I HAD only been six weeks at Vanimo Patrol Post when I was transferred to Aitape in October 1955 to take over the Sub-District.
In those days, the huge Sepik District had six sub-districts (Aitape, Angoram, Lumi, Maprik, Telefomin and Wewak), each under the control of an Assistant District Officer, who was a power in the land.
ADO’s told people what to do and they did things themselves. They were the peacemakers and the peacekeepers, the law enforcers, the senior police officers, the District Court magistrates, the gaolers, the arbitrators, the counsellors and the mentors.
I was five months as acting ADO at Aitape before I reverted back to Patrol Officer, making way for ADO Arthur (AT) Carey, who had been moved to Aitape to make way for Fred (FPC) Kaad to take over at Maprik.
When Carey moved on, after only three months, and I took over again as ADO it was beginning to feel like a game of musical chairs. I did not like it, but it was going to get worse.
Three days later, District Officer Tom (TG) Aitchison arrived. Aitchison, a pre-war kiap, had been a District Officer in ANGAU and after the war, and had served as District Commissioner since 1951 - the year District Officers, in charge of Districts, had been given the new title of District Commissioner.
Aitchison had served in Manus, Morobe and New Island and was now posted to the Sepik District as District Officer responsible for the Department of Native Affairs.
In six districts, the senior government officer—the District Commissioner—had been transferred to the Department of the Administrator; in the Sepik, District Commissioner Elliott-Smith was one of them. Hence the bureaucratic entanglement. But readers should know that being a kiap involved more than breaking the bush and bring government to the people.
Maybe it was just Aitchison’s new broom approach or maybe he was disgruntled because Elliott-Smith, an Assistant Resident Magistrate in pre-war Papua who had also served in ANGAU, and who had commanded the Pacific Islands Battalion in 1945, had seemingly abandoned his Territory career but was now his superior.
(Elliott-Smith had continued in the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel in Victoria until he joined the Western Australian Department of Native Affairs in June 1949. In March 1951, he was inexplicably appointed District Commissioner for the Higatura area following the Mount Lamington eruption.)
Whatever the reason, at the end of May Aitchison ordained that Patrol Officer Ron (RTD) Neville would move from Maprik to Telefomin to take over from Dave (ED) Wren as ADO. Wren would move from Telefomin and take over from me at Aitape, and I would move to Dreikikir, a Patrol Post about 45 kilometres west of Maprik.
Everything was ready when Wren arrived from Telefomin via Wewak on 24 September 1956. The cash-book was closed off, the cash counted and the Government Store was in apple-pie-order.
Patrol Officer Paul (PCA) Conroy had done a thorough stocktake after I chewed his ear when I caught him rubbing the contents of a tin of bully beef on stock cards so cockroaches would destroy more recent entries.
We started the formal handover the day after Wren’s arrival and had completed it by midday. Wren did not seem interested in the process, only glancing around the store and perfunctorily counting the cash and postage stamps.
Each evening we relaxed in well-lubricated discussion, and we had much to talk about. Wren was 10 years my senior in age and three years my senior as a kiap.
He had joined the Administration in March 1946 just one month after his discharge from the Army, and his had been a long war. He had served as a ‘weekend soldier’ in the Citizen Military Forces while still a civilian and had enlisted in the AIF just six weeks after the outbreak of war in 1939.
He was given the New South Wales service number NX64, commissioned as a Lieutenant and was soon overseas fighting in the Middle East (Bardia, Tobruk, Benghazi), in Greece and in Crete - in the 2/4th Infantry Battalion, AIF.
Perhaps it was the battles against superior German forces, the defeats, the desperate withdrawals, the evacuation from Greece and then the strafing and incessant dive bombing that preceded the airborne invasion of Crete by German paratroopers that took the greatest toll.
Wren did not dwell on the horror of those wartime experiences, but his enthusiasm and sense of purpose seemed to have been destroyed. Loud noises disturbed him and he had a pathological fear of heights. At Telefomin, he always arranged for his police to blindfold him and carry him, strapped to a pole, across the deep canyons that were bridged only by single tree trunks.
I only had two and a half days after the handover to show him around. I introduced him to Monsignor Doggett, Father Denis and the Parers and took him to see the bridge construction.
On the way back, we stopped off at the nearby “Coffee Shop”—the one-bedroomed shack at St Anna Plantation where Bob (WH) Parer sometimes slept the night. It was always good for a cup of Nescafe, even when Bob was miles away.
We discussed the bridge construction and how much more needed to be done. Wren said he was not interested, that someone else would have to complete it at another time.
I was still thinking of that unfinished bridge and the people who had been involved in the work when Gena and I flew out of Aitape on Friday 28 September 1956.
Nearly all my possessions were packed in three wooden trunks crafted by John Pitau from the nearby Ali Island. Those campaign-style trunks were carefully dimensioned to fit into small aircraft. They are still in my possession after 60 years, continuing to stir memories of the Aitape folk and our bridge building ventures.
Pitau had toiled tirelessly in the flowing river—frequently under water—building the formwork for the concrete footings to the bridge piles.
Peter Hughes, who provided the timber for the trunks—he had selected flitches of aged Kwila hardwood and milled and thicknessed the planks—had worked with me daily on the second bridge. He supplied the electric welder and did all the welding, helped solve the continual problems and finished each day with our joint evaluation.
Another gent very much involved with the bridge, Brere Awol of Malol, arrived with a farewell gift just as I was about to depart. Even though it was a miniaturised version, the ornately carved and decorated garamut (slit drum) was far too big to fit in any container, and travelled unpacked.
Another memory that will not go away is of a 67-year old Bob Parer (baptised Wilfred Herbert) standing in front of me holding a can of beer in one hand and a lighted cigarette in the other. He handed me both and suddenly did a back-flip, landing poised on his feet and, with a smile, took back his beer and smoke.
District Commissioner Aitchison’s instruction was clear. After the handover I would proceed to Wewak and “assist with the setting up of the But- Boiken Council prior to moving to Maprik.” He did not say that PO Robin (RA) Calcutt would also assist or that our sole role would be to assist PO Geoffrey (CG) Littler with the initial elections.
Littler had done all the preliminaries in May and June, but it was Dave (DFM) Fenbury MC who had ensued the smoothness of the elections.
Earlier in the year, in March, he had flown from Port Moresby to Dagua to visit Simogun Pita BEM and gain his support. The two had wartime affinities: Fenbury had operated behind Japanese lines in the Sepik; Simogun had spent a year in coastwatcher and guerrilla operations on New Britain with Malcolm Wright and had been awarded the British Empire Medal—unparalleled recognition in those racist times.
When Simogun Pita (later Sir Simogun Pita) told the people that the council was a good thing and that all the people should vote, 64% of eligible voters did so. We conducted the ballot for each language group, and 24 councillors were elected. The council covered the But and Boiken groups, 5,500 people living in 34 villages.
We spent the last two nights and a rest day at Yuo, a tiny isle just off the mainland about 30 kilometres from Wewak, enjoying the white sand, colourful coral, clear water and freshly caught crayfish.
The gossip had it that Yuo was the DC’s trysting spot and the rest house, with its timber floor and fine furniture, gave credence to the story. Furniture, especially refrigerators and double beds, was in short supply on outstations, but at Yuo the rest house contained one of each and they were sparkling.
Back at Wewak, Elliott-Smith and Aitchison gave me a long, almost disquieting, briefing before I departed for Maprik. According to Elliott-Smith, the area was still only “semi-controlled and much more work needed to be done.”
Dreikikir had been established as a base by ANGAU towards the end of the Pacific War. Following the resumption of civil administration in the Sepik in February 1946, a police constable acted as caretaker until Patrol Officer Dudley Young Whitforde opened the patrol post in April 1947.
When Young Whitforde was withdrawn unwell and hospitalised after two months, a succession of patrol officers followed but there were long intervals when the station was unmanned.
I would be the seventh incumbent in ten years; my predecessor, PO Jock (JW) McGregor, had been transferred away three years earlier.
A medical assistant was living in the PO’s house—the only permanent material building on the station – and I would have to survive in a ramshackle, local material building until a new house was built for me “soon”. I was instructed not to build anything else in the interim.
I flew into Maprik on 21 October 1956 and set out for Dreikikir two days later, travelling in a refurbished, ex-army jeep that Kaad had hired from somewhere. Durami, a little guy from Yangoru, was at the wheel; Gena and a police constable shared the back with as much gear as would fit, and the box trailer hooked on behind was crammed high.
When, some 10 kilometres along the track, the engine died, villagers helped us unload, took the heavier items into storage and we set out on foot.
At the end of the road some 40 kilometres further on, Dreikikir stretched along a high narrow ridge, but I did not see much of it that night. I slept in the house that Elliott-Smith had described as ‘ramshackle’ and got my bearings the next morning.
The dilapidated house had an earth floor, small shuttered windows and a low thatched roof. The interior was hot, dank and dark. It was not for me. I wandered around the station for a couple of days, dined with medical assistant John Waters and his wife in the Bulolo-style bungalow on a couple of evenings, and decided that I would ignore the “do not build’ instruction.
To my mind, the obvious site for a new house was on the bluff at the northern end of the ridge, past the married police houses. It was isolated and there was an uninterrupted view over the lowlands.
I sketched a plan, then with my builders—the police detachment—I marked the footprint out on the ground. The house was going to catch the breezes; the lounge-dining room would have large, uncluttered window openings that would be protected from the elements by eaves spanning the verandah, which would surround the house on four sides and be almost two metres wide—wide enough for me to sprawl out in a deck chair. The police criticised the design: it was flawed, they said, the roof would be too flat and it would leak. They were right, it did.
I was lucky. Fred Kaad had moved from Maprik to replace Aitchison as District Officer in Wewak a few days earlier and Arthur Carey was once again ADO at Maprik. Kaad came good with the required cash and Carey sent me nails, hammers, saws and a bush carpenter.
The word went out to the villages. The builders needed hardwood posts—Kwila—in various dimensions: thick logs for the foundation stumps, thinner logs for the bearers, and mature saplings for the uprights. We also needed black palm flooring, softwood for the rafters, bush rope for binding, and sheets and sheets of sago thatching for the roof.
My day was getting busy. There were two obligatory radio schedules with Wewak, and village officials—Luluais, Tultuls, and even a Paramount or two—roamed in from near and far, some with problems, some just to pass the time. Villagers came with interminable complaints - some of which led to court proceedings - about assaults, theft, and infidelities.
Whenever I could, I got out of the tiny office: a one-roomed cube with thatched roof, plaited walls, limbon floor, and small front verandah. My new house was moving along too slowly for me but I had to address a host of tasks in the field.
There were rumours of a cargo cult at Ilihita and allegations of sanguma (sorcery) reported by the South Seas Evangelical Mission, the annual census revision was due, and some impetus was needed to upgrade the road network.
Ilihita village was in the Bumbita-Muhiang census division, one of three forming the inner arc around the station. I decided to divide my visits into four segments, returning to Dreikikir between each segment to check on the progress of the building. That exercise took 34 days.
John (JG) O’Brien, Maprik’s newest Cadet Patrol Officer had joined me at Ilihita to gain experience. It was the first time he had been on a patrol and the first time he been involved in a cargo cult investigation.
We visited the South Seas Evangelical Mission and made the acquaintance of the woman in charge. Elizabeth Schrader was an unmarried German who had experienced the Marching Rule cult in the British Solomon Islands and was fearful of a similar outbreak at Ilihita.
Her assistant Helen Held, also an unmarried German but much younger and very comely, was not concerned. O’Brien and I enjoyed several home-cooked German meals during our prolonged investigation. Maybe we defused the movement.
O’Brien also accompanied on my next patrol, 18 days in the Gawanga, a huge sparsely populated area of forested hills and sago swamps stretching southwards almost to the Sepik River.
David Fenbury, as a Captain in ANGAU, had opened up the area in 1944-45, but the first post-war patrol had entered only in June 1948. That was after Patrol Officer Blue (G) Morris, the second civilian incumbent at Dreikikir, was told that 25 males and two females had been killed in tribal fighting and that villagers, some armed with grenades, were being trained to resist the government.
Morris and his wife had been just deposited at Dreikikir from Aitape by Bobby Gibbes’s flimsy Auster aircraft but, when he heard the news, Morris arranged for his wife to be flown to Wewak. He set out for the Gawanga with four native police on 11 June and two days later returned to Dreikikir with 26 natives, including the original murderer and witnesses.
Patrol Officer Alex (AJ) Zweck walked in from Maprik with two police and accompanied Morris back to the Gawanga. ADO George Greathead flew in from Wewak with six more police on 26 June and, together with Morris and Zweck, arrested 60 men and recovered two hand grenades. During the whole operation only one shot was fired, a warning over the Gwanga’s heads.
Greathead, Zweck and Morris had restored law and order. Subsequent patrols - by Laurie (LJ) Doolan in 1949 and 1950, by Des (DM) Martin in 1951 and by Jock (JW) McGregor in July 1953 - received an apathetic but not unfriendly reception and recorded the area as the most backward in Dreikikir.
Very little had changed by the time we visited in February 1957. We spent 18 days meandering around the network of narrow bush tracks that linked the villages and were briefly delayed while we built a raft to cross the flooded Bongos River.
We wandered through a forest abundant with game, our guides signalling our progress by messages drummed on the buttresses of giant trees. People who had returned from their homes that were as much as a day’s walk away in the sago swamps met us in the villages. In stark contrast to the verdant forest, the village houses, unlived in for most of the years, were dilapidated, dirty and unkempt.
Two days after the Gawanga patrol, the acting District Officer contacted me by radio and asked whether I would postpone my leave by six months and take over from ADO Brightwell at Ambunti.
I left Dreikikir, where I had been based for less than five months, on 9 March 1957. Tony (AL) Redwood, recovering from hepatitis contracted at May River, replaced me and within a month had himself been replaced by Tony (CA) Trollope,
Nine different officers had taken charge of Dreikikir in 10 years, and for four of those years the station had been unmanned. Was it any wonder that the people were confused and unenthusiastic.
From my perspective the saving grace was that my former District Officer Aitchison was relocated to headquarters in Port Moresby. I did not know at the time that he would return to haunt me in 1966.
Map of the Dreikikir region, census divisions in red (Bill Brown)
Photo 1. One of the three trunks crafted by Pitau of Tumleo in 1957 and the camp oven I first used in 1953. All still in service in 2017 (Bill Brown)
Photo 2. An Aitape garamut (slit drum) on its stand, perhaps twice the size of that presented by Brere Awol of Malol (Victor Cavill, 1955, Softly, Wild Drums)
Photo 3. A photo of Dreikikir airstrip slightly readjusted to recreate the 1950s aura (Bill Brown)
The sloping airstrip separating (1) the Catholic Mission (Church and other buildings of native material) at the bottom left of the frame from (2) the native material hospital buildings at the top end of sloping airstrip. (3) The only permanent material building, a Bulolo-type bungalow, originally the OIC’s house, and (4) the rough location of the new house that I organised
Photo 4. The new house with the airy lounge-dining room, wide verandah and 180 degree views. Brere’s garamut on the verandah above the steps (Bill Brown)
Photo 5. Crossing the flooded Bongos River between Fumutumbu and Akasamei villages (Gawanga Census Division) 18 February 1957. Patrol boxes, gear, rifles and two non-swimmers on the raft; eight swimmers in the water (Bill Brown)