Independence Day in Wewak: Charles Betteridge

The following is taken from my personal notes I wrote up just four days after PNG’s lndependence celebrations in 1975 at Wewak.

It is Saturday afternoon 20 September 1975, and as I sit on the front porch of our home on Wewak Point looking out over the sea to Muschu and Kairiru lslands, I ponder over the events that have changed this nation’s course in history.

Four days have passed since Papua New Guinea became an lndependent nation and I know I must put pen to paper to describe this most historical event as seen through my own eyes.

I have been a resident of Papua New Guinea since April 1960 and throughout these years I have witnessed the very beginnings of its achievements to become an lndependent nation in its own right.

I was in Port Moresby in 1961 when the very first Legislative Council was formed in which for the first time Papua New Guineans became members of this Council. The total membership of this Council was just 37.

ln 1962 the United Nations recommended that the Legislative Council increase membership to at least 100 to represent all 19 Provinces.

ln 1964 the first general elections were held. A true national parliament was formed with 64 members including 10 official members.

ln 1965 the Legislative Council became the Papua New Guinea House of Assembly and its very first meeting under the new name took place in Port Moresby in September of that year. I was there too to witness this great event.

By 1973 several political parties had been formed by Papua New Guineans themselves and the three strongest parties among the 101 members were the Pangu Party, Peoples Progress Party and the National Party. Michael Somare, head of the Pangu Party, was elected government leader and on lndependence he became PNG’s first Prime Minister.

On 1 December 1973, Self-Government was proclaimed throughout Papua New Guinea. I was in Kieta on Bougainville lsland when this event took place.

ln July 1974 I was transferred over to Wewak on the north coast of Papua New Guinea together with my wife, and fourteen months later we were to witness an historic event that was to change Papua New Guinea forever: lndependence.

It is now 4.30 pm on Monday 15 September 1975, and a crowd of approximately 2,000 people from many different indigenous races and nationalities have gathered on the foreshore opposite the main post office in Wewak to witness the lowering of the Australian flag to mark the official end of Australia’s administration of Papua New Guinea.

The weather was perfect. A gentle breeze wafted in from the ocean to stir the tall pine trees that line the shore. The sun was gradually lowering in the west over the mountain ranges and the tall high frequency transmitting towers which form part of the post office structure stood out stark against the clear, steel blue sky.

From this tower streamers and flags were attached from the upper most section down to the roof of the post office. ln addition to the flags and bunting, myriads of gaily decorated fronds of palm leaves fluttered in the cool sea breeze.

The people themselves added to the vibrant colours. The many and varied PNG groups mingled with each other dressed in their cultural costumes of grass skirts, arm bands of bone, highly decorated head gear consisting of numerous bird of paradise plumes and sea shells or, the ordinary office worker, truck driver or mechanic, dressed in western style clothes of shirt, shorts and long socks and shoes, or bare-footed in most cases, then to the school children in their simple yet eye-catching uniforms, and down to the much younger children who looked on in awe and amazement wondering what this was all about.

To add to this historical event an armed contingent of approximately one hundred personnel representing the army, police, and corrective institutions were smartly turned out and standing to attention in front of the main dais. The pipes and drums of the 2nd Pacific lslands Regiment supplied the music for this special ceremony.

After an address by the East Sepik District Commissioner (Mr Anthony Bais), the two soldiers and two policemen who stood guard around the flag pole where the Australian flag was already at full mast, came to the “On Guard” position, and, as the pipes and drums of the 2 PIR played a solemn tune the Australian flag was slowly lowered. The atmosphere all around was very quiet and all that could be heard was the chattering of birds in the branches of the trees nearby and the occasional cry of a young native baby in its mothers arms as she too looked on in awe at this ceremony unfolding before her.

At the precise moment the Australian flag was halfway down the mast a single-engine aircraft flew some 100 meters above the crowd and released from its fuselage thousands of tropical flowers of Frangipani, Bougainvilleas and Cannas.

What a truly beautiful sight to see, all these flowers falling out of Heaven as to say against a clear twilight sky to eventually land amongst the throngs of people down below. The last flower came to earth at the same time the Australian flag was taken from the rope holding it to the flag pole. The flag was then escorted under armed guard and handed over to the District Commissioner, Mr Bais, who after a short and solemn speech handed the flag over to the representative from the Australian government: the former District Commissioner of the East Sepik Province, Mr Edwin George Hicks. Mr Hicks came back to Wewak especially to attend this ceremony in a district he lead for many years previously.

After the flag was handed over to Mr Hicks, the armed contingent marched off and the crowd began to disperse. Soon after, the sun finally set in a blaze of colour behind the mountain range and the few clouds that lingered over the mountain tops were outlined in gold, then orange, then red, as the sun set lower and lower ’til finally a dull red glow was all that was left of a day which ended many years of Australian administration of Papua New Guinea.

Being an Australian myself, I felt a twinge of sadness as the day closed to an end, but I also knew that tomorrow was the birth of a new nation that I was privileged to be living in during this history making moment.

At midnight on that Monday 15 September 1975, a fireworks display was to be held to herald PNG’s declaration of lndependence. Every town and village was taking part in these celebrations and Wewak was to hold its fireworks near the government offices on the hill behind Wewak.

At approximately 11 pm that night the heavens opened up with a storm and a heavy tropical downpour of rain. What a dramatic change to just a few hours previously when you could not have wished for a more beautiful evening. However, these sudden tropical storms are most common here and can happen at a moment’s notice.

My wife and I waited until 11.50 pm hoping that the rain would cease so that we could drive up to the hill at the back of Wewak. Armed with my 8 mm movie camera loaded up with special night film, and with my cassette radio, we made a dash for the hill four kilometers away in our car. The rain kept pouring down and when we neared the top the rain suddenly stopped. The time was now 11.59 pm.

Was this downpour of rain God’s way of cleansing Papua New Guinea of its old ways so that it could be born fresh and clean? l’ve always wondered about that ever since.
We just made it to the fireworks area when the Governor-General Designate, Sir John Guise, was about to read out the proclamation of lndependence from the NBC broadcasting studios in Port Moresby. The time was now one minute past midnight on Tuesday morning 16 September 1975. I recorded his proclamation on my radio/cassette recorder.

The Proclamation read, “Distinguished guests, visitors from overseas, people of Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea is now lndependent, the constitution of the independent state of Papua New Guinea and with all power rests with the people is now in effect. We have at this point in time broken with our colonial past and we now stand as an independent nation in our own right. Let us unite with Almighty God’s guidance and help in working together for the future of a strong and free country.”

“God Save the Queen” was played just prior to and directly after the declaration.

After the declaration was read, the fireworks display commenced and what a spectacular display it was to see rockets and star shells, etc., shot hundreds of feet into the air to suspend in a kaleidoscope of colours and to illuminate all the surrounding hills all the way down to the sea. I recorded all of the fireworks display on my super-8 movie camera: the only person to do so.

Within twenty minutes or so it was all over, and amazingly within minutes after the fireworks had finished the heavens opened up again with another tropical downpour (that was to last until 4 am), and the new Papua New Guinea is now but half an hour old.

Tuesday morning 16th September, 1975. lndependence Day.

The morning has turned out sunny and warm and at 8 am floats, marchers, soldiers, police, and school children have assembled to head towards the main post office where just the evening before the Australian flag was lowered for the very last time.

There were over seventy different floats in the parade and what a parade it was. Wewak has never seen anything like this before, and possibly never will again. The atmosphere was full of excitement as thousands of people gathered to get the best advantage points to watch the floats and marchers go by.

This was an international parade in its true sense, for not only were Papua New Guineans represented, but people from Australia, Philippines, Germany, England, the United States of America and many other countries also.

Native groups from hundreds of miles around had come into Wewak to celebrate their special day, and what a spectacular sight they made as they came into view with some of the most elaborate dress I have ever seen. Words alone could not describe the colours and workmanship that went into making the special head-gear worn by the different tribal groups.

Some of the native dress (bilas) I saw were extremely rare indeed and worn only by native chieftans.  Most of these would have taken weeks, if not months, to prepare. The headgear worn by the chiefs stood over ten feet tall and perfectly balanced on top of their heads so as to keep in rhythm with the movements of their bodies. Rare Birds of Paradise plumes of unbelievable colours adorned many of the head pieces. My movie camera was working overtime to record this historic event.

The official raising of the flag of Papua New Guinea took place at 10 am on the same spot and the same flagpole as was used in yesterday’s lowering of the Australian flag.
As the flag was being raised, the new National Anthem was being played via a radio link-up from Port Moresby over 500 miles away. At precisely 10 am the flag reached the highest point of the flagpole and immediately unfurled to display its four colours, the red triangle on the top right with a gold coloured bird of paradise on it, and on the lower left triangle coloured in black, were the five white stars that make up the Southern Cross constellation.

This same ceremony was taking place in hundreds of other towns, villages and remote communities at precisely the same time throughout Papua New Guinea.

It was a very proud moment for every Papua New Guinean as this was their special day. Within seconds of the flag unfurling another single-engine aircraft swooped low over the assembled crowd and dropped thousands of flowers from its fuselage. The flowers drifted down gently from a clear blue sky to mingle with the large crowd gathered below. Soon, people were gathering up the flowers and in particular the young children who gazed in amazement at this most unusual sight. As I looked at these children I wondered what their future will be for them under a new independent nation.

Shortly after the flag-raising ceremony was over, the District Commissioner, Mr Anthony Bais,the commander of the 2 PlR Defence Force, Colonel Ted Diro, and a PNG member of parliament, planted trees on the lawn outside the post office to symbolize the new found nation of PNG.

On Wednesday morning 17 September, His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, The Rt Hon Sir Kamisese Mara, Prime Minister of Fiji, and The Rt Hon WE Rowling, Prime Minister of New Zealand, together with the new Prime Minister of PNG, Michael Somare, arrived in a special Air Niugini charter flight at Boram Airport, Wewak, at 11.45 am. A full guard of Honour was formed by the 2nd Pacific lslands Regiment at Boram airport to greet the dignitaries and HRH Prince Charles took the salute and an inspection of the Honour Guard.

His Royal Highness Prince Charles later inspected the Wewak Local Government Office, the Wewak Yacht Club and at 4.15 pm he officially opened the new Wewak Sporting Oval and unveiled a plaque commemorating this special event.

Thousands of people attended this special opening ceremony and no doubt the local people were quite awed at seeing a Royal Prince in Wewak.

An lndependence Celebration Civic Welcome was held at the 2 PIR Moem Barracks Headquarters to meet up with HRH Prince Charles and other dignitaries and both Penny and I received an official invitation to attend. I had a good chat with Prince Charles for several minutes during the evening as well as meeting up with the PM’s of Fiji, New Zealand and PNG.

On Thursday morning 18 September at 9.30 am the official guests departed Boram airport thus ending the official celebrations of PNG’s lndependence at Wewak.

Just four days have passed since the lndependence Day event took place and I wonder what the future will be for this very young nation. Will there be peace and prosperity, as many local leaders said there would, or will the nation go through a series of turmoil and unrest? One thing is certain; Papua New Guinea gained its full independence in a very peaceful way as compared to other third-world countries who got their independence through the barrel of a gun.

The “celebrations” for my wife and I did not finish on 16 September 1975 for, just eighteen days later on 4 October 1975, my wife gave birth to our beautiful daughter Ursula in the Wewak General Hospital. Whenever I see my daughter I see in her a historical link to Papua New Guinea, for both will have the same age, no matter what the year.


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