A Snapshot of the Life of a National Serviceman in Pre-independence PNG

by Ted Middleton

I was in my third year of training as a Telecommunications Technician when I learnt that I had won the National Service lottery. Like most young men who were conscripted and were still studying, I deferred until I had completed my training. I remember my medical examination clearly, as my youngest brother managed the examining doctor’s farm, and I knew the doctor well. Part way through the examination he asked me, “Do you want to go”. I replied that I was quite ambivalent, and that I should be no different to any other 20 year old who had been conscripted. If I was fit I should go. The doctor then proceeded to write across the medical examination form, “I know the registrant personally, and know him to be physically and mentally fit”. I don’t regret making that decision, although I have to admit that there were periods during recruit training when I would have loved to have been somewhere else; almost anywhere else would have done.

I have clear recollections of my first day. The 29th January 1969; being mustered on the lawn outside Karrakatta Barracks, (all expecting that we were destined for Vietnam) and then shepherded into the mess for what was going to be our last meal until lunch the following day. As I approached the area where the meal was served, I recognized one of the soldiers who was behind the servery. It was Peter Fontanini, we had played basketball together. Peter was awaiting discharge following a tour of duty in Vietnam as a tunnel rat. He simply looked me straight in the eye and said, “You’ll be sorry”. Today I often think about just how much an easier two years I had, than did Peter and thousands of other young Australian males. It’s something that I often reflect on.

Following corps training I was posted to 2 Sig Regt. a reinforcement holding unit at Watsonia (now Simpson) Barracks where I was in Tech maintenance troop. It was early April 1970 that I was advised of my posting to 800 Signals Squadron at Murray Barracks, TPNG.
Like all servicemen arriving in pre-independence PNG I was in for a few surprises. The first being the oppressive heat and humidity experienced when you stepped from the aircraft onto the tarmac at Port Moresby. If you were ranked corporal or lower then the next surprise would most likely be your initial, but thankfully temporary, accommodation.

While you waited for a room in the main dormitory to become available, your accommodation was a cement brick room with a single window fitted with a fly screen and no glass, and a non lockable fly screen door. Such was my lot. However after a few weeks I was moved to the main dormitory situated about one minute’s walk from the mess, the swimming pool and the canteen. Generally amenities at Murray Barracks were good, and life there quite acceptable.

Murray Barracks seen from TX Hill in 1970
Murray Barracks seen from TX Hill in 1970

The next surprise came on the first morning parade where anti-malarial medication was issued, and orders were given in New Guinea Pidgin. This could, and sometimes did result in new arrivals having to front the CO in his office to explain why they hadn’t followed orders that they simply had not understood.

However the army environment in TPNG was a pleasant one, and for a “tech elec” (electronics technician) such as myself, the day to day work wasn’t that far removed from a civilian job. The communications equipment was state of the art, and the test equipment first class.

Transmitter hall and radio workshop
Transmitter hall and radio workshop

My primary role was in the radio workshop. As the radio workshop was a one man job, I guess I pretty much was the radio workshop, answerable only to a sergeant; Sergeant Preddis. Being the junior “tech elec”, any call outs, irrespective of time of day or night, found their way down the chain of command to me. The equipment that I worked on was similar to that which I had worked on in Australia. Mainly AN/PRC 47 and AN/GR 106 radio transceivers and modems.

Map reading exercise in the hostile environment of the local golf course
Map reading exercise in the hostile environment of the local golf course

There were occasional escapes from the confines of the workshop when I was on night shift on the E513 transmitters that transmitted to Lae, Wewak and Melbourne. During those nights on shift I often helped trainee technicians with their English, while they helped me out with my Pidgin. There were of course the standard army activities such as fortnightly CO’s parades, dormitory and workplace inspections, morning parades, roll call, range shoots and map reading exercises.

There were periodic patrols that broke up the tedium of the day to day work. These added a welcome variety, and certainly broadened a young soldier’s experience. Patrols included annual events such as the Kokoda Track Patrol, which involved personnel from Signals, RAE and 1 PIR.

In August of 1970 the Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton visited TPNG. A patrol party from 800 Sigs Squadron was given the task of establishing and maintaining a communications centre at Mt. Hagen during the period of the PM’s visit. The purpose of the communications centre was to maintain 24 hour a day RTT and voice radio links from Mt. Hagen to Murray Barracks. My role was to set up and maintain the communications centre.

Comms centre Mt Hagen
Communications Centre, Mt Hagen 1970
Patrol party My Hagen
The rest of the comms party

The party included three Pacific Islanders. Sgt. Maurice Heleco (radio operator), Sig. James Wape (radio operator) and Cpl Tom Drakali (teleprinter mechanic).
The Australians were 2nd Lt. Bruce Atherton (CO), Sgt. Paddy Dyas (radio operator) and Cpl Ted Middleton (tech elec).

1970 was also a period of civil unrest on the Island of New Britain, and by July of that year there was rioting with a number of deaths including one Australian. A patrol from 800 Sig Squadron was sent to Rabaul to establish communications and to monitor a range of radio frequencies to determine the most useable frequencies that could be used should the unrest escalate.


As this patrol was going to use secure communications; that is, all RTT (radio teletype) traffic would be encrytped, a portable cypher unit was required. This also meant that I had to do yet another set of PPF’s (personal particular forms) to determine if I was going to be given the appropriate security clearance. In Signals, filling out PPF’s appeared to be a frequent occurrence; probably because of periodic access to sensitive information and equipment. The inclusion of a cypher unit also required that the patrol have at least one weapon. In this case a revolver, which as I recall was kept in a metal locker that was located behind a thatched screen. The cypher unit itself was covered with a grey woollen blanket. The presence of the cypher unit meant that no photos were permitted to be taken inside the communications centre.

Throughout the patrol we were in civvies, and instructed to keep dog tags out of sight as it was believed that known presence of Australian soldiers would be inflammatory. We were met at the airstrip by police in two paddy wagons. Our equipment was loaded into one of the paddy wagons, and we were transported to the Police Barracks in the back of the other. We lived in the police barracks for the duration of the patrol.

When not on duty we were free to be tourists, and visited places of interest such as the markets, the Rabaul war cemetery, and the Japanese WW11 tunnels.

The unrest continued, and about a year later resulted in the death of District Commissioner for the East New Britain District of Papua New Guinea, Errol John Emmanuel, who was murdered while in the course of his duty. Errol John Emmanuel was posthumously awarded the George Cross. His citation appears as an addendum at the end of this article.

Jim Kemani Medic
Jim Kemani Medic
Cpl Middleton and radio
Cpl Middleton and radio

Civic action patrols were also an annual event. These patrols were manned primarily by sappers, but also included a medic, a sig, and in the case of the Lake Kopiago patrol, a Chalkie. I’m not sure, but maybe there was a Chalkie on all CA patrols. I was the sig included in the Patrol at Lake Kopiago in November 1970. The sappers built a school, a hospital, a bridge over the Lagiap River and with the help of a work party of local villagers organized by the Kiap (patrol officer), lengthened the airstrip.

My role, apart from establishing and maintaining communications was that of a “Mr. Fixit”, for any item that the local villagers brought in for repair. The most common items to be brought in for repair were radios, but also included pressure lamps, broken pocket knives and other sundry items.

Many of the radios were brought back to life by using CRC to deal with corrosion, and fly spray to eliminate cockroaches. Forty-three years later I can still remember that the record for cockroaches in any one radio was twenty-three. Many radios of course required more technical attention with spare parts being flown in from Murray Barracks.

Iroquois transported materials to bridge building site
Iroquois transported materials to bridge building site

One observation from the Lake Kopiago patrol that is still vivid in my memory, is that of the Kiap’s (Patrol Officer’s) gun rack, or possibly better described as arsenal. I recall one or two carbines, probably ·308, a Lee Enfield ·303, an SLR, an Owen machine carbine, semi automatic 12G shotgun, a Bren gun, a grenade launcher and a 50mm mortar. This struck me as being somewhat remarkable. The Kiap certainly had the wherewithal, if required, to enforce the peace.

There is no doubt that my seven months in TPNG was by far the most enjoyable period of my National Service. So much so that I gave serious thought to signing on. The only thing that prevented me from doing so was that I would not be allowed to return to Australia for leave until the additional two years of service had elapsed. That would have meant more than two and a half years without visiting home. If I could have gone back home for leave I would have definitely signed on. I often wonder what different course my life would have taken, had I done so. I have only one regret from my time in TPNG, that I did not do the Kokoda Track patrol.


Citation: Errol John EMMANUEL, formerly District Commissioner for the East New Britain District of Papua New Guinea.

Errol John Emmanuel was posted to Rabaul, East New Britain in July 1969, on special duties with the objective of bringing understanding and peace to deeply hostile indigenous groups, and restoring in the Gazelle Peninsula a system of local government. He was appointed District Commissioner for the East New Britain District in March 1971, continuing to give priority to the special task that he had undertaken since July 1969.

Over a period of two years Mr Emmanuel was engaged in the dangerous and difficult task of influencing more than 70,000 Tolai people to discuss their problems in a peaceful and tolerant atmosphere. To this end he visited villages constantly at night, in the early morning and almost always alone, to talk to leaders of all factions in order to gain their confidence and trust. He continued to make these visits undeterred by specific threats against his life.

On a number of occasions involving public confrontations and imminent violence between police parties and large groups of people, Mr Emmanuel deliberately left the cover of police protection, and without regard for his own safety, moved among dissidents in order to pacify them. He knew that he was risking his life every time he went alone into crowds such as these but he never wavered from his task, choosing to expose himself to danger rather than risk the lives of his fellow officers and the police.

On 19 August 1971, at a plantation on the Gazelle Peninsula, Mr Emmanuel again undertook the role of peaceful negotiator during a confrontation with a group of hostile people. Despite recent threats to his life and the fact that some of the Tolai people were in war paint, he left the protection of the police at the invitation of one of the group of dissidents, and went alone down a bush track to negotiate quietly and peacefully in an endeavour to quell the disturbance and prevent bloodshed. He was then mortally struck down.

Mr Emmanuel’s continued acts of the most conspicuous courage over a long period of time in circumstances of extreme danger, and in complete disregard of threats against his life, were in the highest tradition of bravery and sacrifice carried out beyond the call of duty. (London Gazette: 1 February 1972.)

This award was the second post war George Cross given to a civilian in the then Australian Territory of Papua and New Guinea.

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  1. Congratulations on this great article. You have been able to to put in words what I could not, it appears you may have been my successor at 800 Sig Sqn as I arrived in Morseby in 1968 and ended up over several postings and detachments serving 4 years as Workshop Technician, Transmitter station Supervisor, Receiver Station Tech (At Taurama) and of course as there was a shortage of staff the occasional stint as Cypher Tech in the Vault.. The OC at the time was Major Gibson a kindly “Ole Man” waiting for retirement.
    I remember well taking my daily pill. No shorts or short sleeves at night, theRSL, 6 cans of Coopers Draught before dinner. Those miserable concrete blocks, Wash Iron Boys ( I endured those blocks for 3 of my 4 tears (years).
    Playing One Day Cricket with the Cane Toads we paid the Boys 50 cents a Drum to collect.
    I landed there as a Raw ECN 405 Tech Elec but as I was Australian and a Regular I was promoted Corporal later to make Sargent. The Nashoes only got one hook.
    You have woken up memories of some of my best years Thank You.

    Best of Luck and Kind Regards
    David (Retired)

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