My Early Days in TPNG by Mike Smith

WACO biplane, VH-UYD

Having just completed my electrical apprenticeship I applied for and was successful in obtaining a position as electrical fitter and mechanic with the Commonwealth Department of Works. I arrived in Port Moresby at 6 am from a midnight takeoff from Eagle Farm Airport on 11 August 1952.
One month later I was transferred, along with six other tradesmen—Bill Farmer, foreman; Arthur Carrodus, plumber; Jack Toohey, chippie; Ron Jolly, chippie; Lu Lucas, chippie and Paul Nylhorm, linesman—to start work at building up a new centre for district administration at Popondetta, Northern District. This followed a disastrous eruption of Mt Lamington a year earlier, killing over 3,500 indigenous people and thirty-five Europeans at Higaturu Government Station and surrounding villages, which took the full force of the blast.
I was quartered with Jack Gammon, motor mechanic, in his kuni-roofed dwelling until quarters were built for our workforce. The District Commissioner at the time was Sydney Elliott-Smith, assisted by Assistant District Officer (ADO) Clarrie Healy. Having one glass eye, Clarrie was fond of telling the story of how he left his glass eye on a post to watch over his indigenous prisoners. I think one of the clever ones crept up behind the post and put a cover over the eye. Fact or fiction??
After settling in and wiring several new homes, I was asked to salvage a 25 kW Southern Cross lighting plant from Higaturu, have it repaired and relocated in Popondetta, for the town’s electricity supply. I had a party of indigenous police to assist with this work of lifting and loading the unit. We left in a three-ton truck, and headed for Higaturu.
After fording the double crossing we eventually arrived at Higaturu, and observed the terrible damage that had been inflicted on the centre. Open refrigerators with remnants of food still inside, trenches which had been hastily dug to bury the dead, a jeep three metres up a tree and just devastation everywhere. Fortunately, however, the small power house was easily located and the heavy lighting plant was unbolted from the floor and, eventually, secured on the truck for the bumpy ride home.
The lighting plant was repaired, and along with the switchboard was reinstalled in the newly-built power house, connected to the reticulation system, and the town had an electricity supply.
In late November a ceremonial opening of the Mount Lamington Memorial Cemetery at Popondetta was performed by Paul Hasluck, Minister for Territories. A large gathering of local people and visiting dignitaries helped make this a very moving event.
In those days Papuan Air Transport (Patair) used a WACO biplane, VH-UYD, to service Popondetta, with pilots either Frank Goussens or Hank Van Santen. The aircraft itself was originally purchased for 2,000 pounds and on its flight north it nosedived at Bankstown airfield and broke its wooden propeller. Once repaired it was flown to Port Moresby and became the company’s first aircraft. I flew in it from Popondetta to Port Moresby late in 1952, piloted by Frank Goosens.
Early in 1953 the airline purchased an Avro Ansen, which also carried more passengers and flew to Popondetta on a regular basis. I was transferred to Yule Island in February of that year to provide power to the township of Kairuku, but that’s another story.

TPNG Timeline
1952 Popondetta—Electrician, CDW.
1953 Popondetta then Kairuku, Yule Island, installation of power to the small township along with linesman, Ron Segsman. Provisions supplied fortnightly by CDW and flown in by Sandringham flying boat on its regular flight to Daru. Great little township, played cricket each Saturday against those from the nearby Catholic mission.
1954 L/H Electrician at Konedobu power station, Port Moresby, CDW.
1955 Foreman at CDW workshop, Port Moresby.
1956/9 Work Supervisor, CDW.
1957/3 Senior Training Officer. Transferred to Department of Treasury, Civil Affairs, Electrical Undertakings Branch along with all other electricity personnel from CDW, in preparation for the formation of an Electricity Commission. In the following year Bill D’Arcy and I began training five local apprentices to become the territory’s first indigenous electricians. Writing and printing training manuals for power house operators and linesman.
1963 PNG Electricity formed with Jock Rutter as Commissioner. Accepted position of Manager, Port Moresby.
1971 Applied for position of Town Manager, Yonki, Eastern Highlands, nearest town Kainantu—site of the Commission’s giant hydro-electric project. All civil engineering works carried out by 200 Hyundai workers from South Korea.
Our family were the first to live within the new township. Eventually, within the year we had a mess hall, which could cater for 200 people, regular movies showing twice a week, medical centre with doctor, staff, ambulance and fire engine. CDW officers were responsible for the supervision of the project. Lae was a three hours’ drive away down the Kassam Pass, and in the other direction Kainantu was forty minutes away.
1973 Back to Headquarters as new Chief Administrative Officer. Travelled to all commission centres to determine what positions could be localised including my own.
1975 Left with family after Independence and settled on the Sunshine Coast.

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