SYDNEY - Keith Jackson’s report on volcanic activity in the Schouten islands brought back quite a few memories of an earlier episode when Bam islanders were evacuated in the 1950s.
These were the vivid memories of me as a 21-year old kiap – memories of the return of villagers to Bam Island and my part in it and also of Tom Ellis, a mentor in my early days and a person I deeply respected and remember with affection.
I was posted to Bogia in February 1955 to take charge of the Bam Island Rehabilitation Project following the earlier (November 1954) evacuation to the mainland of the population of 500 people as a result of volcanic activity.
The rehabilitation project involved the preparation and maintenance of gardens, construction of housing and co-ordination of educational and health services.
However, despite the best efforts of all concerned, the people suffered extensively from malaria (Bam Island was malaria free) and cultural dislocation. Following several deaths, the decision was made to return the people to Bam.
In early May 1955, I took an advance party of 30-40able-bodied men back to Bam on MV Koro. The island was about a 10-12 hour voyage from Bogia. Our mission was to rejuvenate the gardens and repair housing of the three small villages on the island in readiness for the return of the villagers from the mainland.
Rabaul vulcanologist Tony Taylor accompanied our party and established a range of seismic measuring instruments (a tilt meter, seismograph and thermometers in several vents) and instructed me in their operation.
I also had with me a 3BZ teleradio on which I made twice daily reports of readings, including weather reports, to district headquarters in Madang.
I remember that before Tony Taylor returned to Bogia on MV Koro after about three days, with me as a ‘chainman’ he undertook a traverse (survey) from the anchorage, up the escarpment and around the lip of the crater which, in places, was only about three to six feet wide.
I also intensely remember the afternoon when the volcano gave a cough, resulting in a cloud of ash discharging from the crater. In an instant, day was turned into night and we immediately took shelter.
It took about half an hour for everything to clear and it was unnerving as we had no means of escape if a serious eruption were to occur.
I was on Bam for a couple of months and, being overdue for leave, was relieved by Tom Ellis (see Note 2 below) in July 1955 whereupon I proceeded to Australia.
When I left, the villagers presented me with a carved paddle that sits in the spare bedroom at home – a memento I’ve always treasured.
I also have a few black and white photographs of the Bam Island rehabilitation project at Dagoi (Bogia) as well as some of the island itself.
1 - For a summary of the history of Bam and other islands, but more particularly, the section entitled ‘Bam Tragedy of 1954-1955, refer to the ‘Tony Taylor and an Eruption Time Cluster: 1951-1956’, <a href="https://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p223471/pdf/ch092.pdf).">https://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p223471/pdf/ch092.pdf).</a>
2 - Tom Ellis and especially Freda Ellis were great friends of Roma Bates (my late mother-in-law). When I was first posted to Madang as a Cadet Patrol Officer after completing the ASOPA Short Course in October-November 1952, Tom Ellis was Acting District Officer (notwithstanding his substantive rank of Patrol Officer) in charge of Madang District (CD Bates, District Officer, was on leave).
I was initially posted to the Amele-Gogol River area south of Madang to carry out road and bridge construction on the (then) proposed Madang-Gusap Road. I was then transferred to Aiome Patrol Post in the Ramu early in January 1953 to accompany PO John Jordan on a first contact/exploratory patrol to the Kairong and Simbai valleys of the Schrader Ranges between the Ramu and Jimi rivers.
CD Bates returned from leave early in 1953 and in April or early May I was transferred back to Madang as I was selected to escort his daughter to the Coronation Ball, and, as they say, the rest is history.
The fact that it was Tom Ellis who relieved me on Bam Island was because the ‘misdemeanour’ referred to by Keith Jackson necessitated fairly drastic action by the authorities.
Tom and I did the ASOPA Certificate Course in 1956 and, of course, Tom, being a relatively senior officer (he had joined the service on 7 January 1936) and now without any ‘promotion bar’ impediment, he eventually went on to become District Commissioner, Western Highlands, then Director, Department of District Administration, and later Secretary, Department of the Administrator. Tom was 40 years of age when he was ‘posted’ to Bam Island (DOB 9/05/1915); I was nearly 22.