IN November and December 1967, I was instructed by my company commander, Major Greg Warland, to take my 11th platoon of D Coy, 1st Pacific Islands Regiment from Kerema on the south coast of Papua to Wau in New Guinea via the Bulldog Road.
I had three weeks to complete the patrol. My fellow D Company platoon commanders were to patrol the highlands west of Wau.
Bulldog was a pre-war goldmining centre at the junction of a river system from which it was navigable down the Lakekamu River to the Papuan Gulf.
The road from Bulldog to Wau had been constructed by Army engineers in 1942 as a supply route to Wau for a planned assault on the Japanese positions in Lae.
Pre-war goldminers had constructed a railway line at Bulldog and I was to find it and report on its condition and on the condition of the road from Bulldog to Wau.
Prior to the patrol the company 2IC, Captain Tim Britten, and I were to have been taken on an aerial reconnaissance of the patrol route in an Army Cessna 380 airplane.
We flew from Port Moresby to Lae, where we refuelled the plane and the pilot’s cigarette lighter with aviation gas direct from the plane’s fuel tank overload outlet, then to Wau where we stayed the night in the Wau Hotel.
During the evening, and after a few beers, the pilot, a captain, fell in love with the barmaid. Our early morning start was delayed an hour whilst we waited for our amorous pilot to surface. When he did, he was most happy and in a jovial mood.
However high cumulus cloud had begun to form in the mountains surrounding Wau and he expressed his concerns about flying over these mountains, which are in excess of 2,300 metres in height.
After a brief discussion, Tim persuaded the pilot to make an attempt to cross the mountains. We took off down the steepest landing strip in PNG and rose gradually to enter the clouds at a height of about 2,000 metres when the pilot did what all daring young men in their flying machines do.
He went up tiddly dah and he went down tiddly dah and around tiddly dah trying to find a way around the clouds before he decided it was too dangerous to fly any further and made a welcome and beeline return to Wau.
Whilst in the air my knuckles went white from holding my seat too tight. I imagine my face would have been ghost white as well, as we received a real bucket ride. Tim and I spent a long day in Wau without the pilot’s company. However I did meet a hard bitten, tough looking Australian expat in the bar of the Wau Hotel and filled in the afternoon.
The next day we took off earlier and flew west to Menyamya where an Administration sub-district office was located. This was an exciting experience as the airstrip was half way up a mountain and was about 200 metres long. On landing, it felt as if the plane was to fly straight into the mountain.
The approach was so slow and as soon as the plane touched the ground the pilot braked as hard as he could. Taking off was worse. Once the plane left the ground it fell into the deep and steep valley leaving your stomach in your mouth before gaining speed and altitude.
We never got to Kerema. I presume that because of the previous day’s “joy ride” our fuel was low so the pilot made for a mission airstrip east of Kerema and towards Port Moresby.
During the flight we entered a magnificent valley that had been formed by an ancient glacier. It was about 150 metres wide and about the same depth. The sides were almost vertical and were covered in light green grass. This part of the flight lasted about five minutes and had me spellbound.
Later in the flight the pilot turned to Tim beside him in the front seat and said that we had 20 minutes fuel left. I looked at my watch then and again ten minutes later when the pilot was looking anxiously around at the jungle canopy from his cockpit seat.
Out of the windows all I could see was the tree tops of the jungle canopy. I was mentally preparing myself for a crash landing when in another five minutes the pilot said “there it is”. We landed on the strip and not only did the airplane get refuelled with the help of a local missionary but also the pilot’s cigarette lighter. An adventurous flight but I came back none the wiser.
On the thirteenth day of November, the platoon, an attached signaller and medic left Port Moresby by Caribou aircraft as guests of the RAAF. Seating was side saddle on the floor and with the rear door open for ventilation.
The aircraft became only the second Caribou to land on Kerema airstrip (the previous one was a test flight to determine if it was possible) and as the locals were not used to seeing such large aircraft, or it was possible that they thought the war with Japan had restarted, they turned out in force to see what was happening.
On disembarking, I looked up at what seemed like a plateau 10 to 12 metres above the airstrip that was lined with people shoulder to shoulder, all talking excitedly. With such an audience it was too good an opportunity to miss, so instead of going off casually in section groups I asked Sergeant Guri, the platoon sergeant, to form the men into columns of three and we then marched into town.
I think the locals were impressed…..
It was normal at that time for a patrol to demonstrate the power of modern weapons compared to bows and arrows and the might of the Army should they come across a primitive tribe. Every man in the platoon carried 60 rounds of live ammunition for his rifle and I carried a 9mm pistol and 50 rounds to meet any emergency situation with locals or fauna such as wild pigs, cassowaries and crocodiles.
My discussion with the Kiap dented my confidence. The prospect of heading off with the responsibility of leading the platoon of 36 men into deep jungle occupied by head hunters and steering by compass was daunting to say the least.
Had I not been conscripted I would have been back in Perth surfing and drinking beer. And that is exactly where I wanted to be at that time.
I made a decision to ask Greg Warland for permission to go to Bulldog via the easier route suggested by the Kiap. A radio call to Company headquarters, now in Wau, and Greg gave me the go ahead. The kiaps bought me a beer or two that night and a local coconut plantation owner offered the platoon a ride on his tractor wagons for part of the way.
You can read this fascinating memoir in its entirety on the Nashos website here.