TUMBY BAY - In early July 1947 the Assistant District Officer for Simbu, Jack Costelloe, received word from Geru, a Karap clan leader from the Kouno area, that Dika men had attacked and killed two Karap women in their gardens.
There had been a long standing feud between the Karap and Dika clans. In a previous altercation five men from each side had been killed. Attempts to settle the matter had come to nothing and now Geru sought the protection of the kiap.
Costelloe set out from Kundiawa for the area accompanied by Patrol Officer Craig Symons and 11 police, intending to arrange a peace settlement between the warring clans.
On the way, Costelloe received an urgent telegram and walked to Kerowagi to catch a plane to Port Moresby. He left Symons in charge and told him to proceed to Karap village but to go no further until he returned. Symons was warned about the extreme danger of disobeying this order.
Costelloe issued 55 rounds of .303 ammunition to the police before he left.
When Symons got to Karap he sent messages to the Dika clan leader, Mek, to come in for talks. Mek refused and instead sent back insulting messages.
On July 21, not complying with the firm instructions from Costelloe, Symons, accompanied by police and some Karap clansmen, walked to the Dika area. A confrontation occurred and five men were shot.
When Costelloe got back from Port Moresby Symons told him what had happened. Costelloe reported the matter to his superior, District Officer Jim Taylor in Goroka:
“I am sorry to advise that young Symons mucked things [up] in Kouno and became involved in a totally unwarranted shooting affray, killing five men… I instructed him to proceed as far as Karap, there to remain until I got back,” Costelloe wrote..
“For some reason or other [Symons] disobeyed my orders. The usual insulting messages were brought to him and I guess that he took them to mean a reflection on his own courage – anyway he went looking for trouble.
“As he approached the hostile people they laid down their arms and shields and fled. He had told the police to open fire if that happened and they immediately did so, shooting five men in the backs and killing them. Most unfortunate and unjustified.
“There was no attack at all and the fact of them laying down their arms indicated their desire to parley. He then permitted his party to lay waste some banana patches – totally unjustified.” [Australian Archives CRS A518, item W841/1]
Symons had just completed his initial training at the Australian School of Pacific Administration and had been posted to Simbu “for duty and further training”. He had been in the country less than five months and was young, inexperienced and unable to speak effective Tok Pisin.
Costelloe got a prompt reply from Taylor:
“Please advise a/Patrol Officer Symons:
To submit a confidential report to you (pass to me).
That I shall not order an inquest; that if I were to do so and that the evidence produced indicated that natives were shot when his or the lives of his police were not in real an imminent danger and that he gave the order to fire, the coroner would have no alternative but to commit him and such police who fired, for trial upon a charge of unlawful killing …
Not to discuss the subject with anyone except yourself or write about it to his friends or other members of the service. Publicity may cause legal action with possible disastrous results for himself.
Not to worry. His error is one of youth and I shall protect him, but he is to obey lawful orders implicitly.” [Australian Archives CRS A518, item W841/1]
While this exchange was taking place, Mek walked to Kundiawa and lodged a complaint with Costelloe about the shooting.
Taylor thought he had contained the matter but news leaked out and Sub-Inspector Bernard of the Royal Papuan Constabulary went to the area to investigate.
Taylor wasn’t officially informed of the inquiry and it is unclear how it came about but he took measures to protect Symons by writing to the Director of the Department of District Services and Native Affairs, JH Jones.
He sent copies of the various letters and the report from Symons and urged the director not to reveal their contents to anyone.
Jones didn’t take Taylor’s advice and sent the documents to the relevant authorities, including Administrator JK Murray, the Acting Crown Law Officer EB Bignold and the Minister for External Territories, Eddie Ward.
Bignold urged the investigation of the matter and the bringing of charges against Symons and the police, adding that it “discloses an attitude by the District Officer [Taylor] which I cannot comprehend”. [Australian Archives CRS A518, item W841/1] He also recommended that both Taylor and Symons be suspended.
Police Inspector JH McDonald conducted the investigation. McDonald was Assistant Director of the Department of District Services and Native Affairs but for the purposes of the investigation was appointed an Inspector of Police.
McDonald identified the five men killed as Denimp, Du, Kum, Manimp and Waim. [Australian Archives CRS A518, W841/1]
As a result of this investigation Symons and his police were exonerated and Taylor reinstated with a reprimand.
In early 1948 the Australian press got to hear of the matter. An article entitled: ‘Belated Report of Fatal Papuan Clash Last July’ appeared in the Canberra Times of 21 January while another entitled: ‘Hush-Hush on NG Killings Alleged’ appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald of 20 January.
Bignold was unhappy about this outcome and the bad publicity and continued to urge that Symons and his police be charged with unlawful killing and that Taylor be charged with attempting to defeat the course of justice. He was unsuccessful.
This account borrows heavily from the late August Kituai’s 1998 book, ‘My Gun, My Brother: The World of the Papua New Guinea Colonial Police, 1920-1960’. It is highly recommended reading. [Read the book online here]
It is worth noting that Kituai received strident criticism over the book, particularly from old hands at the Papua New Guinea Australia Association. This criticism is redolent of past and current criticism of Mathias Kin’s work towards the publication of his upcoming book.
Together with other accounts of this incident I have read, I cannot help but conclude that there was indeed an attempt to cover up the Symons Affair.