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Calamity of the mountain in the mist

Approaching Mt Lamington after the explosion 1951 (Fred Kleckham - PNGAA)
A small group of government officers approach Mt Lamington after the 1951 eruption (Fred Kleckham - PNGAA)

| Library of the PNG Association of Australia

Fred Kleckham - The last surviving expat remembers

BRISBANE - 21 January 2021 commemorates the 70th anniversary of the eruption of Mount Lamington, near Popondetta in Papua New Guinea’s Northern Province.

Mt Lamington was probably the most destructive volcano to human life in modern history, taking the lives of an estimated 4,000 people.

Volcanologist Tony Taylor with Mt Lamington erupting  1951 (PNGAA - Fred Kleckham)
Volcanologist Tony Taylor arrives in Popondetta with Mt Lamington erupting in the distance (PNGAA - Fred Kleckham)

I am probably the only expatriate alive who remembers witnessing the eruption. I was astride the shoulders of Dad’s long term friend and bosboi, Ingaripa, and we were out checking Dad’s rubber seedlings at the agriculture station nursery when the mountain went up.

We were rained on with drops of moist pumice. I recall Dad and Frank Henderson coming back to our house numerous times with Henderson’s truck, the back laden with the bodies of dead and badly burnt people.

Mum tended those alive and the dead were buried in mass graves with their names in a bottle for later exhumation.

Dad was awarded the civil OBE for his work with the rescue mission.

We were then transferred to Lorengau on Manus island for five years before going to Daru for four years.

What follows is my mother’s account of the eruption. Marjorie was the wife of district agricultural officer Fred Kleckham, who passed away in 2002 aged 86. Marjorie passed away in 2007 aged 88.

At the time of the eruption, Marjorie and Fred lived at the Popondetta Agricultural Station. They had three children, Fred Jr (nicknamed Zeb) aged five, Elizabeth (Betty) almost four and baby Marjorie. A fourth child, Percy, followed later.

Marjorie Surtees Kleckham - ‘It looks as if Higs gone’.

Man  daughter and son  all with burns  escaping eruption  1951 (Fred Kleckham - PNGAA)
A man with his daughter and carrying his son,  all with burns,  escaping the eruption (Fred Kleckham - PNGAA)

At the time, we (Marjorie and Fred Kleckham) were living at the Popondetta Agricultural Station. We 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 Lockes’ 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 Year’s 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 on 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 everyone joined hands and sang Old 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 jeep 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.

[It was] a hard job to get a native to guide you, they'd have none of this mountain. Said it was puripuri, spirits lived there. We used to laugh at their superstitions, and the men would go on their own.

Mt Lamington ash and smoke over the Anglical Martyrs Memorial School  Popondetta  1951 (Fred Kleckjam - 1951)
Mt Lamington ash and smoke bear down on the Anglican Martyrs Memorial School,  Popondetta (Fred Kleckham - PNGAA)

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, well 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 volcanologist; 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 volcanologist. 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 jeep 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 weekend.

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 alright.

The plane flew off, the Champions went on it, 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 [and] 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 with our bosboi Ingaripa 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 over 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 Higs 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.

Mt Lamington  2014 (Fred Kleckham - PNGAA)
Mt Lamington in 2014. The local people were always suspicious of the mountain in the mist (Fred Kleckham - PNGAA)

I had to prepare food for everyone and got all the bandages and medical supplies I could collect together. Got the machinery cleared out of the sheds, spread tarpaulins across the floors of the sheds and made 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 volcanic 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, they however had kept on walking into Higaturu.

The men who had arrived on the truck, turned it around and went back the back the way they had come. It seemed like no time when the track arrived back, I went to meet it and the man handed me Dennis Taylor, the Anglican missionary. He 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 - truckload after truckload of burnt, dead and dying native people, parents holding babies, all of them horribly burnt and covered in volcanic mud as well.

Now we started, all the women worked tirelessly all day all night and into the text morning. All we had for the treatment of burns were 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.

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 whatever 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 3am. She had walked all the way from Gona Mission. Father Dennis Taylor passed away at about two minutes to three. She had morphia supplies and 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, 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 as 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 [and] 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 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 volcanologist. We put dishes out to collect the dirt and stones 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 there 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. Later we women and our children and many burnt people were loaded on a plane 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 to pieces and 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 women 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.


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