Don accepts overseas service medal for PGN role

Don Kennedy, with his wife Glen, of Mitchells Island, is presented the Australian Federal Police Overseas Service Medal by federal MP David Gillespie. Don served as a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea in the lead up to the country achieving its independence.
Don Kennedy, with his wife Glen, of Mitchells Island, is presented the Australian Federal Police Overseas Service Medal by federal MP David Gillespie. Don served as a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea in the lead up to the country achieving its independence.

FORTY five years ago Don Kennedy flew to Papua New Guinea.

Tropical heat hit the patrol officer as he stepped off the plane at Mendi. He walked into a world vastly different to Australia and in the throes of development and a changing political landscape.

The year was 1969 and he was 23-years-old. Don was one of a few thousand men who were assigned to remote regions of Papua New Guinea as a patrol officer, also known as a Kiap.

Patrol officers were invariably known as "kiaps" a Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin language derivation of the German kapitan (captain) from the era pre-World War I when northern Papua New Guinea was a German colony.

In this role, Don was tasked to help supervise projects, manage law and order issues and assist small communities to prepare for changes that would come when Papua New Guinea achieved its independence from Australia.

It was a three-year posting that he also shared with his young family, that is only now being recognised by the federal government with the presentation of an Australian Federal Police Overseas Service Medal. It is a long-awaited acknowledgement of service that has been championed by the few thousand men who served as kiap.

Don says the acknowledgement is "welcome and important as you need to keep in mind that the probability of being killed as a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea was much higher than if you had been a serviceman in Vietnam".

Don says only around 600 to 800 kiap worked in Papua New Guinea at any one time during the crucial transformative years, and it involved working in remote regions, often with no electricity and no method of communication other than locals who were used as runners with messages.

Despite the challenging physical conditions, Don declares that he enjoyed his time in Papua New Guinea and happily recalls memories of working as a supervisor on the construction of the highlands highway, seeing his young son surrounded by locals who had never seen a child with white skin, and a gathering of more than 22,000 men and women in native dress.

"My strongest memory is working on the highlands highway. We had about 1000 people working to build a highway with hard hand labour, using picks and shovels and carrying bags of dirt. It was a physical job and the working conditions were tropical as the area was getting 100-plus inches of rain a year," Don said.

"There were a few things that shocked me, the fact that nobody had anything as they were all so very poor.

"The living conditions were challenging, we used to get meat flown in once a week in a freezer plane, but as there was no electricity we had to use kerosene fridges. We were isolated but in some areas every Saturday there was a market."

Even now, Don says he can still vividly recall the sound of thousands of men in native dress chanting at Mendi airport.

"When John Grey Gorton (former Australian Prime Minister) went to Papua New Guinea we took a large number of natives to meet him at Mendi," Don said.

"Imagine having 22,000 people all in native dress at one time and all waving axes in the air at the Mendi airstrip.

"There was a moment, I can hear it now, when a group did not like a group down the back and they were chanting 'hoopla! hoopla! hoopla!' and waving axes ... the hair on the back of my neck actually stood up as I was right down the middle of it."

The airstrip was also the location for another milestone moment for Don.

"My seven-year-old son had wanted to come with me to work. After a while he wanted to go home, so I said he could walk home but to be careful," Don laughs.

"After a little while I looked down the airstrip because I could see a crowd had gathered and there was a bit commotion. When I got there, at the centre of the crowd was my poor little boy!

"They had never seen a white child and were touching him and poking him to see if he was real!"

Don also recalls the challenges of supervising the establishment of a local government council.

"Not one councillor could read or write and only one councillor had a smattering of English so we were dealing all the time through interpreters. Some could understand pidgin english, but not all."

Don explained that the kiap were also in charge of law and order in the area.

"Come Tuesday, normally the boss would sit in the chair as magistrate and I would be the police prosecutor. It was an interesting time."

On reflection, Don regards his contribution and that of all kiap as positive.

"It's now been around 40 years since Papua New Guinea had its independence and it hasn't fallen apart to the same degree as some of the African countries. I think that can largely be attributed to the Australian efforts to prepare the country.

"It hasn't broken into civil war or ethnic war and I think that's partly due to the efforts of our patrol officers and others," he said.

Federal member for Lyne, David Gillespie presented the service medal to Don in the presence of his wife, Glen and said "wear this medal with pride. I know you've earned it".

"The kiap were the police, judge, jury and jail in Papua New Guinea," Dr Gillespie said.

"Papua New Guinea in the '70s was a wild and woolly place and the kiap were the law enforcers, they were respected and they were feared, but mostly respected."

Don has not returned since his service, but his wife Glen says that he should "because he loved it there."