SEPIK CARGO CULT 1971

by Rod Cassidy

Matthias Yaliwan (seated), Cult Leader, 1971

“In the late 60s one Matthias Yaliwan convinced his 60,000 followers that wealth and goods would come to the people if the trigonometric marker on top of Mt. Turu near Yangoru was removed: game would return to the bush and everybody would have money in plenty. To promote the success of the venture, people sat in ‘offices’ passing round pieces of paper, talking gibberish into tin can ‘telephones’; girls shook coins in dishes in money houses to produce increase etc., etc. In mid-1971 the large concrete marker was dug out and passed reverently down the mountain in complete silence and returned to the kiap of Yangoru P.P. The government thought it best to just sit back.”
Paul Dennett.Journalist, photographer and Author.

In the first week of July 1971, Sgt. Ian Taylor and I, Sgt Rod Cassidy, returned to Moem Barracks after having completed a three-month deployment rotation with Delta Company, 2PIR at Vanimo Barracks up on the North-West coast near the Indonesian Border. A few days after our return to Moem, Ian and I were told to report to the office of the OC. Delta Company at 9.am. We duly did so and we were given the following brief. (The story that now unfolds is the best of my recall and I am sorry if some of my details are a little fuzzy after forty or so years!)

Sgt. Rod Cassidy (left) and Sgt. Ian Taylor July 1971

The Major outlined the events that were occurring at Mt Turu. He explained that in 1962 the Americans, in an effort to survey out the partially unmapped New Guinea terrain, set up a survey marker on the top of Mt Turu. Mt Turu is a 1106 metre mountain peak near Wewak and ranks as the 6th highest in the East Sepik. A local self-proclaimed prophet, Yaliwan Mathais, formed a Cult Following around this marker. He asserted that the American surveyors were actually ancestors who wished to show their descendants where to find the secret Cargo. Over a period of years it was alleged that Yaliwan had accumulated over $21,500 Australian Dollars, in donations from his Peli Association cargo cult followers, to prepare for an expedition to retrieve this secret. On the morning of 7Th July 1971, at 7am, after a night of prayer, Yaliwan along with thousands of local villagers, trudged up the mountain and dug up the marker. No cargo was found.

The OC went on to explain that there may be considerable civil unrest in Wewak should the Peli Group decide to march on Wewak and claim the Cargo that lay at the Wewak Port. He then ushered us into an adjacent room to view a training film produced by the British Armed Forces in Northern Ireland and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). This film was about Riot Control and the relationship between the Civil Authority (The Police) and the Military Authority. In brief, should the Police feel that they could no longer control a riot situation, they would formally hand over their Civil Authority to the Military who would then provide protection. The OC handed over a Polaroid black and white camera to me and a portable tape recorder to Ian with two helmets. He explained that our role in all of this would be to record the act of Civil handover both on tape and as a photograph. I was issued with a packet of Polaroid film. The Major demonstrated the process and operation of the new camera to me (photo below) and sent us off to practice with our new equipment. We were instructed to be at the Moem Barracks Football oval at 2pm that afternoon dressed in our jungle greens plus helmet.

Polaroid Demonstration – Taken by the OC


Ian and I arrived at the footy field to find Delta Company already deployed. Alpha platoon had been designated the “rascals” and had been marched to the centre of the oval. Bravo, Charlie and Delta platoons were deployed in a half hexagon format around the goal posts in two rows. At the rear of Charlie platoon stood the OC, the local Chief Constable, the Company Sergeant Major along with Ian and me. The CSM barked the order to “Stand To” and the three platoons dropped to the firing position – the front row lying prone and the second row kneeling. At this point an image flashed through my mind of a painting I had seen of the Zulu uprising and the defence of Rorkes Drift in South Africa, as the only folk left standing under the goal posts were four very white faces.

A starting pistol blank was fired by the CSM as the signal for the operation to commence. Alpha platoon began to move forward with animated hand waving and yells. The handover was made to the Military Authority, duly recorded onto tape and photographed. Now, one of the problems with the Polaroid camera is that once activated the film takes 60 seconds to develop. The camera ejects the film and the satchel containing the exposure is usually waved gently about whilst the operator counts to sixty. So there I was, 56 – 57 – 58 – 59 …. as the backing was peeled off. Alpha company (who had arrived some time ago), along with all the remainder of the Company eagerly awaited the little black and white ‘magic’ photo result. The OC was unimpressed and a hasty discussion with the Alpha Platoon Lieutenant saw them marched off this time to the other end of the oval – double the distance – and the process was again enacted.

The starting pistol fired, Alpha platoon advanced. Now by this time the whole episode had gathered an audience. Several Meris and their children who had been gathering coconuts had now taken up station along the sidelines along with several of the day labour boys who cut the kunai grass. They clearly supported Alpha platoon and assisted with much hand waving and yelling. It was turning into a sing sing. The handover was made, the recording made and the photo taken. …56 – 57 – 58 – 59 … and once again Alpha Platoon gathered around to see the photo peeled off.

Now the CSM made a good suggestion. It appeared that we needed at least 90 seconds to allow for the handover. A volunteer was dispatched and told to walk off for 90 seconds and stop when he heard the shot from the starting pistol. Off he went – again cheered on by the audience – who I am sure to this day had no idea what was going on…. but it looked important. The soldier crossed the oval, passed over the ring road and was well into the coconut plantation when the signal to stop was fired. The OC could make him out clearly with his binoculars, but with the naked eye it was difficult to ascertain whether he was a rioting demonstrator or a peaceful observer. Another discussion and it was decided to go back to the first plan of a 50 metre demarcation. Two photos would be taken – one with my 35MM SLR Pentax and the other with the Polaroid. The remainder of that afternoon and the next day was given to fine tuning the drill.

On the morning of the 9th July, Ian and I were again instructed to go the OC’s office. It appeared that the crisis was over, the Peli Group had dissipated. The Cult money (reportedly mostly coins) meantime had disappeared and the Cult members had resigned themselves to the fact that no Cargo was to be forthcoming. We handed over our helmets, camera and tape recorder and breathed a sigh of relief that the defence of Rorkes Drift would not become a reality.

Sgt Rod Cassidy
Moem Barracks

2 thoughts on “SEPIK CARGO CULT 1971

  1. I was on Moem as a member of the RAE in 1959/60, living in the Sak Sak and Pungle huts we had the locals build to replace our tents, as part of the construction team doing the land clearing and roads for the new PIR Barracks.
    A group of well dressed locals clutching bibles came into the camp and read passages from the bible to us, started taking notes, then started removing articles from the camp (eg; we had three filled sand buckets hanging on a fire stand, so they took down one of them, got on the back of one of our trucks and started to load things on it. A local european visitor happened to be in the camp that day and alerted us to the fact they were cargo cult and believed that what we had was sent by the gods for sharing by all but we had greedily kept it all for ourselves, so they were taking some of it. They took no notice of us telling them to leave the camp empty handed, so we ended up herding them onto trucks at gunpoint with fixed bayonets and taking them to the local Calaboose (gaol) where they were handed over to the civil authorities.

  2. What a range of duties Chalkies were asked to do or almost asked to do! Right at the sharp point sometimes. Great article from the Sepik and a personal example of the Cargo Cult in action with good photos.

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