“In New Guinea you meet such interesting people”…flashback to a 1954 story.

Bobby Gibbes DSO DFC and bar (right) with wife Jean and daughter Julie with another famous pilot Brian “Black Jack” Walker.

*note by Max Uechtritz: The story below is not mine. It was written in 1954 by adventurous Australian Womens Weekly journalist Dorothy Drain. I just happen to be doing a short film on Drain as one of Australia’s first women war correspondents (Korea, Malaya, Vietnam). I stumbled on this article during research – and was amazed and delighted at the number of wonderful, familiar New Guinea characters in it. She writes how she forged the raging Erap River on a horse to get to our old friend and Markham valley neighbour Tommy Leahy’s place(we then lived at Erap). How she came across the great WW2 ace Bobby Gibbes DSO DFC and bar and his family along with Brian “Black Jack” Walker. Also legendary pioneers like Doris Booth and George Greathead, whose son Dennis was an old school friend. George featured in the escape from Rabaul after the Japanese invasion. Other interviewees include world famous salvage king Johnno Johnstone and goldfields identities Jack Wilton and Terence Powell. It’s all too good not to share with the many people who knew these characters or at least their stories.

Story below written BY DOROTHY DRAIN

One of the things that people often say to journalists is, “You must meet such interesting people.”

In New Guinea it happens to be true. That is because the Territory is still an adventurous country, peopled by adventurous men and women.

Some of them are “Befores,” the Territory label for those who were there before the war. Some, as servicemen, saw the country under the worst conditions, but realised its possibilities and returned.

And some are newcomers looking for wider horizons.

I met all three types one afternoon in the Markham Valley. The newcomer was tall, fair-haired young Tommy Leahy.

Tommy Leahy with his cousins Joe Leahy (left) and Kum John:Picture from Tommy’s book “Markham Tom”

A nephew of the celebrated Leahy brothers, explorers and goldminers in New Guinea. Tommy was a schoolboy on the Darling Downs, Queensland, when parachutes were dropping into the now-peaceful valley; when the great Nadzab base there, now head-high in kunai grass, swarmed with Americans and Australians.

Tommy, whose wife and their new twin babies, boy and girl, are due to return soon from Australia, has a rice crop which could put him on his feet. (*twins Peter and Anne, longstanding Uechtritz family friends)

If it doesn’t come good, he says cheerfully, he’ll have to get a job working for some-one else.

The ex-serviceman was Bill Robertson, a New South Welshman who served as a commando in the hills over-looking the valley where he now manages a 5000-acre Gov-ernment livestock station. To-day cattle graze there in green paddocks that could be Australia were it not for the native stockboys.

His wife is a “Before.” She was the widow of a former Administration official when she and Mr. Robertson met at Alice Springs after the war.

To visit the station we had crossed the stony, seven-knot Erap River on horseback. This, as I hadn’t been on a horse for ten years, seemed pretty adventurous to me.

However, a seven-months old baby made the crossing too. The baby’s mother, fair skinned, red-haired Mrs. Jack Lamrock, wife of an agricultural officer, took it as a matter of course. A few years ago, she told me, she waded several miles waist-deep through water to her first home in the Territory.

New Guinea is that kind of country. It is not for softies.

In towns such as Port Moresby and Lae, when you sit in pretty homes over tea, you soon find’ that many of the smartly dressed women have had their share of isolation in the outposts.

It is a country full of people who ought to write books.

You hear stories all the time, tales of the old days, of wartime, and diverting snippets such as that of the man up in the wilds who had been told by his doctor to eat vege-tables for his eyesight.

So he ordered, by telegram, a case of carrots.

‘”Absurd mistake in transmission,” thought the addressee, and forwarded a case of claret.

Some people, of course, have written books. One of them is Mrs. Doris Booth, perhaps the best-known woman in the Territory. Her “Mountains, Gold, and Cannibals,” published in the ‘thirties, told of her experiences as the first woman on the Bulolo goldfields, back in 1924.

Mrs. Booth now lives at Wau. I met her, a fair-complexioned pretty woman, at a dinner party in Lae. She was on her way to Port Mores-by to the meeting of the Legis-lative Council of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, of which she is a member.

At the same partv was Mrs H. R. Niall, wife of the District Commissioner for the Morobe district, of which Lae is the headquarters. Twenty four years ago, when Mrs. Niall accompanied her husband to Gasmata on the island of New Britain, she was the first white woman there. For the first six years of her ma-ried life she didn’t see another white woman except when she went on leave.

At Goroka, administrative headquarters of the Eastern Highlands, I met a concentrated bunch of celebrities, most of them growing coffee.

Jim Leahy has a place there. So does J. L. Taylor, who, with another patrol officer, made the first patrol through the area in the ‘thirties. Both Mr. Taylor, and Mr. George Creathead, who succeeded him in charge of the district, retired from the Administration to grow coffee.

George Greathead laid out Goroka. When he handed over the district in 1952 to Ian Downes there were only nine houses. Now there are about 70 timber houses set in bright gardens in this little township in the Asaro Valley, five thou-sand feet up and an hour’s flight from Lae.

Former District Officer George Greathead, who laid out Goroka with village official Nonopi

It is a pretty place, surrounded by high ranges, and its pleasant climate gives it a dream-like quality after the steamy heat of the lowlands.

Everything’ in Goroka, from the materials for the huge, newly completed Department of Civil Aviation hangar to the regular bread and meat has to be flown in from the coast.

Maybe that’s why there is such a high percentage of ex-pilots among the Highlands coffee-planters.

Across a ravine from the little hotel where I stayed is the plantation of Jerry Pentland, famous pioneer Territory pilot.

Up the road lives Bobby Gibbes (D.S.O., D.F.C. and Bar).

His pretty young dark-haired wife, formerly Jean Ince, of Melbourne, learned typing and

riband after their marriage in 1944 so that she could help Bobby in his post-war career. She went to Wewak with Bobby in 1946, when it was still full of the litter of war, and when ships bringing fresh food sometimes didn’t call for five months. Now she does his office work for him.

Bobby started an air service from Wewak just after the war. He opened up about 30 airstrips in New Guinea.

He still runs his Gibbes Sepik airways, grows coffee and tea near Mt. Hagen, has founded a co-operative farming venture called Highland Development Ltd., and recently invented a mechanical tea-picker of which he has high hopes.

The day I met the Gibbes’ at Goroka they had with them another famous pilot, Brian (“Black Jack”) Walker, now a test pilot for De Havillands, who hopes to get land on the Highlands and grow coffee too. “This’ll do mc”

“BOBBY sold me this place by remote control,” he said. “I came here three days ago for the first time to test a plane, and I said to myself: “this’ll do me.”

At least two ex-managers of airlines are among Highlands coffee-planters, and there are several former goldminers.

Though gold is declining in importance in the Territory (unless someone should dis-cover a new Edie Creek) it runs like a theme through the New Guinea story.

At Bulolo I met two men who have personally handled most of the £30,000,000 worth that the Bulolo GolDredging Company has taken out of the valley.

In a little room that looked like a pantry, where chipped enamel mugs full of gold speci-mens sit beside a basin of sugar, they let me handle £6000 worth of it, making the cus-tomary joke to female visitors: “If you can pick it up with one hand you can take it away.” .

It was a bar the size of a small house brick, weighing 341b. avoirdupois.

Terry Powell says he has yet to find anything more interesting than gold, and he doesn’t mean what it can buy. He just likes the stuff for what it is.

Jack Wilton and Terence Powell holding blocks of gold

He and Jack Wilton are the only two men at Bulolo who actually handle the gold. They collect it from the dredges and see it through till it is poured from the crucible, cooled, and despatched by air to Sydney.

And at Lae, while waiting for a plane, I met another man who had had a lot to do with other people’s gold.

He was “Johnno” Johnstone, the famous diver who in 1941 directed the salvage operations that recovered more than two million pounds’ worth of bullion from the sunken Niagara.

He was on his way to Rabaul to look over the sunken ships in the harbor there on behalf of a group of financiers interested in steel. These ships represent the last of the big quantities of wartime scrap in New Guinea.

“Johnno” Johnstone, who says his official age is 56, has retired twice. He emerged from his second retirement to take this job.

“It lasted only three months,” he said. “I couldn’t settle down to carrying a string bag.”

I had breakfast with Mr. Johnstone at the Qantas passenger quarters in Lae. I could have listened to his stories of ships and the sea all day.

“Don’t make it sound too adventurous,” he said, as he left to fly to Rabaul. “When you know your way round you’re safer at the bottom of the sea than you are crossing Pitt Street.”

It used to be said that if you stayed long enough at. the Cafe de Paris, everybody in the world would pass by.

Add the word “interesting” after everybody, and you could say the same thing of a New Guinea airstrip.

The article author Dorothy Drain (centre) in photos from other stories she wrote while visiting New Guinea.

2 thoughts on ““In New Guinea you meet such interesting people”…flashback to a 1954 story.

  1. Fabulous reporting and I enjoyed the story having been born in Wau and growing up for the first eight years in Bulolo. I joined the DASF (Agriculture) in the 70’s and was surprised there were so many people growing coffee in the Highlands in the early 50’s.
    Old Horrie Niall signed my birth certificate.


  2. I lOVE this article!

    Only just read it.

    Always behind, but get there eventually.

    Col Pay was the man who’s protege taught Jason to fly.

    Col was the one who grounded Jason when he dived bombed St. Josephs school.

    Very tragically he died in one of his aircraft whilst test flying… most of JB’s aviator friends knew him very well. I also think he was a friend of Neil Cottees as they were both vintage aircraft enthusiasts.

    Wonderful stories everywhere.

    Aren’t we lucky to have grown up in such a wildly interesting place.



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