A STATE funeral is being in Brisbane this morning for Hon Warwick Parer AM, whose obituary appeared in PNG Attitude earlier this week. Warwick was a Senator for Queensland from 1984-2000 and Federal Minister for Resources & Energy from 1996-98.
It was only last year that Warwick published his life story, Mine: A Memoir, that in part told of his family’s life in pre-war and wartime Papua New Guinea, where his father, Kevin, ran his own small airline company.
In this extract from the book, we learn something of the Parer family’s life in Wau, the tumult caused by the Japanese invasion and of Kevin’s tragic death in an air raid…..
I WAS born in Wau, up in the highlands of New Guinea, right in the middle of the goldfields. April 1936. Dr Von de Borch and Sister McGuigan delivered me at the Wau District Hospital. My younger brother, Kevin Junior, was born a year later. My sister Mary-Pat was born two years after that in 1939.
Living in Wau, my parents, Kevin and Nance, owned a beautiful house at the top of the airstrip. They had happiness and prosperity, quite a wonderful lifestyle up there. My father had his little airline and he began expanding it.
I flew quite often in the plane with my father. I remember him being dressed in white -, mostly white shorts and long white socks. Once in the plane with my father I asked if I could land the plane. He said, “No, wait until you are seven.” My mother always said he was completely serious when he said that.
During 1941, there had been some sporadic Japanese aerial activity over the New Guinea area and it was increasingly feared that this military interest would escalate. This fear was heightened after the Pearl Harbour attack which demonstrated Japan’s boldness and aerial capacity.
In December 1942, advice was given to the residents of New Guinea that white women and children would be compulsorily evacuated. They left behind the civilian men and non-European women and children to fend for themselves. Some European nurses and nuns also chose to remain.
My father decided to stay to run the aviation business and help move people out. The Government contracted him with lots of work because he had independent planes – three were operational and the fourth, another Dragon, was the crashed one he used for parts.
My father transported us and many others from the gold fields to Port Moresby flying 45 flights to catch one of the three evacuation ships.
Down at the dock, 780 women and children were crowded on the pier with their men, preparing for a rushed departure. There was anxiety and restrained tension. Women carrying very small and bursting bags were attempting to corral excited children, saying goodbye to their men, not knowing when they would see them again with uncertain times ahead.
My father was giving reassuring words to my mother and embracing his little family, promising he’d join them in March. Around them, the swarm of strangers was snatching private moments of farewell with their loved ones.
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.
My mother would receive regular letters from my father. He wrote almost weekly. They had written dozens of letters to each other over the years.
In mid-February she received a letter from New Guinea but it wasn’t my father’s writing on the envelope. When she opened it, the note was from a priest in New Guinea, Father John Glover, who was also a pilot known as the Flying Priest.
He wrote expressing his sincere sympathy to her on the unexpected and tragic death of her husband. In his letter, dated 22 January, the day after the attack, the priest expressed his shock and concern for her and her young family and offered hs sympathy and services.
My mother must have felt disbelief. She must have re-read it in shock. It was the first word she had received that my father had died. No one else had formally contacted or notified her. The Flying Priest wrote:
“Your husband was regarded as one of the finest and most lovable characters ever to live in the Territory. There are those who would gladly have died that he might live. He had the sympathies of a little child.”
My mother was never officially informed of what happened to my father. She learned later how he had been killed.
It was 21 January 1942. My father was at the Salamaua aerodrome working on his planes, his Dragon and a Fox Moth.
Twenty-four Japanese fighters and bombers came through in a surprise raid, very fast. First, they hit Rabaul; they hit Lae. The people at Lae radioed ahead an urgent message to Salamaua. “Japanese coming through in a raid. Take cover, take cover.” But the warning was not heard,
My father was working at the airstrip with a plane that was giving some motor trouble. With him was William Ernest Clarke, a commercial pilot with Adastra Airways who occasionally worked with him.
Clarke later recalled to a newspaper journalist at the Bundaberg railway station how it unfolded:
“Kevin and I were getting ready to take off for Wau. My plane was ticking over but Kevin was having difficulty in getting his to start. He was in his plane and sang out to me to give him a kick over. I came over to his plane and got hold of the propeller. And then I looked up.
“I saw a Jap plane about 50 feet overhead. A burst of machine-gun fire from another fighter plane sprayed around us. I dropped under the plane engine. Another burst ripped right along the side of the plane. It began to burn.
“I saw Kevin get out of his seat and dash to the back of the plane, where he fell. The Japs were still coming.”
Clarke ran back out to help him, being fired upon as he went. He grabbed my father by a limb and tried to drag him out of the plane. He smothered my father’s burning clothes causing severe burns to his hands.
Despite these brave efforts, my father was already dead. He had been killed immediately by cannon fire to his back.
Forty minutes later the Japanese planes disappeared. It was all over.
Extracts from Mine: A Memoir by Warwick R Parer, Copyright Publishing, Brisbane, 2013, ISBN 978-1-876344993