The first Australian to be killed by the Japanese Imperial Force on the New Guinea mainland was Kevin Parer. Kevin and his plane was shot up and he was killed at 11:55am on the 21st January 1942 on the runway in his DH84 VH-AEA plane during take-off by a Zero fighter as part of a force of 30 “Betty” bombers and 60 Zero fighters that took off from a Japanese carrier fleet and attacked Kavieng on New Ireland and Lae, Salamaua, Bulolo, and Madang on the New Guinea. The lack of air defence planes and ack-ack guns allowed the Japanese to spend 45 minutes in the target area carefully picking targets and bombing from as low as 2,000 feet. Initially they attacked the township and then the aerodrome with machine gun and cannon fire.
In total 16 civil aircraft were destroyed and an RAAF Hudson – this included Kevin’s two machines on the runway of Salamaua. As Anthony Cooper describes it in his book Kokoda Air Strikes: Allied Forces of New Guinea, “in one stroke the Japanese had destroyed the flourishing Australian civil aviation in New Guinea – and particularly the heavy freighter aircraft, which would have proved most useful in the ensuing mountain campaign had they survived.”1
In No Turning Back by ETW Fulton, Jack Thurston, who was Kevin’s initial financial backer in Parer’s Air Transport described Kevin’s last flight, “Kevin was in New Guinea right to the beginning of the war. He actually flew my wife Betty out, she was the last person to leave the Sepik area as all women were supposed to leave New Guinea at that time. She flew to Salamaua then Kevin took her over to Moresby. He landed there, said goodbye to her on the strip, then flew back to Salamaua. He landed at Salamaua, got out of his plane, the engine was still running and he started to walk away as three Japanese Zeros came sweeping down. Instead of running to the side of the drome and getting into a trench, old Kevin ran back to his plane and jumped in to take off. They got him and he was killed. It was an absolute tragedy as Kevin left a wife and young children.”
Kevin was killed by a cannon shell and died almost immediately.
Ernie Clarke, who later received a George Medal for this action, was to fly the Fox Moth VH-AAX with Kevin at the time had the plane started.
“My plane was ticking over and Kevin was having difficulty getting his to start. He was in the plane and sang out to me to give him a kick over. I came over to his plane and got hold of the propeller. On looking up saw the Japanese plane about 50 ft overhead. A burst of machine-gun fire from another sprayed around us. I dropped under the shelter of the engine. Another burst ripped right along the plane. I got up and saw Kevin get out of his seat and dash to the back of the cabin where he fell. The Japs were still coming. I covered Kevin with a blanket and made for a shelter. When the Japs were clear I ran out to the plane, which was now on fire. I tried to get Kevin out, but couldn’t manage it. A couple of bullets ripped across my legs above the knees, but they were nothing, only flesh wounds.”
After the attack on Pearl Harbour on the 7th December 1941, Kevin, with his three plane fleet of Parer’s Air Transport and other pilots, began air lifting the women and children to Port Moresby as part of the evacuation to Australia of some 800 people. This included Kevin’s pregnant wife Nance and children Warwick (5), Keven (4) and Mary-Pat (1). They were crowded onto and shipped out on the decks of the merchant ship SS Katoomba on 17 December 1941. An emotional, public embrace between Kevin and Nance and they were away. They arrived in Brisbane on Boxing day. Kevin remained. The RAAF had pressed those of the Lae and Salamaua civilian facilities for refuelling and servicing. With sustained efforts in trying flying conditions, Kevin and his team continued evacuating the remote men of New Guinea and flying in the military and supplies.
Nance received notice of Kevin’s death, not through official channels, but by letter from Father Glover written the day after, though not received until the 30 January. This showed how disorganised and caught napping Australia was in this theatre of war. Fr Glover said, “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 so that he might live. He had the sympathies of a little child.” Father Glover said further that he hoped to get down to Salamaua the following day to bless the grave.2 Kevin’s grave still resides where it looks out over the Huon Gulf.
Kevin’s Uncle John Arthur and Aunty Theresa Parer, cousins Phonse, Doreen, Ben, Cyril and Adrian and siblings Ray, Bob, Mary, Bernard and Kevin were all or had recently been in the New Guinea Mandated Territories on the northern shores with their families. Kevin’s cousin Damien was an experienced veteran of the war having worked through the Syrian, Lybian and Greek campaigns. When Australia’s troops were recalled to defend Australia, he knew exactly what was at stake for the nation.
Kevin’s death made the war all the more personal for Damien and on his return to Sydney, Australia he made his way to Townsville with Alan Anderson, where he stopped in to to see Nance at Warwick on the 8th of March. Nance was at the hospital having just given birth to Helen. A sister placed baby Helen in Damien’s arms and said, “here is your daughter Mr Parer”. With a heavy heart he replied, “I wish it was, but I am afraid it is not”.3
Damien made his impassioned talk at the start of Kokoda Front Line: “There seems to be an air of unreality as though the war was a million miles away. It’s not. It’s just outside our door now. I’ve seen the war and I know what your husbands, sweethearts and brothers are going through. If only everybody in Australia could realise this country is in peril.”
When he said that, he knew both sides of the war, the front line and the impact on the family back home in Australia. Damien focussed the prism of his lens on all the aspects of the war, in a manner and with a clarity not previously seen he delivered that to the Australia audiences.
Kevin Parer – Lest we forget.
- Kokoda Air Strikes: Allied Forces of New Guinea, Anthony Cooper, 2004, UNSW Press. Page 48.
- Warwick Daily News (Qld), Fri 30 Jan 1942, Page 2, N.G. Tragedy
- A Time Before, Memoirs of Dr Kevin J Parer, 2006, The B4 Generation. Pages 19-23.
- Kokoda Front Line, Neil McDonald, 2012, Hachette Austraia. Page 168
- 1942-The Canberra Times, Fri 30 Jan 1942, Page 3, R.A.A.F. PILOT KILLED
- 1942-Cairns Post (Qld), Fri 30 Jan 1942, Page 4, VALUE OF TRENCHES