The Bellbird shipping disaster

During a ‘big sea’ on Saturday, 15 November 1957 on the north-east coast of New Britain, Papua New Guinea on the way to Rabaul, a fire caused the ship Bellbird to be abandoned which cost the lives of six people. Cyril Parer, unable to swim, made it to the reef held afloat with two oars from where he was assisted ashore completely spent of energy. It was the worst new Guinea civilian shipping disaster in 22 years.

Cyril Gerard Antonio Parer was the fourth of the seven children of John Arthur Parer and Teresa Mary Carolin. He was born on the 27 October 1903 in Malvern, spent his youth on King Island in Bass Strait with the family and spent several years attending school at St Virgil’s in Hobart. In 1929, Cyril first arrived in New Guinea and joined his cousin Bernard gold prospecting. In 1933, while living at Wau, he married Marie Eileen Fogarty. During the war he and his cousin Bernard were Lieutenants with ANGAU handling around a thousand New Guinean workers building roads. After the war the cousins with Bob Parer initially went into partnership as New Guinea Industries Ltd where they bought up the army disposals in New Guinea and flooded the Australian market with equipment and then later, just the two of them, running copra plantations in New Britain, including Karlai.

Cyril and Marie studio shots.jpg
Marie Eileen Fogarty and Cyril Gerard Parer were married in New Guinea in 1933 with Cyril’s mother Teresa and cousin Kevin as witnesses. Studio shots, Pip Comiskey collection.

Cyril was picked up by the Bellbird on the morning of the 14th at his Karlai Plantation from where they would head to Rabaul by way of SumSum Plantation to collect 100 bags of copra. Robert Parer says, “SumSum Plantation was where Queen Emma’s  sister Phebe Parkinson of Samoa’s Malietoa Royal family lived until WWII began.”

The Bellbird was on a routine voyage down the South Coast of New Britain. Cyril says, “There was a big sea and the Bellbird rolled a lot. As usual, I was feeling sick and had been lying on a mattress with a life jacket for a pillow. Mrs Walsh had been resting on a bunk on the bridge deck.”

It was about 10 hours out of Rabaul. Cyril continues, “We had all gathered at the bridge deck at about 11am when Mrs Walsh pointed to a ventilator which was smoking and said, ‘the ship is on fire’.” The fire was to the stern of the vessel.

When the fire alarm had first been given, everyone believed that it was a small one that could be dealt with shortly. But the stern was found to be a mass of flames which quickly spread to the superstructure. 

Cyril exclaimed, “By then the flames were coming up. Captain Bolton rushed to the side of the wheelhouse for a fire extinguisher. By then the fire had such a big hold it was useless. Mr Walsh went down the starboard ladder followed by his wife. I went down and got slightly burnt. The surf boat was on fire and useless, none of us had life jackets.”

Captain Bolton, manoeuvred the vessel for about an hour to get it into the wind and to bring it close enough to shore for those on board to make an attempt to get ashore.

“The Captain stood by the bridge despite the flames and headed in for shore. The native engineer put the engine into neutral and the engineer let the anchor go. We were approximately a quarter of a mile from shore, rough sea and pounding surf. At this stage all local crew dived over board except one”, Cyril says.

“By this time the Captain and Eric Aquiningo were driven off the bridge deck by flames and went onto the roof. When the bridge started to burn the Captain was forced to push Eric overboard and dived in after him, but came back to the ship when the engineer went to Eric’s assistance. They got into difficulties so Captain sent the one remaining boy with a rope. The boy appeared to grasp Eric then. Eric went down and did not come up. We pulled the engineer to the ship and just sat about and waited for about half an hour. We then noticed smoke come from a ventilator near us and the deck was hot.”

Walsh said to his wife, “Come on”.

She replied, “I’m frightened”.

Cyril went on, “They went into the water together. I was the next to go. The captain passed down oars. I took one for Mrs Walsh thinking to pass it on to her if I caught up. I could not control which way I went. I could see Mrs Walsh holding on to her husband and not long afterwards saw her floating around with her face in the water.”

“There were four times it would have been easier to give in, but I struggled on. There was a heavy sea and each wave went over me. About 15 yards from where the sea was breaking on the reef, I had the hardest struggle to keep going. When I felt the reef I let the oars go and tried to stand up, but the sea dragged me back and I went under. Then the next wave washed me on to the reef again, two hands grabbed me and the next I remember I was on the beach. I’m told I was in the water about three-quarters of an hour.”

While they were in the water the women and kids tried to hang on to Cyril who couldn’t swim and scratched off his Rolex watch which sunk to the bottom forgotten.

Pacific islands monthly, December 1957 states, “The passengers had gone to the bows of the ship when flames cut them off from the burning stern. Because they could not get at the life-jackets, the Captain had thrown into the sea everything he could get his hands on that would float. The survivors had got ashore on these. Mr Cyril Parer, who could not swim, got ashore on two oars.”

After the survivors had made it ashore, Captain Bolton and Mr Tony Whitton, a plantation officer, walked 25 miles to Sum Sum plantation for help. Cyril’s feet had been cut up when crossing the water and he couldn’t walk. The news was flashed to Rabaul and the vessels Mangana and Arawe picked up survivors. They arrived in Rabaul on Sunday 16 November at 7.30pm.

Cyril says, “An Aitape passenger boy came along, I showed him a 10/- note and told him I would give it to him if he stayed.” It’s been said Cyril tore the note in half and gave the boy one half and that he would get the other half if he returned. “He did, so he got his 10/-. We went down to the beach where Mr Walsh was watching his wife’s body floating around. It was impossible to get out through the surf.”

“At about 5pm we started walking and the Aitape boy who stayed with us found the track. We met two doctor boys and a police boy. The Dr boys only had iodine and lint which they put on our sores, we got the skin off our arms coming through the surf. I gave the police boy 10/- to buy a lap-lap to make a bandage. About 1pm we came to a small village and slept with the natives. We had a good sleep and had to wait for carriers who did not want to come. Mr Walsh and police boy, rounded up some boys, and after travelling about two hours we met a European patrol – Dr Ramsay the coroner, a Police Officer and lots of carriers. Shortly after we arrived at Sum Sum – ­which is about 25 miles from the site of the accident.”

Cyril’s cousin and business partner Bernard Parer heard the Captain’s report over the air. Someone asked, “What happened to Fayne?” Captain replied, “He wouldn’t force his way through the surf like Parer did.” Bernard also heard a radio message from Cyril to someone in Rabaul saying he’d be unable to keep his appointment, but would see the man on Monday.

Several months later a journalist from Pacific Island Monthly caught up with Cyril in Brisbane after a short visit to Melbourne. “He seems none the worse for his Bellbird experience. A lucky man. He still has faith in copra and is extending his interests from the Malai Plantation to a venue at Kokopo.” Though he doesn’t appear to have learnt how to swim. Given the number and size of crocodiles around Karlai Plantation this is not surprising.

Bernard Dominic Parer's Rolex watch-front-Bernard Cyril Parer collection.jpg
Bernard Dominic Parer’s Rolex watch which is similar to the one Cyril Parer had. Bernard Cyril Parer collection.

Cyril’s grandson Bernard Cyril Parer says his father and Cyril would talk of this after a few wines. Bernard relates, “A year later the ship was being salvaged and they found the Rolex which was engraved with ‘Cyril Parer, Rabaul’. This then was returned to Cyril in Rabaul, apparently he just gave it a quick shake and it started again. The Rolex was one of three which was bought by Cyril’s wife Marie Parer (nee Fogarty) Cyril’s watch has gone missing and I have uncle Bern’s as it has Bernard Parer on the back and my brother Simon got my father Terry’s. There are stories that Cyril’s watch was all dinted from a time when as a gold miner he took his watch off to dig and set a dynamite charge and ran, but forget his watch.”

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