Commemorating the Seventieth Anniversary of the Volcanic Disaster at Mount Lamington by Wally Johnson (PNG Kundu March 2021)
The strongly intertwined histories of Papua New Guinea and Australia, post-WW II, are illustrated dramatically by the terrible disaster that took place at Lamington volcano, Northern District, TPNG, on Sunday, 21 January 1951.
Almost 3,000 people are thought to have perished when a hot, volcanic, ‘ash-hurricane’ cloud swept at great speed—like a lateral ‘atomic blast’ as some people described it—mainly down the northern flank of the volcano. Most of the dead were Orokaiva people who had worked the rich volcanic soils of the volcano long before colonisation by Britain and then Australia.
Thirty-five expatriates, mainly Australians, died too—almost all of them at the Higaturu Government Station and the nearby Anglican Mission at Sangara, about ten kilometres from the summit crater. About 4,000 Orokaiva were thought to occupy the surrounding villages and settlements.
Many readers of Una Voce, and now PNG Kundu, will be aware of the Lamington disaster. Indeed, some people over the years have written valuable articles for the journal on their experiences or those of their family members. Some still-living people survived the blast as children.
Others came into the devastated area afterwards as part of the relief and recovery effort, including Administration officers such as one of our Association’s recently deceased patrons, the late Fred Kaad, OBE, whose 100th birthday we celebrated on these pages in the September 2020 issue. Fred, as an Assistant District Officer, established and oversaw a government refugee camp at Wairopi on the Kumusi River for thousands of displaced Orokaiva. Other more senior men who were involved in the aftermath of the disaster included the Administrator, Colonel Jack K Murray, Dr John Gunther (Director of Public Health) and all three of the Champion brothers, Claude, Ivan, and Alan.
There are many other people who did not have any involvement in the actual disaster or its aftermath, yet who to this day maintain a strong interest in the mountain—for example, both national and overseas volcanologists, as well as foreign tourists, some walking the nearby Kokoda Track.
I should mention here, in this context, my own involvement: that I emigrated to Australia in the late 1960s in part because of the Lamington-51 disaster.
I came to join the Australian Government’s Bureau of Mineral Resources (BMR, now Geoscience Australia) in Canberra, attracted by its international reputation for the vulcanological work undertaken in what was then still the Territory of Papua and New Guinea (TPNG).
GAM ‘Tony’ Taylor was my boss. In 1951–52 Tony undertook a scientific assessment of Lamington volcano and the 1951 disaster, became something
of a ‘hero scientist’, and was awarded the George Cross for his courage while undertaking field investigations, with others, in dangerous situations.
Tony published BMR Bulletin 38 on the Lamington eruption, which became an international ‘classic’ on this type of explosive activity in the scientific literature.
Some of you will have already read the book, The Volcano’s Wife, by Amalia Cowley and her daughter Pamela Cowley, now Pamela Virtue (if not, you can buy a copy today directly through the PNGAA’s Treasurer’s Corner). It is an excellent account that tells of the tragedy of the deaths of District Commissioner Cecil Cowley and his son Earl at Higaturu Government Station, and of how mother and daughter escaped the disastrous physical impact of the eruption because they were staying that weekend at nearby but safer, Sangara Plantation. The two women also document the calamitous impact that the deaths of father and son had on them during the rest of their grieving lives.
Pam was one of the many correspondents who helped me compile a recently published on the 1951 volcanic eruption—its aim to focus on the disaster-management aspects of the eruption as an attempted companion piece to Tony Taylor’s more scientific account. Take a look at Appendix A in my new book, which is entitled Roars from the Mountain (reviewed by Ken Granger in PNG Kundu, September 2020) and you’ll get an idea of the large number of correspondents who were willing and strongly motivated enough to provide information and opinions. How I wish I could name them all here and give their stories!
How did so many people come to perish at Mount Lamington seventy years ago? The tragedy of the Lamington disaster lies in the failure of the Australian Administration to recognise and respond to the importance of signs of volcano unrest—earth tremors, landslides, and then vapour and volcanic-ash emissions—during the week before the catastrophic eruption at 10.40 am on Sunday, 21 January 1951. European expatriates at Higaturu and Sangara Mission were unaware that the mountain was even a volcano, let alone an active one, although there were weak hints that it might be.
District Commissioner Cecil Cowley, by mid-week, had hoped that some volcanological expertise could be brought in so that an informed assessment could be made of the situation. The Administrator that week, and by chance, was visiting Rabaul in East New Britain where Tony Taylor was stationed at the volcanological observatory being run by BMR. The Acting Administrator in Port Moresby, however, flew into the Lamington area on the Friday. He had experienced the volcanic disaster at Rabaul in 1937 and considered there was little to be concerned about at Lamington. The Acting Administrator then returned home for the weekend, leaving District Commissioner Cowley to cope as best he could. No evacuations took place. Disaster ensued.
Laura Stephens of Sangara Plantation on the Sunday morning of the 21st saw—and later recorded very expressively—that the whole range of hills to the south seemed to ‘disintegrate’ and that a fast-moving cloud was spreading and rolling towards them. Her husband ‘Stevie’ immediately evacuated those plantation people he could take on board a truck, including the two Cowley visitors, and headed eastwards along the main road towards what was then the tiny settlement of Popondetta. But the truck became stuck. Laura Stephens:
We stood there simply waiting for death that we knew was inevitable, once the cloud reached us … [next, however] the enveloping lethal gas seemed to halt for a split second—then it rolled back! … it seemed nothing less than a miracle, and we thanked God for the respite, then discussed further means of escape.
The roll-back was seen elsewhere around the margins of the devastated area, including at the Anglican mission station at Isivita nearer the summit of Mount Lamington where missionaries Robert Porter, Pat Durdin, and Barbara Lane were tending to injured refugees and the dead and where the cloud roll-back left a clear edge or line across the nearby green lawn. The hot, laterally encroaching ash-hurricane from the mountain had lost its forward momentum, but heat from the deposited volcanic ash had risen forcefully into the sky, drawing in cold air from around its edges and so seeming to ‘roll back’.
The ash-hurricane of Sunday, 21 January 1951 was truly devastating, its effects almost unbelievable. An area of ‘total devastation’ was later mapped by Taylor. All those within this area perished, most of them apparently through breathing in hot, volcanically contaminated air, which caused the burning of lungs and asphyxiation. Trees were blown down and stripped of leaves and branches, and were charred higher up the mountain by the greater volcanic heat there. A Department of Works jeep at Higaturu was thrown up onto the stumps of a denuded tree (see page 33), photographs of it becoming famous—a symbolic representation for the entire disaster.
Patrol Officers Des Martin and Bob Blaikie were among those who had the awful task of helping to clear roads into Higaturu and Sangara Mission and burying the decaying bodies that were strewn around. ‘The stench was appalling’, wrote Des (see Una Voce, June 2013). Bob Blaikie wrote about the days of heroic rescue and response undertaken by a ‘ragged, dirty and quite exhausted Bill Schleusener’ from Sangara Plantation who had worked ‘for a week searching for and burying the dead and assisting the living’ (Una Voce June 2006).
Popondetta escaped the ash-hurricane but it became a major centre for escapees, refugees, and for later relief and rescue efforts using a small nearby airstrip. The Kleckham family lived there: Fred, together with his wife Marjorie who was a nurse, and their three children, Fred Junior (nicknamed ‘Zeb’), Betty, and a new baby Marjorie. Fred Senior and Trobriand Islander, Elias Elliott, were part of a small, courageous party who attempted to reach Higaturu along a subsidiary road that ran south from the Popondetta to Kokoda road, even as the volcano continued its unpredictable activity.
But the attempt was hopeless as the road was blocked and the area littered with corpses requiring immediate burial. Marjorie worked tirelessly that Sunday night at Popondetta attending to the growing numbers of injured and dying and organising what supplies could be assembled from limited sources (see Una Voce June 2003 and December 2010).
Further westwards along the road towards Kokoda, the Searle family escaped from Awala Plantation, but Clen Searle returned home where he was able to collect and use his radio transmitter during a critical period when no other telecommunication facilities were available, Higaturu having been completely destroyed. The pilots of two in-flight aircraft near Mount Lamington also reported the colossal expanding cloud and its development to authorities. There followed the well-facilitated and coordinated relief and recovery effort—‘well-’, that is, in comparison to the non-existent, disaster-risk assessment phases of prevention and preparedness which otherwise might have led to evacuations before the tragedy of 21 January.
Commemoration and memorialisation were part of the Administration’s post-disaster strategy. This included creation in Popondetta of a Mount Lamington Memorial Cemetery which was opened with great ceremony in November 1952. But the thousands of Orokaiva dead were not buried there. The cemetery was basically a burial ground for those relatively few Administration staff, including deceased ‘native’ policemen of the Royal Papua and New Guinea Constabulary, who had been killed and whose remains could be found and, hopefully, identified, or else disinterred from earlier burial places and then re-buried in the new cemetery almost two years later. Thus, some controversy surrounds the memorial site to this day, including the question of who should be responsible for its upkeep (see Pam Virtue’s letter in Una Voce March 2012).
Popondetta today is the provincial capital of Oro Province in modern-day Papua New Guinea, where the responsibility for public safety lies primarily with the provincial government including its Disaster Committee. Mount Lamington, also known locally as Sumbiripa, is a volcano that fortunately is not often in eruption, but it remains a volcanic threat and cannot be disregarded. Popondetta itself was fortunate to escape the effect of the ash-hurricane in 1951. Our thoughts today are directed towards Oro Province and the family and friends of the thousands of Orokaiva who perished there in 1951, and towards the grief and trauma they experienced, together with a hope that such a tragedy will never happen again.
One particular aspect of the Lamington disaster of seventy years ago that lodges in my mind is a story Medical Assistant Bert Speer told me of his visit into the devastated area in 1951 in order to retrieve medical records and equipment remaining at Higaturu. Bert came across numerous, brilliantly-coloured Blue Emperor butterflies, looking as if they might be the first sign of nature returning to regenerate the area. The butterflies, however, were flitting among the death and destruction of the zone of devastation, attracted by the decaying bodies, much like the tropical butterflies reported to follow the coffins in funeral corteges in some countries. This association of butterflies and death in ancient mythology commonly attracts meanings of spirituality and human rebirth. Here, however, perhaps we can simply regard the Higaturu butterflies as representing the intertwining of life and death at Lamington in 1951, much like the intertwining of the irrevocable, and not always uplifting, histories of Papua New Guinea and Australia.