BY PAMELA VIRTUE
My father was Cecil Cowley, the District Commissioner, an Australian who died that day in the line of duty. My brother was Erl Cowley, aged 16, who died alongside him.
My mother and I, the only Europeans from Higaturu who survived, barely escaped with our lives, and the memory lives on, as it does with the other survivors in Papua. I was 12 at the time.
It took me until 2002 to pluck up sufficient courage to return to Papua. I knew my father and brother were buried in the cemetery at the Memorial Park in Popondetta, but it was impossible to find their graves, as the crosses bearing their names had been removed by David Marsh.
That left me with a feeling of incompletion, as there was no actual gravesite where I could allow myself to give way to my grief which had been bottled up for more than 50 years.
When my husband and I eventually found the memorial plaques on the ground, it was heavily overgrown and in a shocking state of disrepair. We paid to have the park cleared for Eruption Day, and at least I was able to pay my respects.
The following year we returned, and it was overgrown again.
This year I was unable to return, due to ill health, but my friend who lost his brother in the eruption, Bernie Woiwod, informed me that a service was impossible at the Memorial Park because again it was so overgrown.
This lack of interest by the Australian government is, to me, a form of desecration, on top of the desecration of the removal of the individual crosses bearing the names of the dead from their actual position of their graves.
Thirty-three expatriates, many of them Australians in government service, died in that disaster, along with an estimated 13,000 Papuans (4,000 officially but that didn’t include children).
Mr Woiwod forwarded me a copy a recent letter from Ian Kemish, Australia’s High Commissioner in PNG, which said the “High Commission is contacted by a number of private groups that wish to support memorials”.
With all due respect, this is not a matter for private groups. This is a matter for the Australian government to honour its dead. Immediately adjacent to this dilapidated and abandoned memorial park, the Kokoda Memorial Park is maintained in beautiful condition.
My father, who served with distinction in World War II, died in the line of duty. He would not leave his post.
The dead can’t speak for themselves.
I trust Mr Kemish will use his good offices to effect a proper program of maintenance for this important memorial so as to show our nation’s respect for these loyal Australians.
Pamela (Cowley) Virtue is also seeking a publisher for a book her mother wrote about the eruption. You can email Pamela here
Photo: Mt Lamington in eruption, 1951 [South Pacific Post]