By Dr KEVIN PAMBA
By the time the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) team of the Australian Army left Mendi, Southern Highlands in 1999 most parts of the former SHP (before Hela was created out of its western end in 2012) were connected by basic roads and outlying areas had airstrips.
The RAE is an engineering corps of the Australian Army. Its (RAE) members were deployed as a unit of engineers to Mendi in 1970 to run the Provincial Works Division. They were previously based in Popondetta, Northern and had been in various parts of PNG since 1963. The unit moved to Mendi under the leadership of Officer Commanding, Major IM Wells.
The RAE Association of Victoria noted the following about the contingent in Mendi in its December 2017 magazine:
“Nation building tasks continued at an impressive rate and more name changes occurred (when they moved to Mendi): District (District Engineers Office (1972-76), Provincial Engineers Office – Mendi (1976 – 78) and finally 12 CE Works (1978 – 2003). PNG’s independence occurred in 1975. 12 CE Works celebrated its silver jubilee between Sept 15 and 20, 1988.
“12 CE Works (of Mendi) was awarded an Institute of Engineers Australia Excellence Award.”
The Australian colonial administration deployed the 12 CE Works team to Mendi under its defence cooperation to help open up the frontier province through an elaborate public works programme – build roads, bridges, airstrips, schools, health centres and aid posts, government offices and public service housing, provide electricity supply and manage and service government vehicle fleet.
Among the landmark infrastructure that the 12 CE team built was the Mendi School of Nursing and the provincial government headquarters which was burnt down in the wake of the 1997 national election disputes over the position of provincial governor. The seven-storey Agiru Centre was built by the provincial government afterwards to replace the one that was burnt down.
Mark Dando, an RAE officer who served in Mendi from August 1978 to December 1980 posted online the following recollection of his time with the 12 CE:
“The unit built schools, government buildings and built and maintained roads.
“The transport and vehicle workshops were managed by five (Australian) army personnel with a local staff of approximately 70.
The unit numbered 21 (RAE officers) and controlled a staff of up to 200 full time and casual locals.
“Our families came with us with the exception of children above grade five who had to attend boarding school in Australia. There were no supermarkets or little shops in the town of Mendi. The nearest supermarket was 155 km away at Mt Hagen (gravel road).
“The RAAF (planes) would bring in supplies from time to time.
“Power was intermittent and most of us purchased 2.5 Kva generators to ensure refrigeration and lighting,” wrote RAE veteran Dando.
He continued: “As a transport corps officer (captain), I was responsible to a major (senior officer) for two workshops and a fleet of vehicles ranging from motor cycles to bulldozers and this included the government vehicles (PTB) for the province.
“The major (senior officer) was responsible for millions of dollars.
“Probably the most challenging army posting for the majority of those who served in 12 CE Works. The officer commanding (two in my term) of the 12 CE in Mendi both received an MBE and deservedly so, however the rest of us did our job and it would be nice to receive the same recognition as those who came before us,” said veteran Dando.
Ross Eastgate in a column published in the Townsville Bulletin last year made the following remarks about the 12 CE in Mendi:
“The sappers built and maintained roads and bridges throughout the province (SHP) as well as providing essential town services like power and water they and their families required to survive in this remote locality.
“Initially they built their own married quarters as well as the offices and buildings from which they worked.
“They also built and maintained provincial facilities such as health clinics.
“Road access to Mt Hagen and the nearest port Lae was limited so they often required RAAF heavy airlift support to deliver essential supplies.
“The army provided family medical kits so health needs were self-diagnosed and treated.
“Serious health issues required aero-medical evacuation.
“Wives too, particularly those who were nurses and teachers performed vital community functions.
“An important role was training locals to be able to assume 12 CE Works roles when inevitably the unit would be returned to Australia in 1999.”
In January this year my father, Simon Papu who worked under the leadership of the 12 CE team building and maintaining roads in SHP from 1971 to 1983, spoke of how disciplined and work-conscious the Australian soldiers were.
On Jan 4 I drove from Ialibu to Kagua, a road initially built by the 12 CE in the 1970s. Upon return, I asked my dad when he and his 12 CE superiors along with the PNG contingent finished constructing this road in the 1970s.
“We worked hard through mud and rain and reached Kagua station in 1976,” dad replied.
“We worked long hours trying to get the road to Kagua from Ialibu and completed it in 1976.
“When we reached Kagua station, my boss Dougie Fadden (an RAE officer) promoted me to Mendi in 1977 so I was not involved in building the rest of the road from Kagua to Erave,” said my dad.
Dad started out with the 12 CE in Mendi as a plant operator driving dump trucks, bulldozers, graders and front-end loaders belonging to the Department of Works that were managed by the 12 CE team. He was recruited by the 12 CE after he left employment with pioneer kiap and politician-turned-businessman Ronald Neville.
He was promoted as a roads foreman and posted to the construction site of the Mendi to Tari section of the Highlands Highway when construction was near Det in Poroma in 1977. His stint on the Mendi-Tari road construction was short-lived as he was transferred to Ialibu in 1978 to be maintenance foreman looking after the Kaguel River to Kirene section of the Highlands Highway. The Highlands Highway construction though reached Tari in 1983.
What the RAE team in Mendi achieved in SHP between 1970 and 1999 was a least heralded civic work programme involving hundreds of millions of kina achieved by members of the Australian service personnel on PNG soil during peace time.
In its own right, the RAE posting in SHP was a major engagement of members of the Australian Army anywhere in PNG outside of the World War 2 years.
As ANZAC Day was commemorated in parts of Papua New Guinea yesterday, some of us remembered the many generations of RAE officers who served in SHP with their PNG civilian compatriots to build and maintain critical public infrastructure from 1970 to 1999.
• Dr Kevin Pamba is based at Divine Word University.