Australian peacekeepers in West New Guinea with UNTEA 1962


The West New Guinea dispute was a political conflict between the Netherlands and Indonesia over the territory of Dutch New Guinea (now the Indonesian autonomous provinces of Papua, West Papua, Central Papua, Highland Papua and South Papua). Also known as the West Irian dispute, it ran from 1950 to 1962.

The United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA) was established to facilitate the transfer of West New Guinea from Dutch to Indonesian administration. It was the first time in its history that the United Nations (UN) had temporary authority over a territory. UNTEA operated from October 1962 to April 1963.

Australia deployed a detachment of 11 personnel and 2 helicopters to serve in support of UNTEA after an outbreak of cholera on the island in September 1962.

A territorial dispute

The western half of the island of New Guinea, West New Guinea had been under Dutch control since 1828. It was part of the Dutch colonies created by the Dutch East India Company, or Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC). The VOC had a trading monopoly in parts of the island chain, now known as Indonesia, that dated back to the early 1600s. These trading ports became the territories known as the Netherlands East Indies. After the collapse of the VOC in the late 18th century, these territories came under the control of the Netherlands Government.

After World War II ended in 1945, Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands and became a republic. Despite attempts to reclaim its territories, the Netherlands eventually recognised Indonesia's independence in 1949. In the Charter of Transfer of Sovereignty, also known as the Hague Agreement, the Netherlands agreed to transfer its control of the former Dutch East Indies to Indonesia, except for West New Guinea.

The status of West New Guinea, which was also known as West Irian, remained undecided. Indonesia insisted the territory belonged to it, while the Dutch argued that the Papuans of West New Guinea should decide their own future. Indonesia brought the matter before the UN in 1954, but no resolution was found.

Tensions escalated in early 1962 when Indonesian paratroopers landed in West New Guinea, which at that time was still under Dutch control. Fearing an outbreak of war, the UN brokered an agreement between the 2 nations, which was signed at the UN Headquarters in New York on 15 August 1962. The New York Agreement stated that the Dutch would leave West New Guinea and transfer sovereignty to a UN trusteeship. A national vote would be held at a future date for Papuans to decide if they wanted to integrate with Indonesia or become an independent state.

A UN first

UNTEA was established to supervise the transfer of West New Guinea from Dutch colonial rule to Indonesian administration. It operated from October 1962 to April 1963 and marked the first time in its history that the UN had temporary executive authority over a territory.

UNTEA's role was to maintain law and order alongside the Papuan police, protect the rights of the Papuan people and ensure normal services continued until 1 May 1963. After that point, West New Guinea would be under the administration of Indonesia.

Before UNTEA could step in, a ceasefire between the Netherlands and Indonesia had to be enforced. The New York Agreement stipulated that a United Nations Security Force (UNSF) would assist UNTEA and monitor the ceasefire. This meant the UN had both a peacekeeping role in West New Guinea and an administrative one. The ceasefire came into effect on 18 August 1962.

The UNSF comprised 1,500 Pakistani troops, as well as detachments from the Royal Canadian Air Force and the United States Air Force. A 21-person military observer team was also assembled to supervise the ceasefire, with personnel from Brazil, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, Ireland, Nigeria and Sweden.

An Australian humanitarian mission

In late September 1962, an outbreak of cholera was detected in West New Guinea on the Casuarina Coast, west of Merauke. The outbreak had already claimed 1,200 lives by the time a World Health Organization medical team arrived. The terrain of crocodile-infested mangrove swamps and rainforest meant access to the area was difficult, compounded by the tropical heat and high humidity.

UNTEA asked Australia for a helicopter and pilot to help transport medical supplies and personnel to and from the affected area. Concerned about the outbreak spreading to the neighbouring Australian-administered Territory of Papua and New Guinea, Australia agreed to assist.

Black and white image of 3 men in uniform holding aloft a UN flag stretched between them. In the centre of the flag is the UN emblem of 2 olive branches encircling a map of the world. Behind them is a military vehicle parked outside a low-lying building.

Merauke, West New Guinea. Three pilots from No. 16 Army Light Aircraft Squadron attached to UNTEA raising the UN flag at the Merauke airport. Left to right: Captain R. Knight; Captain D. Chinn, Detachment Commander; Second Lieutenant J. Campbell. Absent is the fourth pilot, Captain N. Hansen, who took this photograph in either November or December 1962. AWM P01742.001

A detachment of 11 personnel was drawn from the No. 16 Army Light Aircraft Squadron, based at RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland. The small team consisted of 4 Army pilots and 7 RAAF ground crew, along with 2 Australian Army Bell H-13 Sioux helicopters. The Australian operation did not have a codename.

Unlike other UN missions, where the Cabinet of the Australian Government made the call on Australia's contribution, it was key ministers who decided on Australia's involvement in UNTEA. This was due to concern about the cholera epidemic spreading. The Australian mission was essentially a humanitarian one, but was part of a larger UN peacekeeping mission. The detachment deployed on 18 November 1962.

Australians in West New Guinea

Australian David Wilson was the UNTEA Divisional Commissioner in Merauke, one of 6 divisional commissioners in the mission. The commissioners liaised between the UNTEA mission base and the Papuan communities, relaying information and recording regional activities.

Four Army pilots served in the detachment, commanded by Captain David Chinn. A veteran of the Malayan Emergency, Chinn also later served in the Vietnam War. The Army pilots were Captain Dick Knight, Captain Norman Hansen and Second Lieutenant James Campbell.

There were also 7 RAAF ground crew, headed by Warrant Officer Richard Pickering. These were Sergeant A.G. Maddison, Corporal R.S. Matthews and Corporal Laurence Simpson, along with 3 leading aircraftmen, Douglas Johnston, Mervyn Halliday and Robert Dodd. The detachment was helped by a small UN fixed-wing aircraft piloted by Australian Murray Douglas, a former flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force.

This was not the first time members of the No. 16 Army Light Aircraft Squadron had been in the Merauke region of West New Guinea. A year earlier, Captain Knight and 10 personnel from the squadron were part of the search team looking for a young US anthropologist, Michael C. Rockefeller, who went missing in the area after a boating accident. Rockefeller was never found.

Knight was a qualified flying instructor with good knowledge of the local terrain. This came in handy as navigating the landscape from above had its challenges. If the pilots lost visual contact with the coast or river system, the only other distinctive feature was a very tall tree, the 'Boom Kamp tree'. Once they reached the tree, the crew had clear vision to the sea.


After serving for 37 days, the Australian detachment was withdrawn on 21 December 1962, arriving back in Australia on 25 December. This withdrawal was earlier than planned due to the loss of one of the helicopters, which crashed while on duty, injuring a ground crew member. Two Australian personnel were on board, pilot Captain Hansen and ground crew Corporal Simpson. They were attempting to prevent local tribesmen from escaping quarantine by canoe along the river.

The helicopter's blade hit the water during a particularly difficult manoeuvre and the aircraft crashed. Captain Hansen dragged an injured Corporal Simpson to safety. However, the helicopter could not be salvaged. With the other helicopter also out of action while waiting on parts, the decision was made to withdraw the entire detachment. UNTEA chartered a replacement civilian helicopter in January 1963, which the RAAF transported from Sydney to Merauke.

By 23 March 1963, West New Guinea was officially declared free of cholera.


National Peacekeepers' Day

On 14 September each year, we observe National Peacekeepers' Day. It's the anniversary of the day Australia became the world's first peacekeepers to deploy into the field, in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1947. It’s a day to recognise the important work of those who have served, and continue to serve, in the name of global peace.

Learn more about Australia's peacekeeping missions since 1947.

International Day of UN Peacekeepers

29 May is a day of commemoration and acknowledgement of all military, police and civilian personnel who have served as peacekeepers with the UN. Since UN peacekeeping began, more than 4,000 peacekeepers from many countries have lost their lives while performing their duties under the UN flag.


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Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 'New Guinea island, Malay Archipelago', Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed 22 August 2022,

Horner, David; Connor, John (2014). 'Over jungle and swamp', in The Long Search for Peace: Volume 1, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations. Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition

Tudor, Margot (2022). Gatekeepers to Decolonisation: Recentring the UN Peacekeepers on the Frontline of West Papua’s Re-colonisation, 1962–3. Journal of Contemporary History, 57(2), 293–316.

United Nations Peacekeeping, 'West New Guinea UNSF Background', accessed 22 August 2022,

Verrier, J.R. (200), 'Is West Papua Another Timor?', Current Issues Brief 1 2000-01, Parliament of Australia, accessed 22 August 2022,

Western Australian Museum (undated), VOC–United Dutch East India Company, 'Spices and the riches of Asia', accessed 22 August 2022,

Last updated: 18 October 2022

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2022), Australian peacekeepers in West New Guinea with UNTEA 1962, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 8 June 2023,
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