Mount Lamington: Des Martin

On Sunday morning 21 January 1951, I was relaxing in the single men’s quarters Lae in what was then the Territory of Papua and New Guinea (TPNG). Actually I was posted to the Finschhafen sub district and had flown to Lae with prisoners due to face the Supreme Court which was visiting Lae during the week.

Late in the morning I was approached by a native police orderly with a message to report to the District Commissioner (DC) Mr H.R (Horrie) Niall, the senior administrative officer in charge of the Morobe District in New Guinea. When I arrived I found another Patrol Officer Bob Blaikie, still a friend after all these years, also present.

Bob, who was aged 23 at the time, represented all that was best in a Patrol Officer; highly intelligent, tough minded, good sense of humor and adaptable to any situation that might arise. Like me he is one of the old vintage of Patrol Officers who faced the odd arrow and spear during our careers. In the late 1950s we caught up again when we both served on different stations in the Milne Bay District.

I guess the Lamington experience bonded us together, living alongside each other in rather squalid conditions for two plus weeks with apprehension that we might be blown away any day in one of the continual volcanic eruptions taking place while we were based at Popondetta and from where we could see the volcano continually erupting on a more or less daily basis.

As I recall DC Niall told us that he had been advised by departmental headquarters in Port Moresby that his counterpart, Mr C.F. Cowley, the DC based at Higaturu in the Northern District located in Papua some 275 kilometres distant had been talking to Port Moresby on the wireless link when transmission failed about 10.00 am.

Although there was no historical records of volcanic activity in the area, Mount Lamington had started to erupt some week or so previously, causing earth tremors, explosions of ash and generally unsettling the local people and government officials and their families posted at Higaturu.

The earth tremors, and noise from minor volcanic outbursts and lack of sleep had upset some of the European staff to the extent than a number of wives and children had been sent to Port Moresby to obtain respite.

Gas emissions from the volcano and landslides were noted from Monday 15 January and an initial ash eruption on Thursday 18. In radio discussions reporting on the situation DC Cowley advised Port Moresby that there was no cause for alarm.

As the then Administrator J.K. Murray was travelling in other parts of TPNG, the Chief Justice FB (“Monte”) Phillips was the Acting Administrator in Port Moresby. Judge Phillips had been Chief Justice of New Guinea pre-WW2 and being based in Rabaul had experienced the volcanic eruption there in 1937.

On Friday 19 January, he flew to Popondetta, about 20 km from Higaturu. People at Higaturu could actually see eruption cloud rising from Lamington but Phillips concluded that the volcanic pressure was being relieved quite safely, based on his experience in Rabaul and concluded that there was no immediate danger to human life.

For many years there had been a professional vulcanologist seconded from the then Commonwealth Bureau of Mineral Resources—BMR (now Geoscience Australia)—based in Rabaul. At this time the incumbent was the late Mr GA (Tony) Taylor.

It is not quite clear as to his exact whereabouts during the week prior to the cataclysmic eruption on 21 January. He may have been in Bougainville examining volcanic activity there but in any case was back in Rabaul on 21 January.

Tony Taylor was awarded the George Cross for his efforts in the aftermath of the eruption. He died of a heart attack in 1972 after inspecting the volcano on Manam Island.
It seems that it was only in Rabaul that Tony Taylor became aware of the situation at Higaturu. Why he was not contacted by the TPNG authorities earlier is still not known. It may have been simple oversight: with the Administration, represented by Judge Phillips, having given the all clear, there was no need to involve Tony Taylor, or it may have been the case that he was just overlooked.

Actually there is some doubt that he was officially advised of the problem at Higaturu but that it was just mentioned casually by someone in passing while he was in Rabaul.

There is no evidence that anyone in the area could foresee what was to happen on 21 January. DC Cowley’s comments above and Judge Phillips’ reassurances suggested that what was occurring was a passing phase and that the volcanic activity would eventually diminish except for the occasional outburst.

My recollection is that, at the time we saw DC Niall, we believed that the volcano had probably erupted to the extent that it had interfered with the wireless transmission between the DC at Higaturu Mr C.F. Cowley and Port Moresby and that some assistance might be needed to help out local staff with medical assistance and foodstuffs.

To this end DC Niall organized a Dr Sverklys and a red haired nurse “Rusty” McLean to accompany Bob Blaikie and me on the government trawler MV Huon to Cape Killerton the coastal gateway to Popondetta and Higaturu. We also took with us a small detachment of armed native police to cope with any policing duties that may arise.

I might add that all Field Staff, like DC Niall and Bob and I, held commissioned rank in the Field Constabulary of the Royal Papuan and New Guinea Constabulary which gave us command authority over the native police.

We spent all day Sunday loading supplies and with DC Niall aboard we sailed from Lae in the late afternoon with the objective of providing what assistance was needed.

The trip on the trawler was really something. It was a beautiful starry night with dead calm seas and all in all a pleasant time chatting with DC Niall and the others aboard. As neither Bob nor I thought we would be away for more than a couple of days we had only a change of clothes and minimum personal gear. We had no idea of the devastation or lethality caused by the major eruption.

We arrived at Cape Killerton, the gateway to Popondetta and points inland, about 05:00 on Monday 22 January and with the assistance of local coastal people unloaded our supplies. We were met by two trucks covered with what looked like solidified grey cement which turned out to be volcanic ash or pumice solidified by rain.

There was a small shed nearby housing a number of people who had clearly come from the devastated area and who were suffering badly from severe burns and shock. As we travelled towards Popondetta in the trucks we came upon a Jeep towing a trailer containing the body of the Anglican priest, Fr Denis Taylor, who had died from burns received during the eruption.

We continued on to Popondetta where a temporary headquarters was set up under the house occupied by a Jack Scurrah, the local manager of a Buntings general store. Dr Sverklys set up his temporary medical centre under the house and Bob Blaikie and I camped on the floor of a nearby house. We were the first government officials to arrive in the area.

On Monday afternoon the administrator, senior officials from Port Moresby and Tony Taylor finally arrived; the latter having had difficulties getting a flight out of Rabaul. Things were somewhat chaotic while a command headquarters was set up.

DC Niall returned to Lae by air from Popondetta that afternoon and Nurse Mclean a day or so later.

The then Director of District Services and Native Affairs, Mr Ivan Champion, took charge of proceedings. On Tuesday, Bob was sent to Cape Killerton to make preliminary arrangements for setting up an evacuation centre for natives whose lives and food producing areas had been disrupted by the eruption. After he returned we worked together for the next couple of weeks.

At this juncture we really had no idea of the extent of the devastation or the death toll. When the cataclysmic eruption occurred, it was similar to the explosion of the atomic devices at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Eruptive material comprising pulverized ash was ejected upwards to about forty thousand feet.

At the same time masses of similar material hundreds of feet high rolled out of the caldera in all directions travelling at about eighty to one hundred kilometres an hour destroying everything in an area about eighteen by ten kilometres. Nothing survived in this area. All vegetation i.e. tropical rain forest (jungle so called), native villages, human and animal life was obliterated. The area appeared like a grey desert.

Thousands were killed, including the thirty or so government officials at Higaturu and DC Cowley. If you were in the area you died. If you were on the perimeter of the devastated area trying to outrun the superheated pumice ash you died. If you made it just outside the perimeter you lived.

Given that TPNG is located in the tropics, decomposition sets in quickly and thousands of rotting corpses were scattered throughout the area mostly covered in ash. Many hundreds more were spread out along the road from Higaturu where they had been attending church services on the Sunday morning. All were face down with legs and arms in a running position when the superheated ash caught up with them. A couple of hundred more bodies were huddled together in a church. Large numbers of the bodies had split open with intestines spilling out. The stench was appalling.

Although it was impossible to carry out post-mortem examinations it is generally believed that death was caused by inhalation of the superheated ash which had rolled over those trying to flee the area.

The Volcano was of a type known as a “glowing cloud” or nuee ardent or Pelean type. The first such recorded was at Mount Pele in Martinique c1900 which killed many thousand people where the superheated detritus spilled over as it did at Higaturu. Technical details of that outburst were sent to Tony Taylor from BMR so he could read up on the background to the event.

The volcano was continually erupting and ejecting material and although no more damage could occur in the area already obliterated the devastated area was still extremely dangerous. At this time Tony Taylor had no technical equipment and used a glass of water as a means of measuring the strength of the eruptions.

Spare keys for the safe in the government office at Higaturu were sent from Port Moresby and I was asked by Ivan Champion to clear the road by burying the dead and proceeding to the district office to recover any moneys or documents from the safe.

Together with another administration officer from (I think) the Public Works Department and a squad of native police I set off to Higaturu. Initially we tried to shovel bodies off the road into drainage ditches with four of us working together using shovels to do so.

The masses of bodies along the road actually made it difficult to move around without stepping on one. In those days the native police had bare feet and what with ruptured bodies and exuding body fluids the police were slipping and sliding about while we were trying to shovel them into roadside ditches. In retrospect it really was the stuff of nightmares.

Disregarding the impact on the police, which was bad enough, it soon became apparent that it was an impossible task and I cancelled the exercise and we returned to the base at Popondetta and reported to Ivan Champion.

It was decided to let nature take its course given the thousands of bodies scattered throughout the devastated area. But it was also the case that anyone venturing there could be caught there by outbursts from the volcano which was continually erupting.

The area was legally restricted to prevent anyone other than officials from entering.

Bob and I were the only two Patrol Officers permanently at the command post remaining there on duty for just under three weeks. Other Field Staff were pulled in from various government outstations and passed through Popondetta on their way to assist in setting up temporary camps in other locations away from the area as Bob had done at Cape Killerton.

On a small number of occasions Bob and I accompanied Tony Taylor into the devastated area and a couple of times when the volcano decided to erupt we departed at speed to outrun the ejected material.

Feral pigs and hungry dogs had started to move into the devastated area feeding on decomposing corpses and while in the area with Tony Taylor I fired shots from my revolver to disperse these animals.

Bob and I seemed to work from daylight to dark and suffered from lack of sleep because of the continual rumbling and outbursts from the volcano which we could actually see during daylight and also at night when fiery outbursts occurred. Washing facilities were minimal and we were grubby and continually tired.

Neither of us had more than one change of clothes i.e. shorts, shirts and underwear and after a few days our clothing seemed to have absorbed the stench pervading the area.

There was also the apprehension that the volcano would suffer a further cataclysmic eruption which would engulf us all with no chance of outrunning such an event. Indeed on a couple of occasions when radio communications broke down because of atmospheric conditions it was thought that we had all been wiped out.

By the end of our stay Bob and I were both worn out and in today’s parlance suffering from PTSD. Things had settled down and the command centre was operating well. Tony Taylor had received seismic equipment and was carrying out daily foot and jeep inspections and over flights of the area.

After being at Popondetta for just under three weeks we were relieved on the instructions of the Administrator who was aware that we had had enough. Those of us in the initial relief party had completed our task and others took over to continue the work of rehabilitation and recovery.

Bob and I flew out to Port Moresby with the armed police who had accompanied us there on 21 January and from there on a DC3 back to Lae. We must have looked a sight to other passengers. Both of us were armed and looked pretty grubby, dirty and dusty but nobody seemed to notice or maybe they were too scared to comment.

Given the times there was no routine of counselling for PTSD or indeed any recognition of our work. We just returned to our Patrol Officer duties, me patrolling out of Finschhafen and Bob back to Lae.

Tony Taylor wrote a definitive technical report on the eruption and as we had become quite friendly living under similar circumstances for a couple of weeks he sent me a copy. He wrote on the inside cover:-

You had firsthand experience of
The human side of this catastrophe
I am sure you will find some interest
In the technical side of studying this
unpleasant specimen.

With best wishes


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