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Mt Lamington: Remembering the 4,000

Mt Lamington in eruption
At the time heavily forested. Mt Lamington was not believed to be a volcano until shortly before it exploded

| My Land, My Country

POPONDETTA - It’s early morning at Hohorita village, a few kilometers outside Popondetta town.

Organisers of the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Mt Lamington eruption on 21 January 1951 are putting the final touches to preparations as they wait for the guests to arrive.

While at one level, it is a solemn occasion. It is the remembrance of 4,000 men, women and children who died.

It is also a celebration of life and, for these devout Anglican communities, a resurrection and a revival.

“I’ll tell you about my clan,” says Winterford Suharupa, a former NBC broadcaster from Hohorita.

“My whole clan was wiped out. Only two people survived, my father and his brother. Both of them were out of the province.

“We lost everything. I wish the people who were there could tell you the stories.

“I wish the man who ran from the foothills to the administration centre was here to tell you his story. But he is gone.”

Hohorita is a village that grew from a post-eruption settlement. The people originally lived in the foothills of the volcano.

After their villages were destroyed, the survivors were resettled here. The traditional owners of the land were kind and generous, the survivors said.

A lot of the history about the Mt Lamington eruption has still to be rediscovered.

After 70 years, records on the Papua New Guinea side remain part of oral history drawn from the mental archives of the elders.

Avari Lucien Koiembo
Survivor Avari Lucien Koiembo - "The mountain exploded like a bomb"

All the survivors of the Lamington eruption are now in their 70s and 80s. At Kiorota village, two of four survivors told of their experiences.

Avari Lucien Koiembo was eight-years-old when he was scolded by his brother-in-law and told to flee from the eruption.

“I saw very thick dust and it was rolling down the mountain. The mountain exploded like a bomb.”

Rediscovering that history has been like putting together pieces of a puzzle.

When you speak to the elders, you get to understand the unimaginable pain they went through.  Some were very young when it happened.

Koiembo is now 78. He fled with his younger niece and nephew when the sky became pitch black in mid-afternoon.

“It was dark for three hours. It wasn’t night. The ash had covered up the sky. We couldn’t see anything.

“The clothes people wore became so heavy with the wet ash, they fell off.”

Des Martin awarded the PNG Order of Logohu by consul-general Magdalene Moi-He
Des Martin after being awarded the Order of Logohu by PNG consul-general Magdalene Moi-He

The disaster not only destroyed villages and the environment. It killed whole clans and families. At eight-years-old, Avari Lucien Koiembo lost his entire clan.

“If you speak to the local people within the vicinity of the volcano, their stories suggest that the number of those who perished is higher than what has been estimated,” says Northern Province Governor Gary Juffa. Our oral history needs to be better documented.

For the colonial Administration, the Mt Lamington eruption triggered a huge post-war relief operation.

DevastationThe first team into the disaster stricken area was led by former soldier and kiap, John Desmond ‘Des’ Martin, patrol officer Bob Blaikie and volcanologist Tony Taylor.

Before he passed away in 2018, Des Martin was honoured by the Papua New Guinea government with an Order of Logohu award. He wrote an article describing horrific scenes where hundreds of people lay dead after the eruption.

Tony Taylor’s work studying the Mt Lamington volcano identified safe zones where the Administration could conduct the rescue operation.

His work is still classed as one of the best studies of an active volcano. He died on Manam Island in 1972.

For people in Northern Province, Anglican missionaries led by Bishop David Hand are still held in high regard for their work in rebuilding the communities devastated by the disaster.


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Pamela Cowley Virtue

Bernie, I think there is a photo of Reverend Taylor in the book authored by my mother and I, 'The Volcano’s Wife'.

More about 'The Volcano's Wife' in the link below - KJ

Loani Lee

I was staying in Port Moresby with my mother Eileen Healy and sisters Elizabeth, Clarissa and Erica. My father, Clarrie Healy, was crocodile shooting and we were waiting for him to take up the post of Assistant District Officer at Higaturu.

He should have been there weeks earlier but was having some sort of dispute with the Administration. It was lucky for us as everyone at Higaturu was killed in the Mt Lamington blast.

Father was recalled from his crocodile venture and led a clean up mission into the blast area.
He then went on to re-establish the government station at Popondetta.

We lived at Popondetta, first in the old Japanese hospital house and then in a newly built house with a view of the mountain.

About a year later, when I was home on holidays from boarding school, my father took me to Higaturu when he was on patrol.

I am still haunted at what I saw. Everything was so green and lush. The bananas were huge. But it looked surreal.

Scattered children’s toys and a broken high chair are the images that remain. How fragile is life.

Bernie Woiwod

I am looking for a photo of Rev Dennis Taylor , a victim of the Mt Lamington eruption on 21 January 1951.

It is part of a memorial project we're working on in Popondetta.

Doug Taylor

In memory of my uncle, the Rev Dennis James Taylor and his family.

Ray Grimshaw

We were awakened by our house boys about 0600 - 'Oh masta, big bang'. Port Moresby was quickly covered in ash.

One day later I flew into Popondetta with my father and John Arthur, boss of the Department of Civil Aviation. I was a schoolboy getting ready to go south to boarding school.

Apart from the destruction caused by the blast my most vivid memory is the creeks filled with rolling rocks. One trip I will never forget.

Chris Overland

I lived at Popondetta and Kokoda between 1971 and 1974.

Mount Lamington cast a long shadow over the Orokaiva people, with stories from the disaster having been told and retold over the decades.

Every day the mountain loomed over those of us who lived at Popondetta, quietly smouldering in the distance, an ever present reminder that it was not dead, merely dormant.

It was not until I saw film of the eruption of Mount St Helens in 2004 that I could properly visualise just what happened on 21 January 1951.

It must have been unimaginably horrible for those who fell victim to the eruption, including those left trying to reconstruct their lives after the event.

I hope Gary Juffa will find a way to collect and compile an oral history of that period before the last survivors perish.

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