ROBERT PARER CMG MBE
CORINDA QLD - On Wednesday 17 December 1941, 10 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour brought the USA into World War II, the Australian government despatched a large passenger ship, SS Katoomba, to Port Moresby.
Its main and urgent mission was to take on board Australian mothers and their children, dependents of Australian men who were working in Papua New Guinea.
Most of our family members reached Port Moresby in uncle Kevin Parer’s Dragon aircraft. My mother had two sets of twins and Aunty Doreen Owen (the sister of war photographer Damien Parer’s) also had two sets of twins and 7 children.
There were 22 Parers altogether who flew to Moresby to board Katoomba.The men stayed behind to fight the Japanese.
I was a small child, one of the 780 mothers and children who lived and slept on deck for the duration of the voyage (children in lifejackets). This was in case the ship struck one of the many mines laid between PNG and Brisbane by Japanese naval vessels.
“I was turning six. This was a big adventure. Hopping with excitement, I was impatient to be on that boat. It was a huge thing, waiting with steady magnificence to ferry us away on our journey. All I wanted to do was to be on board and on the way, out across the ocean.
“I’ve never forgotten that day. I was halfway up the gangplank already when my father called me back. He knelt down eye to eye with me and put his hand on my shoulder. “If anything happens to me, I want you to look after your mother. Can you do that for me?” He grinned and hugged me. We said goodbye.
“With two days’ notice and just before Christmas on 17 December 1942 my expectant mother and her three children left New Guinea for Australia. We were on SS Katoomba and were escorted to Brisbane by two Australian destroyers.”
Extract from Mine: A Memoir by the late Warwick Parer
I think everyone was sick as Katoomba zigged and zagged south across the Coral Sea, adding to the difficulties for those women who had left their homes little clothing, few possessions and no money. But we children had a great time.
For me, there were lots of other Parer kids on the ship. We had Santa on board (Christmas was approaching) and he gave me a soft drink as my present. I’d never even seen soft drink before.
On 21 January 1942 uncle Kevin Parer was killed as his plane was taking off at Salamaua in the first air raid on the mainland of PNG.
My father, Bob, was in Bougainville when the war started. He escaped 500 km through the Solomon Islands’ ‘slot’ to Tulagi in a small 20ft pinnace, eventually boarding a US ship day before the Japanese took Tulagi on 2 May 1942.
Bob then got to New Caledonia and arrived in Brisbane in July 1942. It was a big surprise for my mother who had been told by the Red Cross that Bob had been killed.
Dad bought a large house - a magnificent Queenslander - near St Benedict's Catholic School in East Brisbane. The house is still there and is the headmaster’s residence.
As well as being a pilot, my father was a licensed aeronautical engineer. In fact he had Australia’s first metal air frame licence. He was given a senior position as superintendent of aircraft production at Archerfield airfield in Brisbane where he managed a staff of 2,000 women and 15 young boys.
I was enrolled at Churchie. I clearly recall jumping over a fence to retrieve a ball and damaging a pumpkin. The nun in charge made me apologise to the owner and give her a shilling (about 10 toea). When I met the owner, Mrs Anderson, she asked if I was related to Ray Parer. I told her he was my Dad's brother.
It turned out that, after Ray flew from England to Australia, in 1920 he had landed his aircraft at Graceville and later started a business taking people for short flights. Mrs Anderson told me she had taken one of these joy flights which she had found exciting.
At Graceville Memorial Park there was a sign (it may still be there) saying that in the 1920s it had been an aircraft landing field. Until recently, I lived near where the airstrip had been.