A career kiap’s wife: Nancy Johnston

Speech given at Sharing Histories: Kiap tribute event at the National Archives of Australia, 20 November 2010

In March 2002 Chris Viner-Smith commenced a lone campaign to have the service of Kiaps formerly recognised by the Australian government. He wrote: “I believed that if the Australian Government gave Kiaps some form of formal recognition, it would give Kiaps, as a group, credibility. It would form the firm base upon which the monument for the work of the Kiaps and other field officers in the Territory of Papua New Guinea could be built … and … We owe it to ourselves and to Australia to be remembered and therefore, not for personal glory but for history’s sake if for nothing else, recognition and credibility was sought.”  It has been an eight-year dedication by Chris, and I would like to thank him for his efforts that I believe, ultimately, helped to bring about this “Kiap Tribute Event” today.

I was pleased to be invited to participate in today’s “Event“. The story of the Kiaps is a matter close to my heart. My late husband, an ex-Kiap, noted, “There will never be a similar period in history, I consider Nance and I were fortunate to have had the opportunity to live the life we did. We had a ‘nomadic’ type of life moving from place to place, crating and un-crating our possessions, but this contributed towards making it an interesting and wonderful life and we felt we were making a worthwhile contribution to society.”

Experiences were taken for granted but I now realise it was a privilege to have been part of this history-making period. In thirty years of service, we had ten postings, seven in Papua and three in New Guinea.

I was asked to speak on my experiences in Papua New Guinea. I have many memories but time is limited so I decided to concentrate on certain aspects. I am now 89 and I’m subject to “senior moments”, hence my notes.

My husband Bill Johnston trained for the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) whilst serving in the AIF during World War 2 and, in April 1946, at the age of 21, he was given an immediate discharge and transferred, as a civilian Patrol Officer, to the Papua and New Guinea Provisional Administration. My permit to enter the Territories of Papua and New Guinea was issued in June 1946 but because of post-war transport shortages, preference was given to others and it was December when I left on a DC3 flight to Port Moresby. I came from a non-alcoholic-drinking, non-swearing family situation, and I was shocked to find myself the only female passenger on a plane with twenty-odd men who drank beer and swore. This was the beginning of a different kind of life for me, which lasted for thirty years.

The first thing was to be taken to meet the Director of the District Services & Native Affairs who gave me hints on what to do and what not to do in my new life: a couple of things to mind, I was told my dresses should have sleeves and my shoulders kept covered and never to appear in a swim suit. For the next few years I swam fully clothed.

From Port Moresby I sailed on the MV Doma for Samarai, again the only female on board, then by the trawler MV Matarani for Misima Island, experiencing a sleepless overnight voyage sitting on the deck with twenty-odd scantily clad men. When needed, a toilet seat was swung over the vessel’s edge in view of everyone on board but thankfully, the Skipper offered me the use of his facility.

After living in primitive but idyllic conditions on Misima, in September 1947 we transferred to Woodlark Island for Bill to open the post-war patrol post. Life was an adventure and we were not perturbed at the prospect of isolation. There was no wireless/transceiver available but we were promised one would be on the next vessel and there would be six-weekly visits by the Government trawler with our stores and supplies. Neither promise was kept: we spent our time there without a wireless/transceiver, which meant we had no contact with the outside world, and there were intervals of three or four months between the visits of the trawler bringing our half filled orders from the stores in Samarai.

In hindsight, I find it hard to realise how I lived through certain times in my life. Living at Woodlark meant isolation, which did not really worry me as the main thing was that Bill and I were together. Time does not allow for the many interesting and unbelievable details to be related, but it was a unique situation, living in strange place with a different kind of people and unable to speak their language while going through a period of learning how to make do with things and do without others. It was an experience we would not have wanted to miss. It taught us to be self-reliant in so many ways and we left with no regrets, it was the life we had chosen; we were together, young, healthy and confident but we did miss not having frequent news from our families.

A thrill for us was to see a speck on the horizon, hoping it was the trawler because this vessel was our lifeline. It meant contact with another European person, the skipper and, more importantly, food and mail. We survived the isolation and hardships but it must have been a dreadful time for our parents not hearing from us for months on end and not knowing how we were faring or if we were dead or alive.  

A letter from the District Officer at the time of our departure is written praise on the way Bill handled the patrol post and the support I gave him, and how we survived the situation without complaint. We arrived in Samarai, enroute to Sydney for leave, on 14 November 1948 to find the flags flying but not for us: Prince Charles had been born that day.

Woodlark was not manned again for fifteen years when, in 1963 we were surprised to read in the South Pacific Post that Woodlark had been opened for the first time since the war. Our time there in 1947-48 was forgotten history. The National Australian Archives’ record show only two patrol reports held, written in 1963 and 1964, and the records for Social Sciences and Humanities Library in America show 1966 to 1972 so it is my intention to donate copies of my husband’s patrol and monthly reports for the period 1947-48 to the National Archives of Australia.

Our next posting was to Sehulea on Normanby Island. Again it was isolation, particularly for me because Bill was away most of the time on patrol. The local people did not speak or understand the English language; they were primitive but friendly people. There was plenty of seafood and native vegetables, so except for mail we were not worried about the workboat not calling.

Our house was built from bush materials with a thatched roof, the walls and doors were made from plaited sago palm and everything was bound together with strips of skin from the lawyer cane. The floor, made from split curved black palm, had large cracks between the strips; it had a corrugated effect and it took me a couple of weeks to get used to walking on it. The whole structure was so frail and it would have been a joke if a lock had been put on the only door.

The water for household use ran from a nearby creek in a split bamboo ‘pipe’ to a drum at the bottom of the outside steps. Again the bathroom facilities were a bucket shower and an enamel dish, the pit type toilet was in a grass hut some distance from the house and the clothes were boiled in a drum, over an open fire, and rinsed at the creek. There was no refrigerator or wireless/transceiver and medical help was at Esa’Ala, a two-day canoe trip, where there was a Medical Assistant, or at Samarai if a doctor was needed.  There was no plane service to Samarai, so the latter depended on the availability of shipping from Esa’Ala.

We had bought a small lighting plant but when Bill departed on a six week patrol, taking the lamps with him, on the first night the engine refused to turn over which meant I was without lights. So, by using a bottle filled with kerosene, and a piece of string for a wick, I made a tiny lamp with a flame the equivalent to a lighted match stick. On looking back, it is hard to imagine how I sat alone, isolated in the middle of nowhere, every night for six weeks, with this tiny flickering flame. I was fortunate that the local people were more caring than harmful so really, in hindsight, there was little to be afraid of but when alone and isolated with no one to turn to, some situations seem worse than they really are.

It was a lonely time, not having lighting and a wireless for outside contact and news, and no nearby friends, relatives or neighbours, and the only English I spoke was to my dog. Seldom did I get frightened to the extent I was terrified, but in the dark early hours one morning I was scared by a noise under the house and I could see a flashing lamplight through the large cracks in the bedroom floor, clearly indicating someone was there. Then a voice spoke, “Sinabada, a pass from Taubada”, and a letter from Bill was pushed through a crack in the floorboards beside my bed.

We were saved from further isolation when Bill was selected to attend the long course at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in our home city of Sydney. The day and overnight trip to Samarai, by the small workboat, would rate as the worst we ever experienced in our intra-Territory travels. The waves crashed over the forty-foot vessel the entire night and there was no relief or escape from the stormy weather and ensuing rough sea. Bill held me at the side of the boat whenever I was sick and this caused us to be continuously drenched. The only place to lie down was on a long wooden seat along the side of the vessel where the waves were crashing over. We arrived in Samarai wet and miserable and I asked the District Officer, who had arranged our movement, what would happen if children were involved and he said, “If that was the case, the trawler would be sent.”

Needless to say, our families were delighted at the prospect of having us ‘home’. I know they had unvoiced thoughts that perhaps we would get some sense and give it all away, but by the end of the course, now with two babies, we had decided life in Papua and New Guinea was what we wanted. We happily returned with our babies, to a posting at Kikori, my most memorable station, where I experienced loneliness, frustrations, traumas and sadness.

Kikori, in the Gulf of Papua, is an area with excessive rainfall; we lived in dank and miserable conditions, and Bill did long exploratory “first contact” patrols into uncontrolled areas where the traditional murdering cannibal warriors still practiced all sorts of dreadful deeds, while I stayed at home first with two, and then three babies, not knowing until his return, if he had survived the dangers of patrolling. Bill’s patrols were well publicised in the media in both Papua New Guinea and Australia.

I had the responsibility of the babies, living on an outstation without the usual “taken for granted” amenities and proper medical care. I had the anguish of the tragic accidental death of my daughter, Christine. My biggest comfort was Bill being with me at the time, having just returned unexpectedly from a three-month patrol. We did not blame our lifestyle for this tragedy, our philosophy being that accidents can happen in any walk of life. Christine’s death was the reason for our transfer from Papua to Madang in the Territory of New Guinea.

Living in the town of Madang meant, for the time being, the end of my ‘pioneering’ days. It was my first taste of “civilization”. We had neighbours and social functions to attend and I became involved with the Country Women’s Association. Again it was loneliness when Bill was posted to Kar Kar Island for three months. It was a great joy when our much loved daughter, Margaret, was born in the wartime shanty hospital that was still in use; with wee-ing geckoes living in the thatched roof.  

A year after her birth we transferred to Bogia for the next three years where we were on the spot and involved in the following activities when Manam volcano erupted. Bill was often away on patrol. My eldest son turned five which meant correspondence schooling and having to keep a watchful eye on the two younger children as our house was built on the shoreline of the sea. We had a weekly plane service that usually brought both official and unofficial visitors who needed to be accommodated for a week until the next plane arrived, often bringing another house guest.   

We still lived off the land and the sea and I am reminded of the time when a Judge from the Supreme Court doing his circuit, was our guest. The prohibited species of the Gauri pigeon was good eating and thinking His Honor, being a Port Moresby resident, wouldn’t know what he was eating, I planned to have one for dinner. During the meal he asked if it was Gauri pigeon he was eating. I quickly replied that I didn’t know what kind of bird it was because it was featherless when I bought it from a local man hawking it at the back door. Thankfully, nothing more was said.      

My third son, Christopher, was born and with four young children, we moved to Lorengau, Manus Island, for the next five years where I began my interest in voluntary work, first with the indigenous “Women’s Clubs” and in 1958, when challenged by Lady Baden-Powell to do something about the Girl Guides, with Vere O’Malley we started the Movement at Lorengau. I became a Captain and literally helped with the making of hundreds of uniforms and ultimately my Company of girls was officially declared the best turned-out Girl Guides in Papua New Guinea with promotional photos taken and shown in Australia.

The Director of Education offered me the position as the Home Economics Officer at the local high school. He must have considered my experience with the indigenous women offset my inexperience as a school teacher because, until then, my only teaching experience had been with “correspondence schooling” for my children. 

In 1963 we were transferred back to Papua. Soon after arriving at Popondetta, I was appointed to the position of Senior District Clerk: it was to be a “fill in” job until a male clerk was sent from Headquarters. Seven years later, still waiting for his arrival, I left Popondetta to live in Port Moresby when my husband was appointed the Director of Civil Defence.  

Popondetta gave me the opportunity to be involved in civic activities, particularly those involving my children. Another interest was the Parents’ & Citizens’ Association: Bill was the President and I was the Secretary/Treasurer for seven years. The Director of  Education wrote that the growth of the Association in Popondetta was due to our effort. I became involved with the Country Women’s Association, holding the position of Treasurer for a short time before being elected to the Branch Presidency. My contribution to this Branch was recognised when the “Loyal Service Badge” was presented to me.

I taught the “social graces” to two indigenous girls in the days before girls were formally educated and this training led to successful futures for them both. One, Eau Suve, became a diplomat with the Department of Foreign Relations and was later crowned “Miss Papua New Guinea” and represented her country in Australia. Three months ago, now aged 54, Eau visited Sydney and stayed at my home. The other lass, Winnie Arek, daughter of Paulus Arek an elected member of the House of Assembly, after secondary education in Australia, became a successful business woman in Port Moresby.

In 1969, I suffered an enormous shock when advised the Cessna aircraft Bill was travelling on had crashed in New Britain, with “one person confirmed dead”. The tension that followed was not helped by the hours it took before official confirmation was received of the deceased person’s name.    

A position awaited for me in Port Moresby in the Division of Intelligence and Security. It was the most interesting and enlightening job I would ever likely to have, mainly because it was at the time when the political upheaval of pending Self Government and then Independence was taking place with the problems it brought.

My CWA membership was transferred to the Port Moresby Branch. I was selected as an Executive to the National Council, the governing body of the Country Women’s Association of Papua New Guinea and the following year elected the National President, a prestige position recognised by the Administration and the Associated Country Women of the World. In 1974 I was granted Life Membership.   

For thirty years I watched the growth of Papua and New Guinea and saw the country become an independent nation. I found it a sombre moment when the Australian flag was lowered for the last time as the official flag, symbolising the end of Australia’s control in Papua New Guinea. The raising of the flag at sunrise and its lowering at sun set had been a daily ritual in my life. I realised my life in this country was ending and it was a sad day when I left Papua New Guinea for the last time. I felt I had made a worthwhile contribution to the country and realised it had been a privilege to be part of this history making time. Living for thirty years in Papua New Guinea was a significant part of my life.


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