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The dead can’t speak for themselves


Mount_Lamington_1951 IN 1951, JUST OVER 60 years ago, my father and brother were killed in the eruption of Mt Lamington.

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]


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Newman Ewada

I have met, and to this day maintain email contact with, Mr Bernie Woiwood on the subject.

I confirm what Pamela had written here, that despite several attempts the response from both governments have not been received.

I would appreciate if a second copy of Pamela's book can be sent to me.

Rashmii Bell

I've just finished reading 'The Volcano's Wife', and highly recommend it to all.

Pamela Virtue has interwoven her mother's (Amalia Crowley) account in with her own to tell their story of the eruption of Mt Lamington, life after and Pamela returning to Oro Province some 50 years later to pay her respects to her father and brother who tragically lost their lives in the volcanic destruction.

It is an important part of history, and Pamela has been brave and generous to share her family's life of travel, postings living throughout PNG. The work of her father, District Commissioner Cecil Cowley gives more insight to the work of the colonial administration, patrol officers (kiaps).

Pamela's clear affection for Papua New Guineans, particularly her thoughtfulness of trauma endured (and continued) post-Mt Lamington eruption signifies a genuine relationship and understanding she has with place and people. Her account of returning to what was Higaturu Station was really moving.

I appreciated the inclusion of the photographs.

I find distressing the imbalance of memorialisation and significance given (by Australia and PNG government) to those who lost their life through a natural disaster, and that of war.

My heart goes out to everyone who lost loved ones during the 1951 eruption.

I was loaned a copy of The Volcano's Wife sometime last year. I picked it up just yesterday and read it in one sitting. I was prompted to read it after reading academic papers by Dr Victoria Stead - who refers to Pamela Virtue and her mother's book.

Pamela Cowley Virtue

Although I faxed this letter, and followed by sending it by post, I have never had a reply from the Australian High Commissioner, and I find this perplexing.

Pip Earl

I would love to get in touch with Mrs Virtue. My uncle Athol Earl died in the Mt Lamington eruption too.

Trevor Shelley Snr

The Mount Lamington disaster was an extremely sad and interesting event.

If anyone has the time and is interested in vulcanology, it's worthwhile researching it for a few hours.

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