An Unusual Incident by Bill Johnston – Una Voce June 1991

During my service in Papua New Guinea there were only two occasions that I accompanied a senior officer on what could be termed a patrol. A period of two days was involved on both occasions and they occurred in the first few weeks of my arrival in the country. The periods were short but I learned valuable lessons that stood me in good stead in the following twenty-nine and a half years.

  In July, 1946 I arrived in Papua New Guinea and was posted to the District Office in Port Moresby. I had been there a couple of weeks when I was told that in company with Johnny Walker, a senior Patrol Officer, I was to accompany the Administrator on an overnight visit to Rossell Island. A RAAF Catalina was to be our means of transport. The party consisted of the Administrator, Colonel Murray, the Director of Health, Dr May, a Mr Osborne, who owned a plantation on Rossell, Stan Pearsall (I think), the Administrator’s aide de camp, a local man who was the Administrator’s personal servant, the RAAF crew, Johnny Walker and myself. After a short visit to Samarai we arrived at Rossell Island late afternoon. A canoe took us to a small hamlet on the shore of the lagoon where we had landed. The crew stopped on the aircraft to spend the night and our party overnighted in a small hut vacated by an old lady! There were only about four or five very old people in the hamlet so I was somewhat surprised when the Administrator called me over and told me to do a “census”.

As soon as I could get Johnny Walker in a place where we could not be overheard, I told him that the Administrator had told me to do a census. He said “ignore it, the silly old B doesn’t know what he is talking about.” I agreed as there was such a small population and I didn’t have an interpreter and my knowledge of Police Motu consisted of about six words, two of which were “yes” and “no”. I spent a few difficult hours making sure that I was never close to the Administrator and avoided eye contact. During this period of “musical chairs”, Dr May engaged me in conversation and wanted to know what I thought about the prospect of working as a Patrol Officer. I told him that I thought it would be very interesting and I was looking forward to the prospect, however, as I had just spent three and a half years separated by the war for long periods of time from my fiancée, I had no intention of repeating the experience as a married man of only three months, and that unless there was a prospect of getting married accommodation in the near future I would have to resign and return to Australia!  The next morning when we re-boarded the aircraft I was surprised by the grim faced and rather surly welcome we were given by the crew of the aircraft. I put it down to them having had a hot, uncomfortable night on the plane and didn’t think anything more about it.

  On the return flight we were flying about 2500 feet, chugging along at approximately 120 knots. I was standing in the blister, one hand on the roof to steady myself, looking down at the coastline of Misima Island, which is really the peaks of a flooded mountain range rising to 3000 feet ASL. The Administrator was sitting on a small swing out seat attached to the side of the blister and Mr Osborne was standing next to him pointing out the landmarks etc. on a map. Without warning the aircraft slipped on to its side, the blister flew open, maps and papers flew out, and I was in a horizontal position looking face down at the sea. We fell quite a few hundred feet before the pilot could get his hands and feet into position to control the aircraft. Never in my life before or since have I wanted so desperately to sit down but the aircraft was falling at the same speed as I was and I couldn’t catch-up with it until the pilot regained control and brought us back on to even keel. I immediately looked at the Administrator’s face and was shocked at how white he had gone, and the look of shock in his eyes despite – 15 – the smile of relief that was then on his face. Twenty odd years later I knew what they were talking about when they were blaming C.A.T. (clear air turbulence) being the cause of some jet crashes on landing approaches. In this instance it was presumably caused by a strong S.E. wind hitting the mountain range which we were flying parallel to at the time.

  A few days after our return to Port Moresby I was delighted to learn that I had been posted to Misima Island, the then headquarters of the South East District, one of the very few places where married accommodation was available, so I could immediately start proceedings to have my wife join me. I also learned the reason for the aircrews’ surly reception to us on reboarding the aircraft. Apparently, they had been awakened during the night by a terrible odour and after much searching by torchlight they had found the cause in the tail section where somebody had relieved himself in a manner for which a Service aircraft was not outfitted to handle. So, what did I learn?

 (1) The people at the top don’t necessarily know what is involved in the minor routine duties performed by the minions at the bottom.

 (2) If you want something of benefit to yourself it is a great help to have direct contact with the only person with the power to make this happen.

 (3) Always be prepared to expect the unexpected.

 (4) Never stand up if you can sit down.

 (5) There was always the chance of a humorous situation occurring in Papua New Guinea, that is, of course, if you can see the humour in the situation of someone looking for a source of a smell by torchlight and having found it, to have the task of removing it (without water and with possibly makeshift materials) from the rivets and cracks of an aircraft’s fuselage?

 If you are a “who dunnit” fan and must know the culprit, it wasn’t the butler but the valet.


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

Leave a Reply