Frank Cordingley’s experience in PNG Jun 67 – Nov 68
I was in the 5th national service intake in February 1967, having turned 20 the previous October. I had been teaching junior maths and science for one year at Clermont Secondary. Another first year teacher at Clermont was also called up. His name was Neil Weekes who became an officer, won the MC in the Battle of Coral and I believe finally retired from the army as a Brigadier. After 10 weeks recruit training at Singleton, I began my Medical Corps training at Healesville near Melbourne. That was fun living in tents in winter having to fold up the tent flaps each morning after cracking the ice off the canvas. This was my first experience with PNG soldiers as there were a number doing the same course. I vividly remember them on parade only in their jungle greens shivering violently as they had left any winter gear at home as they did not understand what they were for.
It was only about 5 weeks into corps training that I, along with quite a few others, were summoned to Watsonia Barracks in Melbourne for an interview to transfer to the Education Corps. I waited all day while everyone else had their interview. I remember being called in about 5pm to a room where there were 4 men in civilian clothes who asked me one question – ‘How would I feel if I had to sleep in barracks full on native soldiers?’ I remember saying I couldn’t see a problem and that was it. To my surprise, I was the only one chosen. What surprised me most was that I was an 8 stone whipstick with only partial first year university studies and not a great athlete whereas others had
degrees and were great footballers etc.
I was transferred to Melbourne, told it would be a week before the paperwork was finished so I went home to the Gold Coast for that week. I asked if I could get the plane from Brisbane but had to fly back to Melbourne before going to Port Moresby – typical army.
I flew over Brisbane the same day (14th June 1967) the 6th battalion (Battle of Long Tan fame) arrived home in Brisbane on HMAS Sydney (my cousin who was in the 1st national service intake and in D Company fortunately survived the battle and the rest of the family were gathering in Brisbane to welcome him home). I remember walking out of the plane at Jackson Field and being hit by the heat having come from a Melbourne winter.
Fortunately Army Movements met every plane from Australia as no one was expecting me. I was the first of 4 new sergeants – (Myself (Gold Coast), Peter Darmody (Goulburn), Brian Davies (Melbourne) and Ken Morcom (Adelaide) – sent to Murray Barracks who reinforced the ones already there who went home in November 1967. I don’t remember how many were in the original group but two of the originals were Neil Gibson and Mick Turnbull – I think both from NSW. At the time, our teaching facilities were in LEP (locally enlisted personnel) huts – we had 2 or 3 of these in which to teach. It was some months later that we moved into the new purpose built 2 storey training centre. I remember sitting in the doorway of the LEP that first afternoon facing the western sun and it took just minutes before my jungle greens were a ball of sweat – it took some time to acclimatise.
It was just weeks before I was the orderly sergeant for an entire weekend – the scariest prospect for someone who hadn’t even finished corps training. Tasks I found difficult as a new sergeant were drilling soldiers who had been placed on charge (especially while the adjutant was watching), lowering and raising the flag in front of the Brigadier’s house (making sure it wasn’t upside down),and trying to stay awake all night patrolling the barracks given that major roads cut through the centre of the barracks.
It also wasn’t long before I went on the first of many flights around the territory. These were organised by WO2 Dan Winkel (a regular Education Corps soldier). These trips included the Mt Hagen Show (possibly the greatest experience I had in PNG), Popondetta, Tapini hill station and weekends to Rabaul and Goroka.
We would usually hire a DC3 and then on-sell the tickets to whoever wanted to come – I don’t think there was ever a spare seat. The trip to Tapini had to be in a small high winged plane as the airport was on the side of a mountain with a massive drop to the river below. These trips were the highlight of my time in PNG. I did miss one trip – to the Trobriand Islands. I had bought a 50cc Honda motor cycle the previous week and was returning to the barracks when I fell off going up the hill from Port Moresby to Boroko. (I had never ridden a bike before and didn’t know how to go round a corner). I ended up in the hospital at Taurama Barracks totally concussed and don’t remember anything till the next day.
I am not sure whether it was three or all four of us new sergeants who had bought the Hondas and we spent many weekends going in all directions to the ends of the all the roads leading out of Port Moresby.
Our official duties as teachers were not onerous. We would have a block of soldiers for 6 weeks with each week broken into 45 periods. I think my workload was to teach only 6 to 10 of those periods per week. Probably the funniest experience was to march the soldiers along the public road to and from their barracks (My marching instructions were quite poor). We would then have a week off before the next block. During that week our captain would organise something for us. One trip was to walk a short distance down the Kakoda Trail while another was a fishing trip in a landing craft out to the reef off Port Moresby. One official trip was in a Caribou along the north coast of New Guinea to Wewak, overnight in Vanimo (an army outpost on the north coast near the Indonesian border) then to Green River in the highlands also near the Indonesian border before returning to Port Moresby.
One issue that disturbed me greatly was the fines imposed on the PNG soldiers for minor misdemeanours such as twisted bootlaces. The fines were those imposed on Australian soldiers even though the PNG soldier received only a fraction of that pay. This meant a silly fine might take almost a week’s wages and they were still expected to feed their families. In the end, I was asked to draw up the schedule of fines based on their wages. I don’t remember if this had any effect.
One of the privileges of being in PNG as a sergeant was we shared a ‘wash iron boy’ to wash and starch our uniforms. I remember talking to him about PNG independence. He pointed out one of the European houses on the hills overlooking the barracks saying that house would be his after independence. That also included the white woman in the house. Fortunately, events after independence did not descend to that sort of chaos.
Because of my light workload, during 1968, I studied Applied Math 1 externally from the University of Queensland to finish my first year studies. This was helpful in that I took advantage of the post national service scholarship and then a subsequent Commonwealth scholarship to finish my Science degree and also to point me on my new path to becoming a computer programmer.
Because I took no leave during my time in PNG, I left Port Moresby in late November 1968 and was discharged from Enoggera Barracks the following day. I used 1969 to re-acquaint myself with civilian life and taught at Miami State High School before continuing my university studies the following year.
I am still working part time after a very exciting career as a computer professional working for the Department of Air (Airforce) in Canberra for 1 year, 5 years with the Department of Main Roads and finally with Queensland Health from 1977 till now mainly in the Pathology and Forensic laboratories chiefly at Princess Alexandra Hospital, rising to the position of Chief Scientist. That part of my career is another story that is worth telling.
I married in 1976 to Judy and we have a son who is a Mechanical Engineer. We have two grandchildren.