroma in 1977.

His stint on the Mendi-Tari road construction was short-lived as he was transferred to Ialibu in 1978 to be maintenance foreman looking after the Kaguel River to Kirene section of the Highlands Highway.

The Highlands Highway construction reached Tari in 1983.

What the RAE team in Mendi achieved between 1970 and 1999 was an almost unheralded civic work program involving hundreds of millions of kina achieved by members of the Australian service personnel on PNG soil during peacetime.

The RAE posting in Southern Highlands was a major engagement of members of the Australian Army anywhere in PNG outside the World War II years.

Kevin Pamba
Kevin Pamba

As Anzac Day was commemorated in parts of Papua New Guinea this year, some of us remembered the many generations of RAE officers who served in the Southern Highlands with their PNG civilian compatriots to build and maintain critical public infrastructure between 1970 and 1999.

Kevin Pamba was the first Papua New Guinean journalist to receive a PhD.
Harim Tok Tok is the newsletter of the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles Ex-Members Association.

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