- A.N. Other
- History - general, Biographies and personal histories, Naval history
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Tarangau
- June 2013 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Jerry Lattin
A shorter version of this article appeared in Una Voce, the journal of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia, in December 2008.
first visited the RAN’s base in Papua New Guinea in 1956, as a midshipman in the navy’s training ship. I didn’t know it then, but that visit was the start of a long association with the place.
From 1963 to 1965 I was in command of the small naval cargo ship HMAS Banks in PNG waters. Later, in 1970, I had a year commanding the PNG Patrol Boat Squadron in HMAS Aitape (other units in the squadron were HMA Ships Ladava, Lae, Madang and Samarai). Our home port in both cases was the RAN base I’d visited in 1956, at Lombrum, on Los Negros Island in the Manus District. Los Negros is separated from Manus Island by the long, narrow Loniu Passage, and connected to it by a road bridge. The airport, Momote, is also on Los Negros; the district headquarters, Lorengau, is on Manus.
In keeping with naval custom, the Lombrum base carried a ship’s name, HMAS Tarangau – a particularly well-chosen one, given that the great harbour which it fronted had been named Seeadler Hafen (harbour) by the Germans. ‘Seeadler’ is sea-eagle in German; ‘tarangau’ is its pidgin equivalent.
The Admiralty Islands
Manus is the dominant island in the Admiralty Islands. Along with several of the smaller islands it is volcanic in origin, and indeed one of the islands in the group erupted from the sea only in 1957. Other smaller members of the group are flat coral islands, which were planted with coconut trees for copra production during the 30-year period of German administration which ended in 1914. Several of the better plantations remained in production until the late 1970s, when the copra market collapsed.
The Manus district in the 1960s had a population of around 60,000. The three main tribal groups were the north-coast people who also occupied the fringing northern islands; the bush people of the interior, known as the Usiai; and the ‘Manus’ (meaning ‘true’) people of the south coast and off-lying islands. The latter, a people of impressive spirit and social cohesion, were the subject of intensive research by the American anthropologist Margaret Mead from the 1930s onward. They remain fine seafarers, and long before colonial days their big trading canoes were voyaging regularly across 200 nm of open sea to other islands and the New Guinea mainland.
In my time, a prominent and very colourful Manus identity was their first elected MP, Paliau Maloat MBE. Originally from the island of Baluan off the south coast, Paliau had had a difference of opinion with the Catholic Church; he dealt with the contretemps by leaving Catholicism behind him, and forming his own Christian church with himself as head. He had considerable powers of persuasion and leadership, an astute political mind, was not averse to stirring up trouble, and could adapt quickly to changing circumstances.
There was allegedly an incident in the 1950s when a single Australian schoolteacher on one of the isolated southern islands – Paliau country – had his house destroyed by arson. The navy was asked to help convey police to the scene of the crime. Stepping ashore with rifles, the police were met by assembled schoolchildren, singing ‘God Save the Queen’ and casting flowers over them. Paliau readily admitted burning down the teacher’s house. ‘It was a terrible house’, he said. ‘We’re going to build him a much better one’.
The naval base
Manus had been a massive American naval base during WW II, but the tides of war quickly passed it by; it was abandoned after 1945. Australian forces returned to Los Negros in the early 1950s. The naval fuelling facilities were important for ships transiting to and from the Korean war zone and the RAAF refurbished the strip at Momote – still one of the finest in PNG.
Many of the buildings on the base were of wartime-standard prefab construction ‘Quonset’ style, essentially a flat-bottomed horizontal semi-cylinder of curved corrugated iron on a steel frame. For natural light and ventilation, dormer style windows were let into the structure; entry and egress to and from the building were through doors at the ends. The Quonset design was adapted to be a warehouse, workshop, office, galley, mess, dormitory and even married quarter as required. In one inspired case, several Quonsets were positioned to provide the basis for a chapel, in classical cruciform style, with an elegant fabricated spire rising above the centre of the transept, neatly faired in with the complex curves beneath it.
In these strange but practical buildings, slow-turning ceiling fans helped maintain a good cross-flow of ventilation. In an office, a good selection of paper-weights was essential! Geckoes, land crabs, and (predictably) mosquitoes came and went as they pleased. Anti-malarial precautions, including weekly pills and long sleeves after dark, were essential. From the late 1950s onwards, more modern buildings began to replace and supplement the Quonsets, but there were still plenty of the latter surviving until after 1975.
Tarangau was built on one of the German-planted coconut plantations. (‘Lombrum’ was the plantation name: it was a place, but never a town.) Perhaps as many as half the coconut trees survived. The surrounding jungle was kept at bay by hand. From the time of commissioning in 1950, the base employed a ‘grass line’ of perhaps 80 civilian native labourers, whose job it was to keep all growth between the coconut trees trimmed back below knee height. They achieved this by groups of 10 or 20 walking in line abreast, swinging their ‘serifs’: yard-long straight lengths of hoop-iron, wickedly sharpened along one edge, with a crude handle made of insulating tape rolled around one end. It worked; it was manpower-intensive, but manpower was not expensive in PNG.
Skeletons in the closet
There was a melancholy patch in Tarangau‘s early history. Japanese POWs were held there in the early years; some of the lower-risk POWs actually built the church. And in the fullness of time, some serious offenders were executed there by hanging. It is part of the place’s legacy that was rarely mentioned, but always lurked in the minds of those who knew. Locals, true to traditional superstitions, avoid the place where the executions occurred.
One other strange business took place in the early 1950s. It became known as ‘The Daroa Affair’. Over the years, different parts of the story came my way – and a new bit even cropped up again in the last two years. MV Daroa was a small local cargo ship operated by a well-known shipping company. The ship needed a refit; the GM of the company concerned asked a personal connection at Tarangau whether the base could help. Available to Tarangau at the time was a floating dock, excellent workshops, plenty of tradesmen of all shapes and sizes, and adequate stocks of materials. The job was accepted and work began.
Sometime later the shipping company became concerned at the length of the time the refit was taking, and the mounting costs. Instead of complaining to Tarangau, they took their problem direct to Navy Office. A difficulty arose: Navy Office had heard nothing about the refit of MV Daroa. An enquiry was established and sent to Manus Island, under the leadership of then-Captain W.H. Harrington, RAN. Supposedly the enquiry discovered that the Daroa refit had been conducted on a cash basis, with the naval personnel so engaged paid an hourl rate for their services – on top of their naval pay or salary. The base’s Executive Officer accepted an invitation to resign.
The part of the story that emerged recently came when I met for the first time a well-known naval figure who had been both a member of the enquiry and involved in cleaning up the mess afterwards. I asked where I was likely to find the official records of the enquiry. He replied that he was sure nothing would be found anywhere. But the alleged ‘facts’ were more widely-known around PNG than perhaps the RAN realised at the time. My version above makes no claim for authenticity.
Winding down to backwater status
After the Korean armistice, the need for this advanced naval base far from the Australian mainland reduced. Gradually it wound down. When I first arrived at Tarangau in 1963, the Australian component of the base was down to seven officers and about 80 NCOs and sailors. Additional uniformed strength came from about 120 locally-engaged men in the PNG Division of the RAN, supplemented by a civilian labour force of perhaps 300 performing a range of domestic and technical tasks — including the ‘grass line’.
A popular humorous novel published about then was Don’t Go Near the Water by William Brinkley, a story of an American naval base on a remote Pacific Island where they had nothing to do and where nothing ever happened (later it became a successful film with Glenn Ford and Gia Scala). American accents aside, the film mirrored Tarangau almost perfectly. I recall the general horror that greeted the suggestion by some dangerously-progressive officer that the base would be more efficient if we installed a telephone system. ‘What do we need telephones for?’ said the Commander, outraged, ‘I don’t want to be bothered by telephones ringing all the time. If I need to talk to anyone I can do it face to face.’ He could too; anybody more than five minutes away was probably lost in the surrounding jungle.
Lombrum in the early 1960s was a backwater. Social life consisted of seeing the same faces in different houses. Lombrumites even had the same entertainment: at parties, invariably, they played charades; in the mess, every night, it was liar’s dice or pontoon. Once a week there was a movie; the Sydney Sunday papers came on Tuesday or Wednesday. Weekends brought beach picnics in a sea warm as bathwater, but gloriously clear and beautiful. The big excitement was the six-weekly visit by the Burns Philp liner MV Malaita, with stores and fresh food. It really wasn’t tedious and humdrum; it was more comforting routine. Those familiar with PNG outstation life would know what it’s like; to some of them, Lombrum would be like Gay Paree.
Progress marches again
But there was no stopping progress. When I came back to Tarangau for my second spell in 1970 (accompanied initially only by a wife, but later by a daughter as well – a native-born Los Negrossian) telephones were everywhere, even in the houses! Tarangau was booming. The new patrol boat squadron gave the establishment purpose and focus. The navy put considerable effort into recruiting appropriately-qualified locals for the patrol boats and their shore support facilities. Some went to Australia for training. The five patrol boats, in the PNG context, were not seen as weapons of war, but rather as the means of exercising sovereignty over PNG’s exclusive economic zone and its fishing and mineral resources. Self-government and eventual independence were on the agenda.
The base had also rediscovered its strategic significance as a fuelling and logistic base for naval units transiting to and from Vietnam operations, and there were regular operational visits from front-line fleet units – including US Navy ships en route to Australian ports for R & R.
My final year at Tarangau was shore-based, as Executive Officer (second-in- command) of the base. When I left at the end of 1971, Tarangau had the PNG flag flying in company with the Australian flag.
The return to Lombrum
Though I spent several years working in PNG after I left the RAN in 1979, I’ve only been back to Lombrum once. It was in 1978, as part of a tour by one of the Australian Defence Colleges. PNG was independent, and operated a unified defence force run along army lines; Petty Officers had become Sergeants overnight. The Maritime Component of the PNG Defence Force operated the five old Attack-Class patrol boats of the original RAN squadron, and several LCHs gifted by Australia. Lombrum was one of their bases; they also operated from Port Moresby. Presumably under budgetary constraints, Lombrum was slipping back to where it was in the early 1960s. Many of the old wartime Quonset huts still survived as warehouses, workshops, offices and occasionally even as quarters. But the civilian labour force, including the ‘grass line’, was dispensed with, and replaced with – nothing. The jungle was reclaiming its own.
It was sad to look at, particularly when compared with other PNGDF bases at Port Moresby, Lae and Wewak: there, the Land Component of the PNGDF (think: Army) enjoyed modern brick and concrete buildings, surrounded by acres of mechanically-mowed and carefully land-scaped lawns and gardens, and excellent recreational facilities, in a major town.
The military side of Lombrum is probably little changed today from what it was in 1978, apart from the spin-off effects of existing cheek by jowl with a Refugee Centre that opens and closes periodically to reflect Australian Government policy.
The real good-bye to Lombrum – 1971
Let me go back a bit. Just before I had severed my working relationship with Tarangau, way back in 1971, I had paid a Christmas visit to Paliau at Mbunai village on the south coast of Manus. On my part, it was a strictly private visit; I had known Paliau for years. Mbunai residents came home for Christmas from all over PNG. Several days were devoted to eating, worshipping, and playing sport. Church services went on practically around the clock, with Paliau leading all of them in a blue-and-white calico outfit, cape and all, vaguely reminiscent of Superman’s uniform. I was set to leave on Boxing Day morning, but Paliau insisted that I stay to attend ‘the gathering’ that afternoon, which turned out to be a sort of political meeting, with all the speeches coming from Paliau. After one long harangue on the importance of education, self-improvement and develop-ment of village facilities, he sat down and said to me ‘Now you can talk to them.’
I was unprepared for this. ‘What do you want me to say?’ I asked. ‘Tell them about the navy,’ he said, ‘you must tell them the navy will never leave Manus.’ I was between a rock and a hard place. If I declined, I was effectively saying that the navy would be leaving one day. On the other hand, if I complied, my words could come back to haunt me. Even then, I doubted that the navy had any position on how long it would remain in Manus; defence planning adapts to changing needs, and changes often to reflect circumstances. And in a very short time it would be a PNG decision, not an Australian one anyway. But I thought what the hell, there are no media here, my boss won’t hear about it, and I’ll be gone in a few days. So I told them what Paliau wanted to hear. No doubt he took the credit.
More than 40 years later, I’m relieved to say, the RAN’s successor at Lombrum, the PNG Defence Force (Maritime), is still there. History hasn’t made a liar of me – yet. Lombrum lives on.