The Vulcan effect


LAST Friday marked the 80th anniversary of the Vulcan volcanic eruption in Rabaul.
Following World War II and the mandating of New Guinea by the League of Nations, Australian civil administrators went in force to Rabaul in May 1921.  Building sites were made available for new shops and houses and Rabaul, in East New Britain, was on the road to recovery as the Australians strived to restore the former German colony and build a capital worthy of anywhere else.
Rabaul reached its zenith in early 1937. The celebrations in May of that year to mark the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth gave ample proof of Rabaul’s loyal and civic spirit. Then 16 days after the coronation, at about 4.10pm on Saturday May 29, 1937, Vulcan,  started to come alive.
Eyewitnesses David Lindley and Bret Hilder take up the story:
What had been the island of Vulcan was now suffering a violent and aggressive convulsion. Tremendous explosions from the centre of the island, echoed around the Rabaul caldera wall. The column of smoke, stem, black ash and block mud went to a height of about six miles (about 10km), like a more modern atomic explosion. Red-hot rocks, up to the size of cars and small cottages fell at intervals out of the column.  A volcanic mountain was being formed.”
The ships anchored in the harbour could not avoid the fallout and all suffered somewhat by the ash and pumice. Between what was once Vulcan Island and the shore, was a sheltered little strait and a local firm had built a slipway nearby to take ships up to 500 tons. One of those ships, the SS Durour, was up on the slip for overhaul and the crew was standing by to get her back into the water.  The violent shakes from the erupting volcano rang the ship’s bells continuously and shook all the props and ladders way from the ship’s side.  The crew could hardly be blamed for going over the side. They lowered ropes and made their way up to the main road to head for Rabaul. They had just left the ship when Vulcan gave a couple of larger convulsive heaves, then blew straight out and up into the sky, like the cork from a bottle of champagne.
The Durour received many direct hits as well as being half buried in pumice. The new volcano had built itself up to 600 feet (180m) in the first 24 hours as well as joining Vulcan Island to the mainland. The little strait is no more and the Durour is entombed forever.
During the first terrible night of the eruption, the main road was buried under 40 feet (12m) of pumice and hundreds of villages and their occupants were buried.  Next morning did not dawn in the town of Rabaul, for the dense ash kept the area in darkness and provided a steady shower of pumice and stones.
The government decided to evacuate the population to Nordup, nearly three miles (4km) over the ridge to the east of the town.  The great transfer was underway all day, streams of choking people and crawling cars with headlights on making their way with visibility down to three feet (4m).  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.
The Golden Bear made her way out of the harbour but was heavily bombarded by the black ash and pumice, which painted her navy grey.  By this time the SS Montoro, a Burns Philp company ship, was getting near the scene and had spent the morning preparing to help in the evacuation.  As the Montoro approached Nordup the lifeboats were lowered to the water, and all of a sudden a loud explosion came from the direction of Vulcan, but much closer. A jet black mass arose from where Matupit volcano had been steaming away fitfully for years. Now it had gone into full production and emitting a strong sulphuric stench into the atmosphere, adding to the discomfort of the town residents. This new event greatly encouraged the mass exit from the town.
All boats and launches were immediately manned and went to the rescue of the thousands who thronged the foreshore at Nordup.  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 at still being alive to make any fuss or noise.  Each boat filled up in the shallow water with over 100 people each, while other pairs of boats emptied their loads up the ladders and nets into the ship.
After six hours there was nobody left ashore but a few policemen who remained to look after the deserted township.  Approximately 6000 people were evacuated that day.  One of those passengers was a Chinese who was carrying a bucket that appeared to be potatoes.  It was very heavy, for the potatoes were only a veneer over a mass of silver coins. By the evening, both volcanoes each side of Rabaul’s 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 lighting was fantastic, some flashes bursting like bombs, others running horizontally, around the ascending columns, whole forged lightning zigzagged down to the surface of the sea.
The next morning, the SS Montoro steamed toward the coast of Kokopo, a small outpost of Rabaul. It was a government post and there was a depot of Burns Philp but the largest establishment was the Catholic mission of the Sacred Heart.  This mission under the control of a Dutchman, Bishop Vestera, really performed a miracle that day.
They took in the whole mass of evacuees and repeated the story of the little loaves and fishes.
Pregnant women were installed in the school as many had started premature labour pains. Camps were established in the neighbourhood for the thousands of villagers until they could settle elsewhere.
On the second day it was decided a launch be dispersed to survey the entrance of Rabaul harbour.  What looked like a long line of sand barring the way into the harbour was a bank of pumice floating on the surface like packed ice. A bucket was dipped over the side to get a sample of water, but no water was collected; only a bucket of dry pumice as the bank of pumice was too thick. The launch could go no further as the water pump for cooling the engine had choked with pumice and had to be dismantled before returning to Kokopo. The eruption of Vulcan and Matupit was still in full swing.
The launch was about to depart, when a small schooner was spied coming out from Rabaul. She seemed to be getting through the pumice well enough. As she passed the launch it was noted that a 44-gallon (200-litre) drum of water on deck was being used to cool the engine.
Aboard the vessel were two old characters of the town, who had been found drunk in the New Guinea Club. They had broken into the club 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 salubrious 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 other wandering locals.
Only a few policemen and government officers stayed on in the town and were provided with generous hospitality by Kathleen Bignell, of the Rabaul Hotel.
She was the only woman who stayed in Rabaul through the eruption and was later awarded an MBE.
Tons of ash fell on the town area from the two volcanoes, raising the level about four feet (over 1m). Only a few houses were damaged but every tree in the district was leafless and battered by stones. Huge drains had to be dug beside the roads to drain the town during heavy rains and a works programme for removing and clearing away the debris had begun.
After a couple of weeks the two craters calmed right down and the town was re-occupied.
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, with the exception of the years of World War II, the New Guinea Club celebrated the event with a Frangipani Ball held on the anniversary of the eruption.
Sadly, although the exact numbers will never be known, over 500 people lost their lives in the 1937 eruptions and are entombed, buried under rock and pumice.
The public release of a geology report at the end of 1937 marked the beginning of a long period of argument and indecision as to whether Rabaul was suitable as the main administrative centre of the territory.
On Saturday August 23, 1941, the executive council of the administration met and the decision was made to move the seat of government from Rabaul to Lae.  Lae was proclaimed capital of the territory in September 1941.

  • Susan Alexander is the secretary of New Guinea Club and the Rabaul Historical Society.
  • Excerpts provided from David Lindley’s “A Guide to the History of Kokopo-Rabaul Area” and Brett Hilder, whose first hand recollection are from his tour of duty on the S.S.Montoro.

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