Alotau: John Quinn

This article could well be sub-titled How Alotau came to be or even The waste of war, and will take a broad-brush approach to what I am prejudiced in believing is one of the prettiest Provincial Capitals in PNG today.

Alotau (meaning Beautiful Bay in the local Suau language) is now the bustling capital of the Milne Bay Province; but it was not always so and I hope to chart the reasons for the town’s foundation and development.

Prior to the Second World War, the actual Milne Bay—which, incidentally, was named after a late 19th century British Admiral, Sir Alexander Milne—was  a sleepy little backwater with the local people living a largely traditional life-style. A few London Missionary Society stations, and attempts to mine alluvial gold and platinum from the south shore rivers hardly disturbed the tranquility with the greatest excitement coming from the establishment of a huge coconut plantation at the head of the Bay by Lever Bros, of soap fame, who wanted to use the resultant copra in their business. The Bay was administered fitfully from Samarai Island, the aptly nicknamed “Pearl of the Pacific”, which had been District Head-Quarters since its purchase in the late 1880s from its owners, the adjacent Logeia Island people.

Digressing slightly: when I was Assistant District Commissioner in Samarai in 1973-74, I was chatting to some of the Local Government Councillors and our talk somehow got around to that old purchase; astoundingly, a couple of weeks later, a deputation came into my office and unrolled from  grubby old cloths some of the original purchase price. Old bottles, tomahawk and axe heads that had been carefully kept hidden in a cave on Logeia for well over 90 years and are probably still there today. The idle thought did cross my mind at the time that I hoped they would not pile the goodies on my desk and say, “Deal’s off mate: we want our island back”!!

Anyway, back to the Milne Bay story and the cataclysmic days of early 1942; with Japanese landings in Rabaul, the panicked collapse of the Australian civil Administration, the scorched earth destruction of Samarai, and the Armed Forces take-over of the flat land of the Lever Bros plantation as the ideal site for the development of airstrips. Luckily, one of the strips was operational when the Japanese landed an assault force in late August. It was just to the east of the later site of Alotau and this strip played a vital part in bombing and strafing the invaders. That No. 1 strip was later named “Gurney” and still remains the main commercial airstrip for the entire Province. “Gurney” commemorates Squadron Leader Charles R. Gurney, who had been a pre-war pilot in New Guinea until enlisting in the RAAF. He was the co-pilot of an American B-26 that was badly damaged in an attack on Rabaul. On the way back, the aircraft tried to make an emergency landing on a promising green field on Kiriwina Island that unfortunately turned out to be a swamp. The B-26 flipped over and Gurney and the American pilot were killed with other crew-members surviving. When I was ADC on Kiriwina in 1972-3, I actually waded through the swamp with local guides to inspect the upside-down wreck, finding the interior still draped with rusting and corroded .50 Cal ammunition belts. I understand that the wreck was later salvaged.

The Eastern edge of  No.2 strip, then non-operational, to the East of Gurney Field was where the final Japanese thrust was repulsed: a sign visible there indicated a mass grave for nearly 200 Japanese Imperial Marines who perished in that final attempt to rout the Allies, though, again, I understand that the remains were later returned to Japan. That strip was named “Turnbull Field”, after RAAF Squadron Leader Peter Turnbull who was killed whilst strafing the retreating Japanese, and crashed into one of the ravines near the later site of Alotau.

What happened after the Japanese defeat was that this sleepy little backwater transformed into a gigantic Allied base. The airfields were expanded and enlarged. There was mile upon mile of roads, camps for personnel, revetments and hardstands for hundreds of aircraft. The shores of the bay were dotted with radar installations, coastal gun batteries, oil-tank farms, a destroyer repair base, a torpedo and patrol boat base: the list goes on. Just a couple of examples: in the 3000-4000 metres of shore between Gopi Point and Ahioma on the Northern shore, there were no less than 14 wharves (prosaically numbered 1 to 14) with concrete and gravel hardstands behind them with storage buildings galore. On the Southern shore at Gamadodo was erected probably the largest single building ever built in PNG to that time—and probably many years afterwards—a staggering 120,000 sq. feet, and this base had thousands of square feet of cold storage: the Americans needed their ice-cream and cold Cokes to prosecute the fight.

It is an undoubted fact, and indicative of the times I suppose, that in all these tales of warfare and construction, the lives of the local people feature not in the slightest. Villages were bulldozed, gardens and cemeteries were buried under concrete and gravel and the people’s ancient way of life was totally and utterly disrupted.

The site of what later became Alotau had been developed into a huge American Hospital (one of three in the bay), complete with wide gravel roads, dozens and dozens of wards, operating theatres, staff quarters, recuperation areas, etc. etc., all supplied with piped water, electricity and telephone lines.

No sooner had many of these Installations been completed than they began to be dismantled and moved North as the War edged ever closer to Japan and this trend accelerated once that country surrendered and the Americans began to pack up and go home. The Milne Bay people told me of watching Landing Craft being loaded  with jeeps, tanks, guns ,loaded trucks and whatever, and the ship sailing into the middle of the Bay, opening its bow doors and everything being driven or pushed into the 300 fathom depths before the ship came back to shore for yet another load! Apparently, this was because the US Government had a policy at the time that none of its War material could be returned to the States.

To further illustrate this policy, the Roman Catholic Mission on Sideia Island had a large, derelict US Navy Patrol Boat type of vessel run up into the mangroves at the entrance to their little harbour and, on a later visit to see the Bishop on some matter or other, I made enquiries about the wreck. Over afternoon tea—served incidentally on crockery emblazoned with the US Marine Corps logo—the Bishop told me that some of his predecessor missionaries had been chugging up the Bay in late 1945 and had seen this vessel motor out from shore and stop nearby. Being curious, the crew of the Mission Boat came closer and saw an American Negro sailor climbing down into a small dinghy and preparing to leave; they enquired if anything was wrong and he replied that his order was to take the boat out and sink it! One of the missionaries laughingly said “In that case, could we have it “? The sailor replied that he had followed his orders and couldn’t care less! Hastily, the missionaries jumped on board, closed the flooding seacocks, got the pumps and then the engine working and took the vessel back home where it performed sterling Mission service for many years until the impossibility of getting spare parts caused it to be run up into the mangroves.

Whether the following amazing story is apocryphal I cannot say, but it was certainly current at the time I was stationed at Alotau.

Apparently the American Colonel in charge of the Hospital had wanted to hand the whole place over to the then ANGAU (Australia New Guinea Administrative Unit) official nominally in charge of the area. This officer had procrastinated and dithered so much that finally ,the American had stormed into his office and said that he and his Unit were leaving in a week or so and unless the Hospital was officially taken over, it would have to be destroyed! All he needed was a signature on a piece of paper and that signature could be “Donald Duck” or “Mickey Mouse” as far as he was concerned.

More dithering by the Australian, so the American called in a Construction Battalion that bulldozed the entire complex off into the gullies and ravines at the side of the Plateau, leaving only the gravel roads, concrete pads and a large solid concrete water-settling tank. Some credence could be given to this story by the fact that if one ventured down into the jungle-covered gullies, one could find piles of wreckage and debris.

Once the war was over, it was thought that the pre-1940 life would proceed as normal. Samarai was rebuilt, the “Natives” would know their old place in the scheme of things and the benign neglect of the past would continue; but time and events move on.

It was soon found that congested Samarai was too small for any development and its only air access, by Catalina flying boat, was becoming completely uneconomic and antiquated. A decision was made to move down into the bay and the old hospital site was selected and purchased, as the local people had no use for the trashed site.

In 1962, the township of Cameron Plateau was declared open and gradually government and business started the move. In 1968, a big new wharf was built in Sanderson Bay, a powerhouse provided electricity, the District HQ officially moved and accommodation was rapidly built on the high Plateau with its magnificent views across the Bay.
The name “Alotau” was soon selected as more appropriate than “Cameron Plateau” and the pretty town has continued to develop and prosper: long may it continue to do so.

Anybody wishing to delve further into the war-time history of Milne Bay Province could look up numerous web-sites devoted to the subject: a few noted are and, though the stories I have related don’t feature in any of them.


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