Harry West’s eulogies: Andrea Williams, Bill Brown and Ross Johnson

These are eulogies from the funeral of Harry West, OAM, held on 21 July 2015

Andrea Williams

Harry was a dear friend to so many of us and we miss him. He was humble and yet he had an extraordinary life of achievements.

True leadership is a gift and Harry had it in loads. We admired and respected him … and we loved him. He was generous with his time in support of others, both friends and researchers, and in offering praise. He had a special way of listening intently to everything said, to absorb it and, when needed, make a meaningful and articulate reply that was insightful, knowledgeable, sensitive and skilled … often that big smile would spread across his face as he provided encouragement, gave you confidence, or laughed with the moment.

Growing up in Rabaul, I had known ‘Mr West’ as District Commissioner there when I was a young girl. Harry knew my parents, Margaret and Peter Coote, and my extended family. Despite the variety of occasions he attended, both grand and otherwise, in recent years he would occasionally remind me how special it was to be invited to my grandmother’s home in Rabaul for afternoon tea.

Harry’s dedication and commitment to the association was absolute. I was fortunate to join the PNGAA committee under his leadership. He was always quick to offer support and the first to show appreciation. When I took on the editing of the association’s journal from former editor, Marie Clifton-Bassett, she said to me: “If you really need to query something, you can speak with Harry: he will know what’s best” … and there were many times when I would have a discussion with Harry and he would take the time to explain it to me. Harry’s knowledge of people, places and events in Papua New Guinea, spanning over 70 years, was unique and legendary. Civically aware, his wise and never judgemental assessments reflected his enormous integrity. I always enjoyed my chats with Harry.

Harry had an adventurous life with nearly 30 years on the frontiers of PNG literally making history. He had to be diplomatic and he had to be resilient to handle the many challenges. He also influenced many people, both Australians and Papua New Guineans.

He made very many great friends in Papua New Guinea and, like many of us, the camaraderie shared as a result of those years was for a lifetime.

I could imagine that not many of his Australian friends, who only knew him after he returned here, would know about the enormously challenging roles he was placed in in PNG … that he had to negotiate through to find a peaceful outcome for both Australia and PNG.

But PNG was one part of his being. His love of gardening was another, and his beautiful unit at Lane Cove overlooking that wonderful green vista that brought both him and visitors so much joy. His art collection, often PNG artists, was another—and for those fortunate to have a tour of the paintings with all the stories of their background and perhaps why he was given them, it was an inspiring treat. Fitness was important and he would swim each morning until about 3 years ago. And we know he was a great fan of the Swans! He wasn’t going to miss a game … for anything!

Harry was a friend to so many people—comments have come shining through on the PNGAA Facebook page, from all over Australia—but I just want to acknowledge John’s extraordinary care and the tremendous friendship they shared.  Harry was an absolute gentleman and a privilege to know but mostly he was a special friend to us all.

Bill Brown

Harry West was not a big man. Harry West was not a small man, but Harry West was a great man. Harry was also a kind man, a thoughtful man, and a generous man.

Masta West, Mata ‘Arry was admired, respected and loved by all those who knew him: black, brown and white.

A letter from the Chief Minister, written in April 1974, epitomised Harry’s enormous contribution to Papua New Guinea. Michael Somare, later Sir Michael wrote:

Dear Harry

It is with sincere regret that I learn of your impending retirement because of ill health. I am very conscious of the outstanding role you have played in the progress of our country over the last 28 years, and I realise that a man of your wide experience and understanding would be invaluable to us as this country moves through the independence period.

Independence will bring us problems, but the public services and the people will be able to cope with those problems, due to you, and to others like you, who have given a lifetime of service with this object in view.

I would particularly like to acknowledge your personal role during the difficult times of the Gazelle Peninsula. I know that your knowledge, tact, and understanding helped in no small way to bring out about a peaceful settlement to that extremely tense situation.

I thank you for your sound counsel, always so readily available, and always so necessary to the important decisions in the political field.

Sir Michael concluded his letter to Harry with the wish and hope that Harry could be with him on Independence Day.

Returning to Harry’s incredible career:  He became a private in the AIF at 19 years of age, and a Lieutenant in ANGAU a few years later. He became a Patrol Officer, an Assistant District Officer, a District Officer, a District Commissioner, the Australian Liaison Officer in Dutch New Guinea, Australia’s Special Representative to the Trusteeship Council, and ultimately the Head of our Department.

In the time available, I can only touch on the trivia of that great life.

At the end of 1945, with the war over, but still in ANGAU, he was given a forbidding task, to escort 300 Highlanders home—overland from Lae, on the coast, to Goroka, in the Highlands. The Highlanders were not happy about the 10-day trek that lay ahead of them. They had been promised that they would be flown home. Instead they had to walk, through unknown and hostile Territory, carrying all their food for the journey, and carrying all their possessions.

Harry said he managed to get them all to Goroka with the assistance of Tom Fox, a legendary prospector. He did not mention the trials of that 200 kilometre trek: the unmarked tracks, the innumerable unbridged rivers that had to be crossed by the 300 people entrusted to his care, none of whom who could swim. Nor did he mention the heat of the Markham Valley grasslands, or the climb up the Highland escarpment, and the long ensuing transit through hostile Territory.

That was his first great trek in the Territory, there would be many others: more notable and more dangerous.

At the end of the war, he took up a new career, one that was very similar to his Army role. He joined the Civil Administration.

His appointment as a Patrol Officer, and the associated roles of magistrate, officer of police, inspector of labour, licker of stamps, etc., all had to be notified in the Papua New Guinea Government Gazette. Those formal proclamations were prepared and sent to the Government Printer, where an overzealous official editor made an editorial correction: Harry William West became Henry William West, but only for a short time; until the next Gazette, where the name change was reversed.

I spoke earlier about the more dangerous treks. The unusual thing about them was not the danger, or the wild country that he explored, or the incredible distances he covered. It was Harry’s attire. Even though had gingerish hair and a fair skin, he ignored the boiling sun. He dressed in a pair of blue, sometimes purple, shorts. He did not wear shirts, preferring white sleeveless singlets that exposed his neck, shoulders and arms to the sun. Sporting a floppy cloth hat or a well-worn city-style Akubra on his head, short socks, and boots; he lapped up the sun. Most people would have fried.

As Assistant District Officer at Telefomin, a Post in the middle of New Guinea, just east of the then DNG border, Harry took the first Administrative patrols to the Oksapmin and to the Mianmin. The Mianmin, at that time, were nasty little people who regarded their neighbours as their herds, they culled them, and they ate them. Harry had to pass through the Eliptamin on his way. The Eliptamin people were considered slightly more sociable, and certainly less aggressive than the Mianmin. Just two years later those seemingly friendly Eliptamins simultaneously attacked two other patrols. They murdered the two officers (Szarka and Harris) and two of Harry’s former police (Burutori and Purari.) They hacked them to pieces.

Harry was ADO at Kainantu at the time but not unoccupied. Accompanied by Patrol Officer John Coleman, he was exploring the Kukukuku country. He walked from Kainantu in the Eastern Highlands to Menyamya, in the Morobe District; a distance of 100 kilometres as the crow flies. West and Coleman probably travelled almost twice that distance, crossing mountain ranges and valleys, searching for, and finding, previously uncontacted people. When they eventually arrived at Menyama, they turned around and retraced their steps. They trudged back to Kainantu.

It was at Kainantu that Harry displayed his superb organizational skills. He gently nudged the District Commissioner, Ian Downs, into accepting that the route of the proposed road down the escarpment from the Highland’s to the Markham valley was in the wrong location. Downs had chosen the route, and one did not argue with Downs, but Harry’s new route, located by Lance Corporal Pokia, a Sepik policeman, is still the path followed by the Highlands Highway.

Downs decided to close a Patrol Post in the Goroka Sub-district and move it to a more densely populated area of the Kainantu Sub-district. He got on the radio to discuss the move, and directed that the new post would be at a village called Okapa. (He liked that name: it sounded like Okapi, the name of a small African antelope.) West knew that the post should be located in the centre of the population, but one did not argue with Downs, especially over the airwaves, so he seemingly capitulated. Harry named the new post Okapa, but he located it in a different spot—where he wanted it, in the centre of the population, at Moke.

But Harry’s 10 years in New Britain, as District Officer and District Commissioner at Rabaul, were his greatest challenge. There were racial divisions and there were the unsolvable Colonial land problems. Harry said that in 100 years of white domination the local people had gained little and lost a lot. The Government’s move to create a multi-cultural council only made the problems worse. The visits by Opposition leader Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister Gorton, Cabinet members, and the Administrator created more problems and major security concerns for District Commissioner West. It was a “no win” situation. It cost him his health.

Harry West’s contribution to Papua and New Guinea went unrecognised by the Australian Government, and he himself did not support the push for a medal for kiaps. He thought a library, or some appropriately named research facility, might provide more worthwhile recognition.

Harry West and his achievements are, and will always be, a more significant and lasting memorial than any other.

We honour him, and we will not forget.

Ross Johnston

Thank you Bill. My name is Ross Johnson and I have been a close associate of Harry’s since joining the Committee of the then ROAPNG in 1996. Whilst I knew of Harry in PNG I never had the privilege of serving under him as our paths never crossed.

Before continuing I would like to take this opportunity to pay homage to a person who first met Harry some 23 years ago during a bush walking outing in North Sydney and who became a firm friend and Harry’s right hand man (as well as his left) and I refer here to John O’Dea. Over the past few months I have watched how John has cared for Harry, has tended to his every need and who has gone that extra mile to ensure that Harry’s quality of life was maintained. I now know what true friendship and mateship is all about and on behalf of all present I wish to sincerely thank you, John, for the friendship and caring you have given to Harry over these past years and months.

When Harry came down from PNG in 1973, he was quite ill and was hospitalised in Canberra. I understand that, after his convalescence, he did work for the Treasury department for some time. I do know that, in late 1981 or early 1982, Harry came to Sydney and took up the position of Custodian of the Eryldene Historic House and Garden for the Eryldene Trust. I understand that, when considering applying for the position, Harry was concerned that even though he loved gardening he knew nothing at all about Camellias and was told by the then Mayor of Ku-ring-gai, who also, I’m told, just happened to be the first President of the Trust, that ‘as he had been a District Commissioner in New Guinea, a bunch of Camellias should pose no problem at all’. Suffice to say Harry got the job and rapidly built up a reputation as being a perfectionist who brought the Garden and House back in order. In this respect the then President, Sir Alexander Beattie, in reporting to the Trust’s AGM in 1989, commented as follows:

Very special thanks to our Custodian Harry West. In the Board’s view Harry West presents Eryldene to the public in splendid fashion. He has a big job to do and he does it with care and intelligence. He is completely unflappable and copes courteously with the many demands made on him, particularly during open weekends. He is an indispensable part of the Eryldene scene.

In fact Dr Zeny Edwards, an eminent Architectural Historian and a member of the Eryldene Trust, in a recent email noted:

I think Harry was the only one who understood what Eryldene was all about—it is for opening it up to the people to understand, appreciate and share with everyone else the legacy the Waterhouse’s left not only in architecture and gardening but in being true citizens of the world. The lessons it teaches are timeless.

Unfortunately Dr Edwards cannot be with us today as she is overseas. Harry retired from his position as manager in 1992 but still retained his association with the Trust as a volunteer.

Harry joined the then Retired Officers’ Association of Papua New Guinea in 1976 and became Secretary in 1982 and its President in 1992. As mentioned earlier, I joined the Committee in 1996, and two years later became its Treasurer, serving in that position until a year after Harry’s retirement in 2008. In retrospect I like to think of this period as ‘a re-posting’ with Harry West as my District Commissioner and Mentor. Like others on the Committee, I was constantly impressed by Harry’s continual enthusiasm, the way he listened and the respect he showed to each member. He was always quick to give credit where credit was due, but at all times prepared to take full responsibility in and for the conduct of the Association’s affairs. I well remember his quiet guidance when Doug Parrish, a past Editor of the Association’s Una Voce Journal, together with the then Editor, Marie Clifton-Bassett, got together with a small sub-committee to produce the book Tales of Papua New Guinea. Similarly, his control of and input into Committee discussions leading up to the change of name to the ‘Papua New Guinea Association of Australia’ and consequent changes to the Constitution, vision and direction of the Association was an important ingredient in its successful implementation. 

Harry was also not afraid to take others to task for perceived errors of judgement and I remember that period during late 2004 and early 2005 when certain problems then facing Papua New Guinea were highlighted in the media with blame being partly attached to the Kiaps and Harry writing a stern but polite letter to the ABC for alleged bias and misreporting in their Hindsight programme. 

During 2006 and 2007 Liz Thurston and I were involved in the production of the Association’s DVD Walk Into Paradise, and again I remember Harry’s wise counsel when Liz and I started swimming into uncharted waters.   

Harry was made a Life member of the Association in 2008 and was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June 2009 for service to the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia—honours well deserved. 

It was both a pleasure and a privilege for me to be able to arrange for the award of the ‘Kiaps Medal’—or more correctly the Police Overseas Service Medal—and be present at its presentation to Harry by the current President of PNGAA, Andrea Williams, on 1 July this year, only 12 days before Harry’s passing. Harry was a delight to be with, he had a dry sense of humour and was always prepared to do that little bit extra for both his fellow man and the Association.

In closing, it has been said that in our time the Kiaps were the men of Papua New Guinea. If this is correct (and I personally have no reason to doubt it), Harry was a Man amongst Men.



Leave a Reply