Courage, Discipline, and Faith.
These are great words and are even greater when practiced, and can save one’s life.
Seventy years ago, this was so in the case of a group of young men from Morobe province, who volunteered as drivers and were deployed out from Lae, with a few Australian administrators from the Territory of New Guinea to help the Territory of Papua officials, in doing one of the earliest joint coordinated search and rescue operations, during the deadly volcanic eruption of Mt Lamington in Oro province, in January 1951.
That eruption was and is still the deadliest volcano disaster on record in Papua New Guinea, which covered entire villages with lava flow, fumes and hot ashes, stretching over a radius of 14 kilometers and claiming over 4,000 local lives in the course of a few days.
There are thousands of eyewitness stories of local survivors, most of which, were only orally transmitted down through family generations. Their stories are not yet formally recorded and taught in the public school system and the only written records are the few from the Australian administrators involved in this volcanic disaster. From records, a few white Australian administrators who took part in the search and rescue operation, were recognized by the Australian Federal and state governments for their effort.
According to records, the area of extreme damages was over a radius of 12km, while people in communities 14km away were killed from the blast or were burnt to death over some days, resulting in over 4,000 deaths mostly from the communities surrounding Mt Lamington, which is on a height of 1,680 meters (5,510 ft) above sea level.
This is the story of that volcanic disaster and the involvement of a group of young men from around Morobe, who all had one thing in common: they were all drivers with the New Guinea administration based in Lae, and at that time were involved in moving Australian military and other government cargoes in Lae.
Following the first eruption at Mt Lamington , word reached the Australian officials in Lae and all drivers were called to assemble the next day where the Australian officials explained to them the occurring natural disaster and the gravity of the situation. They were told about a planned operation to assist the Papuan Territory administration, and the need for drivers to do evacuations of affected villages, and were also bluntly told that they may die during the operation and their bodies may not be returned home. Most of the drivers hailed from Markham, Nawaeb, Finschhaffen and Huon Gulf areas in Morobe, and had never seen a volcanic mountain.
One of these drivers, was my maternal grandfather, Salasie Ngadup Dunusu, a tall and muscular lad from Labu-Tale, one of the three Labu villages located directly opposite the current Lae seaport. Salasie was the first driver who volunteered by raising his hand and stepping forward to undergo the next process of medical examinations by Australian doctors. From his own recollection years later to family members, a few of his Jabem and Kotec speaking colleagues and close friends from Markham, Bukawa, Wampar and Finschaffen area, also followed him, including his close friend from Kaiapit in Markham, mentioned only by first name of, Gebob,.
According to written records, “Rescue parties which arrived on the scene were hampered by suffocating pumice dust and sulphurous fumes and hot ashes on the ground. The advance post of relief workers at Popondetta was threatened with destruction by other eruptions during the several days following. Further tremors and explosions occurred during February. Three days later a violent eruption where a large part of the northern side of the mountain was blown away and devastating flows of steam and smoke poured out from the gap for a considerable time afterwards.”
Salasie, highlighted in his description of the area of destruction was a scene of death, destruction and chaos. For Salasie, it was also his first time to see people from the Papua region and territory, and especially the people of Oro. He recalls that the atmosphere was full of smoke and hot ash which made the day look like night. Salasie also mentioned about they were literally seeing the line of the flowing lava and the flow of wind carrying hot ashes, and he had to maneuver the jeep away, while trying not to lose their way and direction back to camp.
Salasie’s recollection was that when they arrived they were given Australian Military Jeeps to drive, with operations done in small convoys into villages, with orders to fill up the jeeps with as many people as possible and drive back quickly to care-centers. A couple of instances, Salasie says he and other colleagues defied the Kiaps order to get out of imminent danger posed by the changing wind directions and the flowing lava, to retrieve injured, helpless locals and being the last ones out of a village. He believed that the dead had to be respected, especially when handled as they were once living human beings. He and others also spared time to move bodies to safer places to be discovered later, for identification and proper burial. That was Courage
Salasie also highlighted that they were reminded by Christian Evangelists and also by the Australian officers not to lose focus and step out of line of their duties. He specifically mention that he and a couple of others, were regularly reminding their colleagues about this, especially when they were also dealing with a large number of fellow Wantoks who were displaced, injured, frightened and traumatized. He says he warned other drivers to respect both the dead person and a person who is still alive and, not to take advantage ofvulnerable women especially those who were also found naked or half naked. That was Discipline.
Salasie, a man of strong Christian faith, who was educated by Lutheran evangelists can read and write ahead of most of his peers at that time, likened the tragic scene of dead bodies and burnt dying people in villages they went into, as “Hell as described in the Bible”. He said he was continually reminding his colleagues, during moments when they could not find the tracks to come out of an affected area, that God will helped them survive the disaster if they stick to helping the affected locals to safety. He recalled that on a couple of occasions, his Kaiapit friend, Gebob, who broke down crying and blaming him for being the first to volunteer which influenced the rest of the drivers to follow. At one village, Salasie recalled that, hot ashes and black smoke blocked resulted in limited visibility and difficulty in breathing, they had to take cover with some surviving locals in a church building, while the other houses in the village was burning, and they prayed while waiting for the place to clear up in order for them to go back to the care center. He said He has testified many times that he survived because of his faith in God and was prayerful before doing the evacuations. That was Faith.
Like all of his other ‘comrades’ from this small band of boys from Morobe who became men in Oro after surviving this dangerous mission, most of the experiences were told to family members and it is about time their stories are on record for the future generations to know.
I was privileged as the first grandchild of Salasie and was raised by him and my grandmother, Misali, for the first 15 years of my life, where he was driver for the government for most of his time back in Lae, and heard him firsthand near the fireplace and during thousands of family gatherings about the Mt Lamington volcano disaster.
My mother Ayap Sagwana, recalled that Granddad Salasie, prior to that search and rescue operation to Oro, was attached with the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) and was driving an Australian military jeep. Ronald Salasie, my uncle, who helped confirmed some of the details of my grandfather’s experiences, said granddad maintained his love for driving for the rest of his life, and was one of the first registered taxi services operators in Lae, before venturing into PMV bus operation and later got retired from government as a driver with the Lae City Council, where he rotating between driving garbage trucks to ambulances for the Lae district administration.
Decades after the Mt Lamintgon disaster, Salasie still accorded respect to the dead. It has become his ritual in his line of work a Lae City Council driver, where he took it upon himself to conduct a short private ‘funeral service’, especially for the group of unclaimed bodies from the Angau General Memorial Hospital, who he as the driver was required to dump into a mass grave at the Tent-City cemetery outside Lae.
Most of these young Morobe men who experienced the Mt Lamington disaster, maybe all of them, may have passed on. My granddad, Salasie, died in 2012.
They are gone but 70 years after the Mt Lamington eruption, at least their stories are not forgotten.