Politicians push coal as Pacific lashes climate change
PNG & the unsolved mystery of Amelia Earhart

The kiap experience from the receiving end

Joe Herman - mixed experiences with the kiaps he came across


SEATTLE, USA - I had mixed experiences with kiaps. When I was small, fear lingered in my village. The adults told us to keep away from the kiaps.  The dominant feeling was that the kiaps would punish us, or even take us away.

These feelings were reinforced as we watched the road between Laiagam and Kandep built. Everyone was required to work on road construction and other government projects.

The police rounded up those who did not show up and beat them or threw them in gaol. This fear drove my movement and I always watched from the periphery of the centre of activities.

As I got older, I lived at Laiagam station, about 20 kilometres from my village, and witnessed some of the changes that were occurring.  In particular I remember interactions with individual kiaps.

I thought that kiap Mr Van Ruth at Laiagam was a borderline bully. At times he would set his dog on us and we ran in all directions. 

He had the late Paul Lare and three medical orderlies thrown in gaol for making loud noises while walking past his residence.  They were heading home after drinking at the local tavern.

Mr Lare was a radio announcer based in Mt Hagen doing some recording with the school children. When he did not show up, we went looking for him the next morning and found out he had spent the night in gaol.

Mail and freight for the expatriate community was flown in by aircraft operated by Territory Air Lines. Driven by curiosity we watched from a distance as these airplanes landed, unloaded and took off. The dirt airstrip and the post office became communication centres for the expatriate community.

One day, in front of the office building located several metres from the airstrip, I heard Mrs Van Ruth say, “arrest him”. At her command, several policemen grabbed a local driver and threw him in gaol. She thought he was driving too fast in front of the office. 

Several years later, while we were in high school, Mr Stewart Armstrong at Wapenamanda introduced us rugby league and was our coach. He was one of my best motivators, eventually setting me on a trajectory that led to my playing school representative rugby in both PNG and Australia.

The popular Ipatas Cup rugby league program in PNG sprouted from the seeds planted by Mr Armstrong.

In the late 1970s, I needed a kiap’s signature on a government form. So, I went to Laiagam one Sunday afternoon and knocked on his door to obtain it.

I had never seen the man before. Looking rather irritated, he greeted me with “f…. bloody”, which seemed normal vocabulary because they all spoke like that. Yet he grudgingly signed the document for me.

In the early 1980s, I got to know Mr John Forrest who was working with the Madang Provincial Government. I found him to be one the most professional and courteous people.

At the time I was working in the private sector and Mr Forrest helped me secure funding for a primary school, a clinic and a vocational school in the Upper Ramu Valley.

He knew the system well so he pointed me in the appropriate direction if he could not assist directly.

Footnote: Phil Fitzpatrick has commented, “Nigel wasn't a borderline bully, Joe, he was a full-on bully. Unfortunately he was one of quite a few exceptions to the rule. Laiagam was unlucky to have him there.”


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Robert L Parer CMG MBE

I found most expats living in the main towns thought the Kiaps very overbearing. I certainly didn't as lived at Aitape from 1954 and, as it was more of an outstation, I had close contact with Kiaps and admired them for their dedication and extraordinary achievements.

Tony Wright mentioned Kiap Pat Russell and no one seems to know what happened to him. We heard that his ex-wife from Japan died in an aircraft hit by a missile when she was flying from Japan to Europe.

Arthur Williams

Many thanks Ross. I shall have a read when I return from my 80th birthday patrol – a treat from some of my daughters - to Menton near Italian border.

Bravo, Arthur, on such a significant anniversary - KJ

Ross Wilkinson

Hi Arthur, here's the link to the New Ireland Patrol Reports. https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/search?f%5Bsubject_topic_sim%5D%5B%5D=New+Ireland+Province+%28Papua+New+Guinea%29&id=bb30391860

Click on the link or copy and paste it in your browser then select the station and time period where and when the Johnson Cult occurred and was investigated by various officers.

Whilst I have read the reports briefly for another purpose, I recall the cult being mentioned frequently.

Arthur Williams

Loved how you started your piece, Paul: "I suggest it’s about time to stop beating around the bush." A very suitable phrase for an ex-Patrol Officer.

One comment I heard several times on Lavongai about kiaps after I was demobbed was "Kiap emi nogat mausgras iet!" Being too young to grow facial hair was a mildly derogatory term but I guess it was hardly ever said directly to the targeted kiap.

Of course most white employers from public and private sectors said the reverse. Their old employees who might well have been a grand-father was often referred to as a ‘boy’.

Perhaps I was unlucky in being posted initially to Taskul on Lavongai Island which a mere five or six years before had been the scene of what was labelled as the ‘Johnson Cult’.

Over the next 30 years I heard several firsthand accounts of the events from many different people. Inis, my wife’s grandfather, was one of the few in his core SDA family who supported Walla Gukguk; one of several leaders the 1960s had thrust into the limelight.

Inis and his daughters told me of the immense shame at being formed into a chain of offenders and led down to one of the several workboats sent to collect the prisoners.

Jim White provided his MV Kuak and Manus ex-MP Ron Knight’s father sent his boat over. Inis was not ashamed of being arrested but at being dragged quickly along and so losing his laplap thus exposing his genitals to watching tambu females and other women.

In the early seventies it was almost a badge of honour to have been one of the heroes arrested for supporting the presidential rather than Canberra's political system.

Several other detainees told me of being forced to erect the concrete breakwater along Kavieng harbour, especially near the old District Office that is extant and used for elections.

What they hated was being forced to hold your breath for too long as you were told to dive and find lumps of coral for the structure. Some allegedly had nose bleeds from those experiences.

Others told of not so nice experiences labouring to build the airstrip on isolated Tingwon Island or on other public works projects around New Ireland District.

A wharf was built in Inis’s home village of Meterankang with a thick concrete cargo area at its head. The best wharf on the island for many years.

Sadly it was only ever used for unloading a tractor, jinker and front end loader donated by the Oz bishops' aid fund and destined for Johnson’s successor TIA (Tutukuvul Isukal Association) after the Catholic Mission built the first road from there to the wharf.

Ironically when I was last in New Ireland in 2007-8 I saw all these projects were decaying and unused. Inis’s wharf was slowly sliding beneath the waves with an ever bigger slope on the once horizontal landing area.

Tingwon airstrip abandoned years before when the anti-TIA spivs on the island failed to correctly utilise the maintenance grant that the province had given it.

I was never able to locate any of the patrol reports for the Cult era either in Taskul or Kavieng. A bit like Stalin’s old confidant and Security Minister Beria who had once been in a quite large party photo only to see it become a smaller and smaller official group photo as members ‘disappeared’ and were erased over the years. Until one day the photographic record apparently ceased to exist.

Perhaps one day as the old TIA comrades die out Canberra can say Johnson too never happened. As there is no official record of New Ireland’s ‘Reds Under the Bed’ events.

Would love to hear from the digitally savvy writers on PNG Attitude who can perhaps say there are microfiche records of those few unhappy years on Lavongai, maybe in Canberra.

Mathias Kin

Joe Herman, a very well written article. I had captured a lot of stories of the great work of kiaps especially in the 1930s until 1975 and PNG's independence in my recently published history book 'My Chimbu'. In chapters 1-6, I touch a lot on the achievements of these gallant Australians.

In an effort to tell a complete story and stories that have never been told by the Chimbus of the activities of these Australians, I also captured some extrajudicial killings in the early patrols in the Chimbu area, especially between 1933 during first contact and just after the war in 1946 and 1947.

You can obtain a copy of 'My Chimbu' on line from Amazon (US).

Joe Herman

Thanks for your comments. Peter, I am sure the kiaps' motives were pure and it is not my place to question that.

If you are saying that the pain inflicted during road constructions was a “necessary evil” act then I assume that the collateral pain inflicted was justifiably unavoidable.

On the swearing, I have no value judgement one way or the other. All I heard was “f…bloody” out of his mouth.

Keep in mind that my world view was just a speck in the dust in the realm of things. My experience was a snapshot of images of the unfolding changes. It seemed like I was sitting at a river bank watching the currents flowing at that given moment in time.

The upstream was set in motion by forces beyond my control and the downstream yet to be determined.

The people in general, including the many folks from the PNG Attitude community, have done simple acts with life changing benefits for someone. The kiap’s signature on my form I consider one of those small acts of kindness. It was a decent human act.

To be open and transparent, I think there is merit in hearing out how the recipients experienced the changes. Otherwise it is tempting to rationalise our way through an important piece of history that impacted many lives.

The frontline folks and those who got left behind when the dust settled have shared enduring memories. Both were there and the stories need to be shared!

Paul Oates

I suggest it’s about time to stop beating around the bush. Kiaps were simply ordinary people who were placed, after some training, into some extraordinary positions of supervised authority whose roles are virtually impossible to translate into modern terms. ‘Bureaucratic Dictators’ might come somewhere close.

They were responsible and accountable for their actions and could be dismissed or disciplined by their seniors right up the line to the head of Department and the Administrator and if necessary, the Minister for External Territories. Those who were administered could appeal and sometimes did to higher authorities with often immediate results.

To try and explain what it was like from a Kiap’s perspective could be just as misleading as to try and explain what it was like for those who lived in rural PNG areas and had experience of an individual Kiap.

To try and imagine what it was like to be responsible for achieving results in areas where many people had a totally different culture or cultures, language and were vastly more numerous (often 1 to tens of thousands), is clearly today, virtually impossible.

How Kiaps as a fraternity, achieved anything at all is the real question that should be asked before any reasonable yardstick can be contemplated.

The answer comes down to two aspects.

Firstly, the majority of the PNG people clearly had to be complicit in permitting Kiaps to wield their power, irrespective of this power being reinforced with a few loyal and intelligent rural police. This could be summed up by two ways: The Kiaps had to work within the local cultural framework to motivate people to achieve results. This motivation was at first, through gradual coercion but eventually assisted by the obvious results that were achieved.

A couple of examples of this aspect are the building of a road or an airstrip. Initially, those who had never seen or ridden in a vehicle had to accept what they were told. The same applied to an airstrip.

Once the road or airstrip was opened however, the people who had undertaken the work could see and benefit from the results. The authority of the Kiap therefore dovetailed into the very nature of traditional PNG cultures where the fight leader or so called ‘big man’ provided leadership but also looked after those he led. It is worth noting in a modern context, as a salaried public servant, the Kiap did not obtain any financial benefit from whatever was achieved in his area.

The second aspect is one of a more difficult nature to explain. It concerns the nature of each individual. No one should suggest that Kiaps were saints or superhuman. They made mistakes and at times could be very dictatorial. They were simply public servants required to administer policies set by the government, but often in a very individual way. This situation brought out the true nature of each individual. It was often a very lonely position. Some Kiaps retreated into a bottle or worse. Some were injured in body or spirit and mostly left the role by their own accord. Others however saw and used the opportunity to work closely in a co-operative and collaborative way with the people in the area they were responsible for.

A few senior officers sometimes tried to write specific instructions that were meant to define how the role was to operate. Mostly these ‘tomes’ were either out of date, unread or discarded since no one could anticipate what specific incidents a Kiap might encounter during a 24/7 official duty or then have the time and opportunity to consult the official policy. Often, you either coped, were ignored or sometimes died.

There was no immediate backup or on-line communications to a senior officer. The Kiap and sometimes a few police, were all that stood between a reversion into traditional customs including clan warfare and ritualistic murder or obeyed the rule of law.

Let’s therefore call a spade a spade and not a shovel. The best way of looking at a productive forest is to take a helicopter view of its overall value and benefits rather than tripping over and concentrating on some individual and unproductive trees.

Tony Wright

I did not know Nigel in PNG but we both attended the 1964 12 month ASOPA course. I could believe that he may have had an overbearing attitude in the PNG setting.
I remember one amusing incident involving him.I was travelling along Military Rd. one night as a passenger in Pat Russell's car with 3 other kiaps, all well over the limit after a party. We were stopped by Police & being questioned when Nigel drove up & called out "assert your authority, tell them you are PNG kiaps". One of our number responded "piss off Nigel we are in enough trouble as it is". He then drove off & another car load of inebrienated kiaps drove past & yelled out " big, bad Pat in trouble with the Police again". This seemed to enrage the Police who abandoned us saying "let's chase them, it might be a stolen car".We then drove away, don't know what happened to the others.
On a serious note, I don't recall working with any bullying kiaps. Some issued instructions in a very firm manner so that there would be no misunderstandings. 99% of kiaps & others - teachers,didimen, PHD, etc. were there to advance the interests & welfare of the local people & often lived in isolated locations with few amenities.

Peter Salmon

Hi Joe - I never knew the subject kiap. Thankfully Phil Fitzpatrick has confirmed your opinion.

In all walks of life there are some who should never be there. Coincidentally from the other side of the fence there were some kiaps who by virtue of their nature should never been responsible for mentoring junior kiaps. Fortunately I never found myself in this situation.

Re roadworks, sorry but a necessary evil to develop PNG otherwise there would never have been a highlands highway and most other roads if the "gavman" waited for funds.

And for the swearing, well for some of us it is an integral part of our vocabulary and I would be one of the main protagonists of this.

From my point of view there is nothing wrong with swearing, it's all in the delivery but I can understand a person who is not aware of this Australian but not necessarily limited to, trait be it you, a Japanese tourist or whoever that this may be confusing. It’s a cultural thing.

And in regard to seeking the kiap's signature on a fine Sunday afternoon in Laiagam then despite a kiap's lot being a 24/7 job perhaps you should be thankful that he did sign the form as opposed to saying "come back to the office on fucking monday, tudei i olesem dei malalo bilong mi".

Kind regards, please don't take my last paragraph to heart.

Daniel Kumbon

Joe, we all feared the kiaps and policeman in those days.

I met one of the first kiaps in Kandep, Jim Fenton, in Brisbane in 2016. I discovered I had feared him for nothing. He was a real gentleman. Ross Allen, Lloyd Warr and other kiaps too - all were gentlemen.

There was one kiap though who seemed drunk all the time. He had a girl from Rabaul or Kimbe for his partner. He used to drive her around the Kandep station on his motorbike in her bikinis and no helmet.

This raised a lot of eyebrows among the bare-breasted ladies and young men of Kandep. They must have thought, they were properly dressed. I smile now when I think about it.

Paul Lare came to record our songs too at the Catholic Mariant Mission School during that period. I mentioned this in my book 'I Can See My Country Clearly Now.'

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)