Kiaps of Papua New Guinea – The postwar era: Nancy Johnston

(Published in Una Voce, December 2003 page 9)

A tribute to those who followed in the tradition and footsteps of the pre-war ‘outside’ men in penetrating and establishing law and order in the primitive areas of Papua and New Guinea.

Dame Rachel Cleland wrote: After all, when you saw a twenty year old boy with perhaps five policemen keeping 30,000 warring tribesmen in happy harmony, you were just astounded at the thought, ‘how does he do it!’

After World War II, when peace came to Papua New Guinea, many of the towns and other signs of development had been destroyed, native villages and gardens were devastated and plantations damaged or neglected. The job of reconstruction lay ahead, as well as the task of establishing good relations with the native people. There were primitive areas to be manned, and blank spots on the map that had to be brought under government control – places where cannibal warriors still practised all sorts of evil deeds.

Young Australian men, some not yet twenty years old, were selected and trained to serve in the Australian Administration as patrol officers (kiaps) with the Department of District Services and Native Affairs. DDS & NA was a trail-blazer department, its kiaps manned the primitive areas or explored and opened up others, and when an area came under control, members from other departments and agencies, missionaries and commercial people moved in. Health was usually the next department into an area, then Agriculture and Education followed and when outstations became towns, the Police Department sent in its European officers to handle police duties.

Until this happened, the kiap was the representative of all arms of government in his area. His main responsibility was law and order, he was given police powers as a member of the Native Constabulary and made a Magistrate of the Court of Native Affairs. He worked long hours and was on twenty-four hour call, seven days a week. As well as district administration, familiarising himself with the people and the country, patrolling, court work and suchlike, the kiap needed a range of knowledge to be a ‘Jack of all trades’. He had to plan and supervise the building of roads, bridges, houses, airstrips, wharves and hospitals and, as records had to be kept and reports written, he needed to be a competent clerical person. His ultimate aim was to build an orderly, prosperous and unified people living in peace and harmony, with independence from Australia the long-term goal. In the main the kiaps did not abuse the powers they held; pride gave them the integrity to handle their role and earn respect.

Not all kiaps had the same experiences; they went where they were sent – some places were extremely dangerous, some not so dangerous and others were considered ‘safe’. Patrols took them through a diversity of country and experiences – some young kiaps faced dreadful situations in the ultra-primitive areas where they lived and patrolled. Some ‘outside’ kiaps put their lives on the line several times during their long patrols – they faced the potential danger of being killed with poison-tipped arrows, spears, or axed to death, as well as the threat of accidents and sickness, including malaria and scrub typhus. They experienced food shortages and faced the continual torrential rain, the blazing hot sun, and the freezing temperatures in the swirling mists in the mountain areas; they faced the peril of crocodiles, deadly snakes, massive bush pigs and the discomfort of millions of mosquitoes as well as wasps, spiders, scrub mites and leeches. There was nothing glamorous about patrolling, it was simply hard, dirty and uncomfortable work.

In some areas the kiaps undertook dangerous climbing, with their police and carriers (burdened with patrol equipment), going through precipitous limestone gorges, climbing cliffs and picking their way along narrow ledges in ‘broken glass’ country. They spent weeks, sometimes months, living in clothes wet from sweat, rain, and crossing and re-crossing flooded rivers. Some raging rivers formed ferocious whirlpools sucking down anything near them. And there were traps, serving as a sign they were not welcome in the area, and needed to ‘watch their back’. Some faced warriors fighting one another with bows and arrows, and the kiaps stationed on the PNG/West Irian border at the time of illegal incursions by political refugees from Irian Jaya faced the weapons of the Indonesian para-military. In the 60s/early 70s, their work was ‘classified’ and this could be the reason so little is known about the dangers these young men faced.

Peter Ryan, the editor of The Encyclopedia of PNG, wrote: The enterprise, dedication, honesty and sheer bravery of the district staff, the ‘kiaps’,…were remarkable. … the exploration and the pacification of millions were achieved at the cost of a few skirmishes. The law came, without which any general softening of life is impossible. In any event, I make no apology for this candid tribute to the kiaps, who wrote one of the most honourable pages in this country’s history. [From ‘Some Unfinished Business from the Second World War’, printed in the Sept 1995 issue of Quadrant.]

It is my belief the kiaps who penetrated and patrolled the hostile primitive areas, and the young ones who were posted to isolated and dangerous outposts in the early postwar years, and those who later worked on the PNG/West Irian border, did not get the acknowledgment they deserved from the Australian Administration. Some gave their lives (Gerald Szarka and 21 year-old Geoff Harris, to name a couple, were brutally murdered near Telefomin), many gave their youth and some their health, physical and otherwise, and some have injuries and scars that will last a lifetime.

Many kiaps spent decades working for the Administration to make PNG a better place for having been there and they left without fanfare or thanks or official recognition. During peacetime young Australians are recruited into the armed forces, some see overseas service for maybe six months, with the advantage of modern benefits, communications and extra pay. When they return they are feted whether or not they saw or heard a shot fired in anger, and the Australian government gives commendations and medals. You may recall ‘Bravery Not Recognised’, the postscript to an item by Tony Try, ‘Life on the Border’, in Una Voce No. 3, September 2003.

And let us not forget the indigenous police of the Royal Papua and New Guinea Constabulary. They made it possible for a handful of men to do so much in controlling large areas of the country for the benefit of its people; it would not have been possible for the kiaps to accomplish what they did without their help. Adrian Geyle wrote: There would not be an ex-patrol officer who served in Papua New Guinea who had less than the highest regard for the men of the Royal Papua & New Guinea Constabulary who came under their command; and after an exploratory patrol, Bill Johnston wrote: The Royal Papua & New Guinea Constabulary (as it was called from 1952) was an essential part of the system of Government. The patrolling officer may have played the role of leader, the force keeping the group together and working as one, but he would have got nowhere without the effort and strength of these men; a few could ever equal them in the world. It was a unique partnership, in that the patrolling officer relied on them for so much and they relied on him for just as much in a different way. They were, on the whole, magnificent loyal men. Sergeant Gonene said he knew the kiaps were young, but he tried to brief them or give them advice about things. He tried to be confident in himself so the young officers would have confidence in him and get that strength.

And as we do with the wartime Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, we should not forget the contribution made by the carriers and interpreters who accompanied the patrolling officers. Bill Johnston recorded in one report: They gave their best and they were tough men who never complained they were being pushed beyond their limit. I tried to make them part of the team and did not regard them as beasts of burden.

Only a few people know of the contribution the kiaps and their native police and carriers made, and it seems that there never will be any other recognition of their work except from this few. I wonder if the people who went to live and work in Papua New Guinea appreciate the fact that the pre-war ‘outside men’ and the postwar kiaps made it possible for them to be there.

It is more than fifty years since those early postwar days and the kiaps from that era are passing. In Una Voce No. 2, June 2003, the deaths of six ex-kiaps were recorded – Mert Brightwell, Doug Parrish, Peter Broman, Campbell Fleay, Bill Kelly and Phil Hardy; and many have gone before them.

(The Dept of District Services and Native Affairs had several name changes as the country developed.)


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