Sergeant Penelope “Poppy” Searle
Poppy Searle fulfilled a lifelong ambition to serve when she joined the Australian Army as a reservist in 1996. Born Penelope Crone in Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, her family migrated to Australia when she was a baby. Her father was a sea captain and her mother a nurse, and there was a strong family history of military service. The Crones settled in Canberra in 1972 but were keen travellers, and throughout her youth Poppy spent time in Europe, Africa, India, and Japan.
Poppy was encouraged to practise languages, and by the end of school she could speak French, German, Swahili, and Japanese. She says, “I think you understand other people better if you make the effort to use their language, even if all you can say is hello and please and thank you.” She used her skill with languages when she deployed to Bougainville in March 2000 as a signaller with the Peace Monitoring Group (PMG).
Bougainville is located between Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and its people identify strongly with Solomon Islands culture. A bid for independence from Papua New Guinea, partially triggered by environmental concerns from mining operations, led to conflict in 1988. Following years of unrest, a truce was declared in 1997, and the New Zealand-led Truce Monitoring Group (TMG) was established. Australia sent civilian officials from government agencies and the Australian Federal Police to assist with the peace process. The PMG was formed, and included unarmed military and civilian personnel from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Vanuatu.
At the time, reservists were required for the mission as the regular army was focused on peacekeeping in East Timor (Timor-Leste). Poppy volunteered to serve on Bougainville, eager to visit the Pacific islands and to perform her military duties during a real operation monitoring the ceasefire arrangements and supporting the peace process in the lead-up to anticipated elections.
Arriving aboard a C130 Hercules, Poppy felt as though she had stepped into a different time and place. The plane had been diverted from the main island owing to poor weather conditions, forced to land instead on the smaller Buka Island. Here and there Poppy could see anti-aircraft guns from the Second World War, abandoned and rusting in the tropical climate.
Roads were limited on Bougainville, so Poppy’s team spent a lot of time walking. Though her childhood had been filled with outdoor activities, she learned about soldiering in the jungle from her colleagues, including her patrol commander, Warrant Officer Arnold Vira of Vanuatu. Arnold spoke fluent pidgin, which helped him to build relationships with the local community. The culturally diverse team included two Fijians, and Poppy recalls that “in Fijian culture it is a sign that a man [is said to be looking] after his woman well if the woman is fat so they spent the whole deployment trying to feed me up and were always offering to carry the radio for me”.
As her team’s radio operator, Poppy carried a portable high-frequency radio on patrols, and in villages she would set up the antenna to sustain contact with headquarters. The radio was essential for the team’s safety, especially if they found themselves in dangerous situations. Poppy was also responsible for maintaining the power generator and any radio communications at her team site.
Throughout her deployment Poppy met many local people. She practised her pidgin at every opportunity and got to know local families. The local children enjoyed chatting about sport, plants, and wildlife on the island. They often showed off their running, tumbling, and sling-shot skills. Poppy reflected:
After a while talking to the children, the mums would come over and send the kids to play. Then we would talk about the things they were worried about – mostly their children’s futures, how they would get a good education, what jobs there would be for them – the same stuff every mum worries about.
During her five months on Bougainville, Poppy saw great improvements in living conditions as a result of the peace process. Her team assisted with a village reconstruction project, and she was impressed by the tenacity and work ethic of the local people:
When we went to Bougainville to keep the peace there had been 15 years of fighting on the island. During that time the schools were closed and lots of things like hospitals were destroyed. One of the first things that happened when the peace was made was that schools reopened. I was amazed to see young adults of 16 or 17 sitting in primary school classes with 5 and 6 year olds because they had missed out on all their schooling but they knew it was important to learn to read and write.
When Poppy returned to her “real job”, which happened to be at the Australian War Memorial, she found her time on Bougainville strengthened her connections with other veterans. While organising a plaque dedication ceremony for the Australian Women’s Army Service, she bonded with the women who had served in Papua New Guinea during the Second World War. Despite serving many years apart, they shared similar experiences: “we all turned yellow from our anti-malarial medication and we all got nasty rashes on our necks from our dog tags”.
Poppy continues to serve with the Australian Army Reserve, and now lives in Katherine in the Northern Territory. She is currently the Director of the Godinymayin Yijard Rivers Arts and Culture Centre, a place that shares the stories and cultural spirit of the region.
- How can you find out more about the conflict in Bougainville? Come up with a list of sources that could help your investigation.
- Research the PMG. What jobs did they do to facilitate the peace process?
- Extension: How is the PMG different to United Nations peacekeeping?
- Members of the PMG were easily recognisable in their yellow shirts and hats on Bougainville. Members were unarmed, and Poppy noted that “the qualities needed to stay safe and achieve the mission were different to if you had a weapon. It was important to be flexible and compassionate but always professional and clear about the mission and the overarching responsibilities.”
- Why might yellow have been chosen for the PMG uniforms?
- What other symbols can you identify in the picture below?
- Looking at the photograph below, what else are the PMG members wearing? You can find out more about the shirts and brassards on our website.
- What languages do the students in your class know? Poppy knew French, German, Swahili, and Japanese. Use the translated phrases list in the Box to learn how to say “hello”, “please”, and “thank you” in Japanese.
- Poppy also learnt about the languages spoken in Bougainville to help her to understand the communities and their concerns. She practiced the local pidgin language, known as Tok Pisin. Practice these Tok Pisin phrases:
- hello = halo
- please = plis
- thank you = tenkyu tru
- goodbye = lukim yu
- Why do you think it was so important to use local languages as a peacekeeper? What might be some benefits for both the peacekeepers and the local populations?
 Correspondence with Poppy Searle, 2019.
Peter Londey, Other people’s wars: a history of Australian peacekeeping, Allen and Urwin, Sydney, 2004.
Poppy Searle, “Experiences of a monitor on Bougainville 2000”, Wartime 11, Spring 2000.
“Tok Pisin dictionary”, accessed 9 April 2019.