John Steeles - Detonator nose decorations

Running time
10 min
Department of Veterans' Affairs


We were maintaining all the equipment on the Kokoda Track, and plus the, I was attached to the engineers, so we were working together, and if they wanted a fitter, they'd take me up. And I was in and out all over the place. And we did three months up there, and then we came back to Moresby. And then we went up on the Bulldog-Wau Road.

And the Bulldog-Wau Road was west of Moresby, and you traveled up the river about 60 miles to get to a place called Bulldog. And we were building a road from Bulldog to Wau, and the Japs were building a road from Salamaua to Wau. And the 2nd 50 Independent Company, they few into Bulldog and walked across to Wau. And they pushed the Japs back to Salamaua. So there was no Japs in that area while we were building the road.

But one little incident on the road was, we used to, well you don't carry your detonators and your gelignite together. The powder monkey, he was in charge of that, but he always used to carry the detonators himself and trust the gelignite to other people. We could get plenty of gelignite, but no detonators. They were really controlled. And anyhow we used to go down and borrow. Borrow was the word we used to use, two or three detonators and go and blow some fish in the river, to get a feed.

And so anyhow, sometime later, the powder monkey came up to our mob, because there was only 16 in our unit, full strength, and we were only about ten most of the time. And we used to go and get a feed of fish because we were only on bully beef and biscuits all the time. And after a while, he came to the unit one day and he got us all there. He said, "Listen fellows" he said, "I'm sorry, I'm going to dob you in because I don't mind you taking one or two detonators, but when you take a box and the whole lot", because he used to plant the detonators on the job, right, and just carry the gelignite because it's pretty dangerous. So we said, "No, we didn't do it, no way in the world." Anyhow, to cut a long story short, a few weeks later, we were in the middle of the Kukukuku Country, which is, they're pygmy New Guineans. And they were, we saw them at a distance, but not close.

And anyhow, this day I was working on a bulldozer right out the end of the right, and there was only two of us there and I said to my mate, I said "listen mate" I said, "There's somebody out there. The hair on the back of my neck is worrying me". And he said "No, there's no-one there". The kuni grass was fairly flat. So anyhow, at that stage I used to smoke and drink because we used to get them for nothing. And so I jumped down and got a stick that was much higher than the grass, or a bit higher than the grass, and I split the end of it, and I stood up and I rolled a cigarette and puffing the smoke out puffing out.

I also rolled another one, like this, and I put it in the top of the stick. And I walked out to where I reckon my senses said there was somebody out there. And I planted it. And it's about that high above the grass.

And I'd be working away there, hammer and chisel, hammer and chisel, all this, I was cutting an old weld out of the, the bulldozer had busted all the A-frame and everything, split the whole thing. So, I had to cut the old weld out. And anyhow I kept my eye on it, but I never saw the cigarette go. So, I'd stand up and roll another cigarette and hold it up there and take it out and put it in the thing, but I'd put it in a bit further, and I did this constantly.

And then I saw a hand go up. I jumped off the thing, and ran straight to it, and here's a little pygmy. The Kukukuku, down like this. And what did I see? He had a detonator stuck in his nose. So, in sign language, I said: "No, no good, no good". Here's me, he said, "Man". So, I said "You come in", and I was rolling cigarettes for him, see, and all these other ones came in.

There was about a dozen of them, all tiny little things. And they've all got detonators stuck in their nose. So, I said to him, "No good, no good". So, I got them, there was a tree with a funny mark on it, about 100 yards away, you know. I said "You"... They were unbelievable with their arrows. So, I had a look with, at their arrows, and I said, "Me make you a tip for the arrow". I showed him a bit of metal, and I said, "Me put that in there". And I said, "You come back tomorrow, all the detonators. And I make you these things".

So that night, I spent a lot of time digging up all the bits of steel and putting in the layers and mucking around. And making tips for arrows. So, I took them all in, and I think I had a couple of old hacksaw blades, and I sharpened them up and made knives out of them, things like that. So, the next day we went in, I had about three tins of tobacco and papers, and they'd never seen a match. So, I had a couple of packs of matches for them. And they gave me all the detonators and the tin. So, I had, that was the experience I had there.

But in the process, they were, I was telling them "No good. Boom". Yeah. And when they got the detonators, they went up to their village. Their village, cold, so lit a big fire, and one bloke put his cigarette in, and he gets a little light, another man, boom. Blew the front of his face off. So, then I got a detonator and a short fuse, and there was a big rock, and I said, "You look". And I put this detonator underneath and lit the fuse, ran back, and I said "You look". Woof. Oh. Their eyes stood out like organ stops when they saw this, so they were quite happy to get rid of their detonators.

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