The Australian Army in Papua New Guinea, 1951 – 1975

Presented by The Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC). In 1972, just prior to Papua New Guinea’s independence, almost one in ten regular soldiers in the Australian Army were Papua New Guinean. Since the re-raising of the Pacific Islands Regiment in 1951 these men had played an integral role in Australia’s defence, serving alongside thousands of Australian soldiers. Yet despite this, the development of the Army in PNG and the experiences of those Australians and Papua New Guineans who served in it have been largely neglected in historical study.

This research seeks to address this gap by tracing the Australian Army’s development of its Papua New Guinean component from a small, colonial-style unit to the defence force of a newly independent nation. Drawing on archival and oral sources, it explores the development of the Pacific Islands Regiment through its troubled first decade, the reaction to Confrontation with Indonesia, initial preparations for independence and its transformation into the Papua New Guinean Defence Force during the hasty Australian withdrawal from PNG. Over this twenty-four year period, this force was shaped by Australian attitudes towards and perceptions of Papua New Guinean soldiers, the interaction between Australia’s defence needs and those of a future PNG state and concerns about what role a Papua New Guinean Defence Force might play in destabilising the nascent nation.

In this paper, which forms the pre-submission presentation for the PhD candidature, Tristan will present an overview of his research into the Australian Army in PNG, exploring the central questions, themes and arguments of the thesis. In doing so, this research contextualises the Australian Army during this period as not only a force that existed on the battlefields of Southeast Asia, but as an institution with far wider and more complex responsibilities, one of which was the creation of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force.

Tristan Moss is a PhD candidate in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He received an Australian Army History Unit Grant in 2011 and a Leo Mahony Scholarship, awarded by the United Services Institute, in 2013.