Feature Articles

Welcome to this week's feature stories. The stories are from various Papua New Guinean writers. The main highlight this week is the story on .....

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Mt Lamington tragedy remembered


ON SUNDAY, January 21 1951 Mt Lamington erupted killing more than 3,500 Orokaivan people in 29 villages and 35 Europeans who were stationed at Martyrs' Memorial School, Sangara Anglican Mission Station and Higaturu Government Station.

The Orokaivans included policemen and medical orderlies who worked at Higaturu Station and prisoners who were serving their sentences at Higaturu Prison.  

(Right..Picture of the devastation...a jeep caught up in a tree)

Names of Europeans who lost their lives during the disaster are listed below:
1. Cecil Cowley, 48 District Commissioner
2. Erl Lewis Cowley, 16 son
3. Walter Richard Humphries, 60 Director of Native Affairs
4. Father Denis Taylor, Priest-in-Charge of Sangara Mission Station
5. Mrs. Hector Taylor
6. Taylor, child
7. Taylor, child
8. Taylor, child
9. James Ian James, Patrol Officer
10. Margaret de Bibra, Headmistress, Martyrs' Memorial School
11. James Gleeson, district Officer
12. Mrs. Gleeson, wife
13. Paul Martin, son
14. Dr. Pat Martin
15. Mrs. Olga Martin
16. Terence E. Maher-Kelly, 42, Agricultural Officer
17. Roy Arthur Graham, Agricultural Officer
18. Freda Joyce Graham, 50, mother
19. Maynard Lock, Principal, Commonwealth Rehabilitation & Training School
20. Mrs. Lilitia Lock, wife
21. Guy Margnerite Lock, son
22. Marion Jennifer Lock, daughter
23. Mrs. Elsie Kadock, wife
24. James Jameson Kadock, Works and Housing
25. Frederic William Cook, 29, Works and Housing
26. Mrs. T. Cook, wife
27. Athol James Earl, 26 Patrol Officer
28. Terence John Holihan, 25, Works and Housing
29. Arthur Joseph Williams, 32, Works and Housing
30. Ronald Alexandra Watkins, 30, Works and Housing
31. Thomas Arthur Greenwood, 47, Works and Housing
32. Kevin Victor Bradford, 21, Patrol Officer
33. Claude Devonish Stewart, Works and Housing
34. Robert James Myers, 32, Health Officer
35. Kevin Woiwood, 24, Works and Housing

(Below) Rebuilding at the site of destruction.  
Pictures from the Australian National Library archives 

The plaque built to the memory of those who lost their lives in the eruption, was unveiled by the Minister of State for Territories, Paul Hasluck in Popondetta on November 24 1952.

Death statistics of Mt Lamington eruption
 The eruption of Mt Lamington on Sunday morning of January 21 1951 was the greatest natural disaster to have occurred on Australian- administered Territory of Papua New Guinea. Rising out of the rich gardening land of the Northern District, Mt Lamington was scarcely thought of as a potentially dangerous volcano, but in the days immediately before the eruption, there was increasing rumbling, smoke and tremors. Both the Orokaivan people and the white community thought the activity was evidence that pressure was being releases gradually. On the morning of the eruption messengers carried notes in to be read in church assuring the village people that there was no need to worry.

Just after 10.30 am on Sunday morning of July 21 1951 a paroxysmal explosion released a cloud of intense heat and massive force. The sound of the blast carried over 80 miles and the dust fell on Port Moresby. Within an area of 60 square miles, there was almost complete devastation. The District headquarters of Higaturu, the Commonwealth Rehabilitation and Training School, Sangara Anglican Mission Station, Martyrs' Memorial School, Sombou Primary School, and 29 villages were swept by the lethal cloud. The death toll stood at 3, 738.

Breakdown of death statistics of Lamington eruption have been released for the first time since 1951 by a Papua New Guinean historian, Maclaren Jude Hiari who has been researching into the myth of Sumbiripa Kanekari. Mt Lamington has long had a central position in the Orokaivan world order which the people regard it as the centre of the cosmos. It is the place where in Orokaiva myth, death, war fare and fire originated. Most of the transforming deities who are said to have established the rituals and social customs of the Orokaiva came from the crater of the mountain.

The mountain is called Sumbiripa Kanekari, "the separation of Sumbiripa."  The mountain opened up and split into several facial features. Sumbiripa who was hunting on the mountain with his wife, Suja, got separated and found themselves on different features. Sumbiripa became the first man to die, thus becoming the master of the mountain.

The statistics of Mt. Lamington death toll are provided below:
* 3, 256 Orokaivan People in 29 villages
* 210 Schoolchildren from Martyrs' and Sombou Schools.
* 35 Europeans including Anglican missionaries.
* 90 Papuan policemen and their families.
* 75 Prisoners including 59 wartime troublemakers
* 15 Papuan Medical Orderlies
* 48 Papuan Laborers
* 11 Papuan Missionaries and their families

The jungles now hide the scars of Papua New Guinea's greatest peacetime tragedy...the 1951 Mt Lamington Eruption that killed more than 3, 500 Orokaivan people and 35 Europeans. It occurred 59 years ago.
But among the jungle roots and wet earth are thousands of death. On that disastrous Sunday morning of January 21 1951, Lamington virtually blasted Higaturu Government Station, Sangara Anglican Mission Station, Sombou Primary School, Martyrs' Memorial School and the Sangara Coffee Plantation off the face of the earth.

In the confusion and chaos of that day and the gruesome weeks of clearing up that followed, most of the bodies were given quick burials in mass graves. About 27 kilometers away at Popondetta, grieving families of the 35 Europeans killed, erected headstones in a special cemetery.

Now, the horror of Mt Lamington has been re-lived-because the local Orokaivan people going back into the area have stumbled across skeletons. Local people including Wellington Kogora and his children have located bodies in the ruins of the hospital, the prison and the police barracks at Higaturu and a Sangara Mission Station and Martyrs' Memorial school.

Last year the Director of the Kokoda-Buna Historical foundation, Maclaren Jude Hiari visited the former sites of Higaturu Government Station, the District Commissioner's Residence, Sangara Anglican mission Station, the station cemetery, Martyrs' Memorial School, Sombou School and the Commonwealth Rehabilitation and Training School. He located several bones of possibly an Orokaivan native on the grounds of Sangara Mission Station.

Mr. Hiari visited the former site of the large breadfruit tree at the edge of the station where the Australian Army unsuccessfully tried on two occasions to hand Papua New Guinea's leading war criminal, Embogi, but managed to do on the third attempt together with four men from Waju Village in the Kokoda District on July 5 1943. The breadfruit acted as the temporary gallows. He also visited the former site of proper gallows on the amphitheatre hill on at Higaturu government Station where the Australian Army hanged 79 Orokaivan men during 1943-1945. He also visited the graves of two woman missionaries, May Hayman and Mavis Parkinson and the Papuan teacher-evangelist, Lucian Tapiedi at the cemetery at former Sangara mission station which is forgotten and uncared for.

Mr. Hiari then stumbled into several wrecks of jeeps and concrete posts of a gate leading into the official government station and the wrecks of trucks, jeep, steel posts and bars and a heap of more than 80 bags of cement at the former Commonwealth rehabilitation and training school; which turned into rocks as a result of the disaster. At that time Cecil Cowley was the District Commissioner who was one of the 35 Europeans killed.

The Higaturu foothills beneath Mt lamington covered with bodies - there was nothing much they could do straight after the explosion. It was a shambles. Many of the bodies were not buried properly because the volcano area had been declared (straight after the eruption) a dangerous place in which to live. Village people had stayed out of the area for many years. Now, some Orokaivan people including Wellington Kogora and his children from the Paingoufu Clan have returned home to the former disaster zone and built their homes where they are living today.

Mr. Hiari's visit was to inspect the original sites of wartime hangings, the former government station, the former Anglican Mission station, the Martyrs' School, the cemetery and the former Commonwealth Rehabilitation and Training School in order to complete the writing of the manuscript on the Australian Army's hanging of Orokaivan men in Higaturu.


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