By Max Blenkin, AAP Defence Correspondent
July 12, 2013
CHRIS Viner-Smith was a cadet Papua New Guinea patrol officer when the trawler taking him to his first posting ran into a reef and sank.He survived. But worse was to come during his 10 years working in the wilds of PNG.
"There were many close calls. I was locked up in an Indonesian jail in Merauke after I was captured on the border. I thought I was going to be shot," Viner-Smith recalled.
Now 72, retired and living in Canberra, Viner-Smith has for the past decade campaigned for official recognition for this little known part of Australia's colonial history.
This week, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare awarded the Police Overseas Service Medal to 55 former Australian members of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary in recognition of their service between 1949 and 1973.
"They have never been properly recognised for the work they did to maintain order in Papua New Guinea. The ceremony today is righting a wrong and providing long overdue recognition of the important work they did," the minister said.
Kiaps were the tangible representatives of the Australian administration in remote areas of the nation, travelling accompanied by only a few local policemen and juggling the multiple roles of policeman, ambassador, explorer, farmer, engineer and anthropologist.
After leaving school in South Australia in 1961, 19-year-old Viner-Smith spotted an advertisement for a cadet patrol officer.
He applied and - after passing medical tests to ensure he was fit to walk the mountains, valleys and swamps of PNG and a psychological test to ensure he could cope working alone - was given the job.
He did training in Sydney and more in Port Moresby. As a cadet, early patrols were under the guidance of an experienced officer.
Viner-Smith's first foray didn't end well. The trawler transporting to his first posting hit a reef and sank. He returned to Moresby and finished the journey aboard a Catalina flying boat.
Subsequently, he served for a decade in PNG. At the height of tensions over Indonesia's confrontation with Malaysia, Viner-Smith was on the border adjacent to Indonesian West Papua.
"They (the Indonesians) had just taken over from the Dutch. A lot of the refugees who were a bit scared of the Indonesians were running across to our side of the border," he said.
"The (Australian) army wasn't allowed anywhere near the border and it was up to us as patrol officers to stop the Indonesian army coming across into Australian territory.
"Being a one man patrol post, it was just me against the Indonesian army."
Hence, the unwelcome trip to Merauke in Indonesian West Papua.
Viner-Smith said the life of a kiap was to live on a patrol base in the middle of nowhere, patrolling a specified area on foot or in boats for any time between three weeks and three months.
"We weren't resourced very well. There was no radio backup while you were on patrol. There was no medical assistance of course. You were miles and miles from anywhere. You lived on your wits the whole time and survived that way," he said.
Kiaps travelled from village to village with the prime mission of maintaining law and order, acting as a travelling magistrate to settle disputes. Sometimes there was specific missions such as conducting a census or introducing local government as a precursor to national government.
"We did many other things. We were the chief officer of all government departments in our area and we built bridges and we built airstrips. We were the post master and we gave weather reports. Everything there was to do we did."
Viner-Smith said this was an enormous job, unknown to most Australians.
"It was perhaps one of the most magnificent colonisations of a country, bringing it from a primitive state to nationhood in 25 years with very little violence. It's never been done anywhere else in the world," he said.
Of the 2000 kiaps, official records show 23 died on duty, although Viner-Smith believes it could really be as high as 40.
"That's a higher death rate per capita than the Vietnam War," he said.
Tribesmen murdered some kiaps. Others died of accidents and illness.
Each was issued with a World War II Smith and Wesson revolver and ammunition, which didn't always work.
"Even though we were armed, it was very very rare that any patrol officer would use their arms," he said.
"We were on a mission of getting to know the locals, earning their respect and using the Queen's law in the form of the Queensland Criminal Law and mixing that with native custom to administer justice in a way which they understood."
After leaving PNG in 1971, he returned to Australia, working in a variety of jobs including the Queensland Department of Aboriginal affairs and emergency services.
"It was very hard settling down back in Australia, having lived on your own wits and ingenuity for 10 years, coming back and being bossed around by somebody," he said.
Viner-Smith launched the campaign for recognition of the kiaps in 2002 after talking with a senior Australian Federal Police officer who said what he had done in Somalia was nothing compared to what the kiaps had done in PNG.
"Every day, 600 or so young Australians were out there in the middle of the jungle at the Australian government's request, bringing a country to the brink of nationhood against incredible odds," he said.
"There were snakes and spiders and spears and arrows and axes and horrific things up there which we and the government didn't publicise very much."