My recollections of PNG and New Brittain (Hazy at best!) from Trevor Moxham – 9 SQN

8 Jan 73 to 29 May 79 PNG 20 May 73

It was in May73 that I was sent to PNG on my first of many attachments. Before departing for the highlands a quick shopping trip was needed for groceries to supplement our 10 man Army ration packs. We flew in company via Garoka then onto Mt Hargen. The departure from Garoka (alt?)was quite exciting because after refuelling we were at max T/O weight once again (which didn’t bother us departing from Lae at sea level). This was my first introduction to high altitude ops, and would have dire consequences for later PNG work. The T/O from Garoka was accomplished by doing hops (overpitching) to reach the runway then doing a running T/O downhill (most of the highland strips were built on slopes).

Our journey ended at a small village called Koroba, near the Strickland River deep in the highlands. Refuelling was done on the local soccer field, and we were accommodated in a small hut on the ridgeline. We even had a houseboy to do the washing (luxury). Much of the flying was carried out in the mornings as the thunderstorms would form around 3pm and progress down the valley toward us. Our job was to support the OZ Army Survey Corps in updating the old and outdated WW2 maps. These activities were carried out in conjunction with photo reconniance from a 2SQN Canberra, and then all the information was sent to Bendigo for coalation.

The existing maps were of dubious accuracy and had rivers disappearing in valleys only to re-emerge in a different valley. We saw many different highland tribes (see pictures in “Wigmen of Papua New Guinea” by James Sinclair). James Sinclair was a well respected Kiap (Local Government Administrator) and his son was one of my students later at 2FTS (who carried on to become a Cathay Pacific Captain). PNG flying was very exciting and nothing like I had ever experienced before. Extremely rugged and hostile country, with a chequered history of aircraft crashes even to this day. It was only later, when I arrived back in Australia in October, that 9SQN in their wisdom scheduled me for a Jungle Survival Course. On one trip in the Strickland George we came across head-hunters who had never seen a white man before. A story has it that a local native managed to put a spear through the bottom of an aircraft, trying to bring the “Big Bird” down. The scenery in the highland was spectacular with giant unmarked limestone sink holes, and rivers gushing from the side of steep hills originating from underground streams. The maps detailed placenames such as “Tsili Tsili” and “Kanabea” (can of beer), and navigation features like “Black Cat Gap’, “The Snake” and “Landslide Gap”; a bit of local knowledge could go a long way.

That Sinking Feeling
One humerous incident occurred when a crew had an unusually long day and were returning to Koroba. Fuel became an issue but never fear they had an extra bladder on board, and a fuel pump so a precautionary stop was in order. Much to the amazement of the captain the crewman announced after the precautionary landing that he had “forgotten the hoses”. Not to worry a quick message went out to the other A/C to fetch more hoses. After locating the hoses a frantic call came from the stranded A/C advised that they were sinking? The situation was rectified in time (before the tail rotor settled ) to recover the situation. An even funnier sinking situation happened later in New Britain. It was only a short distance from Koroba to lake Kopiago where in Jul 1972 two choppers meshed rotors during refuel. Fortunately nobody was hurt.

From Koroba we worked the southwest down the Strickland George and moved base to Kiunga. The operations in the lowlands around the Fly River were totally different to highland operations. With numerous marshes and unreliable maps navigation was mainly by heading and distance. The local villagers on the river had to be on constant alert for crocodiles, and some tribes tattoed their skin to worship them (Puk Puk skin). The living conditions with the Army were pretty basic, with washing conducted at a local stream. At one stage the drinking water was suspect and it was soon discovered that it was good practice to fly with an umbrella and a toilet roll, as rain showers were frequent. At this stage we were not permitted to cross the Irian Jaya border of Indonesia (this came later with more crashes). Along the border we operated north across the Hindenburg Range to Telefomin, and onto a pretty place on the northern coast called Vanimo (later destroyed by tsunami on 17th of July, 1998).

New Britain 19 Jun – 15 Jul 73
The Bismark Archipelago
After completing much of PNG our mapmaking took us back to Lae, and then along the northern coast of New Britain, which is part of the Bismark Achipelago. During the refuelling stop at Cape Glouster we noticed what appeared to be small brush fires on the side of Mt Talawe (6,600’ amsl). Then the ground shook and the “Whale Gusher” manual fuel pump started to work overtime to get us away, as we witnessed our first (of many) active volcanoes. On our journey to Rabaul, our next camp, we flew past “The Father” (7546 amsl) which was also active and smoking. Nearby was another caldera called “South Son”. Rabaul itself was a major Japanese base during WW2 with around 200,000 troops stationed there, and although heavily bombed, was wisely bypassed by Gen Douglas Mcarthur in his pacific campaign. The harbour formed part of what we were told was a large extinct volcano. Our camp was at the base of extinct twin volcanoes called Vulcan and Tevurvur., and I even took a tour inside the caldera to confirm this and to see the sulphur vents. The engineers were to always have 2 A/C serviceable for what we thought were SAR purposes. Someone must have thought these volcanoes posed a danger though. In the centre of the bay was a small outcrop called the Beehive”, which marked the middle of the old volcano. What we didn’t know at the time was that 500 people were killed in the 1937 eruptions at Rabaul (when the Beehive appeared from under the harbour), and a further six were to die in 1990. Following this eruption the whole town of Rabaul would later be destroyed in a huge eruption in 1994.

From the air you could plainly see where barges and small ships had run aground around the bay in an effort to stay afloat after being damaged by allied attacks. As in PNG there were many A/C wrecks scattered around the Japanese wartime strips. Many of which were salvaged for return to OZ. Some very interesting finds were made at Gasmata, including Zeros and Betty bombers.

We were accommodated in old WW2 tents on the airfield that were reasonably comfortable, except for the occasional shrieking F27 taking off nearby. An important find was made in Atalikukun Bay about 18 miles away, where a friendship was struck with the owner of a tiny island (possibly Urara Isle?). The house footprint occupied most of the island with just enough space to land on the sandy beach below, and the owner was gracious enough to show us his hospitality and take us water skiing.

That Sinking Feeling Again
On another humerous occasion I was on standby for the other airborne A/C when a frantic call came from the FIS operator (relayed through an F27) that the A/C had made a precautionary landing in a swamp and was sinking. We hurriedly gathered some groundcrew and tools together and launched. It appears the problem was a tail rotor chip detector and we soon found the troubled A/C, which was indeed settling in a small clearing on soft ground and scrub. A very quick cursory inspection was made and we escorted the chopper back to base. Sure enough the chip detector came on again and this time the crew were more selective with their landing site They managed to put down in the middle of a large compound, securely surrounded by a high barbed wire fence. While we were circling overhead awaiting the detector results from another inspection we noticed uniformed men running toward the chopper with shotguns. We were relieved to hear from the grounded crew that this time they had picked a jail to land in, and it was thought a break-out was in progress. It wasn’t long before both A/C were safely back at Rabaul, to discuss the days events at the bar.

PNG 25-31Aug74 – Moorhead
It was around this time that I contracted a form of dysentery and, as there was a change–over of pilots due at Port Moresby, so it was a good opportunity to medivac myself out for a check-up. By the time I got to Moresby everything had cleared up and back we went to Moorehead.
I believe it was from here that an A2-383 later came to grief on Mt Basavi, with high density altitude again taking it’s toll. It was interesting to note a spot height on the WAC chart at the time (southwest of Mt Basavi) was accurate to + or – 1,500’. The Iroquois was good for sea level operations but we lacked the data for high altitude ops. This deficiency was later rectified with the introduction of a “Prayer Wheel” calculator from ARDU, but much too late for PNG work.

Frequent trips were made from Moorehead to Daru in the Torres Straight. It was on one of the beautiful small sandy beached islands nearby that we were told by the resident Army surveyor there that he had he found a warning in a bottle buried next to the trigg point It said not to swim in the lagoon as it was alive with sharks. Being doubting Thomas’s we just had to investigate, and sure enough there was much splashing around by sharks in the shallow lagoon chasing small fish. So much for adventures in paradise.