BY TERRY EDWINSMITH
IT WAS THE Queensland Teachers’ Journal that included, amongst many learned articles, an advertisement that implored former national servicemen who served in the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea to contact a Mr Ian Ogston for the purpose of collecting stories of the time.
Stories, that is, of each soldier who had spent time as part of the Royal Australian Army Educational Corps (RAAEC) in conscripted national service from 1965-72.
I was at first reluctant to participate but prodding from my associate at work finally saw me contact Ian some time in mid 2003.
A subsequent email from Ian Ogston set out the format for a meeting on 25 October 2003 at Kedron Wavell Services Club at Chermside in Brisbane.
Ian was anxious that attendees tell of their experiences and provide memorabilia, if it was available for exhibiting. A social side to the gathering was also emphasised.
What was planned by Ian and his associate, Ian Colwell (Principal of Somerset Hills State School), did eventuate.
Former Nasho “chalkies” gathered at the appointed time and recited their memories into a Dictaphone guided by a string of questions posed by the organising committee. This took the best part of the morning as each person recalled the memories of 30 years or more previously.
Most of the ex-servicemen present had a varied career in the Australian Army prior to their TPNG experience.
Those who were conscripted early in the national service program, upon completion of recruit training, undertook corps training in their chosen specialty in Artillery, Infantry, Transport, Engineers, Medical, Signals etc.
Following this, interviews were undertaken by a panel appointed to select candidates for transfer to the Education Corps. Teacher training with some classroom experience was mandatory. A willingness to serve with indigenous soldiers was also a prerequisite.
The time between this interview and appointment to RAAEC varied from several weeks to several months, with successful candidates finding out only when movement papers detailed TPNG or Townsville as their destination.
In my own case, five months after a Sydney interview I was taken from my pre-embarkation leave for Vietnam and placed on a Port Moresby bound aircraft, 12 hours after receiving my movement papers. I arrived unannounced and unexpected.
Those selected during the final years of the national service scheme were chosen during recruit training and the Education Corps was their only corps posting. Soldiers selected this way did induction training for a week or so in Townsville prior to being deployed in TPNG.
Training in Pidgin English was undertaken by some appointees, but most of the earlier education sergeants picked up the language from the mess or the soldiers themselves in the battalion to which they were appointed. A select few were given an Army Manual outlining words, phrases and pronunciations in Pidgin.
The group of about a dozen ex-servicemen at that initial get-together in October 2003 told their story which later became the basis of a book Armi Wantoks, a Record of Conscript Teachers in TPNG.
In the years following this event, the “chalkies” have met regularly to share experiences, listen to guest speakers and write accounts of the various aspects of army life in PNG and the duties each battalion undertook between 1966 and 1972.
Goldie River education sergeants specialised in recruit training and the induction of recruits into the army way of life.
Taurama Barracks (1PIR) in Port Moresby and Moem Barracks (2PIR) in Wewak were infantry battalions, where education sergeants undertook battalion duties such as guard, patrol and company activities as well as regular classroom duties teaching soldiers in English, Maths, Science and Civics, with an emphasis on democratic institutions. (This was prior to PNG Independence in 1975.)
Murray Barracks HQ contained a more senior group of soldiers so the education sergeants undertook lessons and testing more befitting the needs of this select group.
In all cases, the sergeants identified gifted students who were suitable for officer training in Lae then at Portsea in Victoria.
A select group of conscript teachers was also to be found at the Military Cadet School in Lae, the initial officer training school for PNG officer cadets.
These events are recorded in the Armi Wantoks journal which is published bi-annually and expands on the stories first published in the original book.
It is believed that about 300 conscript teachers from all parts of Australia served in the RAAEC in PNG in that time prior to Independence.
A more academic approach to Australia’s roll in the formation of the PNG Defence Force prior to and following Independence has been undertaken by a PhD student from the Australian National University.
The Brisbane chalkies group of Armi Wantoks has been instrumental in providing audio and written histories of their national service time spent teaching the soldiers of the Pacific Islands Regiments and their contribution to the education and preparation for the imminent arrival of PNG Independence in 1975.
A small group of retired RAAEC soldiers hope to visit Port Moresby in mid 2011 to see the progress made by their former students and visit the barracks where democratic principles were first taught over 40 years ago.
Terry Edwinsmith was a Sergeant in the RAAEC, 1PIR at Taurama Barracks from 1967-68
Photo: 1960-70s TPNG RAAEC sergeants 40 years on in October 2010