My story of Kokoda – blood & guts aplenty
The sacrifice required to safeguard freedom

Remembering the remarkable John Guise

John Guise - "The first Papuan to make a political mark and a true pioneer of nationhood"

| AAP Archive | 28 August 2012

SYDNEY - A little-known role of the most remarkable Papuan of his generation should be recalled during the commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the battle of Milne Bay - Japan's first defeat on land in World War II.

John Guise, the first Papuan to make a political impact, didn't mind a bit of boasting, especially if it involved cricket and the unbeaten 253 he once smashed which was, and may still be, a record for Milne Bay first grade.

When profiled after he became speaker of the House of Assembly in 1968, he didn't want to talk about his war.

He did, however, suggest speaking to Ian McDonald, who was then chairman of the territory's Copra Marketing Board.

McDonald had been Guise's boss in the Australia New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU), which Guise joined as a signals clerk soon after it was set up in 1942 to provide a skeleton civil administration in the unoccupied parts of PNG. It also had quasi-military responsibilities.

On the night of 25 August 1942, the Japanese began their invasion of Milne Bay.

Guise was sent, in an open dinghy, through 32km of heavy seas, to tell the bayside villagers to douse their lights.

He then safely returned through the ships and landing barges of the advancing Japanese.

"The Japs were relying on the village lights to guide their attack," McDonald said.

"But John had done his job well. They landed three to four miles (5-6 km) off course and this made a big difference to us."

After the war Guise, who was born in 1914, went from strength to strength.

He was elected to the first House of Assembly in 1964 and became speaker after his re-election.

He was a cabinet minister during the self-government period and, at independence in 1975, became PNG's first governor-general. He died in 1991.

Michael Somare, with whom he had a testy relationship, is regarded in PNG as the father of the nation.

But Guise, 22 years older, was, as the first Papuan to make a political mark, a true pioneer of nationhood.

And his exploit 70 years ago in the dark waters of Milne Bay is a reminder of the hugely important role played by civilians in the New Guinea campaigns.

The ANGAU officers operating and dying behind enemy lines, the extraordinary Coastwatchers and the thousands of Papua New Guineans recruited, and in some cases press-ganged, as bearers.

It was much more than a soldiers' war.


The Guise Interview

The following undated interview with Sir John Guise, probably broadcast by the ABC in conjunction with Independence Day in 1975, stands as a testament to Guise's perceptiveness and understanding of the new country and its governance. In it he says: "What is necessarily good for Australia cannot be necessarily good for Papua New Guinea and I think that we should have a system of government which is suitable to the needs of the country in order to create political stability" - KJ


Battling nature to serve – a true leader

Michael Somare and John Guise  governor-general  on PNG Independence Day 1975
New prime minister Michael Somare and new governor-general John Guise, PNG Independence Day, 1975


“McCarthy’s credentials establish him at once as one of that now vanishing breed, a New Guinea ‘Old Timer’. He arrived in 1935, tried his hand at all kinds of work, fought the Japs at Milne Bay, Nadzab and Kokoda, and has since become, through the medium of Papua-New Guinea Times-Courier, an ‘expert’ on everything New Guinean” - Chris Ashton, The Bulletin, 3 July 1971. This article by McCarthy dates to about this time - KJ

PORT MORESBY - Take a sprawling mass of mountains, mainland and islands with settlements and villages tucked away in difficult spots; mix it with 10 times more ocean than land and turn loose all the wind, water, rain and heat, that’s possible.

This is typical of the Alotau electorate, a rough, undeveloped area, similar in many respects to most electorates, and one which calls for the dedicated services of a House of Assembly Member to represent it.

Dr John Guise is the elected Member for Alotau, a man of 57 who has been faithful to his trust as a people’s representative since his first election way back in 1961 for the old Legislative Council.

He has now completed 10 successive years as a parliamentarian and although he has been elected Speaker, his greatest responsibility is still to the people who have continued to elect him.

“Ever since my election in 1961, it has been my solemn duty to visit the whole of my electorate and all the villages,” he said recently.

“I have kept to this philosophy and will continue to do so.”

Asked if his position as Speaker affected his movements as an elected Member, he replied: “No. Not to any great extent. I have certain commitments, but I have maintained visits to my people as regularly as possible.”

This is a record that not all Members can claim.

In 1968 he was able to make only one complete visit; in 1969 he made six trips; in 1970 there were eight, and this year, during January, he has just returned from his first visit for 1971 and will be doing two more within the next four weeks.

Each visit, depending on the weather and the time available, takes from two to three weeks.

He charters his own boat which is an expensive affair.

“If a Member carries out his duties to the electors and visits them regularly and conscientiously then he will be out of pocket,” he said, although each Member receives an allowance.

“It becomes an expensive business when you have no private resources.”

For John Guise, it is a full-time job one can make only a rough estimate of the cost as he receives only an open Member’s allowance and has no occupation other than Speaker.

He was the one man who didn’t benefit in the recent increase of Ministerial salaries.

On this last trip, I accompanied him intermittently – initially in an 18ft, diesel-powered launch which bobbed about like a cork; then, for two days, at Alotau during the Whitlam visit, and finally at Samarai; as he was preparing for his second leg.

The determination of the man to complete what was an extremely tight schedule was obvious and travelling in a small, rather uncomfortable boat, showed his sincerity of purpose.

“I have sent word ahead to meet the people and see the leaders and I cannot fail them,” he told me looking tired after many late nights and a rough passage, sailing in the moonlight to meet small groups on outlying islands and setting off again at first light.

“It got rougher outside and we were almost swamped twice,” he said, mentioning a patch of water between Basilaki Island and East Cape which is wide, open ocean, but he said little of other discomforts.

This is travelling pre-war style — small boat, small engine, a lot of hope that the weather holds good, a bush house to camp, rice, meat and fish for food, meetings to hold, advice to the people, then tie your sleeping mat together and off to the next island.

“I want to talk to as many people as possible, meet the councillors in their villages, hear their hopes and troubles, advise and help and explain what work we are doing in Port Moresby to aid them,” he said.

Here is a mixture of grassroots politics and saltwater flavored with endurance and hardship.

But he likes it that way.

One can judge its effects from the reception he gets all along the route.

At Gurney we got out of the plane and he was surrounded by people wishing him well.

At Lavian, in a moonlit setting of a forest clearing with 400 people gathered to greet Mr Whitlam, he was listened to with respect.

In Alotau, there were talks and discussions and people waiting to see him.

At Garuwau, where he attended an arts festival of the people and chaired a meeting on social-political development, they greeted him as a brother.

The north-east coast is John Guise’s home ground — he was born at Wedau — and the language of his people, Tavara, is spread over most of Milne Bay.

You hear it on the islands of Sidea and Basilaki and all along the north-east coast.

He has clansmen, brothers and warawaras in abundance, with everybody a relative or friend, and he is most interesting when time permits him to talk of old traditional relationships, the clans and individuals who form, by birth and marriage, one homogenous group whose members turn up in unexpected places.

This is the real John Guise, a man of the people, a connection he has never forsaken, and they respond to him more as a brother than as their political leader.

He is one of the handful of native leaders whose influence has been sustained for more than quarter of a century.

It extends throughout the whole of the country from the muddy delta regions of the Fly and Sepik Rivers, along the north New Guinea coast, in the central backbone of the high mountain country, out in the islands and all along the soft, lush littoral belt of Papua.

A lot of his reputation has been built through his political activities, but in the Central, Northern and Milne Bay Districts his name stands as something that represents solidity and is accepted by the mass of people with reliance in one who can voice their unspoken desires.

Each day he receives more than 100 letters, the majority from his constituents, and invariably they start with, “My brother”.

He remains constant to his clan associations.

“We are the family whose duties were the Master of Ceremonies to the office of the Chief,” he tells you, and when he is moving among his own people you can see that, imperceptibly, this station is recognised.

They acknowledge him as a member of substance in their own society, unrelated to his present position in ours, and this will never alter because the clan system is too entwined in tradition to be brushed aside.

It is this, as well as the obligations of public office, that commands him to visit his peopleregularly, a summons which he always heeds, and in this lies his strength.

Two days back in Port Moresby and he is going out again to open a new local government council at Daga, to consult with another sector of his people, and then back to town once more to prepare for another electoral round.

This time it will include the farthest Western points of his electorate, Gadaisu, Konemaiawa, Dahuni, Bona Bona,. Fife Bay, the Engineer Group, and will end with the Milne Bay District Council Conference on February 25.

By-then, he must prepare for the next sitting of the House, to handle the demands from his own people, to send personal replies to all who have written him, which he insists on doing, and to officiate in the Assembly.

When he formally closes the sittings he will have until June to organise another itinerary, charter another boat, send word ahead to those who are waiting for him, and sail off into the Coral Sea — a solitary voyager obedient to his principles and the wishes of his people.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Did you ever keep any of your father’s journals Catherine?

Around 1971-72 the Administrator’s Department issued a press release saying the last two restricted areas in TPNG had been de-restricted and opened up.

John’s ‘New Guinea News Service’ took issue with this and cited the situation at Nomad where the “Biami is peopled by scores of practising cannibals who repeatedly attack Government patrols”.

He said the press release “is a blatant untruth, simply for political mileage in Australia and among Australia’s allies overseas and neighbours in South-East Asia”.

I was at Nomad in 1971 and in that year arrested seven men for “unlawfully interfering with a corpse”, i.e., eating it. Around that time Geoff Smith fought off an attack on Obeimi Base Camp.

John challenged the DDA boss and the Acting Administrator to walk unarmed through the Biami area, even offering to pay their expenses, but they declined, citing their advanced age. They were in their 50s.
Many kiaps of that age were still actively patrolling in the bush.

I went back to Nomad in the 1990s and the Biami (Bedamini) were graduating from high school and had their own local level government council.

John’s journalism was colourful but he didn’t guild the lily.

His tribute to John Guise in ‘The Hot Land’ was straight from the heart.

My copy of 'The Hot Land' is still intact, I reckon Keith must have got one of the few duds.

Catherine Clerke née Ryan

I have fond memories of John Guise from when I accompanied my father, John Ryan, to interview him for The Hot Land in his village home in Port Moresby.

We as a family have the family Tapa cloth gifted by John Guise to John Ryan proudly displayed.

Dad passed away in 2014 and always held respect for John Guise.

Your father was a fine journalist, Catherine. I knew him when we worked for the ABC and he let nothing get in the way of a story that needed to be told. Not so easy to do in the days of colonial Administration.

I read The Hot Land when I ran Radio Bougainville out of Kieta. The big problem for me was the book's habit of discarding each page as it was turned. A tribute to the impact of heat and humidity on glue - KJ

Richard Jackson

In 1983, Mekere Morauta and John Kasaipwolova persuaded the government of PNG to establish a Department of Tourism and a Tourism Board. Sir John Guise was the latter's chairman.

At one of its earliest meetings, a Queensland pair were to present their case (a rather difficult one) for being granted several hectares of government land in Lae where they proposed to build a casino and hotel. They wished to gain the Tourism Board's support.

The board members all turned up as had the Queenslanders, but Sir John was delayed driving up the Highway in heavy rain. Eventually he arrived in vest, shorts and flipflops with large streaks of red mud from head to foot.

The applicants turned to him and said - 'tea with milk and lots of sugar.'

Sir John turned back out of the room and ten minutes later arrived with two mugs of tea.

He then sat down in the chair at the head of the table.........and even the proponents knew they were about to waste their time.

Philip Fitzpatrick

My copy is still in good nick Keith, nicely stitched and clean with the Biami burial platform on the front cover.

Anyway, here's an interesting Guise quote from the last few paragraphs of chapter 11.

"The Australians in Canberra and Sydney and Melbourne are much harder people than the Australians here in Papua New Guinea.

"I mean they are harder, when they think about their own foreign affairs and defence and Papua New Guinea's place in these things.

"Your government is only now learning about its own foreign affairs, but your leaders are becoming harder everyday. I know this. I have talked to them.

"You Australians are learning that you have to be more realistic, more hard with other people. We Papuans and New Guineans are learning to be the same way - we must, for the future of this country.

"When the time comes, if we think Australia is not being honest with us, we may have to look for somebody else.

"We will still love Australia and accept Australia as a neighbour, but we will have to be realistic too."

That second to last line is very interesting.

Peter Salmon

As a young pikinini kiap in the highlands in 1965 and serving through to 1979 in my first of two lifetimes in PNG, I only had a 'hearsay' and, by virtue of my then social and work environment, not a great opinion of John Guise.

But I must try to save my soul by saying that my view of the man was not belligerent either, it was simply distant and ill informed.

It’s only with the passage of time coupled with reading John Ryan’s book, 'The Hot Land - Focus on New Guinea', if which chapter 11 is entirely devoted to John Guise, that I’ve come to a more in-depth knowledge and real appreciation of this man.

It’s difficult to get one’s hands on John Ryan's book but it really is a must read in its entirety for PNG-centric readers let alone the chapter concerning John Guise.

KJ, despite copyright (let them sue, I’ll be dead before it gets to the courts) I’ll email a PDF copy of chapter 11 to you for publication to flesh out this topic if you think this is OK. I could OCR it but that takes a bit more effort. Your call. Regards – Peter.

I read The Hot Land soon after publication in 1971 I think. It was a good yarn and written in a racy journalistic style. But what I found most memorable was that, as I completed each page, it would fall out of the book - KJ

Arthur Williams

An interesting insight to someone who was merely just the second Speaker to me.

He of course succeeded the 1st who was an exkiap and would become in 1974 PNG's first knight Sir Horace Niall.

The third Speaker is notable too as Kavieng's MP Perry Kwan 1972-77 who was Speaker for only 11 sittings during his short term 20 April - 22 June 1972.

Arthur Smedley

I heard the story of John Guise and the dousing of the lights when working in Milne Bay and asked Guise about it.

As Don Woolford found, he was reluctant to talk but on one occasion over a couple of glasses of whiskey he acknowledged the stories were true.

Of course the Battle of Milne Bay is not as well-known as Kokoda. The Australian troops there were mostly militia in their late teens and early 20s who had received only three or four months training before leaving Australia for Milne Bay.

Former servicemen who occasionally visited Alotau told me that regular soldiers considered themselves superior to the militia, but this battle in Milne Bay is recognised as the first defeat of Japanese forces on land during World War II.

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