The eruption of Mount Lamington, 21 January 1951: Marjorie Kleckham

Witnessed and written by Marjorie Surtees Kleckham, wife of the district agricultural officer Fred Kleckham

At the time Marjorie and Fred Kleckham were living at the Popondetta Agricultural Station. They had three children Fred Jnr (nicknamed Zeb) aged five, Betty who was almost four and baby Marjorie.

Christmas day 1950 had come and gone. I had brought back presents for the children on the station, and we’d had the usual festivities. The Party of the year was to be held at Letty and Maynard Locke’s place. Maynard was the educational officer for the district: both he and Letty had been born in the territory. This was to be a fancy dress party and I went to Higaturu early in the day and helped Letty with the cooking. They had a wonderful lot of food prepared, taro sliced into thin chips and fried, boiled native cane tops, and practically every variety of native food to be had in the area.

This was New Years Eve. Maynard dressed as a chef and he had on a tall cap with two good dishes on it, on one side was a picture of a roast turkey and the other side a glamour girl picture from a magazine. Letty went as an Indian maid.

Works and Housing turned up as a harem of dancing girls: they had wigs made out of teased out rope, their skirts were someone’s old window curtains and under all this were long socks and big boots. At midnight every one joined hands and sang “Auld Lang Syne”. After this we formed into a crocodile and sang “cigarettes and whisky and wild wild women”. The party went all night, ending up with a lot of the people going for a swim down near the coffee sheds.

Early in the morning we got our children into the car and went home.

Behind Higaturu were the mountains and they always looked beautiful with their veils of mist floating around them. We named them The Sisters. The one named Mount Lamington had a lake on top of it where the wild ducks used to nest. Sometimes some of the more adventurous men would go up there on a duck shooting expedition, however it was a hard job to get a native to guide you, they’d have none of this mountain. Said it was Puri puri, spirits lived there. We used to laugh at their superstitions, and the man would go on their own.

Mount Lamington was an extinct volcano so it was said, then two weeks after our New Year’s Eve party the mountain started smoking, apparently it was still bubbling underneath. No one was very concerned about it, the people I saw seemed to think that if it did overflow with lava, the lava would run down the river beds and not anywhere near Higaturu. They thought that they were safe.

The District Commissioner sent for a vulcanologist, none came. I was at the airstrip to say farewell to Mrs Champion on the Saturday morning. The District Commissioner was there waiting for the vulcanologist. Mrs Champion asked me if she could stay the night at my place if the plane did not come. The doctor and his wife were there, they said they wanted to take the Champions back with them, but Mrs Champion said she couldn’t bear the shaking of the ground any more.

Mrs Gleeson’s baby was due at any time and I was to do the confinement. I asked Dr Martin if he had any idea of just when I should come up to Higaturu. He said that I could spend the weekend at home with my family, but that I would need to come up on Monday morning. The arrangements were for me to stay at Mrs Gleeson’s, my children to stay with Mrs Lock, and Fred would have come and stayed the week end. The baby was late in arriving and so we stayed at Popondetta.

The plane did get in and Judge Phillips and Mrs Phillips were on it. The pilot flew the Judge around the mountain, and he thought that everything was all right.

The plane flew off; Champions went on it, they were going on their holidays.

That was on Saturday by that time the flames were licking up into the air and when it became dark you could see these flames from our dining room window, they went up into the sky as far as the eye could see.

Sunday morning came; the volcano seemed to be a little bit quieter. There were some agricultural people wanting to come and stay with us on business, we had wired them not to come as we had no beds.

At eleven o’clock we were out in the rubber patch fixing the small trees, and also showing the children the volcano and explaining it to them. Suddenly there was a terrible explosion, it came up like a huge mushroom of smoke, gradually this spread ever the whole area, while we stood and watched it, the children will certainly never forget just what a volcano looks like.

As we were standing there taking photographs of the eruption a boy came running with a note from Jack Scurrah, it was just “It looks as if Hig’s gone”. Then we saw Jack coming down the road towards us. He and Fred had a talk and decided to start walking to Higaturu to help, as soon as the dust cleared.

I had to prepare food for everyone, got all the bandages and medical supplies I could collect together, get the machinery cleared out of the sheds, spread tarpaulins across the floors of the sheds and make an emergency war hospital for the people.

I supervised all of this work and also collected all the 44 gallon drums I could find and sent boys with every available bucket to carry water to fill these drums and tubs. It was very fortunate that I did this; the streams ran hot and filled with mud and dead fish and other animals.

When I had this much under control, I went into the house and started cooking pastry and scones.

A truck arrived from Sangara rubber estates, the windscreen was inches thick in mud. The people on the back had the pandanus floor mats over their heads; they and the mats were also covered in mud.

I took them all into my house and got them drinks of anything they wanted, they were relieved I think to be down with me. Fred and Jack had met this truck, but they had kept on walking into Higaturu. The men who had arrived on the truck turned it around and went back the way they had come. It seemed like no time when the truck arrived back. I went to meet it and the man handed me Dennis Taylor, the Anglican missionary, who was badly burnt. Mrs Morris came to me and we decided to put him in her house as it was quieter over there and my house was already full of people, some of them still having their families missing and in a badly shocked state.

Very shortly the truck came again and the men had got any other vehicles they could find. So started the shuttle service: truck load after truckload of burnt and dying native people, parents holding babies, all of them horribly burnt and covered in mud as well. Now we started, all the women worked tirelessly all day, all night, and into the next morning. All we had for the treatment of burns was tins of dripping. Every native was given a place to lie down in the shelter of a roof. The women (European women) put dripping on all their burns and Jack Scurrah did a marvellous job of keeping us supplied with food from the trade store.

He also had his staff making buckets full of hot Bovril and lacing it with Rum to ease the natives’ pain. We had no morphia, nothing except Rum and Whisky to give them to ease their pain. We got this from the trade store.

I sent a boy with a truck to Gona mission to get Sister Elliot, I wrote a note telling her what had happened and asked her to bring all the morphia and syringes and what ever else she had in medical supplies.

I never did find out what happened to that native. No word came and I sent a runner down, then I sent also a boy named Corima to Oro Bay mission with a note to Sister Henderson and Dr Biggs. Poor Sister Elliot, she arrived at 3 am. She had walked all the way from Gona Mission. Father Dennis Taylor had passed away at about two minutes to three. She had her morphia supplies end we gave them to the most needful of the people.

It was dark now. Fred and Rod Hart had gone in the mission jeep through the eruption area to Owala plantation where there was a wireless to try and get through to Port Moresby. They got there alright, saw Searle and he sent the message.

They started on their way back but just before they got to Sangara, their jeep broke down. They left the jeep and ran to Sangara and were lucky enough to get on a truck that was just leaving. This was well after dark and the men had gone to get anything from Sangara that would be of use. Mattresses, refrigerator and medical supplies. They were as far us the airstrip at Popondetta when the volcano erupted again. Fred told me that the blast lifted the truck from the ground.

During this time I was at Popondetta mud and stones had been falling down there. It was almost nine o’clock at night, I had been working all day and we were taking it in turns to go to Jack Scurrah’s to have a meal. It was my turn. I just got to the house and the mountain blasted again. It was a magnificent sight at night. I watched it: the big cloud was interspersed with myriads of little lights: red, blue, green and yellow like great masses of coloured fireflies.

I had to go back to the children. When I when I got there, lights were burning in my house but there was no one there. The women had taken all the children down the road to ensure their safety.

Fred had told me not to let the people get out from the shelters on account of the stones. And also he’d told me to keep all the native people at our house: if they made for the coast and a tidal wave came as a result of the eruption they’d all be drowned.

I couldn’t leave the people who were sick to go after them so I just stayed and waited. If the men on the trucks were burnt, I would be needed to fix them up.

The truck came in and I asked Fred if anyone was hurt, he said no and then told me how narrowly they had escaped the second eruption. I told him what had happened and he went in the truck after them. They soon arrived back.
We had taken a record of every shake after the blast. Fred said this had to be done for the vulcanologist. We put dishes out to collect the dirt and stores for him to look at.

My baby was still being breast fed and had to be attended to. There was no water to have a wash: we needed it all for drinking purposes.

At midday on Sunday a Qantas Dragon had flown over. We had signalled for it to land and pointed to the airstrip. I’d grabbed a bundle of the babies napkins and written “Please land on the ground”: maybe they didn’t see this.

They flew over us. I felt so elated that I might be able to get some of the badly burned people out. However they dropped us a note: “There will be a ship in to Killerton at noon tomorrow” and with that they flew away .

I’ve never felt so deflated as I did at this. There were all these people needing special treatment and a big plane flew away empty of passengers.

All night the men kept watch on the mountain. Some of the women had their children missing. Fred had been to Owala and seen Mrs Henderson’s daughter but didn’t bring her back through the danger area. Some of the other children had been killed. At about ten o’clock next morning a plane landed. We women and our children and many burnt people were loaded on and taken to Port Moresby via Lae. Dr Morley had come to meet us: he had been our first Doctor at Higaturu and knew all the people.

Several more planes landed and took the hospital cases to Lae.

As we left Popondetta we circled Higaturu for the last time. There was nothing left: all the houses were blown pieces, all our friends were dead, the whole place was covered in pumice and ash feet deep. This was the last time I saw Higaturu.

We woman were flown out but our men had stayed behind to assist in rescue work. They had tried to get into Higaturu but the river below the station was boiling hot and could not be crossed. Now it had gone down a bit and the men could get in to see what had happened.

The whole place was utter devastation: houses blown to pieces, iron telegraph poles were bent at right angles to the ground, around these were wrapped sheets of martzan matting and pieces of roofing iron, and over this was grey ash and pumice.

When we got into Port Moresby we were met by members of the Red Cross who were extremely kind to us all. Then we were given rooms in the Hotel Papua. The children were shocked, especially young Fred who had been old enough to see his small native mates and realise the pain they were in. He had with Betty come down to the engine sheds to find me, and seen all his friends that were burnt. I had tried to prevent the children from coming down to the sheds, however it was too much to be everywhere at the same time. When we were leaving Zeb ran in and got his tip truck and scooter, and Betty carried her doll. I had the baby to carry.

After we had been in Port Moresby for a few days I was moved into a house. This was much better for the children. Now I had to do the cooking and washing for the children and I’m sure that this working kept me level headed.

Fred was still working at Popondetta. They were going into Higaturu and finding the dead, identifying them mainly by their jewellery, watches and rings. Some times we woman were shown something and asked if we could identify it.

Now while I was in Port Moresby I learnt that Fred was working with the vulcanologist. This entailed flying in and out of the crater between eruptions. Sometime I was told later on that the stones coming up would make holes in the wings of this plane. Here I was in Port Moresby and there was Fred taking photographs out of the plane of the inside of the crater. I still have these photographs.

I was worried. This job I didn’t know had finished, and there came the night when Mrs Henderson, who was a good friend of mine, came and visited me. I had not heard the seven o’clock news because that was the time when I was busiest with the children, feeding them and getting them to bed. She stayed with me.

Nine o’clock came and as we were talking I missed that news too, also the 10.30 news. Mrs Henderson usually went home much earlier than this and I began to suspect that something was wrong. Of course it had been put over the news that Fred was seriously injured and I hadn’t been told. She was there to keep me from hearing the news. Just after midnight, one of our officers came in, they’d been on the radio all night, checking up to see if Fred was going to live before they told me.

The officer said that they thought he was going to live now and an administration car would call for me early in the morning to meet the plane, which would be in at 5 o’clock.

In the morning I went to meet him, he was on a stretcher and really looked as if he’d had it. The ambulance took him straight to the hospital. Fred had been in a jeep with a native driver who was from the Mekeo country. This driver was used to driving on flat roads and was not used to the hilly country. He had lost control of the jeep going down the hill. Fred, seeing the danger, jumped from the jeep. The driver immediately took his foot off the accelerator and the jeep swerved. Fred was between the jeep and the cliff face. Both the jeep and the trailer rammed him against the cliff face, and caught him across the ribs and the pelvis. He had also been staked in the groin by a stick.

At first it was thought that both ribs and pelvis were smashed but the xrays showed that this was not as bad as suspected, however he had four haematomas internally, one in each hip and one in each side of his chest. These would take a long time to dissolve into his system. He was strapped in plaster and after a few days was allowed to be carried home on a stretcher and then I nursed him and looked after the children as well. This did not last for long, he got up, plaster and all and decided to go to Kokoda and collect our possessions what, was left of them after the tragedy.

There had been an influx of people into Popondetta to help clean up the mess. A lot of these men had not brought the essential necessities. Both our house and Morrises house were raided for sheets, cutlery, cooking gear and china. We had been asked what we had lost earlier, before we knew just what had happened. We claimed I think five pounds. It was not until later that we found out how much of our stuff was missing.

When Fred got off the plane at Popondetta he met the Administrator and was asked why he was out of bed. He explained about our things and was allowed to go and get them from Kokoda, but had to have someone go with him and look after him. We were asked if we’d like to go to Australia on leave.


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