Reminiscences of a Visit to Madang/Wewak: Christmas 1954 by Leo Butler

Flew side-saddle Lae to Madang via Goroka in a chartered DC3 with Mandated Airlines Captain Tom DEEGAN, First Officer Jim SMITH. The aircraft was loaded with drums of fuel distillate and motor spirit (chartered by Vacuum Oil), left Lae approx. 7 am, flew up the Markham Valley through the Bena Gap and landed at Goroka approx. 8 am, the airstrip shrouded in fog. Goroka temperature 10-12 degrees, air crisp.

MAL agent Sno BLACKLEY greeted me and the crew and supervised the unloading of the fuel drums onto used DC3 tyres, then the native labour gang rolled drums into the Vacuum Oil (Mobil) depot which was adjacent to the airstrip alongside Gibbes Sepik Airways hangar (Sno was also the manager for Vacuum’s agent, Jim LEAHY).

During the stopover Sno introduced me to some local identities: Jim LEAHY, Peter MANSER, Bobby GIBBES and young Dennis BUCHANAN. Also on hand were Vic COX, Jack GRAY, Les GRAY, Vic SMITH, George GREATHEAD and DC Ian SKINNER.

The DC3 was then loaded with sacks of coffee beans for the flight to Madang. Departed Goroka approx. 9.30 am, flew through light cloud over the Ramu Valley and landed at Madang at approx. 10.45 am. On alighting I was hit by the hot and oppressive air generated by Madang’ s tropical climate plus the heat reflection of the Madang airstrip which was constructed of white crushed coral.

Met at Madang by Hec LONGMORE, local Vacuum Oil manager, and transported along the road flanked by lovely large trees and beautiful hibiscus and frangipani. Accommodation was booked at the Madang Hotel owned and operated by the GILMORE family. Audit duties at Madang completed, it was time to travel to Wewak. Accompanied by Hec Longmore, we flew normal passenger service to Rabaul via Wewak with Qantas Service, Captain Mal SHANNON, flight passed old smoking volcano, Manam if my memory serves me, then passed the mighty meandering Sepik River, then landed at the old mission strip at Wewak. Met at Wewak by the local depot superintendent for Vacuum Oil, Frank MARTIN. We stayed at the unique and interesting Wewak Hotel, which billeted many prominent personalities including well-known crocodile hunters, native labour recruiters, and government employees who pioneered this vast area.

Frank Martin’s house was situated on the top of Wewak Point and from it you could obtain a glorious view across the Bismarck Sea towards the Kaitura Islands and along the coast towards Aitape. Audit completed in two days. I had some spare time and Hec introduced me to Bishop Leo ARKFELD, Catholic Bishop of the Mission of the Divine Word, who kindly asked me if I would like to accompany him in his Auster aircraft on one of his daily rounds to mission outposts in the Sepik District, in this case to Angoram, Ambunti and Maprik. Not being used to light aircraft, at times I felt nervous, but found the Bishop to be reassuring; the day was most pleasurable and educational.

I was told that Leo Arkfeld was the youngest bishop ever appointed at that time within the Catholic Church. He was from the mid-west of the USA. During this day’s trip I met many priests, Christian Brothers, lay workers, nuns and many local people who serviced these mission stations. They ran their own sawmills, power stations, boats and plantations and provided pastoral care to the local people.

During lunch at the mission the day before returning to Madang, we were served steak with salad but, being a half-conforming Catholic from Melbourne, I was slow in tucking in as it was a Friday and we had been told not to eat meat on Fridays. Bishop Arkfeld was quick to notice my dilemma and said, ‘Leo, pass me your plate’, whereupon he blessed it and called it fish. It was a most enjoyable steak, washed down with equally enjoyable wine – a great finale to my visit to Wewak.

Relumed to Madang per DC3 MAL to spend my first Christmas in PNG. The aircraft was full and there were no seats left on the side-saddle configuration, which was normal for these flights at that time. Most passengers were expats visiting friends in Madang or Lae and some were intending to spend Christmas in the cool climate of Goroka and Mt Hagen. Hec Longmore and I sat on bags of copra fibres which were loaded at the rear of the aircraft. We were both suffering badly after a big pre-Christmas party at the Wewak Club (Hec was well known and respected in the Sepik District).

Hec and his wife Jean had arranged a Christmas Eve celebration at the Madang Club hosted by one of his close friends, the Manager, Reg VOGLER. On Christmas morning, I was picked up from the hotel by Hec for a breakfast at his home with his wife and their young daughter. At about 11 am we left for Dylup Plantation where we were to spend the Christmas break with Alan CAMMACK and his family. The trip took about four hours through rough tracks, swamps and jungle country. We were met at a river crossing by Alan and his native bosbois and were ferried by punt across a rather large and fast flowing river. We were then taken in Jeeps and an old American weapons carrier to the guesthouse at Dylup Plantation. The guesthouse had a magnificent view out to sea. Accompanying us were Claude TRUBERT and Gerard LAROQUE, Vacuum Oil trainees from New Caledonia, who were spending some time in PNG to obtain experience in other divisions of Vacuum Oil before returning to take up managerial positions. As a bonus, Claude and Gerard had befriended three young ladies from the Commonwealth Bank in Madang; they were very good company and great party girls.

Alan and his wife were admirable hosts, providing us with great food, excellent wining, dining, dancing, tennis, swimming, exploring, and boating trips. Alas, all good things have to come to an end, and on the fourth day we had to return to reality in Madang. Hec’s many friends at Madang and other places included Father Joe WALACHY, Father HOFF, Reg VOGLER, Peter HOWSEA, Paul BOLGER, Tom BRIGGS, Eric SNOOK, Neil GRIEVE and many more.

Life came back to reality when I returned to Lae after one of the most enjoyable and informative experiences of my time in PNG circa 1948-1954. I hope these writings are interesting for readers; they certainly gave me some great times to reflect on in my later years.

by Leo Butler, ex Vacuum Oil (Mobil)

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