Air Commodore GORDON STEEGE DSO DFC died on Sunday at the age of 95. Earlier this year, the fighter ace related his experiences of being a World War II RAAF pilot and a peacetime kiap to former District Commissioner Bill Brown. We reproduce an extract here….
NEW TO THE SEAGULL flying boats, I first took a couple of local flights around the Port Moresby area.
These included the hairy experience of flying Commander Hunt, who headed a small naval surveying detachment, delivering some mail to Yule Island at low level over offshore reefs in a strong south-easterly.
The Seagull appeared to be going as fast sideways as forward.
Then my Commanding Officer, ‘Alex’ Alexander, asked if I would like to take the Seagull down to Samarai.
I jumped at this, and with a Sergeant Navigator, Wireless Operator and Engineer Fitter we had an enjoyable straight and level flight on a beautiful day, perhaps three hours at 90 knots, along the coast to Samarai.
I moored the Seagull at anchor off the east shore, and, leaving an anchor watch aboard, three of us were taken ashore and accommodated in Mrs Skelly's attractive old Queensland type hotel, one of three on the island.
In those days, Samarai was strikingly beautiful and romantic, rightly deserving the description ‘Pearl of the Pacific’.
There were no engine-driven vehicles on the island, and crotons, hibiscus and coleus lined the attractive paths
Dressed in my best tropical uniform, according to the order given to me by Alex, I called on Mr Aumuller, manager of Burns Philp, in his attractive house on the highest point of the island, and then went on to the Resident Magistrate, who was away, so I met the Assistant RM.
Syd Elliott Smith was an impressive head of government on the island, a lively, strong and likable personality. He kindly had me to dinner at his house that night with his wife and a Mrs Champion whose husband was away on the mainland.
I suspect it was Claude Champion, one of the brothers who were so notable in Papua New Guinea. I learned years later that Claude had lost an eye while based on Samarai.
There were many watchers as there had been only one previous visit by a Seagull from one of our pre-war cruisers.
Somehow that beast of an aircraft ran from the wind and we careered along the line of chop with the port wing float dragging low and dangerously in the water. So I had to backtrack and start again in front of the Samarai audience.
But the morning was not over. An hour en route to Moresby, one of the crew reported strong stomach pains, and the other two were also in difficulty, as I then found I was myself.
With no alternative, I chose to alight on the open sea about a kilometre offshore. When holding off just above the water, I saw flashes of light below the surface.
It was a reef which could rip the bottom from the Seagull. Not a desirable outcome on that lonely coast. So I powered on until I was sure I was over blue water.
There were apertures in the Seagull: at the bow, a lidded hatch; more on each side of the glass-enclosed cockpit; aft of the high mounted pusher engine; and also a lidded hatch in the top of the hull to take a machine gun.
Immediately four white backsides pointed out over the side to groans of relief.
The take-off into the offshore swell was, as usual, a little hairy. Then half an hour later I saw coming in from the northwest, and right across our track, the nastiest and blackest guba (line of storm) I had seen.
The Seagull’s instruments were limited to turn, bank, climb and descend and I knew I could not fly it, or for that matter any aircraft, through that maelstrom.
The Sergeant Navigator pointed out Abau government station on the map, so I decided to seek shelter there.
I asked the Wireless Operator whether he had been able to advise Moresby and he said, “I was trying to do that when you took the trailing aerial off on the trees, pal.”
With thought of coral which might lie unseen just under the muddy waters in Cloudy Bay, we alighted well offshore and taxied to anchor in the river on south-east side of the tiny island of Abau.
A heavy whaleboat with a white man in the stern and two Papuans came out and came against the hull without discernible damage.
I explained the situation to Mr Lambden, the Resident Magistrate, and he said if we had landed half an hour later we would have hit submerged rocks.
Leaving the Seagull at anchor, he took us ashore. I noted he was concerned when I told him of our toilet stop – he hoped we had not brought dysentery with us. But he put us up for the night as the guba passed.
Later in Moresby, I met Alison, the teenage daughter of Mr Lambden, home on school holidays, who later married David Marsh, Patrol Officer and District Commissioner, who became a lifelong friend.
At Abau I saw the lonely marble gravestone of a Mr Flint, Resident Magistrate who had died there some years earlier.
On 27 February 1940 Sir Hubert Murray, Lieutenant Governor of Papua, died in Samarai, while touring the South-East in the Government Yacht Laurabada.
He had been in Papua since 1908 and was highly respected by Papuans and expatriates.
One of the 11 Squadron Empire flying boats was sent to Samarai to bring the casket to Moresby for the funeral. At the jetty where the casket was to come ashore there was to be a large contingent of the Royal Papuan Constabulary and the Heavy Battery all with fixed bayonets and half a dozen Navy Surveyors.
The airmen I had available for the Air Force guard were mainly ex-Qantas men who had had no rifle drill, so I paraded the RAAF guard with side arms.
They turned out well but even so one of them managed to surreptitiously slip on a camera and strap.
The big Empire boat flown by Gurney and Hemsworth came in from the southeast low over Ela Beach and just above the Top Pub to alight close in.
The flag draped casket was brought to the jetty by the RAAF launch and came ashore directly in front of the RAAF guard then passed the fully armed Navy party and Heavy Battery to what appeared to be a couple of hundred armed Royal Papuan Constabulary and the entire population of expatriate residents of Moresby.
The cortege was followed by thousands of Papuans and set off along the road around the harbour foreshore to Konedobu, Murray's last resting place. It was a beautifully organised and most impressive ceremony.
“But who is like him in Papua?” asked a Hanuabadan at the great masai ariana or death feast which was attended by thousands of Papuans.
In May 1940, Alex informed me that men from business and commerce were being brought in as Administrative Officers and pilots such as myself would return to full-time flying.
With my ex-civilian replacement on the way, Alex asked whether I would like to remain with 11 Squadron, and I said; “And fly what?”
He said; “Seagulls.”
“No thanks,” I said.
“I understand 3 Squadron is to go overseas. I would like to return there.” Which I did.
After two and a half years in the Middle East, including command of 450 Fighter Squadron and attending the Middle East Staff School at Haifa, I return to Australia at the end of 1942.
By now Wing Commander, I was appointed to command the newly formed 73 Wing and move its two fighter squadron (Spitfires and P40s), a Beaufighter and a Boston Squadron to a forward base to be developed on Kiriwina in the Trobriands.
This was to be a forward fighter base to refuel US P38 fighters to enable them to escort eventual B24 strikes on Rabaul.
I had learned that soon after the Japanese occupied Rabaul, the Americans sent a single B25 day bomber on a mission to bomb the large base there. Gurney, then commanding a Catalina Squadron in Moresby, volunteered to go in the B25 as the Americans did not know the area and Gurney knew well.
They were attacked by Zeros over Rabaul, were badly hit and were limping home damaged when they were forced to make a crash landing at Kiriwina.
Later, when the strip on Kiriwina was under construction, I took a P40 there from Goodenough and saw nose and main wheel drag furrows leading to Gurney’s B25 which had rolled onto its back. Gurney, in the nose, died there. I think the Americans also did not survive.
After the war, I became Director of Operations at RAAF HQ in Melbourne and then made what to some might be a surprising career change, arriving in PNG as a Patrol Officer in January 1947.
My first posting was to Esa’ala and I then spent six months at the Australian School of Pacific Administration before being posted to Kairuku in January 1948.
In late 1948 I was transferred to Madang where the District Officer was JK McCarthy and the ADO Tom Aichison. By early 1949 I was off to Bogia where the ADO was Lloyd Hurrell.
In mid-1949, I was promoted to Manus as ADO under DO’s Ken Bridge and then Tom Aitchison. In August 1950, after a last patrol to the Western Islands, my wife ill, I resigned from the Territory service to return to the RAAF as Wing Commander.
Upon his return to the RAAF following his kiap days, Gordon Steege spent time in the 1960s commanding RAAF bases at Amberley, Butterworth and Edinburgh, retiring with the rank of Air Commodore in 1972. Until his death, he lived in Palm Beach, NSW. Read Gordon Steege’s complete memoirs as originally published in PNG Attitude here and here