Cocaine, cartels, crooked cops, “Mr Smith” and the ghost plane which crashed an $80 million importation

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.

AFP officers at the crash site

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. 

 https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/plenty-great-stories-still-be-mined-papua-new-guinea

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.

Australia’s first Indigenous consul-general inspired by his PNG Dad and Australian Mum.

*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. 

Credit: ABC

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.”

The Mind Garden project in his Father’s New Ireland province in PNG is close to Benson’s heart.

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.

Parties in Paradise at Kuradui as Parkinsons host Navy commanders

Commander Joseph Beresford of the ANMEF holds court on Kuradui plantation lawn overlooking the sea. Watching is Josef Mainka. At rear is Lt. Commander Leighton Bracegirdle who would become a vice admiral and at left Phebe and Dolly Parkinson with Karolina Mainka and Nurse Augusta Hertzer .1914

They were the parties in paradise for some of the cream of Australian naval officers before the horrors of Gallipoli and other WW1 battles.

The idyllic hilltop setting was an ornate iron laced tropical bungalow flanked by coconut palms and exotic flowers with sweeping lawns overlooking an azure sea. The ladies were in white linen and the menu was in French and Italian. It included pasta, consommés, lobster salad and tasty meats.

It all happened – regularly – on our fabled Parkinson family plantation, Kuradui, on New Britain island in what is now Papua New Guinea, and the hostesses were our grandmother Dolly Parkinson and great grandmother Phebe Parkinson.

Our grandmother Dolly Parkinson seated centre, next to Lieutenant Commander Leighton Bracegirdle, later RAN Vice Admiral. Phebe Parkinson is standing behind her daughter with Kuradi staff in the background. The officer smoking is Commander Joseph Beresford who commanded six naval reserve companies of the ANMEF. Front left are Josef and Karolina Mainka. It is not known why Mrs Mainka’s face has been scratched out.

The young men were the commanding officers of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) which seized German New Guinea in September 1914 and one of them would go on to become a Gallipoli hero, rear admiral and a knight.

After the Battle of Bita Paka – the first military action by Australians – they’d gravitated to the charming Phebe Parkinson , the half American and half Samoan pioneer who’d settled the island with her Danish anthropologist husband Richard long before the Germans planted their flag in 1884. (Richard died in 1909).

Phebe supplied the Australian forces with fresh milk, eggs and pigs and cattle, recruited labour for them from the local communities and a hospital was set up on the Kuradui plantation. The homestead soon became the social hub for the officers in 1914-15 and one of them, Lieutenant Oscar Gillam, took a number of photographs at Kuradui which survive in precious albums stored at the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

They show our grandmother Dolly as a vivacious 19-year-old, not long returned from finishing school in Brighton, England, where she’d graduated after earlier attending a college in Wellington, New Zealand. Multi-lingual and sophisticated, Dolly would have been delightful company. It was probably a year or so before she met our grandfather Peter Uechtritz whom she married in 1918.

In various photos, Dolly clearly has a friendly relationship with Lieutenant Commander Leighton Bracegirdle, then in charge of the Australian forces at Herbertshöhe (Kokopo). The other dashing officer featured in most of the photos is Commander Joseph Beresford, who clearly has no lack of confidence in himself. Beresford commanded the six companies of naval reservists in the ANMEF and played a key part in the Battle of Bita Paka when six of the force became the first Australians to be killed in action in WW1.

The bald man with the moustache is the Polish postmaster of Herbertshöhe Josef Mainka and the lady with her image crudely scratched out in almost every image is his wife Karolina. Given that these are photographs were taken and belonged to Lt Gillam, it can only be assumed that Gillam for some reason fell out badly with the lady. The mind boggles.

After the ANMEF was disbanded in early 1915, Lt Bracegirdle was appointed commander of the First Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train and was dispatched to the Gallipoli campaign. He was tasked with the erection of piers and pontoons – under continual shelling – for the British Army landing at Suvla Bay in August 1915 and was eventually wounded in September. Bracegirdle also served in the Middle East, was mentioned in dispatches three times during the war, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and appointed Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO).

 

The young Kuradui tea partygoer thus became Rear Admiral Sir Leighton Seymour Bracegirdle KCVO, CMG, DSO and Official Secretary to four Australian governors-general, Sir Isaac Isaacs, Lord Gowrie, the Duke of Gloucester and William McKell.

Gillam’s album is a treasure for our family. There are lovely shots of Phebe and Dolly in front of the homestead. Apart from the photographs, it includes a letter from Phebe to Gillam ahead of one of the parties where she asked him to “bring along one more gentleman, as there is one lady over “ with herself, Dolly, Swiss nurse Sister Augusta and Dolly’s Swedish-Samoan cousin Ricka Rondahl.

A signed menu in Gillam’s album shows the camaraderie of the Australians and Parkinsons . Phebe signs it as Matron of LAK (Landing Area Kuradui?) and Dolly as Acting Commander LAK. Another signature is that of Lieut-Colonel William Seaforth Mackenzie, who’d become Acting Administrator and author of the official history of the Australians in Rabaul. Yet another is LCMR JM Jackson, who was on HMAS Warrego which first landed at Rabaul on August 12, 1914 and which captured the German steamer Nusa.

Dolly was the third and youngest Parkinson daughter. It is not widely known that, at the time of these photographs, her sister Nellie was interned in Germany. Nellie had recently divorced her German husband Carl Diercke but was visiting in-laws in Berlin when war broke out. As a British subject she was rounded up and held in a camp. (It is a long , complicated story how the Parkinson children were regarded as British. Even though their father was the son of the Danish Duke of Augustenberg, Richard was born out of wedlock. He was given the name of the Duke’s English racehorse trainer Parkinson who did a deal to be registered on a  ‘marriage’ certificate to Richard’s mother before disappearing back to his home country)

Nellie may have been on the Germans’ watchlist as a few years earlier she’d horse-whipped a German officer – thrice across the face – after he disgraced himself trying to enter Dolly’s bedroom after a dinner party at the governor’s residence. Despite appeals by their friend Governor Albert Hahl to the Kaiser himself, Nellie was jailed for a month for insulting the German uniform… but that’s all another story.

The magic of photos and memories – 67 years on from Rabaul 1952.

It’s an image woven into our family tapestry of memories, stories and personal lore.

A special guard of honour by girl guides for our parents’ wedding in Rabaul, New Guinea, nearly seven decades ago.

Mum was “Miss Harris” to the guides she led and those she taught at Rabaul’s Sacred Heart School, before becoming Mary Louise Uechtritz by marrying Alf Uechtritz at Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church on April 26, 1952.

Except for her own mother who then lived in Rabaul, none of Mum’s family or friends from her homeland England had been able to make it to the wedding – so she had everlasting fondness for those who helped ensure her special day was indeed special.

Now, sixty-seven years later, I’ve had a pleasant, surprise catch-up with two of those whose smiling young faces have been peering out at us for all those decades.

Last Sunday I was a guest at the PNG Chinese Catholic Association Christmas gathering in Sydney. PNGCCA president Dr Dennis Chow organised a delightful family ‘reunion’, introducing me to Eulalie (Woo) Chow and Helen (Lee) Yun.

The girl guides visiting our family plantation Sum Sum

I was thrilled that Eulalie and Helen both remembered that day well and also the visit by the girl guides to our family plantation Sum Sum on the south coast of New Britain (see photo). Also, that they were able to name most of the other girls in the picture. Some of them are still with us and perhaps they will see this post.

Mum taught on and off for many years in PNG and eventually became deputy commissioner of the PNG Girl Guides – but she always reserved a special favouritism for those first Rabaul roles in the country she came to love and cherish. 

Mum’s previous teaching role – her first after university in London – was at the British Council in Prague, Czechoslovakia. She went straight from ice skating on Prague’s frozen river to being wooed on the Beehives on tropical Rabaul’s harbour by Dad.

She passed on last year and recently, in September, we laid hers and dad’s ashes to rest in our family cemetery at Kuradui, near Kokopo.

It would have been lovely for her to meet Eulalie and Helen. It’s a nice thought, however, that she’ll have joined in heaven others in the photo including the guides head girl, the late Philomena (Ning) Seeto, picturing standing next to my father in the photo.

The wedding photo identifications include Mary Rose Chan (kneeling left next to bride), Eulalie Chow (kneeling right next to bride) and Rita Chow (kneeling far right). The three standing in the second row on the left , left to right, are Doreen Woo, Lucy Chee and Louisa Chan. Behind them in the back row are, left to right, Rosemary Chow, Josephine Woo and Philomena Seeto. On the bride’s shoulder at far back is Clare Chee, unknown, and Helen Lee. In the second row standing on the right are Dorei Chan, Margaret Woo and Dorothy Chan. It would be good if the correct names could be also added to the photo at Sum Sum.

From mud pies to Plutonium: Yalinu Poya, the little PNG girl who went on to blaze a world trail in chemistry.

She was the curious little girl from Lae, PNG, who experimented with mud and cordial mixtures. 

Now Yalinu Poya is one of the world’s most exciting young science talents whose trailblazing chemistry research has won plaudits from the United Nations, a string of international prizes and has made her the face of Plutonium on The Periodic Table of Younger Chemists.

In the German Parliament in Berlin on Thursday, Yalinu will be honoured as one of 25 international Green Talents award winners in the field of sustainability. 

She becomes the first Papua New Guinean, Pacific Islander and student from the University of Glasgow to receive this global recognition.

The judging panel of high-ranking scientists assembled by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research described Yalinu as a standout among 837 applicants from 97 countries, writing:

 “Above all, it was Yalinu’s fresh perspective on addressing the UN Sustainable Development goals and global challenges, such as food and energy security, climate change, and energy generation from renewable sources, that made the jury’s choice easy.

More later on the technical intricacies of Yalinu’s research – she makes catalysts for ammonia synthesis – and her ambitions to help feed the world with her science.

Condoleezza Rice the catalyst

But first, she made time during a two-week whistle stop tour of German research hotspot cities to tell me how it all started with a newspaper reference to the first female African- American Secretary of State. Note she was reading international politics when aged eleven.

My parents were supportive of me while growing up, especially my father. The passion to do a PhD begun when my father pointed out a newspaper article of Dr. Condoleezza Rice”, said Yalinu. 

“Being 11 years old I asked, ‘how can a medical doctor be the US Secretary of State?’ My dad told me the title Dr comes from a PhD. And there I was, instantly attracted to becoming a doctor. I made a pact with my dad that before or at the age of 30 I would receive a PhD.”

Yalinu is on target to fulfil that pact by gaining her PhD in two months.

The quest began her school in Lae, Morobe Province PNG, where her first rudimentary experimenting began.

“While growing up I had a curious mind, I loved science very much and did mundane things like mix water with dirt to see how much was needed to make muddy, then very muddy and liquid muddy textures.

 I mixed different coloured cordials to see how colours changed, I would dry corn kernels and see if I can make my own popcorn, etcetera.”

Yalinu did her BSc in Chemistry at the University of Papua New Guinea and her Master’s degree in Inorganic Chemistry from the Northeast Normal University in China. Now she’s in her final year PhD student in Chemistry at the University of Glasgow specialising in Heterogeneous Catalysis under Prof. Justin Hargreaves’ supervision.

Eight awards have come her way. In May this year she collected her first international award from two world bodies: The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the International Younger Chemists Network (IYCN). 

IUPAC is the world authority on chemical nomenclature and terminology, including the naming of new elements in the  periodic table. To mark 100th anniversary the body joined with IYCN to announce the creation of a Periodic Table of Younger Chemists.

Yalinu Poya – who mixed mud and cordials in primary school in Lae  –  was one of 118 chemists across the world to be selected. She was awarded the element Plutonium.

 

Despite all this, humble Yalinu has a twitter handle that describes herself as “small girl from Papua New Guinea”. She loves her country and is devoted to her family, her father from Pangia in the Southern Highlands and mother from Banz, Jiwaka province.

Small in stature maybe, but that’s where it ends. To continue the size analogy. Yalinu is a giant in her field and a wonderful role model for all young people, especially from PNG.

I never had any local role models while growing up, as I never saw female PNG scientists,’ she said. “I am working hard trying to please my parents, but I did not expect a lot of young people looking up to me.

It’s overwhelming and I am doing my best to inspire them, showing them that nothing is impossible if you work hard, drown out negativity, and persevere through difficult times, not only in science and education but basically everything. Wherever you find your passion, just do your best, run your race and be self-disciplined.”

Yalinu’s long-term goals are simple to try to better the lives of people and society.

“That is all. I have a passion for people, I love helping people.”

Her aim is to do that via her science: “Ammonia is used to make synthetic fertilisers that feeds 40 % of the world’s population. The Haber-Bosch process is the one that makes ammonia and is an amazing one, however it has many disadvantages that are not suitable to the environment. I am trying to look into this by make a catalyst that is able to make ammonia at a small scale plant to be used for farming using renewable energy sources such as wind.” 

This writer hopes that the media in PNG celebrates this talented young woman and her message.

The extraordinary European odyssey of tribal chief Pero ToKinkin – from New Guinea to Berlin in 1896

The story of Pero ToKinkin is one of the most extraordinary in South Seas history.

Fascinating new details have emerged about this astute, adventurous tribal leader. More on those revelations, and the extent of our very personal family connection, later. But it all started 123 years ago in what is now Papua New Guinea.

The unlikely tale takes the Melanesian chief of tiny Raluana village in the newly-colonised New Britain to the ‘World Expo’ in Berlin in 1896, opened by the Emperor and Empress of Germany and attended by seven million people over six months.

Pero ToKinkin dons suit, tailcoat and hat to attend dinners with titled German blue-bloods and composes a fabled birthday letter to a billionaire banker who boasted friendship with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and a peerage from the Kaiser for financing of the Franco-Prussian war.

The New Guinean (Papua was then separate) visits Berlin’s high fashion houses to buy a dress for his wife, enlisting the help of a young East African woman to model the prospective outfits.

He is the first of his tribe to be baptised and accrues enough wealth to order two boats from a Chinese shipbuilding artisan, for 1000 Marks. This proud leader – Luluai as it was known – is later handpicked by the German Governor of New Guinea to be the first *native to establish a European-style commercial coconut plantation.

Pero ToKinkin has many descendants and some, including world-renowned musician George Telek, were also trailblazers in PNG history.

Pero ToKinkin has special significance for me through a unique family connection.

My Danish great grandfather Richard Parkinson was the person who took ToKinkin to Berlin.

But it was his wife Phebe Parkinson who convinced ToKinkin it was safe to take his nine-year-old son Topalankat and six other Tolais on this unheard-of odyssey across the globe. The Parkinsons were among the first settlers in New Guinea and along with Phebe’s sister, later to be known as ‘Queen Emma’, established the first plantations there. Great grandmother Phebe was a multi linguist who acted as a judge in the local community. Respect and trust for Phebe led to the Tolai group’s audacious trip to Berlin.

There they constructed their own huts – made from materials shipped by Parkinson from New Guinea – on the expansive Expo site and demonstrated their skills in fish trapping and netting, spear-throwing and canoe craft on the adjoining lake.

As an ardent family historian charting my ancestors’ involvement in PNG since 1879, I have long known of the Berlin event but had limited detail of the involvement of ToKinkin and the Tolais. But now I’ve come across an extraordinary account of it all – including the details in my opening paragraphs above – in a German publication from 123 years ago. It’s an 1896 edition of Nachrichten aus Kaiser Wilhelmsland und dem Bismarck Archipel with an article titled ‘The New Guinea Company at the German Colonial Exhibition in Berlin 1896.’ It was translated some years ago and sent to me in 2009 by German historian Karl Baumann. Somehow I overlooked the email at the time while working in the Middle East but recently stumbled across the archived message and its treasure trove attachment.

The find led me to further research and revelations, including the breakthrough discovery of photographs of ToKinkin’s funeral and family in the PNGAA collection in Queensland University’s Fryer Library.

The formal name for the World Expo was The Great Industrial Exposition of Berlin 1896 (in German Große Berliner Gewerbeausstellung 1896).

It was opened on May 1 that year by German Emperor (Kaiser) Wilhelm II with his wife the Empress (Kaiserin) Augusta Victoria. 

The above photo of the pair – who also carried the titles of King and Queen of Prussia – shows them posing in front to the New Guinea exhibition with other distinguished guests on opening day. A Tolai fish trap can be seen in the background.

It is quite an intriguing possibility that around this moment the royal pair met Richard Parkinson and he, in turn, presented to them the leader of his Tolai group Pero ToKinkin.

Intriguing in more ways than one, because Richard Parkinson was the uncle of Danish-born Empress Augusta Victoria.

Remember, my great grandfather Parkinson was Danish. He was a son of Christian August II the Duke of Augustenburg, second in line to the Danish throne.

Parkinson’s half-brother was Frederick VIII, the future Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg. This Frederick was the father of Augusta Victoria who married the German Kaiser.

An interesting side note is that on the island of Bougainville in PNG, a mountain range is named after its discoverer Parkinson and a prominent bay is named Empress Augusta Bay in honour of his niece.

At the bottom of this blog is a link to an article explaining how the Dane Richard Parkinson came to have such an English-sounding name.

The Nachrichten article reveals the names of all eight Tolais who travelled to Berlin, something which will be of intense interest to members of the East New Britain community today:

The small group left Kokopo early in March 1896 and arrived at Berlin two months later. Luluai ToKinkin, thirty-five years of age at the time, was party leader.He was accompanied by his son Topalankat, nine years of age, as well asToVagenge, ToValut, ToValuna, ToValanglagur, ToKulap and Tinai. Several were ill on arrival at Berlin and were treated at the Charitee Hospital. Unfortunately forToVagenge, he was too sick to participate in the Exhibition and was immediately returned to German New Guinea.

The Expo was something of a propaganda exercise for the thrusting German empire. The colonial section also included exhibits and people from German East Africa colonies. The New Guinea section included a Haus Tambaran “genuine down to the last spar” and next to it “a tabu house on stilts” from *Seleo Island (in today’s Sandaun Province).

The paragraphs below are all from the 1896 Nachrichten with some clarifications and additional notes in brackets from what I gleaned from Baumann’s footnotes.

Villages were erected in the styles of the various participating colonies and were comprehensively furnished with artefacts so as to provide spectators an understanding of native life in distant parts of the empire. Additionally, in the German New Guinea exhibit ToKinkin and his fellows demonstrated their competence in spear throwing, rowing and fish trapping daily to curious Berliners. Two canoes and a range of fish traps and nets accompanied the Tolais to Berlin for the purpose as well as comprising exhibits in their own right.

The German New Guinea village exhibit included a range of structures drawn from around the Protectorate. Included were a tree house from Finschhafen, plus money and death houses from Neu-Mecklenberg (New Ireland). Luluai ToKinkin and his men constructed their own huts under the tree house and lived in them for the duration of the Exhibition, just as if they were back at Raluana.

Richard Parkinson of Ralum…had loaned his collection of diwarra (shell money commonly used on the Gazelle Peninsula) together with the tools used in its preparation. Luluai ToKinkin demonstrated how to make and wear the costume of the Duk Duk society, a feared male cult.

Carl von Beck, a director of the New Guinea Company and senior employee of Adolph Hansemann’s Disconto Bank, met ToKinkin in Berlin. ToKinkin explained to the sophisticated German that his Melanesian world was very different from that of the German’s: his moon travelled in a manner quite unlike that of the northern hemisphere and that his ocean was located elsewhere. ToKinkin was a wealthy manby Tolai standards and he was proud to relate to Herr von Beck that he had placed two orders with Ah Tam, a ship builder on the Gazelle Peninsula, for two craft thatcost him a total of one thousand Deutschmark (sic). Luluai ToKinkin also informed Herr von Beck that he was a man of considerable repute in his own society, possessing as he did a large amount of diwarra.

The Tolai team at the 1896 Colonial Exhibition was all male and ToKinkin undoubtedly missed his wife who remained at home. He decided that while in Berlin he would buy her an expensive dress as a present. However, he found the great variety of female clothing available in Germany’s capital city confusing and was unable to select one. Eventually he hit upon the idea of asking someone to modeldresses for him. Obligingly, an eighteen-year-old Wasuahel female with the German East African contingent, Misiki, agreed to act as a mannequin. One particular dress she modelled featured puffed sleeves. The Africans and Pacific Islanders attending the Exhibition all agreed that it was a magnificent garment, and with that heartening endorsement, ToKinkin purchased the dress and took it with him back to his village for his undoubtedly delighted wife.

On another occasion ToKinkin and his fellow Tolais were invited to a dinner hosted by Carl von Beck. All seven appeared perfectly apparelled in white shirts, ties, dark suits and hats. Their grooming even extended to liberal applications of Eau de Cologne and hats were dutifully removed before entering the premises in which the dinner was held.

During the course of an after-dinner speech, ToKinkin learned that Adolph von Hansemann, head of both Disconto Bank and the New Guinea Company, had turned seventy years of age that day, i.e., 27 July 1896. It was suggested to ToKinkin that a brief expression of birthday good wishes to the grand old man would be appreciated.

The concept of “birthday” was unknown to ToKinkin, and neither could he comprehend someone reaching such an advanced age. Once such phenomena had been explained to him ToKinkin resolved to write a “big fellow book” to von Hansemann. He did so in his native Kuanua. His companion, ToValut, then converted the “place talk” into English. The English language text was then translated into German for the benefit of Herr von Hansemann. The English language version of the letter read as follows:

Mr. von Hansemann, good morning!

I write a letter and give it to you. I, Tokinkin, 35 years old, and I have three brothers and two sisters and I am the oldest. In my land I am a Sir, all people call me Luluai which means King. That is the end what I have to tell about me. Furthermore, I tell you, we all went on a steamer5 to Kokopo and Bukadschin (Bogajim) and Toroboi (Surabaya). After 9 days we reached Toroboi, after 2 days we came to Matawa, 2 days later Singapore. Here we had to wait for a week and changed then on an other steamer (SS Stettin) , after four days we came to Colombo, after 7 days we came to Arab(Arabia or Aden) , after a further 7 days we came to a kind of land Tariki (Eygpt) , after six days we saw another land Italy, one day later we saw Genua (Genoa) days later we arrived Gibraltar, after some days we arrived at Hamburg, the number of days I don’t know. And now all countries are finished and we are here (in Berlin) and I say furthermore the whole journey lasted 2 months and a half and now we stay here for 2 month and a half.

Sir, I continue to tell, I want to go in the month October at home, because it becomes cold again, and in my land, it is always warm, and cold is not good for me, and Berlin is too long cold, and if someone stays too long at this place, he possibly can die.

Step by step Franke (company official)  will tell me, when we all can return. Now my speech about these months is at an end and I will tell you some other things.

But I have forgotten to tell you, that I wish some great knifes for work as well as asoldier cap with a red stripe and my salary. I want in objects from a store in Berlin to take them with me in my land. 

We all which came over here, have our women and children at home, and if we would stay too long they would believe we died. My father is died, but Mr Pagison (Parkinson) wanted that I should travel to Berlin, if he hadn’t wanted that, I would remain at home, and if I wouldn’t come to Berlin, all the others wouldn’t come, therefore I came finally. And when I return to Ralum I wish to obtain a second box.  (ToKinkin refers here to the standard sized trade box supplied to indentured labourers in German New Guinea on completion of their standard three-year contracts. Normally, each labourer would fill it with trade goods purchased with his accumulated savings).

I continue to tell, we all came here for nothing, but Parkinson told us, when we return from Germany to Ralum, he will give us diwarra, that is money in our country. (Tolais would not accept German currency at the time, insisting on being paid for goods or services in either diwarra or kind).

And now good morning Mr. von Hansemann and I wish you that you will still live many years, and I wish you many good things on this day.

ToKinkin

My friend the late Gideon Kakabin, a wonderfully-talented Tolai historian of Kokopo, also was fascinated by ToKinkin and the other Tolais who went to Berlin.  Gideon actually tracked down a descendant of another member of the group and wrote: 

Their leader was the big man Pero ToKinkin from Raluana. He was also a good friend of Governor Hahl. Amongst the group was a 12-year-old boy. He was from around Balanataman near Maulapau and his name was Tinai. He was still alive in 1961. Salisbury records that although he was by now, a 90-year-old man and partly deaf, he could still remember the Masai and Cameron’s dance in Berlin. He could remember all the ports to Naples. He remembered also the Quality of German beer”. 

I understood from Gideon that a descendant of Tinai, a singer-songwriter, is collating material for a book about this man.

It was Gideon’s passion to chart the lineage of ToKinkin and I hope this article will spur his descendants to complete Gideon’s initial research.

Gideon would have been excited with my discovery in the Fryer Library of Queensland University a series of photographs relating to ToKinkin and his funeral. They were in a donated collection by Rev. Neville Threlfall.

One shows ToKinkin as an elderly man in front of his village home. Another shows a large group of his sons and descendants after his funeral.

Then there’s a culturally significant image labelled “Tubuan about to burn down Pero’s house after his death, according to custom.”

The signature photograph at top of this blog is from my collection and was  taken by Richard Parkinson in 1902. It  shows ToKinkin, now 41 years old, with members of his family. His military style cap and staff are symbols of his office as an administration-appointed Luluai. Next to him is his son ToPalankat then aged 15. He is wearing clothing he bought in Berlin. The woman in the foreground would presumably be his senior wife, the one for whom ToKinkin bought the blue satin dress with puffed sleeves in Berlin, Perhaps that is the very dress she is wearing in the photograph. 

A copy of this photo seems to have been flipped the other way in Baumann’s article. The author Baumann or his translator notes:  “Perhaps the uniformly serious facial expressions of the family members reflect the fear that their souls might be stolen while being photographed”.

The Baumann article finishes:

ToKinkin was an exceptionally able man and he and members of his family caught the eyes of Europeans residing in the vicinity of Ralum-Raluana.

Helmuth Steenken mentioned ToKinkin in his book „Lebensläufe aus dem Paradiesder Wilden“. In it he refers to the diaries of Johanna Fellmann, whose husband Heinrich, succeeded George Brown at the Wesleyan mission at Raluana. Frau Fellmann mentioned in her diary that ToKinkin and a man named ToBolo were the first Tolais to be baptised at the mission. A formal photograph of the two men circa 1900 appears in Governor Albert Hahl’s memoirs, Governor In New Guinea. 

Her diary entry for 25 June 1897 reads as follows: Today I went for a walk to our neighbouring village to visit ToKinkin, the chief who was a member of the Colonial Exhibition at Berlin. One should see him in his rig out. Usually he has on a black tail coat but without trousers, only with a so-called lavalava cloth, additional a stiff collar with a tie.

Today in the morning he and his wife participated in Heinrich’s preaching at Raluana.His wife was dressed in a sky-blue satin dress with a lace collar. She looks like a Queen with a fan in her hand.

Governor (Albert) Hahl subsequently made mention of ToKinkin’s positive response to his request that he engage in European style coconut production despite it being totally counter intuitive to Tolai farming culture.

A final note to acknowledge that, even then in 1896, the colonial exhibitions at the European Expos were seen by some as controversial and have since been labelled ‘human zoos’. That’s understandable and can be deliberated elsewhere. What can’t be argued that the adventure by Pero ToKinkin and the Tolais was breathtaking and commendable. Europe had only recently come to New Guinea. But these New Guineans ventured undaunted to Europe. Certainly there would have been apprehensions, but these were assuaged by a woman they trusted and who, in turn, cared for them: Phebe Parkinson.

That bond continues today.

Scores of Parkinson descendants next month will travel from Australia, the UK and USA to a special event in East New Britain, PNG. We all inter the ashes of our parents Alf and Mary Lou Uechtritz and cousin Chris Diercke in the Parkinson family cemetery.

A stone’s throw from where Pero ToKinkin grew up, the Raluana clan and Kuradui landowners will perform traditional mourning and burial ceremonies to honour them.

As I was preparing to publish this blog, I came across an illuminating article by a talented young Papua New Guinean writer named Watna Mori working at Australia’s Lowy Institute.

Ms Mori made a reference to the biography of PNG pathologist and politician Sir Albert Maori Kiki and wrote it … “conveys the exhaustive and mind-boggling experience that was his life – and continues to be the lives of Papua New Guinean people: cramming 10,000 years into one lifetime.”

Immediately to mind came Pero ToKinkin.

Click to access parkinson-legacy-1.pdf

Death cries in a ‘sea of indifference’

*An adaption and update of an article by Max Uechtritz in 2017.

Their end is ghastly . A thousand Australians screaming as oil smothers and scalds them, seawater gushes into their lungs and flames steal their oxygen and does what fire does to bodies.

Many are teens. Little Ivor Gascoigne only 15. There are granddads. Fathers and their sons. Brothers. The three Turner boys: inseparable in life – now death.

A witness is haunted.

“People were jumping into the water.

Thick oil was spreading across the sea.

There were loud noises…metal wrenching, furniture crashing, people screaming.

“I have not been able to forget the death cries.”

The witness tells of spirit which sears the soul. A few Australians in the sea clinging to bits of firewood from their doomed vessel started singing.

“I was particularly impressed when they began to sing Auld Lang Syne as a tribute to their dead colleagues.

Watching that I learned that Australians have big hearts.”

The ship heaves upright, vertical. Its bow points briefly toward the stars. A flame spouts from a chimney with a loud bang. The giant metal coffin slides quickly beneath the water. It’s gone in eleven minutes. 

It takes with it the brother of an Australian prime minister, the uncle of a man who nearly became prime minister, the grandfather of an international rock star, six Australian government administrators and a famous Wallaby rugby player.

They are but a few of the nucleus of an Australian capital and community that disappears without trace. 

It’s nearly four years until their families are told. Yet Australia’s officialdom and political classes turn their collective back on entreaties for more information. Even then the list of the dead is incomplete. Decades of formal indifference follow and doubt torments the bereaved. They can’t get facts let alone recognition.

Three quarters of a century on, that recognition is still sparse.

So far fetched it all could be – must be – a move script. Surely?

It’s not. It happened in WW2 – and 1053 Australians perished. Most of them were entombed on the bottom of the South China Sea off Luzon in the Philippines.

In fact it was – and remains – Australia’s greatest maritime catastrophe.  The greatest loss of Australian lives at sea in war or peace.

It happened 77 years ago next Monday, on July 1 1942.

Twice as many Australians died in this one incident than were killed in the entire Vietnam War. Significantly more were lost than in the sinking of the HMAS Sydney (645) and the hospital ship the Centaur (268). 

The losses accounted for 15% of all Australian POWs who died in captivity in WW2. 

Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than this tragic saga is that most Australians have never heard about it or the name of the death ship.

Montevideo Maru. There. I’ve finally introduced it. Doesn’t have that familiar, clear conventional ring to it like the HMAS Sydney does it?

Granted, it is initially confusing: a Japanese ship carrying the name of the Uruguayan capital carrying Australians from New Guinea to China, sunk by an American submarine off the Philippines.

That’s why after years of writing about it, this time I’ve reversed reportorial convention and concentrated firstly on the raw basic fact: more than one thousand Australians died horrifically in our worst disaster at sea – and most Australians don’t have a clue about it.

The Montevideo Maru was a Japanese prison ship carrying 845 Australian soldiers and 208 civilians from what was then the capital of Australian New Guinea, Rabaul. They’d been captured when Rabaul fell to a massive invasion fleet that took New Britain and New Ireland five months earlier in January 1942.  

Their destination was occupied Hainan Island, China. Their fate meant to be slave labour. That changed when an American submarine, the USS Sturgeon, sank the Montevideo Maru. The Sturgeon’s skipper had no way of knowing that the target in his periscope carried a thousand helpless allies.

As inferred earlier, one of them was the uncle of former Australian Opposition leader Kim Beazley. Reverend Sydney Beazley was a Methodist missionary who’d devoted his life to helping others and had been building houses for the natives in Rabaul when war broke out.

Also on the doomed ship was plantation owner Tom Vernon Garrett, grandfather of Midnight Oil singer-turned-politician Peter Garrett. Like the younger Beazley, Peter Garrett grew up with the family loss and even penned a song for the Oils which opened with the soulful line “My grandfather went down with the Montevideo…the Rising Sun sent him floating to his rest…”

The brother of Australia’s former prime minister (1939) Sir Earl Page was also in the shuffling, hungry and tattered group roused at bayonet point from their Rabaul internment camp nine days earlier. Harold Page was the acting Administer of Australian-mandated New Guinea. Five other administration officials were herded along the foreshores of the town previously known as the Pearl of the Pacific then shoved into the putrid hold of the moored prison ship. The cousin of former Senate President Kerry Sibraa was another who embarked that fateful day.

In the group, too, was Kenelm “Mac” Ramsay, a tough and talented rugby star who’d scored the only try in the last pre-war Test against the NZ All Blacks in the third Bledisloe Cup match on the 1938 Test series.

Of course the lives of these men, whose blood connections or status, then or now, resonate in the public realm, were no more precious than the others and they were grieved no more or less by loved ones. But their very presence among the victims reinforces the oddity and frustration that the disaster has left such a faint footprint on our national narrative and psyche.

There could not have been more of an eclectic mix of Australians. The POWs were variously members of the 2/22nd Infantry Battalion, 1st Independent Company, New Guinea Volunteer Rifles along with civilian internees – officers of the Australian Administration, businessmen, bankers, planters, missionaries and merchant seaman.

Cyril Gascoigne was a Rabaul auctioneer. In late 1941 – post Pearl Harbour –women and children were being evacuated and the Gascoigne family packed. Ivor Gascoigne, 15, begged to stay behind and continue his first job as an office boy. He’d be safe with his Dad, he said, and his mother finally relented. But to the Japanese, Ivor was an enemy adult. Ivor’s mum lived with the decision the rest of her life. His sister sill does.

The Turner brothers of Willoughby, Sydney had always been inseparable. The two eldest Sid and Dudley had always been protective of the youngest brother Daryl who was barely 17 and had just left school in 1940. The older boys had promised their father they’d always look out for Daryl. So, when they enlisted, they all falsified their birth dates so they’d be inducted together into 1 Independent Company. They embarked for New Ireland where they later tried to escape the Japanese on a small yacht but were rounded up by the invaders. They died together. 

Jesse Turner received a government-issue small silver badge with three stars, one for each son killed, and wore it each day till she died.

Rex Wythe and John William Hayes went down on the Montevideo Maru

The first eyewitness account of how the Gascoignes and Turners, Syd Beazley and Tom Garrett and all those others died finally came six decades later. An old Territorian and amateur historian Bert Speer had put me in touch with the author of a book on Japanese merchant ships who said he knew where we could find the last surviving crew member of the Montevideo Maru. Some 17 of the crew had escaped on lifeboats. Most were subsequently killed by Philippines insurgents.

As then Director of ABC News and Current Affairs, I was able to assign Tokyo correspondent Mark Simkin to the story and he tracked down and interviewed Yoshiaki Yamaji.

Yamaji’s poignant recollections were aired on The 7.30 report in 2003.

Though his description of the “death cries” of the men caught in the hold was heartrending, it gave some sense of closure to families to finally know what had happened.

The men in the water singing Auld Lang Syne for their mates still chills all these years later. Yamaji said while the bulk of prisoners were caught in the hold, some had been travelling on deck presumably to manage the ship’s firewood. They were never heard of again.

The Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society was formed in 2009 with Keith Jackson as its indefatigable initiator and campaigning president and equally energetic member Andrea Williams who lost a grandfather and great uncle on the ship. I was privileged to be on the founding committee of the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee with my cousin Chris Diercke and other committed folk. Kim Beazley and Peter Garrett successively became our patrons.

The Society was formed to represent the interests of the families of the Montevideo Maru families and its purpose was to gain national recognition and greater understanding of the tragedy. 

There was an historic breakthrough on June 21 2010 when the Australian parliament for the first time debated then offered its regrets for the Montevideo Maru tragedy. It was a hugely emotional day for some 350 attendees.

The 67thanniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru was marked by the unveiling of a memorial plaque at the Hellships Memorial, Subic Bay, the Philippines

A major objective was to have a national Rabaul and Montevideo Maru memorial erected in memory of those lost, and that happened at the Australian War Memorial on the 70th anniversary on July 1, 2012.

Guest speaker Army Chief Lieutenant-General David Morrison said this was one of the most tragic events of Australian military history and was the culmination of a chain of disastrous strategic and tactical decisions. 

”Far too many brave young Australians paid the ultimate price for it. The dead of the Montevideo Maru silently rebuke Australia and remind us some 70 years later of the consequences of neglect of the nation’s defence,” he said.

Now the 77thanniversary approaches next Monday, July 1. The Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial that day will feature a Montevideo Maru victim. 

By coincidence it is the day that many of our politicians will attend the Last Post, to mark the resumption of parliament with a mark of respect for Australia’s war dead. The gathering has become a new tradition after being introduced some years ago.

Descendants of victims, all those others who lost family friends or those who simply know and care about this dreadful, massive loss of Australian lives, hope the parliamentarians will take the opportunity to learn more about it – and help inculcate the tragedy into our national narrative.

Because the institutions of parliament and the media in Australia have many decades of neglect and apathy to redress. Even the large and moving 75thanniversary commemoration at the AWM in 2017 received a paucity of attention from most pollies and media.

Ditto for a 75thevent in Rabaul. A large number of family descendants – many elderly and frail  – made the pilgrimage to PNG for the moving ceremony organised by the Rabaul Historical Society. Australia’s High Commissioner to PNG Bruce Davis was one of the guest speakers. Singer Kyle Adams-Collier, whose grandfather was on the ship, performed her original dedication song to the Montevideo Maru.

Not one Australian media organisation thought it worthwhile to cover on the day. Yet again, a sea of indifference.

Little Ivor Gascoigne and 1052 other Australians deserve better.

Lest We Forget

Insiders marinated in instinct – how the ABC show began

Insiders’ beginning was soaked in instinct and alcohol. It was the easiest decision I was to make as ABC Director of News and Current Affairs –  in fact it was very first one, on my first day in the role.

To continue the bad culinary metaphor, it was easy because the idea had marinated in professional chagrin for years. It was to simmer for a many more months due to then managing Director Jonathan Shier (more on that later).

But on that day – June 23, 2000 – this most Australian of shows was eased into the world by Italian beer and French wine in a Turkish restaurant in London. Over lunch – then dinner.

I was based in London for the second time as a Europe correspondent and Barrie Cassidy and Heather Ewart were in ABC’s Brussels bureau when my appointment to head Aunty’s NewsCaff division – as it was known – was announced the previous day.

By phone we quickly agreed Barrie and Heather would come to London – by train or plane, I forget, post-haste  – for serious discussions. We all knew what was on the menu (sorry!).

They arrived in time for lunch next day at Efes 2, a longstanding favourite for ABC types in Great Titchfield Street, tucked in behind the ABC bureau at Portland Place in W1.

The Peronis were soon in full flow and so was the discussion about a national political show. Barrie had thought about it a lot. He had a willing audience. We’d previously discussed the absurdity of the national broadcaster not having such a platform.

Clock rewind: when I finished up my first stint in London (1990-94) I’d returned to Sydney and taken up the role in 1995 of second banana network editor, overseeing the day-to-day production of ABC TV News bulletins. My roster was the back end of the week and weekends.

Sundays infuriated me. The first story usually was labelled Canberra; today’s date. Senior  pollies inevitably would be interviewed by the indomitable Laurie Oakes on Nine’s Sunday program. We (and every network) dutifully recorded Sunday. So that night we’d have Keating and/or Howard or others in our lead story, complete with Laurie, clipboard and big Sunday logo. It was branding triumph for Nine and an embarrassment for the ABC.

Worse still, other stories in the bulletin covering other issues of the day or week would also feature interview excerpts from the Nine program . To our huge national audience it looked like we’d surrendered Sundays to the power of Packer – and the ABC had.

Fast forward – through Washington stints for both of us in some form – Barrie was political editor of Kerry O’Brien’s 7.30 Report and I was national editor of TV news. During this period, Barrie would bring up the idea of a Sunday political program for the ABC. It’s safe to say that the idea burned in Barrie for a long time.

So, really, it was a pretty bloody easy decision that day in June 2000.

But, of course, it was a serious discussion and we needed to mull it very seriously and what better aid for such rumination than the excellent French wines that Mine Host at Efes used to hand pick from the speciality bottle shop on Little Portland Street. Perhaps cognacs figured as well. Then, still throwing ideas around, we segued from lunch to dinner.

Not the London session, but a warm-up nine years earlier in Washington DC .

Barrie and I shook hands on a show. But we hadn’t factored in Jonathan Shier.

Long story short, after my return to Sydney, the controversial MD kept stalling me on the political show as the ABC was engulfed in unprecedented upheaval and NewsCaff had become his bête noire. I learned that Shier was planning to give the show to the television division and was considering a prominent print journalist to host it.

Ringing Barrie in Brussels to reassure him it would happen in the end wasn’t always fun

Then the resignation of Television Director Gail Jarvis shocked Shier – who’d sacked four other directors – and gave us a golden opportunity. I’ll never forget a meeting with the deflated Shier, who threw up his hands and asked what he’d say at the Senate Estimates that week.

“You need to give them some good, positive news,” I said as Shier visibly perked up. “And that good news would be to announce Agenda (our working title ) as a new Sunday political program .”

He did. There was another national show announced, perhaps the arts show Coast but don’t hold me to that. I rang Barrie in Brussels. The rest is history. Well, almost. We had to change the name because Sky News already had a show called Agenda. In a funny little twist, the anchor for Sky’s Agenda was a bloke called David Speers, the very same talented host who will take over Insiders next year.

After such a long mental gestation, we had something like five weeks to get the program on air with set, graphics, format and a little detail like staffing. Our Head of NewsCaff Marco Bass in Victoria nominated Kate Torney as the inaugural Executive Producer and a gun logistics specialist named Jeremy Custance was hauled in from Canberra as 2-I-C*.

The title caused the usual to-and-fro debate. There was a suggestion of The Insiders which didn’t convince some of the executive team. It was Greg Wilesmith – a man of few words anyway – who suggested we prune “The”. Insiders it was, not THE Insiders. Nuance. 

It was head of national coverage Wally Hamilton and national editor John Cameron – not me – who worked with Barrie and Kate on the nuts and bolts of the format and look in that mad countdown flurry. Cammo would enjoy joining the Insiders weekly editorial huddle for years, including after he took over as News Director.

Wally remembers: “One of the great knock-ons from Insiders was the pride instilled in the Melbourne newsroom, having a national live-to-air news and current affairs program in their stable. A great deal of work went into the set design and mapping the camera moves, particularly at the head of the program, taking Barrie to the screen and later to the couches. These moves look simple to audiences, but they have to be pulled off perfectly every week, and the crews did very well. I remember the ‘buzz’ in the control room, and Kate’s calm, authoritative demeanour.”

We all look forward to at least another 18 years of Insiders. It shouldn’t take another 10-hour lunch-dinner to mull that decision, but I’m always up for the challenge.

*Jeremy Custance would go on to an international career as producer with Al Jazeera and then a media executive in Asia while Kate Torney, of course, would succeed John Cameron as News Director.