Reminiscences of rough times: May River and the Mianmin

IN AUGUST 1956, THE PEOPLE FROM MAY RIVER, a right-bank tributary of the mighty Sepik River, invited their upstream neighbours, from the Yellow River to a feast. They neglected to tell their guests that they were to be the main item on the menu and, on a Sepik River sandbank, they slaughtered at least 29 Yellow River people and cooked and ate them. Patrol Officer George Oakes, 22 was based at Lumi where, in his second year of service, he had been thrown in the deep end, including solo patrols into the Yellow River area.

Oakes,  born in  New  Britain in  1934,  had,  along with his mother and younger brother,  been evacuated to Sydney on the Macdhui in July 1941. His father, the Rev Dan Oakes, died on the Japanese prison ship Montevideo Maru when it was torpedoed in July 1942. Oakes returned to PNG as a Cadet Patrol Officer in January 1954 and was first assigned to Mendi. Two years later, he was posted to Lumi.

He later wrote: About the beginning of August 1956 some bodies were found floating in the Sepik River with parts … cut out. They were identified by their tattoos as coming from a long way up the Sepik River. … About the same time, Kit Kitson, a recruiter… returned to Lumi with the story that some Yellow River people had been killed and eaten by May River people. Under the headline ‘Head-hunters kill 28 in New Guinea massacre’, the Sydney Morning Herald of 22 August 1956 reported: One native, with a gaping wound in the forearm staggered into Lumi … He told the Lumi District Officer that the victims were members of a fishing party. … The witnesses who brought the story back to Lumi carried bundles of sweet corn to indicate the numbers of men and women who had died.

Then came another shocking headline in an Australian newspaper, ‘N. Guinea Woman sentenced’: An Administration post-office employee, Patricia Robertson, was sentenced today to three months’ imprisonment … charged with having disclosed the contents of an official radiogram … [she] had sent the Sun a message about the murder of 28 natives in the Lumi area.

It was a bizarre event, a white woman, a teletype operator employed by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, had been sent to gaol, and the town of Port Moresby was horrified. Robertson was sentenced on   Friday   31   August and,   because the gaol had no suitable accommodation, spent the weekend in the gaoler’s residence with Inspector George Gough and his wife while “works department carpenters worked around the clock … erecting accommodation … at Bomana Gaol” near Port Moresby.

Meanwhile George Oakes was recalled from a patrol west of Lumi to accompany Assistant District Officer Frank Jones to the Sepik River, which they reached on 28 August 1956. There they waited for ADO Mert Brightwell to arrive, by boat from Ambunti so they could travel to the crime scene of the mass slaughter. Jones,  in  charge  of  the  Lumi  Sub-district,  during  his  previous  term  as  ADO  Telefomin,  had crisscrossed the ranges and valleys in pursuit of the murderers of patrol officers Harris and Szarka and policemen Buritori and Purari, after another notorious incident.

Jones was to lead a dawn raid to capture the last of ringleaders in 1954. Following long leave and marriage, he took over Lumi at the end of January 1956. Mert Brightwell became a Cadet Patrol Officer in June 1947 following war service as a RAAF Wireless Operator/Air Gunner. Posted to Ambunti, in 1954, when it was still a Patrol Post in the Angoram Sub-district, he spent months escorting an oil-search expedition to the Sepik headwaters, before assuming control of the newly created Ambunti Sub-district, in June 1956. He had wide shoulders,  a  barrel chest and no neck  –  attributes he credited to his long line of furniture-removalist forebears. But, despite his stature, Mert was light on his feet and the life of the party when he would sashay from behind a screen, a straw boater in one hand, cane in the other, tap-dancing through his own sung-rendition of Father In His Life Was Ne’er A Quitter.

Far away in Port Moresby, a bizarre event was in train. Young Patrol Officer Tony Redwood “was called to headquarters at Konedobu, told [he] had been selected to lead the May River patrol [and] was sent to Police headquarters to select 12 native police from anywhere in the Territory, the best [he] could identify.” It was bizarre because, less than three years earlier, in November 1953, the Department had been publicly  criticized  when  junior  patrol  staff  Harris  and  Szarka  and  two  police  constables  were butchered near Telefomin. This led to a headquarters edict, in force in 1956 and for many years after, that Telefomin patrols must comprise at least two officers, one “an experienced Patrol Officer, Assistant District Officer, or District Officer.” The May River headwaters were in the Telefomin sub-district.

Redwood had just commenced his second term, was posted to the District Office in Port Moresby and was located more than 1,200 travel kilometres from May River. He had no river experience, and he no special attributes other than youthful exuberance. By contrast, there were ten seasoned patrol officers and two others of Redwood’s vintage readily available in the Sepik District. One of the latter, Oakes, had just completed a 44-day patrol of the Yellow River, and knew the area. The instruction “to select 12 native police from anywhere in the Territory, the best [he] could identify” – at Police headquarters – was also bizarre. Redwood could only have undertaken a cursory search of some of the 3,500 members’ files – a random paper exercise. But he was lucky; one of the constables selected proved to be outstanding.

AmbuntiRedwood related that “several days later [he] was on the plane to Wewak, where [he] spent a week organizing supplies and assembling [his] police group as they arrived from all over.… flew into Ambunti … and left there several days later in the workboat for the three-day trip up the Sepik to the May River.” George  Oakes tells us that  Redwood’s patrol took  93  days.  My own records show  that he established May River Post on 1 November 56, and left it on 18 January 1957, when he contracted hepatitis.

Redwood recalls that it took [him] about a month to capture the culprits (about 42 he recalled). In fact, 40 men from the May River were sentenced on 11 February 1957 and went to prison for long terms. The Yellow River people were spoiling for revenge, the mountain-dwelling Mianmin were poised to  strike,  the  May  River  community had  been  left  defenceless;  May  River  Patrol  Post  had  to become permanent. By March 1957, Brightwell was about to go on leave, and I had just arrived at Ambunti. Peter O’Sullivan, in Wewak, had drawn the short straw and was posted to May River. Brightwell’s plan was simple. We would take O’Sullivan to May River, and, at the same time, re- supply the post. We would then head upstream, visit Green River Patrol Post, and turn around at the Dutch border – 1,000 km from the mouth of the Sepik. Brightwell would then go on leave. ML Mala Anything that could not get wet had to go inside the cabin; bags of rice, sugar, salt and wheatmeal – tea, ships biscuits, twist tobacco. And on either side of the stern, a 44-gallon drum – one benzene, the other kerosene. The overflow, cargo that could withstand rain, and police, a medical orderly, some wives, went into the 50-foot (plus) canoe strapped to the starboard side. We slept on board, on canvas bed sleeves stretched over the cargo. We were into bed before dusk, before the mosquitoes, and we stayed under the net till morning. Then, with still no room in the cabin, it was up to chairs on the wheelhouse roof, and breakfast ‘cooked’ on a single-burner brass primus.

There were no home comforts on the workboat. The river was churning mud and we floated on it, we drank it and we washed with it. A canvas flap at the stern gave some privacy for the morning shower – a bucket, tossed into the river, filled with water and retrieved with a rope. The ‘hangout’ seatless toilet: a thick rope with numerous large knots and tied to a cleat. Redwood described May River as a “desolate place … [the] base camp on the highest ground in the area, on the river bank. The rest was swamp, all movement was by canoe, and all villages had elevated houses.” And the operation: “Hard slogging. Early morning raids to trap them in the men’s house, pursuits for hours through the swamp, and the like. Millions of mosquitoes, and croc ridden. My nearest colleague, Max Allwood at Green River.” Redwood did not use enough words – it was much worse than he described. He had only had four months to get to May River and build a base at the end of a shaky supply line – three and a half day’s travel by workboat from Ambunti. At the same time, he had to establish the detail of murders, victims and culprits, and then thrash through the swamps to catch the murderers.

Not surprisingly, May River was not much of a station. The bush material houses, hemmed in by jungle, perched above a tepid stream and a muddy bank. The atmosphere was hot, humid and dank. The myriads of daylight mosquitoes seemed to have teeth. At dusk, they seemed a different breed: they were stingers. Compared to May River, the dreaded patrol post at Green River was a tourist resort with a weekly aircraft,  regular  mail,  groceries  –  even  frozen  meat  and  fresh  bread.  There  was  a  permanent material house, tank water and solid ground to walk on.

A few months later I was asked to deliver an urgent letter upriver to Peter O’Sullivan. Another upset. It was a ‘Dear John’ letter from his friend Sue Rowlison, soon to become Sue Becker, later Australian TV fitness guru and host of the BBC program Boomph with Becker. Redwood  was  back  in  the  limelight  in  May  1957  when  a  question  was  put  in  the  Australia Parliament:

Will the Minister confirm or deny reports that 24 New Guinea natives who were sentenced to death by the Supreme Court at Wewak yesterday were defended by a patrol officer who had participated in the apprehension of the accused? Are patrol officers generally regarded as legally qualified and as being sufficiently competent to defend persons accused of murder and was the defence counsel in this case so qualified to appear for 25 natives on a murder charge?

The Administrator telexed his advice to the Minister:

Accused defended by Patrol Officer Redwood who did not participate in any way in apprehension … Patrol officers are not legally qualified legal practitioners but undergo legal training and have considerable experience in presiding over legal proceedings as magistrates. The Minister had a final waspish word, however, noting on the file:

I think the Administrator’s action in leaving the defence of the accused in the hands of a 22-year old officer with three years of experience is indefensible … in future more senior and more qualified experienced officers and, in major cases, qualified counsel should be engaged for the defence. Redwood’s clients, the Mianmins, were the graziers and their neighbours were the herd, which the Mianmins periodically culled, slaughtered and ate – saving only the comely females for breeding stock. Their foray into the Atbalmin in December 1956, when they killed and ate 17 men women and children and abducted two females, provoked a strong patrol.

ADO Ron Neville, Patrol Officers Geoff Booth and Paul Conroy, Medical Assistant Allan Kelly and 34 police undertook an operation in January and February 1957 during which the patrol was twice attacked, a police constable wounded, two Mianmin shot and 27 taken into custody. ADO Len Aisbett and CPO Jim Fenton established the link between Telefomin and the May River Post in July-August 1958 – a 40-day patrol that worked its way through the Mianmin in the May River headwaters then travelled for three and half days in no-man’s-land before meeting up with PO John Cochrane and his powered canoes some 50 km upstream from May River Patrol Post. Mianmin peopleThe Mianmin – garbed only in narrow cane waist bands, 15 centimetre working- dress phallocrypts, testicles in the breeze – considered the May River people to be under-clad “bush kanakas” – their attire being a small marine shell perched snail-like on the end of the penis.

Some six months after Aisbett’s patrol had passed through, a group of Mianmins made the next foray, selecting “the small settlement of Suwana in the Abaru group near May River Patrol Post.” It took the raiding party the best part of five days, trekking, then drifting down the river on rafts and then trekking again to reach their objective. The Miamin surrounded the village at dawn, killed three men and one woman, cut up the bodies and set off for home with seven female captives and the butchered bodies – leaving only the heads and entrails behind. One of those women had difficulty keeping up so she was killed and parts of her body taken to be eaten. Another of the abducted women subsequently escaped and reported to May River Patrol Post.

We  sent  a  small  expert  team  from  Telefomin  to  Ambunti  by  air:  Patrol  Officer  Jim  Fenton, Interpreter Suni and Constable Kusinok (a Telefomin). Their brief was to proceed to May River post and assist the OIC, Jack Mater, in the investigation and pursuit of the Mianmin raiding party. Hopefully,  that  would  save  many  days  of  slogging  through  the  Telefomin  ranges,  give  the Mianmins a lesson about the government’s reach and accord with the headquarters edict of patrols by two officers.Using outboard motor powered canoes, Mater led the patrol to the headwaters of the May River, and then they took to the hills. In all, it only took 14 days to reach the Mianmin settlement and surround it. At dawn, they apprehended the 15 Usage men involved in the massacre, including the men who did the killings. The operation went without incident and, thanks to their A510 portable receivers, District Officer Des Clancy in Wewak and me in Telefomin kept in daily radio contact with Mater and Fenton.

Mater later paid tribute to Senior Constable Augwi’s role in the operation, saying he was “the most outstanding NCO I have seen … largely responsible for the successful arrests of nine of the 15 prisoners.” He may not have known that Augwi was also very well travelled, having visited London as part of the RP&NGC 1953 Coronation contingent. Augwi had sailed to England via Sydney in April 1953, returning by air to Sydney from London in June, and travelling back to Port Moresby by the MV Shansi. Interpreter  Suni  MBE  LSM,  originally  from  Olsobip  but  adopted  by  an  Eliptamin,  missed accompanying only one Administration patrol to the Mianmin: Jim Taylor’s in December 1939. Instead, as a youthful camp follower, he had accompanied John Black from Telefomin to Wabag.

Suni did not see Telefomin again until a brief wartime stint when he and Mick Leahy were part of the US team that was dropped in by gliders. He next visited Telefomin, by a special Qantas flight from  Goroka  in  December  1948  to  join  Des  Clifton-Bassett  at  the  newly  opened  government station. That assignment, supposed to last for six months, continued for more than 30 years. Suni was to visit the Mianmin on many occasions, including with the first ever patrol to focus on the Mianmin led by Harry West in May 1950.

Nautical footnote: In October 1964, Captain Wally Blumenfeld RAE (32 Small Ship Squadron) took the AV1354 Brudenell White – an ex-World War II US LSM – up the Sepik River to the May River junction – a distance he calculated to be 595 km. The vessel was 62 metres long, with a beam of 10.4 metres, and no other ship of that size had ever reached so far up this river. Blumenfeld recorded that the deepest water under the keel was 30 fathoms (55 metres) when the vessel was passing through the “Yambon gate”, 11 km upstream from Ambunti, where there was a 5 to 6 knot current. Overall the current varied between 1 and 6 knots and was 2.47 knots at the May River Junction.

A Tony Redwood footnote While I was the Patrol Officer at Kainantu in the Eastern Highlands (Harry West was Assistant District Officer), the Police Sergeant Major, a veteran of the 1936 Hagen-Sepik patrol, reported a rumour that the station carpenter, from the Mekeo, had a revolver in his house. While I was the Patrol Officer at Kainantu in the Eastern Highlands (Harry West was Assistant District Officer), the Police Sergeant Major, a veteran of the 1936 Hagen-Sepik patrol, reported a rumour that the station carpenter, from the Mekeo, had a revolver in his house. At my behest,  the brand new  Cadet  Patrol  Officer  Tony  Redwood and the  Sergeant  Major investigated. The carpenter did not have one revolver, he had two, and, as the officers arrived, he stormed from his house waving the weapons. Redwood took off. Almost six feet tall, with some puppy fat, he was a large, fast-moving target, but he could not outrun the fusillade. Fortunately, the carpenter’s Wild West gunslinger style sent the bullets in all directions and Redwood survived to later participate in the May River expedition.


This  memoir  is  drawn  in  part  from  May  River  Cannibals  by  George  Oates  (Una  Voce  No  3 September 2009) which describes the prelude to the establishment of the May River Patrol Post. Oakes put that story together from his patrol reports, his memory, and from an email he received from Tony Redwood. I have also drawn on Jim Fenton’s records and communications (including his copy of Ambunti Patrol Report 13 of 1959-60), on my own records and on other archives. W T (Bill) Brown MBE is a former District Commissioner with the Administration of Papua New Guinea. He now lives in Sydney

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