To the Admiralty Islands: Ted Rhoades

I applied for the position of overseer on a copra plantation with a firm called Edgell & Whiteley Ltd. The plantation was situated in the Admiralty Islands, part of the then Australian Territory of Papua New Guinea (TPNG). I felt that I was certain of getting the job since my Uncle Ashton (more widely known in New Guinea as Snowy or Snow) had only weeks before resigned his position as Naval Intelligence Officer Commanding the North-East Area to take up the position of senior produce inspector for TPNG.

Within two weeks [of being interviewed], I was heading north on a Trans-Oceanic Airlines Short Sunderland Flying Boat with stacks of white and khaki cotton clothes and a new Browning automatic rifle. I spent a few days in Brisbane saying goodbye to my mother and sister and then headed further north in a Qantas DC7. Hours later I arrived in Port Moresby. I changed aircraft and flew over the Owen Stanley Mountains to Lae on the north coast. Due to turbulence the wings of our DC3 flapped for the whole trip. It was apparently normal for this type of aircraft but a little disconcerting. I stayed the night at the Cecil Hotel, a classic PNG pub built of wartime materials. Late that afternoon I experienced my first of many gurias (earthquakes) during which the whole building shook, sounding like a sheet metal factory in full production.

The next morning I climbed aboard an authentic PNG DC3 bound for Lorengau: and what a shock to the system. From the outside the plane looked quite normal, but the interior was something quite different. Along each outer wall was a row of steel-framed canvas chairs and down the centre a double row facing outwards. Already on board, occupying almost every seat and most of the floor, were about thirty natives, both male and female. They had arrived straight from the PNG interior, complete with all their gear: bush knives, lik lik akis (tomahawk), buai (betel nut for chewing), dried fish, dried or live kapul (small possum), live chooks, lizards, snakes and pigs. Some of these men were recently recruited in the interior for work on the plantations. They did not understand Pidgin, had only seen one or two white people in their lives, and had never seen the sea. Only the day before they had experienced their first ever ride on an aircraft. Coming from conservative Terrigal, their appearance was a real eye-opener for me, especially some of the older women and nursing mothers. I was the only white passenger on board and was, maybe, just as strange a sight for the majority of the passengers as they were for me.

The route was Lae, Rabaul (New Britain), Kavieng (New Ireland), Lorengau (Manus Island) then onto Wewak, Madang and Lae (without me). From the aircraft window the signs of war were still very apparent even after eight years. There were ship, aircraft and army equipment wrecks in the harbours, around airfields, and scattered around the suburbs of most settlements. In Rabaul they had built a wharf onto the side of a sunken Japanese freighte rather than attempting to move it.

On arrival at RAAF Lombrun, the closest airfield to Lorengau, I was met by Alto, a very smart young Manus man about nineteen years of age, driving the familiar FJ Holden Ute or haf car. About an hour’s drive over an appalling road and an old timber bridge that looked like it would collapse under us, we made it to Lorengau, the capital of the Manus District. Lorengau was the headquarters of the plantation company of Edgell & Whitely Ltd and was where I first met the people with whom I would be working.

The operation was based at Lorengau where the importing and exporting, plantation management and control of the company’s fleet of small ships was conducted, as well as the running of a general store stocking everything to meet the requirements of a small European community. The only other store in town stocked only goods of Chinese origin and was managed by a man named Seeto Kim Foon. There was a large copra shed in which the region’s 3000 tons of copra, pa, was weighed, stored and shipped, a garage and a boi haus (accommodating ten to fifteen bois). Three European bungalows completed the compound. My living quarters was one of these bungalows alongside a small creek, with the police station and kalabus (native jail) being situated on the other side of the creek. The compound was right on a beach inside Seeadler Harbour. Large ships were loaded and unloaded by surfboat directly onto the beach; smaller vessels proceeded to the wharf. 

My first job was not very impressive. It consisted of assorted office work and, for two or three hours per day, the weighing of copra and supervising its stacking in the shed. Within a few days the first ship arrived, the MV Malaita. At this time my job was to supervise the stevedoring on the ship, unloading the cargo into the surfboats, arranging the tow to the beach and stacking the return cargo of copra bags into the ship’s hold. This was a pretty good set-up since there was not a lot to do, there were usually a few young female passengers on board and the bar was usually open. I managed to hold on to this task for the next four years, being called in from the outlying islands for the majority of the large ship visits. Generally speaking however, it was a very boring existence being stuck in Lorengau. The only social life was drinking at the Manus Sports Club and the occasional private party where the ratio of young men to single females was about 10:1. Most of the blokes present at these parties were patrol officers with the occasional navy or RAAF officer thrown in so the competition was a bit fierce (no danger of getting married up here!) Social events were strictly for whites with some selected mixed race people invited.

To make life more interesting I purchased a native ocean-going outrigger canoe and a small outboard from Uncle Ashton. Each weekend Alto, a few of his mates and I went voyaging to the LST shipwreck and the outlying islands around Seeadler Harbour. On Ahus Island we made contact with some natives living in a traditional village. I was amazed at the fuss they made of me, a white Masta paying them a visit. They made cups of tea and cut down kulau (Green coconuts for drinking) and set up a table and chairs on the beach in the shade. Of course my boys, including Alto (who spoke English perfectly) or the luluau (village headman) would not join me at the table, so I sat up there all by myself like a king, feeling like a complete fool with all the native meris (women) and pikininis (children) peering at me through the bushes.

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