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Papua New Guinea - Rabaul Volcano


Rabaul Volcano

Rabaul's Simpson Harbour is a giant waterway around which sits several volcanoes that could erupt at any moment. In 1937, a huge eruption on the harbour's eastern shores formed a new spewing volcano which was called Vulcan. At this time, Rabaul itself was effectively destroyed, though its European and native population quickly returned after the devastation. Rabaul constantly lived under the constant threat of the malevolent influences of the Pacific Ocean's fiery volcanic rim. 

The following recollections are those of Brett Hilder whose first hand recollections of the 1937 volcanic eruption in Rabaul are both interesting and fascinating.

After nine years' sea service, and with a Master's Certificate, I rejoined Burns Philp as Second Mate of the S.S. Montoro on the New Guinea run. This was my favourite ship, partly for the sentimental reason that she had been launched in the same year as myself, 1911. She was a popular ship, loved as much for her failings as for her homely virtues.

Location map for Rabaul

On my second trip in her we were lying at the wharf in Rabaul, discharging cargo in the humid heat and surrounded by the circle of dead, dormant and steaming volcanoes. At mid-day we were sitting out on deck having our lunch, when a violent 'quake shook the ship and rattled the plates around the table. Rabaul is noted for its shakes, locally known by the native name guria. This last shake was one of a series which had been getting worse daily, but as there hadn't been an eruption for nearly 60 years, there was no undue alarm. The sea-level fell several feet and rose again like a flood tide or bore and it was reported that some reefs near the entrance had risen a few feet and were now nearly awash. We left Rabaul that afternoon for our next port, Kavieng, and had just left that port the following day when we got our first news of the eruption. this included an S.O.S. for us to return to Rabaul to help evacuate the town.

By midnight, when I came on watch, it was bright moonlight, in fact everything seemed to be whiter than usual. I soon found that this was due to a fine white dust carried by the wind, the south east trade, over 150 miles from the eruption at Rabaul.

The heavier dust, ashes, pumice and rocks were falling on the area around Rabaul from a brand new volcano. this had arisen on the site of a low muddy island near the harbour entrance and called Vulcan Island by the Germans because of the hot springs there. Between this island and the shore was a sheltered little strait, and a local firm had built a shipway nearby to take ships up to 500 tons. One of these ships, S.S. Durour, was up on the slip for overhaul and, this being completed, the cr3ew were standing by to get her back into the water. The violent shakes were ringing the ship's bells continuously and had shakes all the props and ladders away from the ship's side. The crew could hardly be blamed for going over the side down ropes and they made their way up to the main road to head for Rabaul. They had just left the ship in time, for Vulcan Island gave a couple of convulsive heaves, then blew straight up into the sky like the cork from a bottle of champagne. 

The local population of Rabaul still live under the constant threat of volcanic activity

The column of smoke, steam, hot ash and block mud went to a height of about six miles, like a more modern atomic explosion. Red-hot rocks, up to the size of motor cars and small cottages, fell at intervals out of the column. The Durour received many direct hits as well as being half buried in pumice. The new volcano built itself up to 600 feet in the first 24 hours, as well as joining Vulcan Island on to the mainland. The little strait is no more and the Durour is in the same spot to this day.

During the first terrible night the main road nearby was buried under 40 feet of pumice, so that the few European houses were completely covered and hundreds of natives were buried in their villages. Next morning did not dawn in the town of Rabaul, for the dense pall of ash kept the area in darkness and provided a ste4ady shower of pumice and stones.

The Government decided to evacuat4 the population in Nordup, the nearest part of the sea coast, three miles over the ridge to the east of the town. The great trek was under way all day, streams of choking people and crawling cars with headlights on making their way with visibility down to three feet. In the harbour the small ships had been washed ashore and back again by tidal waves. The only large ship in port, the American freighter Golden Bear, was caught with her holds open, receiving a few hundred tons of pumice into them instead of a cargo of copra. 

She made her way out of the harbour, but was heavily bombarded by a jet of steam and pumice from Vulcan Island, which painted her Navy grey on the starboard side. By this time the Montoro was getting near the scene and we spent the morning preparing for the embarkation of evacuees. We turned out all the lifeboats and stripped them of all gear except the steering oar. Our two gangways were turned out, rope holders rigged over the side, and all the cargo nets we could muster to use as scrambling nets, as became common practice in amphibious landings of World War II.

As we approached Nordup the boats were lowered to the water, ready for rapid dropping with our surf boats and two launches. there is no charted anchorage at Nordup, so we lowered down the anchor on 35 fathoms of cable, which brought us up close to the beach. All of a sudden a loud explosion came from the direction of Vulcan, but much closer, and we saw a jet black mass arise from where Matupi volcano had been steaming away fitfully for years. Now it went into full reduction and greatly encouraged the mass exit from the town, firstly because it was much closer than Vulcan and, secondly, because its blast furnaces contained some sulphur to add to the discomforts of suffocation.

All our boats and launches were immediately manned and went to the rescue of the thousands who thronged the foreshore, the ash showers falling a few yards behind them. The evacuation was carried out with urgent efficiency. Most of the population were too overawed by the gigantic scale of the eruption, and by their relief as being still alive, to make any fuss or noise. There were several schooners near the shore loading u with the first arrivals, and the Golden Bear had taken off a few hundred whites before making out to sea. We need ten boats in all, towed two at a time by our launches, which were thus able to run continuously between ship and shore. Each boat filled up in the shallow water with over 100 persons each, while other pairs of boats emptied their loads up the ladders and nets into the ship. After six hours' continuous running there was nobody left ashore but a few police, both native and European, who remained to look after the deserted township.

The lifeboats, certified to carry 54 persons, were found to be loaded with 110 in most cases, a mixed bag of natives, Chinese and Europeans of all ages and conditions.

The ship's decks were packed with a crowd of about 6,000, including about 250 Europeans. Most of them had to bundle of clothes with them, and one old Chinaman carried a bucket of what appeared to be potatoes. It was very heavy, for the potatoes were only a veneer over a mass of silver coins.

After dusk, we hoisted all the boats and moved off to sea, stopping for the night off the harbour entrance where we were safely to windward of the two erupting volcanoes. Most of us stayed up to watch the satanic celebrations; the two volcanoes, on each side of the entrance, were throwing up a solid jet of red-hot dust and stones to a great height and the two columns appeared to meet somewhere over the town of Rabaul. The lightning was fantastic, some flashes bursting like bombs, others running horizontally, around the ascending columns, while forked lightning zig-zagged down to the surface of the sea.

I don't think anyone slept that night. The noise of eruption and thunder, and the thump of falling rocks was continuous, while our mass of human cargo had plenty to look at while they stood packed on all the decks. We had a member of native police to keep lanes of access clear to the bridge, but the passengers were no trouble at all. During the night the Government sent a signal to the Prime Minister at Canberra, and our local manager sent one to our Head Office in Sydney, with lists of urgently needed stores. I still treasure the original drafts of these messages among my souvenirs of the occasion. My own part in the evacuation had been running one of the launches. The other was run by the Chief Officer, while the Captain and the Third Mate got the people aboard and packed them on each deck.

The next morning dawned at last and we steamed in towards the coast of Kokopo, a small outpost of Rabaul, to which it had been connected by 20 miles of good coastal road. It was a Government post, and there was  depot of Burns Philp, but the largest establishment was the Catholic Mission of the Sacred Heart. This mission, under Bishop Vestera, a Dutchman, really performed a miracle that day. They took in the whole mass of evacuees and repeated the story of the little loaves and fishes. All the pregnant women were installed in the school, as many had started premature labour-pains. Camps were established in the neighbourhood for the thousands of natives until they settled down elsewhere.

It took five or six hours to ferry all our passengers ashore, after which we commenced to dig into our cargo, intended for other New guinea ports, to provide essential supplies for the camps. On deck we had some 20 head of cows for a projected dairy farm at Lae, all in calf, and they all commenced to produce still-born offspring, much to the dismay of the carpenter, who had charge of them.

People who had looked into Rabaul from distant vantage points reported that the harbour had filled in between the volcanoes, and if this were true the port of Rabaul had ceased to exist. On the second day at Kokopo we took a launch to survey the entrance of the harbour. The Captain, Chief Engineer and I took a sounding line to check the depths and a thermometer to test the water, setting out for the seven-mile run to see what we would find.

Rabaul has not a long history as a port, for in spit of its excellent harbour it did not become the capital of German New Guinea until 1913. It has a much longer history of volcanic activity, stretching back beyond human memory into the geological ages. According to the geologists who examined the area after the eruption, the harbour of Rabaul marks the site of an ardent volcano which stood about 10,000 feet high. At some unknown date the lava cooled off and plugged up the crater. Later eruptions broke out through the sides, forming a ring of smaller cones which still exist as a circle around the harbour. When these choked up in their turn the father of them all had to save up his frustrations until he had the energy for a mighty explosion; this completely demolished the main mountain, throwing blocks of old lava as big as houses up to 35 miles away, where they can still be seen. The bomb crater which was left was open to the sea, which rushed in to form the present harbour.

The earliest record of an eruption is in notes from Dampier, under the date 10 March 1699: "The next morning we saw a Burning Mountain in the country; it 3was high, round and peaked at top (as most volcanos are) and sent forth a great quantity of Smoak." The next visitor was Carteret in 1767, but there was apparently no eruption at that time. The earliest native story of an eruption was about the date 1840, while the next one, in 1878, was seen by a whit4 resident on a nearby island, so bringing the volcanic history of Rabaul into modern times.

The entrance of the harbour to a canyon 100 fathoms deep, so I was not surprised to find no bottom with the lead-line, as it was only 20 fathoms long. As we neared the two volcanoes the harbour looked all clear. This was really a mirage, a reflection of the sky due to heat. We soon saw a long line of sand barring our way, and as we got closer to it the mirage beyond shrank away. Then we saw that it was not sand but a bank of pumice, floating on the surface like pack ice. Some of it was under water, but about a foot of it was above the sea, the edge of the mass being kept compact by the fresh trade wind. Thinking that we could force the launch through it to the open water beyond, we steered into it at full speed. We didn't get far, for the engine ran hot, and would have seized up if we hadn't stopped.

At this moment I dipped the bucket overside to get a sample of water, but found that it collected no water at all, only dry pumice. The water-pump for cooling the engine had choked with pumice and had to be dismantled and cleared before we could get back into open water. From our vantage point between the two volcanoes we had a marvellous view of the eruptions. The noise of the explosion and of great rocks dropping down to earth was most impressive. The strangest thing we saw was a white mass coming over the edge of Vulcan's crater and tearing down the side in a parabolic curve like a Roman chariot in a cloud of dust. It met the sea in a cloud of hissing steam. Whether it was a sport of lave overflowing, or something else, I will never know, but there is still a deep groove down the mountainside today, with a small bay at the water's edge.

We were about to leave the harbour and its pumice when we spied a small schooner coming out from Rabaul. She seemed to be getting through the pumice well enough, not under sail but driven by a diesel motor. When she passed us we saw that she had a 44-gallon drum of water on deck which was being used to cool th3 engine. A hose led down to the water-pump of the motor, and the exhaust water was pouring back into the drum, where it may have cooled off slightly in the air. Aboard the vessel were two old characters of the town, who had been arrested for being found drunk in the club. They had broken into it and decided to spend their last few hours of membership sampling the stocks of grog before the town was buried like Pompeii. They may have finished up as two figures in a museum, immortalising the New guinea Club as members who had stood by the club to the last bottle, faithful even into death. Instead of achieving immortality they were charged with looting, as were many wandering natives who were after plunder from the deserted houses. The few police and Government officers who stayed on in the town were provided with meals at the Hotel Rabaul by Kathleen Bignell, the only woman left, who stayed right through the eruption and was later awarded the M.B.E.

Only two Europeans lost their lives, one being the wireless operator of the Golden Bear, and the other a local photographer who went off to climb Matupi to get a good picture of the new volcano across the bay. He must have just about reached Matu7pi when it blew up in his face, and he was never seen again.

Approximately 1,000,--- tons of ash fell on the town area from the two volcanoes, raising the level about four feet around all the houses. Only a few houses were damaged, but every tree in the district was leafless and battered by stones. The fine dust in the town was both unbelievable and unbearable for many months afterwards. After a couple of weeks the two craters calmed right down and the town was re-occupied again. During the eruption the roads were torn apart by cloudbursts and floods, as the drainage system had all been blocked. Huge drains had to be dug beside the roads to drain the town during the heavy rains and a lot of the loose pumice was washed down into the harbour, silting up some of the shallow areas. Most of the European women were sent to Australia to recover from shock and to wait for the town to be made livable again.

Finally, the townsfolk found one morning that the leafless frangipani trees had suddenly burst into flower, a joyful sign of life and former beauty returning to Rabaul. Every year since, with the exception of the years of the Japanese war, the New Guinea Club has celebrated the event by the Frangipani Ball held on the anniversary of the eruption, the 29th of May.

On our first visit to Rabaul after the eruption, we were able to enter the harbour and passed through a solid field of pumice. It really looked like dry land. There were pieces of dead trees lying on it, old cases and empty drum, like an abandoned army camp in the Sahara desert.

We stopped off the wharf, ran our lines ashore, and found that all the heaving in the world wouldn't get the ship right alongside. We did get to within 15 feet of the wharf, by just compressing the floating pumice into a denser mass between the ship and the wharf. During the cargo proceedings, the odd cases which fell out of the slings landed safely on the surface of the pumice, to be retrieved by natives walking safely on the dry surface as though there was no water underneath.

The scene at night by moonlight was like the Arabian Nights. The pumice around the ship was about five feet deep, and the harbour remained like this for about six months until the nor'west monsoon started to blow the surface out to the open sea. Some of it sank to the bottom of the harbour, making it a little shallower, but that was of no importance in this deep port.

Before the eruption, Rabaul was the healthiest place in New Guinea, the whole of Crater Peninsula being cleared of mosquitoes and, therefore, free of malaria and dengue fever. After the eruption every house and building formed a lake underneath when it rained, for the higher level of the ground left a hollow under each house. These lakes were ideal for breeding mosquitoes and so there is still a danger of malaria and dengue fever, as I have found in my own cost.

The Government decided to move the town, or at least the seat of Government, away from Rabaul. After about five years the administration had settled at Lae, but the town refused to move to a place like Lae, which hadn't any harbour at all.

The Japanese occupied Rabaul early in the war, used it as a naval base to hold as many as 100 ships at a time, but were the cause of the town being bombed completely out of existence during the three years of allied relaliation. So the Government decided to re-create the town in a safer place while the chance remained and various sites were proposed and rejected in turn during the five years after the war. By this time the town at Rabaul had been rebuilt by private effort and it was too late.

To guard against future eruptions a vulcanologist has been stationed in an observatory on the ridge overlooking the town. Here they can feel the best effects of the shakes and visit all the volcanoes and other hot spots daily to keep check of the blood-pressure and pulse of the whole emotional area. Public notices indicate the special escape routes out of the town to evacuation camps at Nordup and Nonga and most residents keep a small suitcases of necessities in case they have to leave home in a hurry. The odd chance that the next eruption may be worse does not worry the people of Rabaul. They are much too busy with commercial development and the more domestic problems of living in the tropics. 

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