There is never a dull moment at the U.S. Embassy in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (PNG). We just bid a fond farewell to Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) leader U.S. Army Major General Stephen Tom and his team. Major General Tom was in Port Moresby June 20-23 to sign a Memorandum for Record (MfR) with the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) and National Museum and Art Gallery. The MfR reaffirms support for U.S. investigative and recovery efforts of the remains of World War II servicemen in PNG and surrounding waters.
We then had the honor and privilege of hosting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt M. Campbell and the other members of his high-profile delegation. These members included U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Patrick M. Walsh, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Assistant Administrator Nisha Biswal, and Marine Brigadier General Richard Simcock.
The delegation is visiting the Pacific to highlight the United State's deep and enduring diplomatic, development and defense ties to the region. When Secretary Clinton visited PNG last year, we faced tight schedules. Similarly, we had to accommodate a lot during a relatively short period of time for this delegation's visit. The delegation visited Honiara, Solomon Islands on June 29, and Port Moresby, PNG June 29-30.
U.S. Ambassador Teddy Taylor is accredited to PNG, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. Recently, there have been some significant changes in leadership in all three nations' governments. This presented additional challenges in scheduling for the delegation's visit, because we were waiting to the last minute to find out who would be representing the various government Cabinets at meetings.
Thank God for Keithie Saunders, our consular agent extraordinaire and an Institution (note the capital letter) in Solomon Islands. Superstar Keithie, who has lived in Honiara since 1954, set about with her usual efficiency, arranging meetings with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Danny Philip, Foreign Minister Peter Shannel, members of the opposition, the donor community, the Guadalcanal Memorial, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), and an Australian minister and senator. Somehow she even managed to get the rain to stop, just as the delegation's plane was landing. Clearly, even the clouds were not going to mess with our Keithie!
Amidst all of the meetings, there were a number of memorable moments. I was particularly excited about the official announcement that USAID would be opening its Pacific headquarters in Port Moresby. Many people imagine the Pacific to be an endless paradise of palm-fringed islands with picture-perfect blue lagoons. Yet, socio-economic conditions are on par, or are even worse, than those in much of Africa. Clearly, USAID's return to PNG presents many opportunities to make a difference in the lives of the people.
Perhaps, the most touching aspect of the trip, though, was the visit to Guadalcanal Monument in Honiara, Solomon Islands on June 29. The delegation placed two wreathes at the monument and paid respects to American servicemen who died during the Guadalcanal campaign of World War II. The campaign, which was codenamed Operation Watchtower, was fought against imperial Japanese forces on and around Guadalcanal between August 7, 1942 and February 9, 1943. Forces from Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, British Solomon Islands, Tonga and Fiji joined Americans in this campaign. Both sides incurred significant loss of men and warships.
The Guadalcanal campaign, according to Brigadier General Simcock, was the first combined arms amphibious assault in the South Pacific and ended all imperial Japanese expansion and placed the Allies in a position of clear supremacy. "Not only was Guadalcanal a military victory," said Simcock, "but it was a psychological one as well. We had beaten Japan's best land, air and naval forces. After Guadalcanal, U.S. forces regarded the Japanese military with much less awe, because it displayed that they could be defeated."
For almost 70 years, said Simcock, young Marines have grown up in the Corps hearing of the valor, courage, and determination of the Americans who "defended the core values that we share with our friends here. I am humbled to be here today to honor all the Americans who fought so bravely."
Assistant Secretary Campbell recalled the "ultimate sacrifice of our brave U.S. servicemen," praising them for their "contribution to peace, security, and ultimately, freedom."
The delegation then departed for Port Moresby, where they set off for a reception at Ambassador Taylor's residence. The reception brought together members of the government, diplomatic community, donor organizations, and alumni of U.S.-sponsored exchange programs, including our Fulbright scholarship returnees. There was a nice breeze blowing off the harbor, albeit with a bit of smoke. During the dry season, Papua New Guineans like to burn dead grass on the hillsides, and this can make for some eye-burning, throat-catching moments. Fortunately, our dry season was not too dry this year, so the hills of Port Moresby were still a vibrant green rather than their more normal brownish-gray color.
The next morning, I was up early and at work by 5:30 a.m. Fortunately, while I went to the hotel to pick up the delegation for its all-morning meetings, our ace consular officer and acting deputy chief of mission Sarah Nelson was at the embassy collecting overnight messages for the delegation and keeping everything in order. We do not know what we would do without Sarah. She is amazing! I cannot say that I feel the same way about early-morning wakeups!
At 8:00 a.m., the delegation learned about ExxonMobil's massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, which many analysts predict will double PNG's economy. The group also heard about landowner issues related to the project. Then, the group split. The admiral and brigadier general and their teams left for Murray Barracks to talk to PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) Brigadier General Francis Agwi and troops. I had complete confidence in our Defense Attache, Major William Boswell, to ensure that everything would go smoothly. Good-natured "Boz" is always calm and collected, with a wry smile punctuating his witty repartee.
The rest of the group headed to meet PNG's opposition party leaders. We managed to squeeze in a three-minute stop by the side of the road to pick up a few baskets and bilum bags as souvenirs. That was about all the downtime and recreation this group had during their visit.
Later in the morning, we met with the donor and diplomatic communities before going to Acting Prime Minister Sam Abal's office. Prime Minister Abal expressed his deep appreciation for the United States and its efforts to play a more active role in the region. He thanked the United States for sending Pacific Partnership to Papua New Guinea and expressed his hope that it would make a return visit next year.
Throughout the visit, my eyes were always on my watch. Unfortunately, our meeting had to come to an end, so that we could take the delegation to the airport for their departure. I earned some good-natured ribbing for racing the group around! But, we arrived to the airport just six minutes behind schedule. Not bad for the Pacific!
Thanks to the hard work of General Services Officer Benjamin Bohman and his team the logistics of the visit went well. Ambassador Taylor, Sarah, Benjamin, Boz and I waited at the airport until the delegation was officially "wheels up," and then we shared a celebratory toast to another successful visit. Cheers team!