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Simogun, Sir Pita (1900–1987)

by B. J. Allen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Pita Simogun (c1900-1987), soldier, politician and community leader, was born about 1900 at Bargedem, in the East Sepik district of German New Guinea, son of Haletuo and his wife Yesmari. Haletuo belonged to the Warborge clan of Mountain Arapesh-speaking people; Yesmari was from Suapiri village, near coastal Dagua. Orphaned as a child, Pita accompanied his mother’s ‘brother’ to Salamaua where his ‘uncle’ worked on a copra plantation. On the plantation he learned Pidgin and became familiar with Europeans. He joined the police force of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, served at Mount Hagen and by 1935 was a lance corporal at Nakanai, West New Britain. At the outbreak of World War II he was a sergeant.

In December 1942 in Australia Simogun joined a coastwatching patrol destined for West New Britain and led by the naval officer Malcolm Wright. After preparations near Brisbane, on 30 April 1943 the patrol was landed from the submarine USS Greenling at Baien village, near Cape Orford. An observation post was established, from which Japanese aircraft and shipping movements were reported. In October 1943 the party crossed the rugged interior of New Britain to Nakanai, where they operated as a guerrilla force. Simogun led local men in attacks on Japanese troops. About 260 were killed for the loss of only two men. The party was withdrawn in April 1944. Simogun is credited with having maintained the morale of the group under often very difficult circumstances. Warned that the operation would be dangerous, he had replied: ‘If I die, I die. I have a son to carry my name’. He was awarded the BEM for his war service.

In 1948 Simogun returned to Urip village at war-ravaged Dagua. Using ideas about farmers’ co-operatives gleaned in Australia during the war, his influence with senior Australian colonial administrators, and war damages compensation money paid to the villagers, he replanted the village coconuts; set up a Rural Progress Society to grow rice; encouraged the Mountain Arapesh people to move to the coast and the Woginara settlement scheme; and supervised the building of a road along the coast, now known as the Sir Pita Simogun Highway. He established his own plantation and used a network of ex-policemen and soldiers to spread his ideas. Opposing cargo cult leaders in the Yangoru area, he argued consistently for economic development as a counter to the cults. In 1956 he set up the But-Boiken Local Government Council.

Simogun was the only Papua New Guinean to serve on all four Legislative Councils, from 1951 to 1963. Elected to the first House of Assembly (1964-68) for the Wewak-Aitape electorate, he was an active and influential member and under-secretary for police. Dame Rachel Cleland observed that he was a natural orator, whom no one could equal in style: ‘He extracted drama from his new glasses by sweeping them off his handsome Roman nose with a gesture, thrusting them towards the Chair . . . to make a point and pausing, with the distinction of a Disraeli, just long enough for effect’. Sir Paul Hasluck judged him ‘an independent and forcible spokesman for his people’ and ‘one of the really big men of his country’. In 1967 when the oil palm settlement schemes opened in West New Britain, Simogun took up leases on a number of blocks, persuading most families at Urip to go with him.

Appointed MBE in 1971, Simogun was knighted, recommended by the government of Papua New Guinea in 1985. He had married three women: Wurmagien from Alamasek village, Wiagua (Maria) from Boiken, and Barai (Bertha) from Kubren village at Dagua. Wurmagien had two children, Wiagua one, and Barai eight. Sir Pita Simogun returned to Urip in the 1980s and died on 11 April 1987 at Wewak. He was buried with full military honours at Moem Barracks army cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Feldt, The Coast Watchers (1946)
  • D. G. Bettison et al (eds), The Papua-New Guinea Elections 1964 (1965)
  • M. Wright, If I Die (1965)
  • P. Hasluck, A Time for Building (1976)
  • L. Fleetwood, A Short History of Wewak (1985?)
  • R. Cleland, Pathways to Independence (1985)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Nov 1951, p 2, 1 Jan 1971, p 6
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 7 Nov 1954, p 32
  • private information.

Citation details

B. J. Allen, 'Simogun, Sir Pita (1900–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/simogun-sir-pita-15747/text26935, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 18 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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