My life in Papua New Guinea: Sandy Sinclair

Alexander Morrison Sinclair, better known as Sandy, was born in Cunningham Street, Dundee in 1904. He joined the Brigade of Guards in 1921 where he served for 8 years at Home and in China before going to Sydney to start a general dealers business. In 1934 he went to New Guinea as a Warrant Officer of Police. When Papua and New Guinea amalgamated in 1946, Sandy held the rank of Senior Inspector. He retired in 1961 and lived in the northern Sydney suburb of Naremburn. He revisited Port Moresby in 1965 for a warm reunion with former police colleagues.  Accompanied by his wife Glad, he inspected the $2.5 million Police Training Centre and addressed a large audience in Pidgin English.

This autobiography was published in Una Voce, December 1994, page 14. Sandy passed away on 29 June 2003.

The early years

I arrived in Australia in April 1929 on discharge from the Brigade of Guards after completing eight years service and applied for a position as WO with the New Guinea Police Force. I was accepted and arrived in Rabaul per MV Macdhui in November 1934 where I was appointed a Police Warrant Officer on ordinary Police duties. After a short stay in Rabaul I was transferred to the Agricultural Station at Kerevat in charge of Native Police and a large party of native prisoners from Rabaul prison clearing and planting the area.

My wife Glad arrived from Sydney and I was returned to Rabaul on town police duties once again. Later the Superintendent of Police transferred me to Kieta on Bougainville to relieve the Police Officer who was proceeding on leave. The District Officer was John Merilees and in those days Kieta was a very pleasant posting with very little problems either European or native. After approximately six months at Kieta I was recalled and took over from Nep Blood at Kokopo under Don Waugh who was the District Officer. My stay at Kokopo was short lived as I was recalled to take over the Police Training Depot at Rabaul from Berkly Ayris who was retiring. I was given this position because I had been an NCO instructor at the Guards Depot in Caterham, Surrey. I took over the training depot in 1936 and was still OIC when the Japanese invasion force arrived in February 1942, although the depot had moved from Rabaul to Toliap because of the volcanic eruption.

The eruption started at about 3 pm on a Saturday in May 1937. There had been constant earth tremors since Friday. Gentle at first but increasing in strength but no great damage had been experienced in the town apart from some damage to a few homes. At 3 pm on Saturday there was a tremendous explosion. Glad and I hurried down to the wharf. We had been enjoying the game of baseball between BP and Administration. A crowd had gathered watching where Vulcan Island had been. It was used as a quarantine station but now columns of black smoke were already thousands of feet into the air. The water in the harbour had receded but there was no tidal wave. Glad and I decided we had better get back to the Police Depot and our house as it was becoming difficult to see.

The Acting Superintendent of Police, Bruce Ball, rang and asked me if I could get in touch with Tom Walker, the OIC Rabaul Prison. The Prison and the Training Depot were in the same area. This proved to be impossible as it was completely dark due to thick ash and smoke. I couldn’t see the road or even my garden. The ash was hot and with a wet towel protecting the face one could breathe. Power failed which meant no lights or fans etc. When the direction of the wind changed the ash and smoke was blown mostly out to sea. Then Matupit exploded about 1 pm on Sunday. There were terrific rain storms which turned ash and pumice to mud and the roads were turned into a quagmire. The weight of the ash crushed many roofs. It was decided to relocate the town and most people went to Kokopo by small craft for safety. An American ship, the Golden Bear, managed to get out of the harbour and round to Nodup and gave valuable assistance. Also the BP ship Montoro hurried back from Kavieng and gave great help and eventually evacuated residents to Australia.

Only European and Native Police and essential residents to manage transport, etc., remained in the town. Judge Phillips was acting administrator and took control from Police HQ. Daily conferences were held and orders regarding the protection of property like Government stores, and the two large stores in Mango Avenue were issued. No one was allowed to enter Rabaul. Tunnel Hill was closed by Police and entry from the Kokopo road was not possible as the road had disappeared. It was estimated that two Europeans and approximately four hundred Natives were killed. The town was gradually cleared but it was many months before vegetation recovered.

As the volcanoes subsided the town was more or less made liveable again and families were allowed to return, although it was still unpleasant because of the fumes from the volcanos. There were continual bursts of dust and smoke from Matupit which mostly went out to sea because of the prevailing winds at that time. Living conditions were improving but it was decided to transfer the training depot to Toliap, this took until late 1939. 

Two European houses were built, one for my wife Glad and myself and one for Dave and Kath Crawley. The houses were ones that had been removed from Rapindik hospital area and rebuilt at Toliap. The new training area was close to the beach with good Native accommodation for married personnel, stores for rations, equipment, armaments, etc. After living close to the Matupi Volcano this was a great improvement. The new depot became operable in late 1939.

World War 2

War had broken out in Europe and the Native Constabulary were employed guarding bomb and ammunition dumps in and around Rabaul until taken over by the 22nd Battalion. AIF. The civilian population were evacuated on the MV Neptuna. In December Japan declared war in the Pacific and the first Japanese bombs fell on Rabaul soon after. It was on 21 January 1942 that I was instructed to move with all depot personnel to beyond Vunakanau air strip. At daybreak on 23 January, Sgt Maj Somare, father of Michael, reported a large gathering of ships at Kokopo which he hoped were ours. Rabaul was now occupied and the defending forces were retreating into the bush. Dave Crawley and I had no option but to disarm the Police and remove uniforms, etc., distribute what food supplies we had, especially stick tobacco which could be used in purchasing food.

The last parade before dispersing was to tell them to retain self discipline and that they were still members of the administration. This would be difficult amongst strange people. The more advance trained police recruits were angry at being disarmed and not allowed to be with the troops. I had received instructions from HQ which had arrived from Canberra that under no circumstances would Police be used in action with Army personnel but could be used in removing people injured, etc., similar to Air Raid Wardens duties. It was thought that the Japanese were only going to bomb and shell Rabaul however as well as warships the Japs had troop transports which hadn’t been sighted previously. The Japanese had arrived and it was impossible for us to go back to Toliap to the depot.

Jap patrols were at the top drome and we were actually fired at whilst trying to decide which direction to follow. After a short period we did join up with three police officers namely Ron Feetum, Harry Thelkston, Jim Palmer and four civilians, Trevor Bruce, someone called Brown and his son and another person named Doyle. The journey, which I was told was some 500 miles by the time we arrived at Iboki, was very tough going. We had little food, and the Bainings mountains were constantly wet. Sleep was almost impossible at night because of heavy rain and no shelters and one wondered if we would ever reach Wide Bay. We had left Rabaul on 21 January and arrived in the Wide Bay area on 23 February.

We were attempting to cross a river so as to get to the beach near the Tol plantation and were actually nearly on the other side of the river when a Japanese landing craft arrived and took a large number of troops prisoner. Our party turned around and made for the bank on the other side of the river and were able to get into thick secondary growth. We were naked but had our clothing on top of our heads. The Japs did not cross the river but kept up machine gun fire for a time. Our party stayed in hiding till the Japs left and on 5 February we went to Tol plantation and discovered the bodies of the troops who had been captured. They had been massacred and covered with palm fronds.

I made a quick visit to the Tol plantation residence, actually looking for food. I found a wounded soldier in the house who identified himself as Pte W Collins, of the Field Ambulance. Collins was wounded in his left shoulder and wrists. He stated that he had been in the line of men being executed by the Japanese and had been shot by a Jap officer. He fell down and they assumed that he was dead. Later after dark he managed to get to the plantation house of Mrs Ross where I found him. Another two soldiers were also in the house in an adjoining bedroom but were unconscious and in a bad way. Unfortunately we couldn’t do anything for them.

We were able to take Collins with us. We managed to get bandages, etc., from a mission run by Germans and my party treated his wounds to the best of our ability. We had managed to get some other things from the mission, but the Germans didn’t want to have anything to do with us. They told us in no uncertain terms that the Japanese now owned the country and that we should clear off. There were Japanese patrols around and they didn’t want to get caught helping us. Later we handed Collins over to Army personnel and he was seen by Major Palmer, their medical officer. I met Collins again at a Court of Enquiry being held at the Commonwealth Bank building in Martin Place Sydney. He had recovered and looked well.

We were still in the area when a Japanese destroyer arrived and a party came ashore and set fire to the area and also the plantation residence and then left. Shortly after this we were joined by a group which included Bruce Ball, Superintendent of Police, Lt-Col Carr, CO of the 22nd Battalion, and several others. Ball suggested that we become one party but we preferred to remain as we were. Ball and his party left to make for Gasmata, which unknown to them was already occupied. Later we were contacted by Frank Holland, a civilian working under Keith McCarthy, the ADO at Talasea. His duty was to contact as many stragglers from Rabaul as possible and inform them to cross to the other side of the island where a plan was being hatched for a rescue. He asked about the CO of the 22nd Battalion, Bruce Ball and others and was concerned that they were making for Gasmata. He told us then that Gasmata was occupied by the Japanese so I wrote a note to Ball and told him that we had some news for him and suggested that he and his party return as soon as possible to where he had last seen us. I sent the note by one of the native police who were not with us but were in the bush nearby and came to see that we were alright. When Ball received the note he recognised my handwriting but was suspicious that our party may have been captured and the note written under duress. A member of the 22nd Battalion named C. Harry made a great effort to contact us. We supplied him with the information that we had received. He left immediately to return to Ball and the CO of the 22nd Battalion. Their party then rejoined us and we started the rough trek from Wide Bay to Open Bay, about 50 miles. The men who were gathered at Open Bay consisted of sick and wounded and they were being ferried along the coast by small craft, others who were able to walked.

At Iboki there was fresh meat and other food and also the news that the B.P. Lakatoi was at Witu. It was decided to use the Lakatoi and to make for Australia. The men at Iboki were ferried by small craft to Witu about 50 miles away. The ship was loaded with copra, which had to be dumped from the hold to make room for men and food for the journey to Australia. Mostly sweet potatoes and bananas and rice. Then we set sail. Our greatest risk was negotiating the passage between New Britain and the New Guinea mainland. Two nights later we passed Lae, our luck held as Lae was being heavily bombed that night. Two days later we were in the Trobriand islands and contacted the Government ship Laurabada under the command of Ivan Champion. He was on his way to pick up a large party of troops at Waterfall Bay. Three days later Lakatoi reached Cairns. It was 28 March 1942.

The Lakatoi survivors were in a filthy state having had the same clothing on since Rabaul. The Army personnel were taken over by the Military at Cairns. Civilians were given hotel accommodation and were later taken to an outfitter and supplied with new clothing, shoes, etc. We left Cairns by train for Brisbane and then Sydney. I was back in Australia without a job. I worked for the Commonwealth Police as a security guard at Mascot Aerodrome where they were assembling Beaufort bombers. I tried to get back into the services and joined the Air Force but unfortunately at that stage I came down with malaria.

One day, I was in town when I met Sir Walter McNichol and as a result of this meeting was transferred to the Army and was sent back to Milne Bay with the Water Transport. They wanted me back at the Police Training Depot but the Army in Canberra wouldn’t release me, until one day General Sir Thomas Blamey arrived in Port Moresby on a visit and General Morris managed to get him to sign my release papers.

I joined Australian New Guinea Administration Unit (ANGAU) in 1943 and took over the Police Training Depot at Bisiatabu, then transferred to Lae to start a new depot where I remained until the end of the war.

Return to peace

After the war I went to Sydney and was discharged from the Army and went back to Lae. Glad returned to Lae shortly after me.

The new Administrator was Col J Murray and during his inspection of Lae, which included the Police Depot, he informed me that the training depot would be transferred to Port Moresby as Moresby was to be the Territory capital and all Departmental Headquarters would be in Moresby. In due course we moved from Lae to Moresby per MV Malaita. I was to take over the depot there at Sogeri. The officer in charge at Sogeri, Ron Clammer, was sent to open a new depot at Goroka whilst I took over the depot at Sogeri from him.  Going up to Sogeri the Government vehicle broke down about half way up the mountain but we eventually managed to get a jeep from people working in a plantation. It was very mountainous country and if you went over the side there was about a 300 ft drop into the river below. During the war the road had been mined in case the Japanese tried to reach Port Moresby.

We eventually reached Sogeri where I took over the depot. It had been an Army signal depot. The Depot remained at Sogeri until 1957.

The house for Glad and myself had been an Officers’ mess before we took over. It was a long bamboo building and we had bamboo walls made to separate the space up into dining room, a couple of bedrooms and things like that. The kitchen had to be put in, new stove, etc., never a dull moment. Later we had the native carpenters build another place.

The depot was now functioning. They started bringing all sorts of officials up, which meant Guards of Honour for people from USA , France, etc.: everybody came. We even had someone from the Vatican, Archbishop Carboni. He said that he had heard a lot about the place and wanted to have a look and see how the native people were treated. The married ones had nice accommodation, they had made proper beds with blankets and pillows, dressing tables, mirrors, etc. He sent me a letter saying how pleased he was.

During my time at Sogeri several important things took place. The RSL invited the RPNG Police to send a contingent to lead the 1950 ANZAC Parade in Sydney. The party consisted of the Police Band under Dave Crawley, myself in command of 50 Native personnel and one other officer. On the way down we called into Brisbane where we paraded through the city and laid a wreath. The contingent created much interest in Brisbane and Sydney. After the march we came back to Sogeri whilst the band visited Melbourne. The band performed at the Sydney Town Hall during the ANZAC concert and was very well received.

The next thing was I commanded a Guard of Honour at Ela Beach for Brigadier Cleland who had been appointed Administrator by the Liberal Government. There was a Red Cross hall which was being used for the ceremony for the appointment of the new Administrator.

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

After the ceremony Cleland, the new administrator, inspected the guard. I congratulated him on his appointment and he said to me “Sandy, you are the one to be congratulated, you are going to England in charge of the Coronation Contingent.” I had been chosen to command a contingent of PNG Police to represent the Territory at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and was to proceed to London with two officers and 25 Native members aboard the M.V. New Australia. The other officers were Bill Burns and Peter Broman. The contingent was attached to the Australian contingent and with the other Dominion contingents was stationed at Pirbright Camp in Surrey, which was the Guards Training Depot. The Coronation parade through London was on a cold wet day. The Police contingent was given a great reception. The senior native member was S.M. 1st Class J. Guise later to be Sir John Guise, Governor General PNG.

The contingent attended a reception at Buckingham Palace for the Commonwealth Forces and received the Coronation Medal from Her Majesty. The contingent was invited to the Trooping of the Colour Parade at Horseguards and also to the Fleet Review at Spithead, where we were on board HMAS Sydney. The contingent was inspected by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh at Pirbright Guards Depot in Surrey. Prior to the Coronation Day Parade we were camped in Kensington Gardens. We were invited to many other forms of entertainment such as a visit to the British War Museum, Windsor Castle, an RAF training centre to see Air Force guard dogs being trained, the British and Commonwealth Museum in Kensington, sight seeing in London and visits to many English counties such as Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex and others. We also visited the Austin Motor Works in Birmingham, attended parades at White City and visited the Bishop of London’s Palace (Bishop Wand). Whilst here the Police gave a drill display under SM Christian on the Palace lawn for him and other visitors who were present. We witnessed the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace which was being carried out by the Australian Army. Also present that day were the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr R.G. Menzies and Mrs Menzies, and Lt-General Sir Edmond Herring. Rev Father Bodger visited the contingent in camp and addressed them in their own language. He had been a Missionary in Papua.

In the matter of drill, the Papua New Guinea contingent were considered by some to be the best in the camp at Pirbright. The contingent returned to PNG by air which in those days took four days. We spent one night at Beirut and one in Singapore, where we were accommodated at Raffles Hotel. We spent several days in Sydney, which included a visit to Government House, where we were inspected by the Governor, Sir John Northcote, and were given morning tea. We returned to Port Moresby on the MV Shansi.

I was at Sogeri until 1957 when the Education Department took over the area from us and we were transferred to Kila Police Centre in Port Moresby. I Retired from service in January 1961.

The church

The whole problem was that there was no church or spare room, so that when the priest came to hold Mass, the barracks had to be used for the services which meant that those who weren’t very religious had to get out of their barracks for the Minister or Priest. I think that the Priest was known as Father Mac.

I said to him one day that I didn’t like the men having to get out of their barracks whilst the service was being conducted as Sogeri was one of those places where it could rain like mad and the men would have to move their gear for about two hours. So I asked, what could we do? I said that we’ll build a church, which he thought was a good idea. I said not only for Catholics but for everybody. He said that’s OK it will be nice, but where will you build it? I said that we would build it up on the top of the hill, it was a beautiful site. So we built the church up there. The planters used to come in and the band used to play, it was really nice. It was about 40 ft long. My wife, Glad, produced a beautiful lace table cloth for the altar to use when the Anglican minister took communion. The natives made the altar out of biscuit cases and it looked really beautiful.

We had a couple of men die there, one from snake bite. The Bomana War Cemetery was being completed and we were able to obtain some of the wooden crosses for the police who were buried in our church grounds. The boys planted Croton and other plants. The men buried there had their names painted on the crosses.

The church was blessed by Sir Philip Strong when he was Bishop of Papua New Guinea. He came up to us one day. The minister in Port Moresby had told him that a church was being built at Sogeri that needed to be dedicated so he came up to our house. He thought that it was marvellous that a church had been built. He was having morning tea with us when he asked us what we were going to call the church. Glad said “All Souls” and he said “How remarkable, today is All Souls day”, which was something that we didn’t know. So off we went and the church was duly dedicated. We never saw him again. The next time that I heard of him he was living at Glastonbury in Somerset.

In the mid 1960s Glad and I were invited back to the opening of the new Police Training Depot at Bomana. Our house at Sogeri was still there, but we were told that the church had gone. These places built of bamboo don’t last very long.  


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