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David Pennefather
New Guinea Kiap & Travels

Click For EnlargementPennefather spent most of his adult life in Papua New Guinea as a 'Kiap', or Patrol Officer and businessman. During his travels, his interest in wartime history blossomed, and his travels to remote villages lead to the discovered of many wartime relics and wrecks, including several aircraft discoveries. He shares some of his recollections and work in New Guinea from the late 1960's until the late 1980's.

Tell a little about yourself, and background
People ask me, where am I from. I reply that I was born in Western Australia, was raised and educated in Victoria, have lived most of my adult life in Papua New Guinea and now reside in Queensland. I guess that makes me a gypsy. These days I still research but my subject matter is my families genealogy.

Of late this has led me to the American Civil War in which three members of my extended family fought. Two for the North and one for the South. One was killed at Five Oaks, one was blinded and captured at The Crater and of the Southern lad I have no knowledge of his fate. I have now become quite fascinated by the civil war – what a blood letting.

My interest in the war, battle sites and relics long pre-dated my arrival in PNG. As I grew up in Australia in the 1950’s and 60’s it seemed that every adult I knew had served in either one, or both, of the world wars. Many of these people were relatives of mine. The 1950’s and 60’s also saw the publication of many of the great books on the second world war: The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky, The Colditz Story etc.

All of these books, and more, I devoured with relish. So the bug was well and truly planted in me long before I set foot on the fertile soil and jungles of war ravaged New Guinea. In my last year of school I vividly recall reading an article in an English magazine about a visit to one of the old WWI battlefields in France and me thinking how fascinating it would be to visit such a place.

What brought you to Papua New Guinea?
I went to PNG in 1966, aged 19, as a Cadet Patrol Officer and remained in the field service for eight years. My experiences during that period were many and varied and are best illustrated by the selection of photographs that I have posted on the Ex-kiap website. All Patrol Officers were known to the native population by the Pidgin English name: kiap. The word kiap comes from the German word Kiaptan or Captain bearing in mind that the Germans were the original colonists of New Guinea. While a kiap I served in the Sepik and Morobe provinces with a short stint in Rabaul.

Following my resignation from the service I worked in the wholesale trade. As a consequence I lived in Bougainville, Rabaul, Kimbe and Madang. Then from 1979 to 1992 I was in the coffee industry living in Lae and Popondetta. I moved my family to Australia in 1992 but continued to return to PNG working on mine sites and oil exploration camps. I was last up there twelve months ago.

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Speak about some of your Kiap postings
My first posting was to the East Sepik district and to the settlements of Wewak and Maprik. Evidence of the war was all around you. It was at this time, very early on in my experience that I commenced researching. I recall seeing some aircraft wreckage and making inquiry’s about it and in tern being referred to some drunk in a Wewak bar who told me a load of bull which of course had to be correct because he had been resident in ‘the territory’ longer than I had. I realized instantly that if I wanted to know anything then I would have to conduct original research myself. Also when out looking for items of interest I have always worked alone, just me and my native companions. This way there is no one around telling you that something can not be done or how nice it would be to be else where. It was only much latter when I had developed real friendships with Rod Pearce and Richard Leahy that these two also became involved along with me. The two of them had for a long time been doing their own thing as had I. It was just a great bonus that we all became friends.

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Mention your interest in relics and wrecks
I started out collecting Japanese swords, rifles and bayonets. The first air wreck I walked into was an Australian Beaufort, one of two such planes that had collided in mid air resulting in both planes crashing. I latter found the second plane as well. It was when I was posted to Wewak in 1970 that I took on scuba diving. This was the fulfillment of a long held dream and opened a whole new world to me. It was at this time that I first met Rod Pearce, a skinny blond kid just out of school who wanted to dive on everything. Richard Leahy I had first met about a year before when I was stationed at Ambunti on the Sepik river. Richard was on his honeymoon. These two friendships have truly stood the test of time.

I then began researching wrecked ships as well as crashed aircraft. Where ever I would go I would talk to the natives and ask them about wreckage on land and under water. A reader of these notes may think that to find an air wreck all you have to do is march into the jungle and with luck you will find an aircraft. Not so. You will only find an air wreck, or any other sort of wreckage for that matter, if the natives take you and show you where it is. I was extremely fortunate because during my kiap years I walked into many isolated villages where I would talk to people constantly and for ever ask them questions. It is like a game. I have been to some villages at least three times before I was ever shown anything.

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How did Papuans assist your searches?
In one instance people were very reluctant to show me an air wreck because there were human remains in the wreckage and they thought that they may get into trouble. There is an air wreck some where near Sim in the Wau area that I have never been to where natives say the burnt remains of the aircrew were cannibalized by the natives that first came across it just after the plane crashed. The story goes that having had a meal on the crew branches were pulled over the wreckage to hide it from the air. No one ever came forward offering to show me where this plane was.

I have come across a similar story in the upper reaches of the Markham valley. Again a report of cannibalism followed by a reluctance to show me anything. In this case they made it easy for themselves claiming that the plane crashed in a river bed and the wreckage had long since been swept away by flood waters.

Tell about the visit of Richard E. Smith to his P-38
I went to Popondetta in 1985 to buy coffee. In my first two years there I visited about 24 different air wrecks many of them B-25s. I did not keep a diary but I did keep a map of where everything was that I came across. The natives became accustomed to my weekend wanderings around the old airfields and the battlefields of Kokoda, Buna, Gona and Sanananda. This was rich country for someone like me. In the course of my travels I became befriended by a local man named Frank Egiembari who lived near the Girua Airport. Frank and I became good friends. (Initially I think Frank saw me as a potential son-in-law but we got past that) It was he who, in about 1987/88, told me that a relative of his had the wreck of an aircraft on his land. So we investigated. [Read full story ]

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What was the most significant wreck visited?
The most significant of my experiences whilst at Popondetta, that belongs to a C-47 "Swamp Rat" 41-38601. Popondetta resident, Frank Egiembari led me to this wreck at about the same time as the above events were unfolding. Human remains were found in the wreckage. As it turned out two American and one Australian. The remains were subsequently recovered by the US Army but because the remains could not be separated one from the other all three were interred in a joint grave at Arlington. The Australian, named Milne, being the only Australian buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Last Updated
November 28, 2013

 

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