By PISAI GUMAR
THE PNG Defence Force Engineer Battalion sappers strive each year to be a step ahead in civic activities for nation building.
The Engineer Battalion, as it is called today, was born as the assault pioneer platoon in the Pacific Islands Regiment of independent construction troops.
The first civic action project was in Green River, West Sepik where they construct an airfield and a road from Green River to Amanab, in 1975.
On Wednesday, Sept 1, 1976, the construction troops proved their worth in completing the projects ahead of schedule despite difficult conditions and record rainfall.
From 1976-1991, the PNGDF Engineer Battalion was based at Murray Barracks, Port Moresby.
Under the re-structure of the PNGDF, Murray Barracks headquarters directed the engineer battalion to relocate to Igam Barracks, Lae, in 1991 while the Air Transport Squadron based at Igam was relocated back to Murray Barracks and later to Kiki Barracks.
The Engineer Battalion comprises of four units which include Battalion Headquarter (administration), Alpha Company (vertical construction involving tradesmen like electricians, plumbers, carpenters, welders), Bravo Company (field combat engineers) and Support Company (horizontal construction-plant operators, drivers, light vehicle mechanics and heavy equipment fitters-mechanics).
Within 42 years, the army engineers completed more than 1,000 small to medium significant projects. These projects have varied in complexity, especially in technical engineering.
The civic action projects technically presented a multitude of challenges to the Sappers of the engineer battalion.
PNGDF Engineer Battalion has been actively involved in various operations, national and international events including the Pacific Games in 1991 and 2015; United Nations Peacekeeping Operations in Darfur, Sudan, national elections, natural disasters and assisting the Department of Works with road projects under Covec (PNG) Ltd.
One of their major impact projects is the highway from Baiyer in Western Highlands to Madang.
It is one such civic activity with a varying magnitude of challenges the engineer battalion is currently pursuing.
Incumbent Engineer Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Bruno Malau is making sure that the army engineers continue with the construction of the 255km alternative highlands highway from Baiyer to Madang.
The Baiyer-Madang highway via Simbai, Aiome and Transgogol is one of the vital missing links in country since it was launched in 2009 when the late Lt Col Mark Keru was the Engineer Battalion commander.
This reporter was privileged to have accompanied late Keru and Malau at the time to Simonga on the border region of Western Highlands, Enga, Madang and East Sepik, to cover the launching in 2009.
So far, the army engineers have constructed a 49 km pilot track road network from Baiyer River Bridge in Mul-Baiyer electorate to the Jimi River Bridge.
From the Madang side, 43km have been completed from Kakal in the Transgogol area to the Ramu River Bridge.
Malau said these sections of the road and the construction of the Jimi and Ramu River bridges would be handed over to Department of Works to be contracted out to qualified national and international civilian contractors.
Malau said that from the 255km total road alignment of the alternative highlands highway, 92km of pilot track road works were completed.
Malau commended the efforts of the late Lt Col Mark Keru, and former Commander Lt Col John Giregire for setting hard yards in commencing and advancing the 255km Baiyer-Madang road project from 2009-2015.
Malau also acknowledged Lt Col Nick Bosio, the current commanding officer of the Australian 6th Engineer Support Regiment based in Brisbane, Australia for designing the original road alignment of the Baiyer-Madang road project.
Bosio was then the Australian Defence Force (ADF) engineer liaison officer to the Engineer Battalion from 2009-2010.
Malau further recognided the undivided commitment of the engineering battalion members that passed on and those who have left the PNGDF for setting the foundations of the Baiyer-Madang road project.
Difficulties in timely procurement for the project arose around mid-2016 when all government trust accounts in the country were restricted and centralised to Department of Finance under the direction of the Secretary.
As a result, from 2016-2018, almost three years on, the last progress of road construction work ground to snail pace due to restrictions on the PNGDF civic action trust account (CAPTF).
Malau said that at the moment, PNGDF headquarters and Department of Defence were in liaison with Department of Finance to operationalise the civic action trust account to execute Phase Two and the deployment of engineering equipment and personnel to Aiome and Simbai in Madang before the end of 2018.
The 92km of new road works is yet to begin from Simbai station to Ramu River Bridge (57 km) and Simbai station to Jimi River Bridge (35 km).
It is one of the high impact projects for the Government under the Vision 2050 and MTDS as an alternate highlands highway route to trigger socio-economic activities in rural communities. It also will reduce travel time between the Highlands and Madang.
The project also challenges PNGDF engineer battalion to prove their capability in civic projects including the need to build their capacity in equipment, knowledge and skills.
One of the major concerns was lack of continuous funding support from National Government and Department of Treasury and Department of Finance to sustain operations and maintain project momentum.
As a result, the soldiers were using a fleet of ailing construction equipment which are unfit to take on the rugged terrain and wetlands with adverse weather conditions.
The army engineers also appreciate their camaraderie with the sister battalion, the 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment (3CER), Royal Australian Engineers (RAE), and part of the 3rd Brigade based in Townsville, Australia.
They have a long relationship that reminisces the formation of the engineer battalion under the command of Australian engineer officers.
The sister units participate in annual bilateral exercises such as Exercise Pukpuk in PNG and the Australian Aboriginal community assistance programme (AACAP) in Australia.
From May-June 2018, the Engineer Battalion deployed 18 soldiers to AACAP in Yalata, an Aboriginal community located about three hours’ drive from Ceduna township in South Australia.
The name Pukpuk means crocodile in Tok Pisin which is the mascot of PNGDF Engineer Battalion.
The name was chosen after the Engineer Detachment looked after a baby crocodile during the first engineer road and airfield construction in Green River, West Sepik in 1976.
The Exercise Pukpuk is a fully-funded by the Australian Defence Force through the Defence Co-operation Programme in up-grading PNGDF infrastructures and services.
Exercise Pukpuk started in 2002 at Igam Barracks in Lae. This year’s Exercise Pukpuk is currently underway in Moem Barracks in Wewak, East Sepik.
Each year on Sept 1, PNGDF Engineer Battalion soldiers gather to celebrate the inception of the battalion.
The gathering is a moment that all engineering soldiers reflect on past challenges, the achievements, the skills and knowledge learned from those challenges.
Over the past 42 years, some members of the battalion have retired while nine have died or were killed in action whilst on operation during the Bougainville Crisis.
The occasion was also to remember those who have passed on during peace time operations, accidents and illnesses and left their beloved families behind.
The battalion celebrated another milestone of 42 years in its short history to remind the new generation of engineers to reflect on and appreciate the invaluable efforts of those who had set the foundations and strived in their endeavours to be a step ahead.
By PISAI GUMAR