By Max Uechtritz
We likened Mick Brosnan to a “caravan postman” – travelling thousands of kilometres collecting and delivering donated caravans as temporary homes for bushfire victims.
Other descriptions fit: Good Samaritan. Godsend. Hero. Humble Mick would shudder at ‘hero’, but if anyone should wear that overused tag then it’s this volunteer charity worker who spends his life helping others live theirs better.
The former schoolteacher is chairman of the Social Justice Advocates of the Sapphire Coast. He’s a heart-warming exemplar of how communities are dealing with the horror, heartache and hopelessness of the 2019-20 summer bushfires. That is, communities helping and healing themselves as victims fall between official cracks in the formal recovery process of governments and councils.
When Ray Martin and I filmed with him near Bemboka in the Bega Valley on the NSW far south coast for our documentary Forgotten Australians on the Prime7 network, Mick was delivering his 49th caravan. He’d picked it up from Newcastle. Since the fires, caravans have come from as far as Melbourne, Brisbane, Wagga Wagga, the Blue Mountains and all over NSW. The recipients had been camping in tents, half-burned sheds or even lean-tos. At best they were in rented accommodation, but for many the rent assistance had run out.
That’s what had happened to the recipient family we filmed – Angus and Stephanie Johnston and their three little girls aged two, four and six, pictured above After losing everything, they’d lived firstly in a garage and then a small rental before Mick delivered their temporary home on wheels to their block in the Bemboka hills.
It’ll be tight living for the Johnstons as their new house is built, but they don’t mind. They are home on their own soil, and that in itself is part of the healing process. Funds ($25,000) for their caravan were raised by a local church group ADRA. A couple of sheds – for a kitchen and kids’ schoolroom – were donated by the local Coates Hire franchise.
However, many of the caravans have been simply donated by strangers – to strangers.
“People were contacting us, giving away their caravans, “ said Mick. “Perfectly good, roadworthy, registered vans, just giving them to the fire survivors.” He told the story of one young couple who phoned to say come and take their brand-new caravan – complete with crockery, cutlery and linen.
“Human nature is extraordinary. It may sound like a cliché, but the human spirit is fabulous. The strength of community, the strength of volunteerism in rural communities, the resilience of people and their ability to smile and grit it through. I mean, that’s quite extraordinary.”
What’s also extraordinary that, nine months after the fires, there is a still a need for caravans as basic shelter.
“One of the images I first had was going to (the small town of) Quaama, delivering a caravan. And the lady is sitting there, the trees are blackened, all that’s left is the iconic brick chimney, blackened and burned and the twisted metal. And she’d been waking up to that for several months, and you just felt for her. She was just waiting for someone to come and clear it all away, to erase that image from her mind.
“ And there was another older couple in a similar circumstance, again at Quaama. And I went there three months later and they were still traumatised, like the fire just happened yesterday. Yet they had waited for months to ask for help.”
After the caravan delivery we went with Mick to his next stop in the Bemboka hills where he helped install a shower for a 75-year-old woman. Jan Reynolds (above) wasn’t eligible for government financial support because her house burned down in big bushfires of 2018. Because this wasn’t part of last summer’s fires, Jan wasn’t eligible for government assistance. Two years later, her own caravan was perched on a bare compound which previously housed her homestead, sheds, orchid garden and three vehicles – all lost – with no running water available.
Mick and his mate Mark Smith from the Social Justice Advocates fixed that. They installed a pump from Jan’s creek, a hot water system and a shed with shower. The look on Jan’s face said it all as the water sprang from the shower nozzle – for the first time on her property in two years.
While Jan is forever grateful, she is also bewildered at why a first world country should be relying on social and charity groups to help victims of natural disasters. She can’t understand how the two billion dollars of federal recovery funds and tens of millions of other funds and donations isn’t covering basic housing.
“For instance the government could provide emergency housing or social housing in these small communities where in an event such as this happens,” she told us. “And there are going to be more such events, this is not a one off. We need to be prepared for the next one. So, where they can just let people have a bed for the night, you know, or a week or two, or more, whatever’s necessary.”
Governments and councils, she says, should also be more proactive in going into communities checking for those who need help.
“People need to be asked, they won’t come out and ask for it,” she said. “Most of us don’t like asking. But when someone offers you, as I was offered the shower, you know, that’s marvellous. But I wouldn’t dream of going and asking for it.”
Mick Brosnan agrees and says the coronavirus has added a dreadful element for those affected by fires and drought before that.
“It is an extraordinary thing for a rural community, “ he said. “Volunteers are overloaded, organisations are overloaded, and the government has to just realise this. And people say, ‘Ah, we’re forgotten now because COVID has taken over from the fires.’ They’re not forgotten. But that triple whammy has trebled the impact of the drought, the fires and COVID.
“You do hear people say, ‘Oh, the government doesn’t care anymore, COVID has taken precedence over everything. That’s all we see on the news.’ It’s not that they don’t want to see and hear about the fires again, but they just want people to remember that, hey, we lost everything in January and, you know, we’re still here. We’ve got no home. Just to be recognised for that and supported.”
The theme of communities rallying together runs through our documentary.
At tiny Dargan, near Lithgow in the Blue Mountains, we filmed 40 people coming together over a weekend to build a barn and shed for the Alexander family. Susan and Nick Alexander and daughter Jessica will move into the barn and live on their block as their house is rebuilt.
In Cobargo, the south coast town that became a byword for bushfires, the Ayliffe family has made the single biggest donation to help the town’s recovery and ensure the tragedy is never forgotten. The Ayliffes have six family members in the RFS, including the current brigade captain Mark and former captain Brian, one of the nation’s most experienced firefighters with 62 years in the RFS.
Brian and wife Helen owned a house – their original family home – and a shop in the main street which burned down. Instead of rebuilding, they have donated the empty land block to the town as the site of a proposed Resilience Centre. As a gallery, museum and archive it will be a permanent memorial to those who died or suffered in Cobargo’s worst event.
Cattle and sheep farmer at Wandella in the Bega Valley, Warren Salway, was blown away by young people who helped him and wife Helen after the fires wiped out sheds, barns, equipment, tools and fences. They donated time and tools to build new sheds and fences.
A Mallacoota on Victoria’s far north coast, depressed musician Justin Brady originally was considering leaving and settling elsewhere after losing everything. But he told us that the way the community rallied around each other had convinced him to stay.
Justin now is a beacon of that community spirit. He often wanders down to the Mallacoota lookout and entertains elderly ladies with his upbeat mandolin and harmonica music.
As our Good Samaritan Mick Brosnan said, human nature is extraordinary.
Postscript: In my view, Mick and many more quiet, grass roots achievers like him in our communities represent everything we should be looking for when selecting recipients for Australia Day awards.
By Max Uechtritz
What could possibly connect two little boys born in New Guinea and China on either side of 1900 and the Olympic Games legend as portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire?
Rugby. The Scotland national rugby team, to be precise.
Those far-flung lads would go on to don the famous dark blue together and link arms as brave hearts before taking on England, Ireland, Wales and France in the Five Nations Championship of 1922.
Hector Forsayth – “one of the finest fullbacks Scotland ever had” – was born at Ralum, Kokopo on what was New Guinea’s first coconut plantation, in 1899. He was the grandson of legendary pioneer known as Queen Emma. His grand aunt was my great grandmother Phebe Parkinson. Hector was my father Alf’s second cousin. At The King’s School, Parramatta in Sydney, Hector was a star of King’s First XV and the combined GPS team. He won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in the UK.
Eric Liddell – “The Flying Scotsman” of Chariots of Fire fame – was born in Tientsin, China in 1902. The son of Scottish missionaries, he was schooled in China until he was five before boarding in England. He went to Edinburgh University and graduated in Pure Science.
Fullback Hector (1921-22) and winger Eric (1922-23) each was capped seven times for Scotland. They both played in their university XVs. Hector also was called up twice to play for the legendary Barbarians FC XV, the most distinguished invitational team in rugby.
Eric’s feats at the 1924 Paris Olympics inspired the Chariots of Fire film which won four Academy awards including best picture. The devout Christian was favourite for the 100 metres but famously refused to run in the heats because they were on a Sunday. Instead he raced and won the gold medal – in world record time – in his less favoured distance 400m on a weekday.
Soon after, Eric returned to China to serve as a missionary. He was interned by the Japanese in WW2 and died in a civilian POW camp in 1945. That’s another albeit sad parallel: three relatives of his former teammate Hector also died in Japanese prison camps (in New Guinea). One was his grand aunt Phebe Parkinson who had raised her grandson, my father.
So, how did Hector, the grandson of an American-Samoan woman who started a trading empire in New Guinea, end up playing rugby for Scotland? Heritage.
His grandmother Emma Coe, daughter of the American Consul to Samoa and a Samoan princess, married Scottish trader James Forsayth in Apia, Samoa in 1869. James Forsayth disappeared at sea soon after, leaving Emma with an only son, J.M.C “Coe” Forsayth.
Emma left Samoa and established a trading empire in New Guinea from 1879. She would become known as Queen Emma and her exploits would inspire books and a movie. Her son Coe was educated at Newington College, Sydney, before helping his mother run the business from the famous Gunantambu bungalow at Ralum, near Kokopo, the current capital of East New Britain in PNG.
J.M.C. Coe Forsayth had seven children. His second son Hector Heinrich Forsayth (middle name later changed to Henry) was born on Dec 18 , 1899, less than two weeks before the turn of the century. Some records have listed Rabaul as his birthplace. This is wrong. Rabaul didn’t exist then and was only stablished in 1910. Hector was either delivered by a doctor in Queen Emma’s Gunantambu bungalow itself or Coe’s house just behind it on the Ralum plantation.
It is unclear what year Hector was sent to boarding school in Australia. It’s most likely that his early schooling, like my grandmother Dolly Parkinson and his other Parkinson cousins, was at the catholic mission school at Vunapope in Kokopo.
But we know he later attended King’s and graduated in 1918.
Hector’s grandmother Emma had sold out her vast New Guinea enterprises in 1910 and died in Monte Carlo in 1913, leaving her vast wealth to son Coe. He moved his young family to a mansion at Vaucluse in Sydney’s establishment eastern suburbs and became prominent in social, yachting and horse racing circles. Probably because of his son’s rugby prowess – for Kings and the Combined GPS schools team – Coe also inaugurated the JMC Forsayth Shield for the annual match between GPS and United (military) Services. The Forsayth Shield existed until the 1950s.
Rugby history records show how Hector chose to play for Scotland over England: “Forsayth moved to Oxford University, where both England and Scottish official sought to woo him. He chose Scotland and played two solid seasons…Playing for Blackheath FC in 1923 critics judged him the best fullback in all English club rugby but, of course, he was now ineligible for England.”
In the book Rugger – The History, Theory and Practice of Rugby Football the authors wrote that Hector Forsayth was “one of the finest fullbacks Scotland had ever had.”
Perhaps his Samoan heritage played a part in Hector’s athleticism. For those who don’t know rugby , Pacific Islanders are the most naturally gifted players in the world and dominate All Blacks and Wallabies line-ups and star for other teams like England. Hector’s father was of quarter Samoan heritage and his mother Ida was part Samoan (it is thought half Samoan).
The famous Barbarians team – called the Harlem Globetrotters of rugby – is picked for flair and entertainment so we can assume Hector was an elusive and dashing running fullback.
A newspaper report from 1921 describes how King George V was present for a game in which Hector starred for Oxford against old rivals Cambridge. One of his 1922 Oxford teammates was Tommy Lawton who in 1929 would captain the Australian Wallabies to a rare 3-0 whitewash series win over the mighty New Zealand All Blacks.
We have no way of knowing whether Scottish teammates Hector and Eric Liddell were close off the field. I’d like to think they would have had a rapport based on their shared unusual backgrounds in comparison to the rest of their team. Eric was an intellectual and would have been fascinated by Hector’s stories of New Guinea, including how one of his uncles (John Coe) was killed and eaten by cannibals and his grandmother Emma nearly suffered the same fate after being hog-tied to a pole and carried away by warriors before being saved by her brother-in-law Richard Parkinson with his own praetorian guard of Buka islanders.
I am still trying to find out more about Hector’s life after he returned to Australia in 1923. We know it was a very different one to Eric Liddell. Both died young. Eric in the Japanese prison camp in 1945 aged only 43 and Hector “suddenly” in Gladstone, Queensland in 1952 at the age of 53. He had served as a signalman in the Australian army in WW2.
Hector was married in 1926:
The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) Thursday 17 June 1926
The wedding of Miss Josie Baker, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Langford Baker, of North Sydney, to Mr. Hector Forsayth, second son of Mr. and Mrs. J. M. C. Forsayth, of Vaucluse Hall, Vaucluse was’ celebrated on Wednesday night at the Church of England Grammar School chapel, by Rev. Davis. The bride wore a bouffant white satin frock trimmed with silver. Her veil was lent by her sister ln-law, Mrs. L. Falkiner. She wore a lace train and carried a bouquet of lilly-of-the valley, orchids, and hyacinths. There were two bridesmaids, Misses Edna Samuels and Ruth Baker. Their frocks were of apricot satin and gold lace, and they carried gold lace fans. Mr. Neville Goddard was the best man, and Mr. Grant Forsayth the groomsman. After the ceremony, a dinner party was given at the Australia (Club).
I began this research primarily because our daughter Isabella is currently studying for her doctorate in veterinary medicine at Edinburgh University – forever linked to Eric Liddell – and am very glad that I did.
I discovered an inspiring Eric Liddell, so much more than a rugby and Olympic ‘hero’. When the war came, he evacuated his wife and daughters to Canada and stayed on to continue missionary work in China before being interned in 1941. It’s reported that Winston Churchill himself tried to get Liddell freed in a prisoner exchange with the Japanese – but Eric refused and gave his place to a pregnant woman.
Conditions in Weihsien camp were harsh. Food supplies were short. Eric himself was emaciated. But he was constantly looking out for his fellow prisoners, providing care and support. He arranged sports events, taught science using a home-made textbook, carried supplies to the old and sick, and ran a Sunday School for the children. He died a prisoner of a brain tumour with complications from starvation and exhaustion in February 1945. He is interred in the Mausoleum of Martyrs in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province.
In August 2008 a poll in The Scotsman newspaper found Liddell was the most popular athlete Scotland has ever produced. Meanwhile, because he was born in China and died there, some Chinese claim Eric Liddell to be that country’s first ever Olympian, something that would no doubt please him greatly.
In 1991 the University of Edinburgh erected a memorial headstone, made from Isle of Mull granite and carved by a mason in Tobermory, at the former camp site in Weifang. The city of Weifang commemorated Liddell during the 60th anniversary of the internment camp’s liberation by laying a wreath on his grave.
The Eric Liddell Centre was set up in Edinburgh in 1980 to honour Liddell’s beliefs in community service whilst he lived and studied in Edinburgh. Local residents dedicated it to inspiring, empowering, and supporting people of all ages, cultures and abilities, as an expression of compassionate Christian values.
There’s a modest plaque for Liddell at Edinburgh university. Isabella can pass it on the way to her lectures and perhaps muse on the connections and achievements of the two little boys from New Guinea and China who wore the dark blue of Scotland.
By Max Uechtritz, President of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia (PNGAA).
It was a very special bond – the PNG army band piper and the Australian Governor-General.
Lance Corporal Michael Pissa was there for two of the biggest moments in the life of Major General Michael Jeffery AC CVO MC (retd), former Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia.
General Jeffery, who died yesterday aged 83, was also co-patron of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia (PNGAA) since 2003. Few stories better illustrate the powerful and poignant connection between the two countries than the tale of the two Michaels.
Lance Corporal Michael Pissa piped the bride down the aisle when Michael and Marlena Jeffrey were married at ‘Haus Lotu’ at Taurama Barracks in Port Moresby.
Forty-one years he was with them again – this time at Government House, Yarralumla in Canberra – reprising the wedding piece in surely the most emotional farewell ever given for an Australian Governor-General.
The moment was recorded beautifully by Fairfax writer Tony Wright.
“AS MAJOR-GENERAL Michael Jeffery and his wife Marlena strolled from Government House, Yarralumla, a small man in the crowd of perhaps 500 well-wishers lining their path pumped his bagpipes and blew into the chill Canberra air the strains of that most haunting of farewells, Now is the Hour.
He primed his pipes again, and that other great tune of endings and beginnings, Auld Lang Syne, floated into the afternoon.
As the Governor-General and his wife finally forged their way through the crowd, the little man – clearly a long way from home – stepped into their path and led them to their waiting limousine, this time playing the lilting Mairi’s Wedding.
It was the very tune he had played 41 years previously when Michael and Marlena Jeffery were married in a military barracks in Port Moresby.
The piper then was simply a 19-year-old Papua New Guinean (attached to the Pacific Island Regiment, where Michael Jeffery was a 30-year-old officer.
Now that same piper, Sergeant-Major Michael Pissa, 60, is musical director of the PNG Defence Force.
He was spending a couple of weeks on holiday in Queensland when he heard that his old commander was about to retire as Governor-General. He felt it would be his duty and his pleasure to attend the farewell.
He paid his own way to Canberra, taking his pipes with him, and notified General Jeffery only at the last minute. He was treated to morning tea at Government House and then strode through the gates of the vice-regal estate, waiting alone in the crowd to deliver his tribute.“
There has never been a farewell quite like it for an Australian governor-general.
At a function in 2005, General Jeffrey had spoken warmly of Michael Pissa.
“Some of you may be aware that Marlena and I were married in the ‘Haus Lotu’ at Taurama Barracks over forty years ago, when I was posted here from 1966-69 with the 1st Battalion, The Pacific Islands Regiment,” he said.
“Indeed in 2005 the Battalion piper Michael Pissa, who piped Marlena down the aisle of the Taurama Chapel some 41 years earlier, walked from his village for several days, bringing with him his pipes and old green juniper uniform and played the wedding march at a reception held in our honour, evoking many tears of happiness.”
General Jeffrey had two stints in PNG. He served as company commander of 1 Paific Islands Regiment from 1966-69 and then was the last Australian CO of 2 PIR in Wewak in 1974/5.
General Jeffrey continued:
“I returned to command 700 very fine soldiers of the Second Battalion in Wewak, and as a result was privileged to be here at Independence on 16 September 1975.
“In those days we conducted border security operations on the PNG / Irian Jaya border as a battalion and I can say to all of you present here that I would have been honoured to take that battalion to any operational theatre in the world.
“We were a happy, well trained, highly disciplined family with our wives and children living and growing up together in a beautiful barracks environment.
“Last year, I was greatly honoured to be invested as a Grand Companion of the Order of the Logohu by Sir Michael Somare when he visited Australia for the APEC leaders meeting. I have renamed my small fishing boat ‘Logohu’ as a permanent reminder of my association with a country for whom I hold such great affection.”
General Jeffrey felt privileged to be in PNG for Independence in 1975.
“Independence in Wewak was a very special occasion, with, in the words of Sir John Guise, the Australian flag being lowered rather than torn down for the last time and the beautiful Papua New Guinea flag being raised in its stead,” he said.
“It was deeply touching to be personally farewelled at Wewak airport afterwards by Prime Minister Somare, with the pipes and drums of the Regimental Band and a large crowd in attendance.
“The most impressive aspect of Independence was the positive and joyful spirit in which it occurred.
I believe the positive spirit displayed then between our two nations, provided a solid foundation for the multifaceted relationship, based on mutual respect, shared experiences and geo-strategic realities that remain to this day.”
The Canberra Times reported the death of a great Australian yesterday.
Former governor-general Major-General Michael Jeffery has died.
Current Governor-General David Hurley issued a statement on Friday afternoon.
“Linda and I are saddened at the news of Michael Jeffery’s passing,” General Hurley said.
“On behalf of all Australians, our thoughts are with Marlena and the whole Jeffery family. As a nation, we give thanks for Michael’s extraordinary lifetime of service.
“He was, by every measure, a great Australian.”
Mr Jeffery died on Friday, less than a week after his 83rd birthday on December 12.
He was Australia’s 24th governor-general, serving between August 2003 and September 2008.
Mr Jeffery, supported by his wife Marlena, was prominent in his support of Canberrans in the wake of the 2003 bushfires. The couple more than made their mark on Canberra.
The Jefferys, regarded as a strong team, were in high spirits and close to tears when they were farewelled from Government House in September 2008, walking through a throng of school children, staff and other supporters.
During that farewell, a committee member of the Children’s Medical Research Institute’s Canberra committee, Elly Cox, described the Jefferys as the ”most natural, approachable people”.
General Hurley praised the service of Major-General Jeffery.
“After graduating from the Royal Military College in 1958, he served on operations in Malaya, Borneo, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, where he was awarded the Military Cross. He held numerous commands, including of the Special Air Service Regiment, before retiring from the military in 1993,” his statement read.
“His distinguished military career was just one chapter in his lifetime of service. He became governor of Western Australia in 1993 and, in 2003, Australia’s 24th governor-general. After his term in office he became Australia’s first National Advocate for Soil Health.
“Throughout his career – in its many iterations – he worked tirelessly, put others ahead of himself and brought immense intellect, work ethic and commitment to everything he did. Unfailingly polite, he was, quite simply, a gentleman.
“He was also a husband, father and grandfather. Our thoughts – as we give thanks and acknowledge a lifetime of service – are with his loved ones.”
As current president of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia and on behalf of the PNGAA family, I pass on the association’s deep condolences to the Jeffrey family.
The pipes will never be silent.
IN OCTOBER, 2003 Julius takes Dad back to New Ireland to try to find remains of his granny Phebe Parkinson. They are met there by great friend Mick Kuerschner. The plan is to return to where they have been told Phebe was buried in 1943 after her death in a Japanese prison camp.Gordon had found the location when he and Dad earlier visited New Ireland for a plaque ceremony honouring those lost in WW2. Gordon had located an old man called Das Das, who had looked after Phebe’s grave for 60 years. It would turn out to be the most important discovery of our family history.
Julius wrote a little diary for the two days, October 24 and 25 and took photos. The first day was the finding Phebe .. and the second the erection of a plaque to forever commemorate the spot. Here are Julius’ thoughts and some of his pictures from those days and, soon after, at Kuradui cemetery where the family would return Phebe in January 2004.
An emotionally charged day.
Get up early in the morning, get packed, go to the Rabaul airport, check in and wait an hour.
Spend the hour worrying if everything going to work out? Forgot anything? Discuss the possibility of finding nothing, long silences.
Finally take off, anticipation building but soon forgotten, seduced by the scenery… volcanos all in a line on the left, small one puffing, blues and azures below contrast sharply with the lush green of the islands.
Again anxiety asserts itself as you are reminded of that grave in the jungle, waiting 60 years…..
Before you finish thinking, the plane banks and turns, lands. Mick, good old reliable Mick is there, with a car and shovels.
We want to go straight there but nobody sure of the road, go to Xavier’s get a guide. Go, go…
We find the place, park on the road, walk in between cacao and grass, houses, kids, women, some young boys. Das Das is dead, a month now, can see the disappointment. All now thinking..how will this affect things.?…who is in charge?….will agreement with Das Das stand?
Yes, no problem. Daughter of Das Das speaking, we have been looking after the grave…… “you can go ahead, over there, some young men to help”. Kids run off to find them..
We walk through the house-line clearings, notice a number of new buildings going up, through copra and cacao, some grass long, barely distinguishable path.. kids scamper, we follow. Constant chatter.
The grave is there, exactly as imagined. Aslight depression in the jungle floor, surrounded by green-tinged coral stones, everything damp…mouldering…a very tangible dampness…
No prayer is spoken but everybody has their few words with God privately. We tell Phebe we are there, to take her home.
We dig..and dig and dig…endless…all eyes on the next shovelful of ground, nothing…nothing….unbearable. Walk around a bit, drink water, go and see a man about a dog (Alf’s words)
Heart is getting heavy. New ground being dug where the feet should be so go back the other way, dig, dig, dig…. Where is Das Das with his confidence, with his “mipela plantim em long hia.?”
Suddenly something…what is it, dark…steel? No, timber. A little block, gingerly take it from the grave, look closely. It’s a bit of timber with brass door latch attached. Alf says door, they carried her to the grave on it, buried her on it.
Then some white pieces of ….yes it is bone, finger-nail sized pieces, soft..crumble very easily almost like ash, but very few, not what is expected.
Then a cross, green with time, bronze or brass. From the rosary beads says Alf, buried with them around her neck, like a necklace.
Then a small broch, like a butterfly or two leaves, and then …nothing. Why? how come? Where are the bones? Dig, dig…
Excitement, the skull !! Just a hole in the ground where it was bumped, hollow clearly shows, but again very soft.
It comes out in pieces, just like the other bone soft , crumbly, but definitely the skull.
We look and look, dig and dig more but nothing much else – some rusty nails, brass screws with bits of door attached, but no more bones.
We finally accept the obvious, Dust has gone to Dust, all gone, enough to allow us to affect a transfer of remains…very few but are all that remains.
Then a weight is lifted. We came and we did find what is left. Das Das was right and we found him at the right time.
In evening, we did not shower at the guest-house, we drove down the road to a spring, Halis Spring, and immersed ourselves in it, in the clear cool water
We washed away the dirt and sweat, the anxiety and the uncertainty.
Tomorrow will be a bright day.
Woke after a deep sleep, momentarily lost …but yes, Namatanai.
Feel happy, we have something of Phebe’s to transfer……. get up.
No water running, no power, bucket water to the toilet, brush teeth with bottled water- why do we stay here ? It is the only place in town, that sort of place.
The only good thing about the guest-house, it is across from the beach, Alf goes for a walk, stands on the beach and looks across the water, the low tide exposing the reef and familiar smells.
Alf is transported to Sum Sum, he is there again..
As he was last night. A young boy again, with Granny, her presence peaceful, comforting, safe. “Thankyou Alfred” she said, “I couldn’t find Kuradui before, but I can now”.
Was it a dream ? Can a dream be real? It was too vivid to be a dream…
Had a leisurely breakfast, no toast (no bread) but cake and miniature pikelets instead, nice paw-paw.
Went back to the grave, is it a grave now, still? All the Das Das line is there, small brother whitehaired and rheumy-eyed, looks very like Das Das.
Post with the plaque is planted, everybody gets their picture taken with it, small Elizabeth in front, hiding the plaque. Mick asks her to move in a funny way, the tension in the air disappears in peals of laughter from the children. Cannot help but feel Phebe is smiling, bathing in the laughter of young children.
Back under the fruit trees, the car in their shade, Alf thanks the Das Das line and gives some money to the daughter, to distribute accordingly, as a token of his appreciation for keeping Phoebe’s relics.
We depart waving, knowing we will never see that place again. We have what made it important to us.
Next, it was back to Kuradui to restore the Parkinson family cemetery (matmat), which was severely damaged by American bombers in raids on the Japanese occupiers. in WW2. The cemetery had been ‘lost” and ignored by decades. Julius and Mick and their Nawae equipment and workers slowly but surely restored the scared site.
The family – of which you are, and always will be, a special part of , Julius – will be forever grateful for your love and support of our Mum/Dad/Grandpa/nana, Alf and Mary Lou.
Thank you #8
By Max Uechtritz
“It has been said that the Declaration of Independence was signed in ink on July 4th, 1776, in Philadelphia, and was signed again in blood on August 27, 1776, in Brooklyn.“
OUR four-greats grandfather stood next to General George Washington and watched him weep.
The scene was the Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn (August 27-29 1776) in the American Revolutionary War, also known as the American War of Independence. It was the first major battle since the American declaration of independence on July 4. It would be the biggest of the war.
Our direct line ancestor – great great great great grandfather Jonas Coe – was a bodyguard to General Washington, founding father and first American president. As such, Coe was with Washington in every single battle on the victorious ride to independence.
But the Battle of Long Island was a bloody, early defeat at the hands of the British and history records Washington weeping at the slaughter of his brave men.
History books and documents also record that our ancestor Jonas Coe “was a body guard for Washington in the Battle of Long Island and was close enough to see the tears roll down his cheeks when he saw the defeat of the Americans.”
It is not recorded whether Coe actually heard Washington utter his famous battlefield lament : “Good God! What brave fellows I must lose this day!” He may well have.
So, how did this all come to pass and how are we so fortunate to have such detailed family records?
Well, the Coe family (direct line ancestors on our father’s side) are included in Hotten’s Original Lists of Persons of Quality of early immigrants to America and played significant roles in recorded USA history for centuries. History that keeps divulging secrets and minutiae through digitisation of old records. More on this later, but one of our ancestors was the central figure in the revolution wresting New Amsterdam (New York) from the Dutch.
As for Jonas Coe, it’s recorded that at the tender age of 16 he and his four brothers and their father had fought alongside each other in one Revolutionary War battle.
Throughout the war, George Washington’s personal bodyguard was an elite corps of infantry and mounted men. It was officially entitled The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, but was more commonly known as The Life Guard.
The guard’s purpose was to protect General Washington. However they were further assigned the responsibility of protecting the Continental Army’s official papers as well as the general’s baggage.
This was the proclamation for their recruitment:
“The General being desirous of selecting a particular number of men, as a Guard for himself, and baggage, The Colonel, or commanding Officer, of each of the established Regiments, (the Artillery and Riflemen excepted) will furnish him with four, that the number wanted may be chosen out of them. His Excellency depends upon the Colonels for good Men, such as they can recommend for their sobriety, honesty, and good behaviour; he wishes them to be from five feet, eight inches high, to five feet, ten inches; handsomely and well made, and as there is nothing in his eyes more desirable, than Cleanliness in a Soldier, he desires that particular attention may be made, in the choice of such men, as are neat, and spruce. They are all to be at Head Quarters to morrow precisely at twelve, at noon, when the Number wanted will be fixed upon. The General neither wants men with uniforms, or arms, nor does he desire any man to be sent to him, that is not perfectly willing, and desirous, of being of this guard. They should be drill’d men.”
The corps’ flag (pictured above, right) was white silk on which the following was neatly painted: A guardsman is holding the Life Guard’s banner and is in the act of receiving a flag from the ‘Genius of Liberty’ who is personified as a woman leaning upon the Union Shield. She stands alongside the American Eagle and above is the motto of the corps, ‘Conquer or Die,’ written upon a ribbon.
Washington worried about how his largely untested army would stand up under fire. In an attempt to motivate his men, he wrote out general orders and had them read to his troops. “The time is now near at hand, which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their homes and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed. The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the conduct and courage of this army . . . . We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die… “
In the Battle of Long Island , 10,000 Americans stood against 20,000 British and Hessians (German auxiliaries). Writing to his brother John, General Washington offered a blunt assessment of the situation: “We expect a very bloody summer at New York … and I am sorry to say that we are not, either in men or arms, prepared for it.”
The battle was more complex than this but the culmination was described thus:
“The First Maryland Regiment was deployed to bring up the rear and, sensing imminent disaster, it did the unthinkable. Rallying his remaining 400 men, Major Mordecai Gist turned them toward the massive British war force. Believing the British commanding general was stationed in a stone house at the army’s center, the regiment shocked the overwhelming British war force with an unexpected, targeted assault. The Marylanders attacked the British six times, losing scores of men with each surge, then regrouping and hurling themselves again and again at the dazed Brits, in what can be best described as a bloody street brawl.
In the end, only a handful of Marylanders managed to escape; the majority were killed. The rest were captured or mortally wounded. Washington was brought to tears as he watched the selfless bravery of his young soldiers. He was heard crying, “Good God! What brave fellows I must lose this day!” But the young patriots had succeeded in diverting British attention long enough for Washington and the army to escape. On the evening of the 29th, a fog settled in, making the Americans invisible.
On the morning of the 30th the fog lifted. When the British advanced on Brooklyn Heights, the Americans were gone. All through the night, Washington had ferried them across the river to the relative safety of Manhattan. He and his bodyguards left on the last boats when the British were beginning to search the area. 9500 men including Jonas Coe were saved.
Of course Washington learned from this defeat and went on to win the war. In Prospect Park, New York, the Maryland Monument bears the words of Washington’s cry of anguish.
After the war, Jonas Coe took to the cloth and became one of the nation’s leading churchmen. He was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Troy, New York for nearly thirty years, gained degrees from Princeton and Rutgers University and became Regent of New York University.
He was known for “his ardent piety, sympathetic tenderness and indefatigable labours”.
Earlier I mentioned that the first Coes arrived in New England in the first waves of Puritan settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. Robert Coe and family sailed from England on the Francis and, thus, are included in Hotten’s Original Lists of early emigrants to America.
Robert Coe moved to Connecticut and started Wethersfield plantation, established the town Hempstead then pushed further into Long Island. Coe bought land from the Indians and founded Middleburg, which changed its name to Newtown, but at this stage the area and all the English settlers came under the control and administration of the Dutch.
His son John Coe was a prime agitator for the annexation of Long Island to the English State, Connecticut. The English made him a Captain; he formed a militia and started the revolution.
The official history The Annals of Newtown record it this way: “In the revolution of Long Island from the Dutch government in 1663, Captain John Coe was the most prominent leader…at the head of a force of three hundred men, he marched through the English towns in the western part of Long Island, overturned the Dutch government and threatened the Dutch towns with attack.”
New Amsterdam became New York. Captain John Coe became magistrate of Newtown and, later, Sheriff of Queen’s County. His father Robert was also the High Sheriff of Yorkshire County from 1669 to 1671. He was described as “a man of vigorous physique, restless energy, strict integrity, strong convictions, and a great force of character”.
One of John Coe’s descendants, Daniel Coe, would eventually have a Presbyterian college named after him in Cedar Rapids, Iowa – Coe College. Coe College is one of the country’s best liberal arts colleges and in 2012 was ranked as one of the top producers of US Fulbright Students. Other early Coes were prominent judges – one served in the New York Assembly –pastors, theologians and soldiers. One, Jonas Halstead Coe, was a navy admiral who commanded both the Uruguayan and Argentine Federation fleets and took part in independence and civil wars in South America.
So, how do we, the Australian branch, descend from Reverend Jonas Coe? It’s through his grandson Jonas Mynderse Coe. The link is fascinating and we know a lot about him through books and even the 1988 tele-movie Queen Emma of the South Seas – in which he was played by American actor Hal Holbrook.
Jonas M Coe was born in Troy, New York in 1823. When both his parents died young, five-year-old Jonas M Coe was adopted by his aunt Eliza Maria Coe who had married James Brown, founder of the eminent investment banking house Brown Brothers and Co.
Young Jonas began a mercantile career and was set to inherit part of the Brown Brothers fortune. * Brown brothers merged with Harriman Brothers in 1931 and, today, Brown Brothers Harriman and Co has $1.2 trillion in assets and administers $3.3 trillion.
But a restless, rebellious Jonas ran away to sea as a teenager. He was shipwrecked and washed up on a beach in Samoa where he fell in love with the island and the people. So much so that Jonas Coe married a Samoan princess of the royal Malietoa family and became United States Consul at Apia for fifteen years.
Jonas had 18 children and some of them became famous South Seas pioneers in frontier New Guinea. One, Emma (Coe) Forsayth became known as Queen Emma of the South Seas while another was Phebe (Coe) Parkinson, who married famous Danish anthropologist and scientist Richard Parkinson, son of the Danish Duke of Augustenberg. The trio established the first plantations in New Guinea and Emma reigned over a multi-faceted trading empire.
Richard and Phebe Parkinson were our great grandparents.
One of their daughters was Johanna “Dolly” Parkinson. One of her sons was our father, Alfred Max Parkinson Uechtritz.
Alf married Englishwoman Mary Louise Harris and they produced 10 children: Peter, Richard, Gordon, Maryann, Max, Rita, Catherine, Bernard, Paul and Anthony.
Three of the siblings married Americans and together have nine children who are American and Australian citizens. Some of them have children.
For centuries hereon there’s a dinner party showstopper for the clan about how our ancestor guarded George Washington and watched him weep at the tragedy of a defeat which spurred him to win the war of independence.
Postscript: It was a stroke of serendipity that I discovered this family link to George Washington on the day that Donald Trump – the most anti-democracy president in US history and most glaring anti-Washington president in deed and thought – made his first, oblique ‘concession’.
The 75th anniversary of Victory in the Pacific (VP) Day on August 15, 2020 is tinged with tragedy for our family. We lost three wonderful women who starved to death in Japanese prison camps. Here is their story.
By Max Uechtritz
DREAD and foreboding gripped Carrie as she helped her loved ones onto a wooden schooner about to make a dash across New Guinea waters to escape the Japanese invasion in 1942.
As her son’s wife and infant scrambled aboard with other evacuees, Carrie took a stunning jade stone necklace from around her neck and thrust it in the hands of her daughter-in-law. In the mist of teary goodbyes, she explained it was for her baby granddaughter.
“Carrie” was Caroline Rosmina (Coe) Schultze of the pioneer American-Samoan Coe family and niece of the legendary sisters Queen Emma Forsayth and Phebe Parkinson who established the first plantations in New Guinea in the 1880s. As a teenager, she famously survived a tribesman’s tomahawk blow to her neck. But she wouldn’t survive WW2.
Carrie died of starvation in a Japanese prisoner of war camp near Namatanai on New Ireland on August 10, 1945, only five days before Japan surrendered unconditionally in what’s known as Victory in the Pacific (VP) Day in Australia and Victory over Japan (VJ) Day elsewhere.
The jade heart is a treasured memento for my cousin relative Carolina “Carol” Schultze, the infant girl on Namatanai wharf, New Ireland, that day in 1942 . It was remodelled as a brooch by her father, and Carol will wear it at a special Last Post at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra on September 6 to commemorate the surrender of Japanese forces at Rabaul.
“I never knew my grandmother, but she knew me. She would have held me in her arms for the first few weeks of my life,” said Carol yesterday.
“My mother and I were evacuated when I was six weeks old due to the advancing Japanese invasion force. My grandmother gave my mother the green jade heart to be given to me when I was old enough.
I treasure that jade heart, as I consider that it’s a tangible link between her heart and mine.”
VP Day and the campaign in New Guinea forever will be tinged with tragedy for our extended family – because three of our grand ladies perished in Japanese prison camps.
The timing of 64-year-old Carrie’s death in the shadow of war’s end was devastating enough. But her beloved older sister Ettie died in that horrid, historical limbo period between VP Day and liberation. In fact Ettie Juker, born Edith Active Coe, succumbed on September 2, 1945 – the very day of the formal Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. She was four weeks shy of her 70th birthday.
If the ailing Ettie had been able to hang on for another 12 days in the dank, canyon camp at Ramale in the hills behind Rabaul, New Britain, she would have had expert medical care from liberating Australian troops. Ettie and Carrie were my grandmother Dolly’s first cousins.
The third of our relatives to die under the Japanese was my great grandmother Phebe (Coe) Parkinson, the woman who raised my father Alf after his own mother left the family home.
This loss resonates deeply with Parkinson families descended from Phebe and Richard Parkinson’s three daughters Dolly (Uechtritz) , Nellie (Diercke) and Louise (Wrightson).
Like her Coe nieces, Phebe wasn’t evacuated in that period between the Pearl Harbour attack in December 1941 and the Japanese invasion of New Britain and New Ireland on January 23, 1942. Phebe elected to stay on and care for her grandson Rudi Diercke on the plantation he was managing. Men at that stage weren’t allowed by Australian authorities to be evacuated from the islands. Also like her nieces, Phebe was originally permitted by the Japanese to stay on her plantation for the first year after the invasion. Then fate intervened in 1943.
An American B-17 Flying Fortress was shot down and crash landed in shallow water off the beach of the plantation. Eight of the surviving airmen struggled ashore, where Phebe ripped up bedsheets and tended the wounded before a Japanese patrol boat arrived and captured them. The B-17 crew were fellow Americans. Phebe and Emma were born American citizens through their father, the US Consul in Apia, Samoa, Jonas Coe. Their mother Joana Le’utu Taletale was from the Samoan royal Malietoa family. Their brother William Coe was briefly the Governor of U.S. Guam. The Japanese commander would not have known their bloodlines but, angered by Phebe and Rudi helping the airmen, he marched them off to a prison camp holding members of the Chinese community and other nationalities.
Elderly Phebe deteriorated in the camp, despite the loving care of Rudi who occasionally found ways to secure for her some meagre rice portions from Indian POWs and fish from locals.
When Phebe died, aged 81, on May 28, 1944 she was buried in a jungle grave, her body strapped to a wooden door before being lowered into the ground clasping her rosary beads.
The location of the grave was lost for 60 years before my brother Gordon was taken to it by an old man in 2002. As a boy this fellow had helped bury Phebe and he had tended her grave ever since. Das Das died a month after reuniting Gordon and our father with Phebe. My father Alf Uechtritz arranged for Phebe’s remains to be disinterred and returned home to the Parkinson cemetery at Kuradui, near Kokopo in New Britain, in 2004.
Our father therefore honoured the recorded wish and vow of Richard and Phebe Parkinson to rest together forever in the soil of their beloved Kuradui plantation.
The deaths of the three Coe women in frightful conditions as prisoners in the land they had adopted was muted or lost in post-war grief by so many who had suffered. But Phebe, Carrie and Ettie had contributed and experienced so much in their six decades in what became a territory of Australia, then the proudly independent nation of PNG, that they deserve to be remembered.
As the late PNG historian, my Tolai friend Gideon Kakabin, used to say: ”Without the Parkinsons we would be strangers in our own land.” He was referring in that context to the anthropological endeavours and publications of Richard and Phebe Parkinson, especially the tome Thirty Years in the South Seas described as the quintessential chronicle of the people of the Bismarck Archipelago and other island locations. Danish-born Richard had his name attached to numerous books and articles for global science magazines, but he could never have written any of them without Phebe’s linguistic and translation skills.
Phebe, too, was as much responsible for the development of agriculture as was her husband. The Parkinsons formed a formidable trio with Phebe’s sister known as “Queen” Emma Forsayth to develop the famous Ralum plantations which dominated early New Guinea. Emma’s so-called empire of course was a diverse trading colossus.
Former PNG Prime Minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu has described the Parkinsons as “the Godparents of commercial agriculture” in his country. Richard introduced a virile strain of coconuts to New Guinea along with flora like the kapok tree and frangipani flower. He was the first person to grow coffee in the country and imported pigs, horses and cattle.
Hired to manage the then German New Guinea Company, he was one of the founders of Kokopo, the current capital of East New Britain province. Phebe’s generosity for and empathy with the local community is fabled and extended to adopting local children orphaned by tribal wars. A learning centre at Kuradui carries her name to this day .
Carrie and Ettie, too, were pioneers who contributed much to the development of the country through their work and industry on plantations. They had a third sister, Emma (Coe) Kapple who was also imprisoned by the Japanese. Emma Kapple survived the New Ireland camp but had to watch the no doubt slow and painful deaths of her sister and aunt.
The three sisters were virtually raised by their aunts Emma and Phebe. That’s because their father William Pritchard Coe had to suddenly escape New Guinea after an incident where he insulted the German administrators of the time. The Coe girls and various American-Samoan cousins and aunts became famous for their hospitality, parties and social activities. Queen Emma’s parties at her Gunantambu residence were famous throughout the South Seas. But the legends and photos of the time belied the tough reality of the era.
In 1902, a young Carrie Coe cheated death in extraordinary fashion at Varzin plantation near Rabaul. Carrie was visiting her young friend Mrs Wollfe when warriors attacked. Mrs Wollfe and her baby were axed to death in front of her. Carrie was knocked to the ground by the same attacker.
“With a back stroke he struck me with the weapon on the back of the neck and knocked me down, and as I was falling hit me again a great blow on the back of my head,” Carrie told a newspaper. “But fortunately, I had my hair in a knot, and it saved my life.” Carrie played dead and managed to creep to safety under the veranda and hid from the mob with the help of a loyal worker from the Buka tribe of Bougainville.
*as an historical side note, Varzin plantation was later owned by Tom Garrett, grandfather of Midnight Oils singer Peter Garrett. Tom was captured by the Japanese and went down with 1052 other men and boys on the Montevideo Maru prison ship in our nation’s greatest maritime disaster.
In 1918, Carrie and her husband Kurt featured in the wedding photo (below) of my grandparents Peter and Dolly Uechtritz at Kuradui. Carrie is at the far left. The Schultzes later moved to New Ireland where they ran the Lamangan plantation.
When war came, Carrie’s son H.L. ‘Bob’ Schultze – husband of Doris – figured in a notable escape. Using only a map torn from a National Geographic magazine , Bob commanded a group of New Ireland settlers and militia aboard a small boat called the Gnair, which dodged enemy patrols in a perilous dash across to the Solomon Islands and then Australia. There Bob met up with Doris and baby Carolina whose schooner had taken them to Rabaul and an escape flight on a Hudson bomber. The family settled in Canberra.
As mentioned, Carrie had decided to stay on New Ireland, along with her Aunt Phebe. Her sister Ettie did the same on New Britain. They felt as elderly women they were no threat to the Japanese and would be left alone in their adopted land. All went to plan – for a while.
Another of the Coe women – Lulu Miller – and my father’s half-sister Anna Uechtritz, then a child, were also interned at Ramale camp with Ettie. Both survived, though Lulu nearly died of ‘dropsy’, the condition brought on by malnutrition which affects the organs.
Ettie’s untimely death was mentioned in the memoirs of the former editor of the Rabaul Times, Gordon Thomas, himself a prisoner.
“As they laid (Ettie) to rest in the small cemetery at Ramale, the frailties of the world were brought home to me: the one-time belle of the islands – forty years ago – was now being buried a broken, old woman” – Gordon Thomas, author of Rabaul 1942-45: An account as a prisoner of war of the Japanese.
Ettie, too, will have a presence of sorts at the war memorial Last Post in September.
Her grandniece Dorothea (Doff) Schultze – younger sister of Carol – will take with her a locket that had belonged to Ettie and was passed down through the family.
Two sisters remembering two sisters: siblings who died separately on two islands, New Ireland and New Britain, in the space of weeks, without knowing the fate of the other or feeling their comfort, love or solace in their last moments.
A jade stone heart uniting them all 75 years on.
By Max Uechtritz
It reads like a wild storyline for a Hollywood movie on transnational cartels, cocaine, crooked cops, The Mob and The Feds, set in South America.
Pilot with a dicky heart flying a dodgy ‘ghost’ plane registered to a dead man. Transponder turned off, slips under radar, lands at dirt airstrip illegally carved into the bush. Bags of cash unloaded; bags of coke loaded. Overloaded in fact: the plane crashes on take-off. The culprits and drugs disappear. A multi-agency two-year policing operation to seize the drug shipment on return to base is blown. Coordinated raids net alleged conspirators anyway.
A shadowy figure using the alias of “Smith” is the conduit for a politically connected mastermind in this plot.
But it’s not a movie script or South America. It’s real and it unfolded this week in Papua New Guinea and Australia. The Feds in this case are the Australian Federal Police in concert with various other associated agencies. The Mob is a Melbourne-based crime syndicate with alleged links to the Calabrian mafia Ndrangheta, based in Italy.
PNG has been awash with speculation that local PNG-based Chinese mafia are involved in that country but police in both countries have avoided making that claim.
On Friday in the PNG capital Port Moresby, local police displayed 500kg of cocaine they’d finally seized after a week of intrigue. A photo purporting to be the pilot was circulating on facebook from Monday. The fact that it turned out to be accurate suggests police may have slipped it into circulation to put pressure on the fugitive. It was only revealed on Friday that the man had handed himself in to the Australian consulate on Tuesday.
In a Port Moresby court on Friday, David John Cutmore, 52, of Melbourne faced charges of illegally entering PNG. He pleaded guilty, was fined 3000 PNG Kina and his deportation was ordered. That suggests the AFP will extradite him to help with their prosecutions in Australia. However, it’s unclear at the time of writing whether the seizure of the cocaine a few hours later means Cutmore now will be charged in PNG with drug smuggling.
Last Sunday, a large contingent of police from several agencies had waited in vain at Mareeba for Cutmore to arrive back with cocaine worth $80 million on the street. As news flashed from PNG that the drug plane had crashed, raids were conducted in Queensland, Victoria, NSW and PNG. Five people were charged with offences which carry maximum penalties of life imprisonment. The investigation is ongoing.
The episode has placed a rare spotlight on drug, gold and gun running operations worth billions of dollars using PNG and remote Torres Strait locations to island hop illicit cargo using light planes and/or small boats. The origin of this cache is yet to be revealed but previously known cocaine routes are through PNG from Peru, Singapore and Indonesia.
Drug plane purchased in August, 2018
I can reveal that this importation – and AFP tracking of it – was initiated as far back as August 24, 2018. That’s when a highly-connected PNG identity – president of a political party which spawned two PNG prime ministers – purchased a Cessna 402C (VH-TSI) from a company on Australia’s Western Australian goldfields.
The payment method was highly unusual – multiple, irregular small amounts under $10,000 transferred into the account of Goldfields Air Services.
The AFP noticed the suspicious transactions and arrived swiftly on the doorstep of GAS to ask questions. The company was told that the buyer was a “person of interest”.
That person was Geoffrey Paul Bull, president of the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) party, founded by former PNG prime minister Paias Wingti. It also produced another national leader in Sir Mekere Morauta.
Neither Wingti or Morauta are under any suspicion. Bull’s facebook profile picture shows him with most recent former PNG PM Peter O’Neil but, again, there is no suggestion O’Neil is implicated in the drugs trade. Bull ran a successful construction business, which won significant contracts including the building of police housing in Mt Hagen.
A source has confirmed that the payment transfers to GAS were in the name of “Geoffrey Paul”, not using the drug financier’s full name. But Bull would never see his drug masterplan implemented. He was slain in August last year in a frenzied stabbing attack. The ABC reports that Bull’s death certificate lists “multiple stab wounds to the chest.” No-one has ever been charged but PNG intelligence sources suspect local Chinese “triads” and the killer or killers now run Bulls’ company Ravenspol No 69, listed as the owner of the crashed Cessna VH-TSI.
There is no evidence on public record to support this.
The Cessna sale was conducted via emails and the only front person for the deal in August 2018 was David John Cutmore the pilot. He described himself to GAS as a part-time flying instructor from Melbourne. The role of GAS is innocent and there is no suspicion anyone in the company was aware of the nefarious end game. In fact, GAS refused to allow Cutmore to pilot the delivery flight from Kalgoorlie to Mareeba because he couldn’t produce a current medical certificate. The company provided its own pilot from Melbourne and Cutmore sat next to her in the delivery flight.
GAS’s concern about Cutmore’s health was borne out when the then 50-year-old had a heart attack shortly after VH-TSI landed at Mareeba and was rushed to hospital. Sources familiar with the AFP investigation say that the AFP started surveillance on the Cessna in Mareeba in August 2018 but that only lasted a short time as the plane was just sitting on the airfield with no associated activity. Mareeba council regularly rang to ask about it.
However, when things began to move again recently, the AFP renewed surveillance and bugged the phones of the Mareeba company doing the maintenance on the plane. There had been surveillance, too, in Melbourne on the company listed on CASA records as the registered operator of the aircraft, AVLEASE Pty Ltd. Again, there is no suggestion or suspicion of wrongdoing by these two companies. It was simple intelligence gathering. AVLEASE never actually operated the Cessna. Its name on the records is technical entry only because it had been hired to do the maintenance from April last year.
Alias “Lewis Smith” the syndicate organiser
There was an Australian agent for Geoffrey Bull and Ravenspol 69 and I can reveal he went by the alias of “Lewis Smith” in emails.
Bull’s name – or that of his eventual successor at Ravenspol 69 – was never mentioned by Smith. The cover story on the owner was that he was a PNG man with mining interests in that country and Australia and that he intended only using the Cessna as a “run-around ” when visiting Australia a couple of times a year.
Smith was an intermittent communicator during a fraught process of trying to get airworthiness paperwork for the Cessna up to date. The aircraft required a lot of work. It was described to me as “a shitbox” requiring a complete overhaul. It needed a propeller and, strangely, its seats were in Melbourne not with it in Mareeba. There were difficulties with payments. The Mareeba company would turn the engines over every now and then but, apart from that, the plane just sat at Mareeba until the maintenance arrangement petered out. The local council would ring every now and then asking about ownership and intent. No-one had the answers.
“Shitbox” plane and a pilot with a dicky heart
If the “shitbox” was not technically airworthy then the same could probably be said of pilot Cutmore. Nevertheless the unlikely combination of machine and man managed to get to PNG last Sunday. Early news reports that it was undetected now are meaningless, given police were tracking it from take-off. Aviation experts have postured online about how VH-TSI could not have escaped the notice of air traffic controllers at Port Moresby as the approach to the bush runway was virtually in airspace for the international airport. That, too, could be explained by the joint Australian-PNG police operation: the equivalent of waving the Cessna through to allow the drugs to be loaded and return with evidence implicating the conspirators. I have no knowledge of this but, given the sophistication of police operation revealed so far, it makes sense that the airstrip and criminals were also being watched on the ground. It would explain how police were so quickly on the scene and the presence among them of a PNG-based AFP officer in photographs taken by locals.
The AFP now has released video of Cutmore preparing the Cessna and taxiing for take-off at Mareeba. It’s understood that 18 20-litre cannisters of aviation fuel were loaded for the refuelling in PNG along with car batteries seen in AFP photos from the airstrip, suggesting there had been difficulty starting the unserviced plane in Mareeba. The photos show a ladder to assist with fuelling. The cargo also included three television sets and three play station consoles, allegedly as payment to villagers helping with the scheme.
The AFP alleges the aircraft flew at about 3000 feet from Mareeba to PNG, in an effort to avoid radar detection. These flights are dangerous for other aircraft as well as those on board, in addition to being illegal and unauthorised.
On 26 July 2020, between 1pm and 2.30pm, the aircraft crashed while attempting to take-off from a remote airstrip at Papa Lea Lea, north of Port Moresby, PNG. The AFP alleges greed played a significant part in the syndicate’s activities and cannot rule out that the weight of the cocaine had an impact on the planes ability to take off.
The AFP said the drug importation attempt was the work of a Melbourne-based crime syndicate with links to the Calabrian mafia Ndrangheta, based in Italy. At yesterday’s press conference, the AFP praised the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC) for its collaboration in the operation.
There have been as yet unsubstantiated allegations in PNG that some local police, including senior officers, were involved in the drug operation but, so far, no arrests have been made or, at least, been made public. Serious police corruption is not new to PNG but Australian authorities say that the dynamic new combination of Police Minister (Bryan Kramer) and Police Commissioner (David Manning) has been making an impact in rooting it out. That process continues.
**update Police Commissioner Manning has since confirmed that senior PNG police are involved in the importation.
Highly-respected and connected PNG blogger Deni ToKunai wrote: “ Net is tightening around PNG-based individuals involved in flying cocaine to Australia. Arrests have been made. Some carry surnames of men who have contributed immensely to the positive development of this country. It’s opprobrius what their sons have done with privilege.”
ToKunai also revealed that police evidence collected so far points to the cocaine being smuggled into PNG on a fishing boat into the Papuan town of Alotau before being moved to the capital and “harboured by prominent businessmen.”
It was acknowledged during yesterday’s press conference that in such “black flights” – off radar – between PNG and Australia, criminals would use remote airstrips on islands to refuel and ‘hop’ between destinations. Alternatively, as in previous operations, drugs would come in by small boats from Torres Strait islands.
It’s estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of drugs come into Australia this way and that’s not counting gun and gold running.
In recent years the Queensland Joint Organised Crime Task Force (QJOCTF) foiled an alleged conspiracy to import 300 kilograms of cocaine into Australia from Peru via Singapore and Papua New Guinea. The estimated street value was $105m.
Operation Harmanecka began in June 2017, after the Australian Federal Police (AFP) identified an Australian and PNG based syndicate suspected of planning a drug importation into Australia from Peru.
A feature of Australian reaction to this latest episode has been surprise. For many PNG watchers, there is no surprise at that surprise. That’s because the Australian media generally – with excellent specific exemptions – has a curious blind spot when it comes to Papua New Guinea. I have written about this myopia before.
The ABC is the only organisation with a bureau there and SBS punches above its weight and budget to report on it and the Pacific. Radio New Zealand reports more on PNG than most Australian organisations combined. The same can be said for Al Jazeera English.
With a population of eight million, PNG is our nearest neighbour and critical to Australia’s geo-political interests, especially with a thrusting China muscling into the Pacific. Our two countries have ties going back to 1914 and, indeed, PNG was a territory of Australia until its independence in 1975. There are indelible personal, professional and business bonds.
There’s a colloquial reference that at low tide you can actually walk or wade from Australia to PNG, so close are our physical borders in the Torres Strait. Mentally for most Australians and its media, though, the gap is an ocean.
The 500kg of cocaine intercepted this week – and there may be more to be found – is the equivalent of 500,000 separate street deals according to the AFP. Magnify that by umpteen times over many years and relate it to the social misery effect of such drugs.
Another reason why such joint police operations are so important and why this story was, and is, important and worth exploring properly.
*blog quotes and images drawn from various media outlets as per below
Benson Saulo couldn’t be prouder of his Dad.
The father of Australia’s next consul-general to the USA is a Papua New Guinean born on a remote beach in New Ireland, who came to Australia with little more than the clothes he was wearing and married an Indigenous woman.
Now, their son Benson has just been appointed Australia’s first Indigenous consul-general anywhere in the world and will take up the post in Houston in the USA.
One of the country’s most outstanding young achievers, Benson is only 32 years old.
The young man who has set up youth support programs in both Australian and PNG says he was inspired in life by his remarkable parents.
“My father (John) always instilled in us – never think the world’s not yours,” Benson told SBS TV.
“He was born on a beach …so we don’t actually know how old he is …from a very remote village. He came to Australia with T-shirts , shorts and a pair of shoes and a small backpack in the middle of winter.”
Benson Saulo was born in Bordertown, South Australia, but raised in Tamworth, New South Wales. His mother Ruth was from Bordertown and lived in a tin shed on the outskirts of town in her early years,
Through her, Benson is of the Wemba Wemba, Jardwadjali and Gunditjmara nations of western Victoria.
He proudly outlined his parents’ backgrounds to the Lowy Institute.
“My father is from New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea. We don’t know how old he really is because he was born on a beach in New Hanover, so he got to pick a date for his birthday. Each year it changes depending on when he wants presents from us. His father was from Neikonomon, which is located in the mountains of West Lavongai, and his mother was from Lafu on the west coast of New Ireland. From an early age, my father always had a curious mind. He fondly recalls leaving school at a very young age and following his father around New Ireland, who was a medical practitioner. He speaks five dialects and would often disappear for weeks, sometimes months, walking and exploring different villages across the Province. I think this is why he is such a people person.
Their stories and individual journeys still amaze and inspire me. They met in a very small rural town called Cootamundra, in New South Wales, where they both attended Bible College. The story of how they both came to Bible College is a novel in itself; filled with courage, faith and determination.”
Growing up in Tamworth, New South Wales, where the Indigenous population is about three times higher than the national average, Benson says he can’t remember seeing an Aboriginal person working in any of the businesses in the main street.
That changed when he took on a school-based traineeship with the ANZ Bank at the age of 15.
“I knew I had a window of five minutes when I was serving a customer to leave them with something that might make them think differently about Aboriginal people,” he says.
Benson stayed on with ANZ for seven years, working his way up the ranks in business banking until, in 2011, he was appointed Australia’s youth representative to the 66th general assembly of the United Nations. He was the first Indigenous Australian selected for the position.
“I remember calling my mum to tell her and she just started crying,” he says.
“The thing is, she was 11 years old [at the time of the 1967 referendum for Aboriginal rights] before she was even classed as a citizen in Australia.”
“She said to me, ‘When I was young, they didn’t even want to know us, and now they’ve got my son representing them’ – and that was pretty powerful.
Benson met his now-wife Kate O’Brien in Sydney and they married in Melbourne in 2016.
“I describe her as one of the most courageous people I know; she’s unbelievable,” Benson said.
“She’s a doctor of clinical and forensic psychology, and for the past four years has been working as a torture and trauma specialist for refugees and asylum seekers.”
From the Northern Daily Leader:
In March 2013, Benson founded the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy, which aimed to empower young Indigenous people to lead positive change on issues they are passionate about.
“Borne out of that national tour I undertook was the realisation that young Aboriginal and Islander voices were missing from the national conversation on issues impacting young people,” he said.
“In the space of those two years, we developed and launched 10 youth-led social action campaigns.
“The top three were climate change, mental health and suicide prevention.
“They’re not issues that just impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; they impact all Australians, but what we were doing was enabling young Aboriginal voices on these issues.
“We engaged all up … over 100,000 people on these particular topics.”
Benson said these teens and young adults had “gone on to do amazing things”.
“The connection of like-minded individuals passionate about the idea of change and the belief that they, themselves, can actually effect positive change – at its heart, that was what the leadership academy was about,” he said.
“That an individual has the ability to effect change, but we’re stronger together.”
Benson also co-founded Mind Garden Projects in 2014, an organisation that provides literacy support for schools in Papua New Guinea.
“The organisation supports four schools across New Ireland Province on my grandmother and grandfather’s land,” he said.
“There’s no shortage of passionate, good teachers, but the resources that enabled them to deliver the education was what was lacking.”
Benson says his wife, Kate – a Doctor in Clinical and Forensic Psychology – and their six-month-old daughter are excited about going to Houston.
“Her name is Anaïs Ramo Saulo. The name Ramo is from my grandmother’s side on the West Coast of New Ireland. It is an old name that hasn’t been used for a few generations. My wife and I felt strongly that our daughter would carry the name of my father’s land. My middle name Igua is from Neikonomon on New Hanover, which is my grandfather’s land.
Benson Saulo, consul-general, will take up his post at the end of the year.
*thanks to SBS, ABC, The Northern Daily Leader newspaper, Lowy Institute, Island Business for material in this blog and photos supplied to them by Benson Saulo.