The Passing of Pacific Man: A Tribute to William Adrian ‘Bill’ McGrath 1932 – 2019 by Chips MacKellar
Bill’s journey to PNG in 1953 was only the beginning of a remarkable odyssey which truly made him the epitome of the legendary Pacific Man. For not only did Bill serve in PNG, he also served in Saipan in the Marianas, the Hawaiian Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, then back to PNG again.
Bill’s love of the Pacific and his expertise in all matters Pacific is immortalised in his creation of the Pacific Bookhouse. It is a mail-order bookshop, sourced from Australia, Hawaii, the US mainland, the UK, the Pacific Islands and elsewhere. It contains a treasure-trove of Pacific wonders featuring an extensive collection of rare books, wartime histories, Pacific travelogues, adventure diaries, reminiscences, anthropology and cultural monograms, manuscripts, official documents of various kinds and sundry other paraphernalia which he accumulated during the course of his Pacific travels.
Bill’s Pacific Bookhouse display was a familiar feature at kiap reunions and other gatherings in Australia in recent years and he was still collecting and selling rare Pacific books and other documents up until the day of his final journey.
Bill would have loved it—a gathering of family and friends and a smattering of aged kiaps, all assembled to say goodbye to him on Thursday, 8 August 2019 at Parkview Chapel, Nerang, on a beautiful balmy Southern Queensland winter’s day. Some had come from far away. Bill’s sons, Rod from Darwin and Don, all the way from Western Australia, Arthur and Ida Smedley from Tasmania, Chips Mackellar came down from Warwick, Graham Tuck from Buderim.
Other old kiaps came from various Brisbane suburban outliers: including Jack Battersby accompanied by his daughter Jennifer, Dan Duggan with Judy, Jim Fenton, Fred Haynes, Bob Hoad, John Nilan, Peter Salmon, Paul Simpson, Vin Smith and Ian Thompson.
Of Bill’s 1953 CPO intake only two made it, Chips Mackellar and ninety-year-old Jack Battersby, bless him. Dave Hook, Bob Cleland and John Cochrane are still around in Brisbane but were unable to make the journey. John Harris and John Wearne in Canberra and Geoff Grey were too far away.
Nevertheless, we were all there in spirit just as we were way back then when we joined the patrol service together in 1953. And a few wives of kiaps from that 1953 intake also made it: Joan Colman, Fua Holloway and Jocelyn Mackellar.
Bill’s farewell was well attended. Eighty-four well-wishers signed the attendance register, while some did not get to sign. The Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles was well represented because Bill was a lieutenant in this famous regiment, and the thirteen kiaps who attended, were led by the vociferous Vin Smith, now eighty-nine years old, and still telling stories and cracking jokes just like he used to do in PNG. Like Jack Battersby, Vin has never aged. Both look exactly the same as they did when they first arrived in PNG, eons and eons ago.
Also among the well-wishers were many of Bill and Pat’s friends. They included Robert Brown, Brian Davis and Arthur Jones—together with authors, publishers and book people connected in various ways to Bill’s creation—the Pacific Bookhouse.
Bill is remembered for his interstellar career in land tenure matters. Soon after first arriving in PNG Bill transferred briefly into the Uniformed Branch of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary, then six years after his first arrival he transferred to the Department of Lands where he first worked under the tutelage of that famous old Territorian, Ivan Champion, to become an expert in Pacific Island traditional land tenure systems.
Land in the traditions of the Pacific is not privately owned. It is all communally owned, with different people claiming different rights to the same parcel of land in a plethora of conflicting customs derived from different inheritance claims. Some claims are based on patrilineal, matrilineal, or multilineal descent, and sometimes all three descent systems for the same area of land. But Bill navigated his way through this tangled maze successfully to become internationally famous as a land tenure expert, and it was this fame which started him on his odyssey across the Pacific Islands and then brought him back to PNG again.
As Bill’s collection of Pacific literature expanded with his travels, so he began to assemble his Pacific Bookhouse library. Some of the Bookhouse collection featured memoirs of past residents of PNG and the Pacific, so Bill began to mentor other PNG expatriates to record their memoirs, which he then published for them. So, many old kiaps and other former residents of PNG who wrote their memoirs owe much of their literary success to Bill’s help.
Because of his extensive Pacific travels and research, Bill compiled and published a series of bibliographies on land tenure in PNG and elsewhere in the South-west Pacific. He also wrote and published bibliographies on other topics of historical importance for the Pacific area.
But in recent years Bill’s health began to fail, and so it was that on 8 August 2019 we said goodbye to him. According to a famous barrack room ballad, our old diggers used to sing ‘old soldiers never die, they simply fade away.’ And just like those old soldiers who never die, so it is with kiaps. Old kiaps never die, they just go on their last patrol, to the Patrol Post in the Sky. We know, because at Bill’s farewell Arthur Smedley told us this when he recited the sacred kiap ode ‘The Patrol Post in the Sky.’
There’s a Patrol Post up there in the sky, above the sea near Lae,
Nor’nor west of Samarai, south-east of Hansa Bay.
It has palm trees waving in the moon, where mosquitoes sting at night,
And canoes out on the blue lagoon, awaiting fish to bite.
It smells of kunai in the rain, and smoke from the valley floor,
And you’ll hear the pounding surf again, on the reef beyond the shore.
It’s the place where all the kiaps go, when their life on earth is through
And they talk with all the friends they know, of the things they used to do.
They talk of all the times now past, and of places far away,
And of all the memories that last, of Independence Day.
They talk of sights and sounds and smells, and people they all knew,
Of bugle calls and mission bells, of garamut and kundu.
Of days gone by at Samarai, and windswept coral cays,
Of tribal fights, and freezing nights, and misty Highland days,
Of black-palm floors and tidal bores, and life on the River Fly,
Of the Kavieng Club and the bottom pub, with a thirst you couldn’t buy,
Of carrier loads and Highland roads at the time when we were there,
Of bailer-hell pearls and Trobriand girls, with flowers in their hair.
And when we say goodbye to you, don’t mourn us when we go,
For the BIG D.C. will call us too, and this of course we know.
That last patrol will take us all, along that well-worn track,
But the difference for this final call, is that we won’t be coming back.
But our parting should not cause you pain. It’s not sad for us to die,
For we shall all soon meet again, in that Patrol Post in the Sky.
So farewell Pacific Man, till we meet again, in that Patrol Post in the Sky.
With special thanks to Pat McGrath, Arthur Smedley and Keith Jackson.