With the Ns in Japanese Waters
- September 1974
- Pacini, John
- Ship histories and stories
- HMAS Napier, HMAS Nepal, HMAS Nizam, HMAS Quiberon, HMAS Quickmatch
- Originally published in the Naval Historical Review edition (all rights reserved)
War correspondent John Pacini was in Napier when he wrote this article in 1945. The Allied Fleets were steaming for Tokyo and World War II was in its last days. Pacini, during his sojourn in Napier, shared the cabin of Lieutenant ‘Buster’ Crabb, who was later to rise to flag rank. The ‘N’ class destroyers were returned to the Royal Navy some six months later.
NO TRUER PHRASE has been concocted than ‘a destroyer is a maid of all work’. In what was a short period at sea the Napier did convoy duties, helped in exercises with elements of the British Pacific Fleet, delivered supplies to ships, transferred hospital cases to the hospital ship during day and night (under blackout conditions and almost entirely by moonlight), distributed secret messages, helped to screen the carrier strike force during its attack on Japan, delivered mail, and dozens of other smaller tasks.
Despite their comparatively heavy armament, one feature of the ‘N’ Class destroyer prevented them from immediately accompanying larger elements of the British Pacific Fleet, including the four carriers, into the strike area. Apparently the high naval authorities considered that the great carriers were protected well enough by anti-aircraft weapons and, therefore, chose the Australian destroyers with the best fuel endurance – the two ‘Q’ Class destroyers Quickmatch and Quiberon, both manned by Australians, because they carried 100 tons more fuel than the ‘Ns’.
Constant requests by Captain Buchanan, however, to join the strike force eventually bore fruit and the Napier accompanied the last six strikes against Japan, including one which was made on the morning of August 15, but which was recalled when news of cessation of hostilities reached the Fleet. On the last few strikes the Nizam came along, too. The honour of being the first Australian ship in Jap home waters goes to Nizam. Just before peace was declared Nizam passed a ship moving between Manus and the strike area, showing lights four miles away from just before dawn. The Nizam challenged the ship, but received no answer.
At first light the Japanese ensign was seen on the masthead, and large Red Cross signs were painted on the craft. On further questioning it alleged that its identity was hospital ship Kiku Maru, but Lieutenant Commander William Cook, RAN, of Victoria, the captain of Nizam, sent a boarding party from his ship to investigate.
The boarding party landed on the hospital ship by whaler, and established visual communication aboard. The party was told that the ship had accommodation for 100 patients. It had none aboard at the time. None of the boarding party spoke Japanese, nor was the Japanese captain able to speak English very well, but was able to explain with the aid of a Japanese-English dictionary that his ship was destined for Marcus Islands. The dictionary did not help our boarding party to translate the ship’s log.
In its report the Nizam said that matting mattresses, apparently used for sick Japanese, were two inches thick, and laid on the deck. No operating theatre existed, and only one small operating table was found. The hospital ship had also one refrigerator, and no supply of blood serum or plasma was seen. The ship itself was clean and members of its crew quite hospitable. The commanding officer of the boarding party was offered a bottle of saki as a gesture, but refused it.
A few days later an American destroyer boarded another Japanese hospital ship, and found arms and ammunition aboard.
Another interesting sidelight of the part played by Australian destroyers in their last hostile tour of operations concerned the hospital ship Tjitjalenka, which was attached to the British Fleet. Tjitjalenka was a Dutch ship, but all its medical staff – doctors and nurses – were English. Because of the sudden changes of position for the fuelling area rendezvous and the fact that under Geneva conventions hospital ships can only be within a certain distance of warships, every now and then some destroyer had to go out, find the hospital ship, and give it the disposition of the new rendezvous by hand signal.
Although the hospital ship could not be attacked the destroyer was legal game for any submarine which should happen to be in the area.
The disposition could not be wirelessed, because also under the conventions no hospital ship can receive a cyphered message, and obviously the new disposition could not be sent in plain language, because it would be almost asking the Japanese to attack us.
At 7 p.m. on July 18 the Nepal was detached from the British supply force, which she had been helping to guard, and told to contact the Tjitjalenka, and direct her to the new fuelling area.
At 3 a.m. next day the Nepal arrived at an area where the Tjitjalenka should have been. Because of bad weather, sights on the sun had not been obtainable from the destroyer for several days, and the visibility on this day was bad. A heavy swell rose from the southwest, confining the search to a small area.
A few minutes after 8 p.m. the radar operator reported an echo on the port bow, and a little while later the glow from the hospital ship’s lights showed on the horizon. Identification was established, and the Nepal handed on the new orders, drawing away at a maximum speed to rejoin the fuelling force.
It knew the force would rendezvous to a certain position next day at 3 a.m., but it could not reach this point for some six or seven hours. Meanwhile the fuelling force’s course and speed could have changed without the Nepal being notified. At 6 a.m. next day the destroyer adjusted its course, and, pressing on as fast as the weather would allow, began a search plan.
Three hours later an American carrier plane flew overhead, and with it the Nepal established wireless communication. As it circled the Nepal asked for, and received, the bearing of what the pilot referred to as ‘Churchill’s boys’. Two hours later the Nepal joined an American destroyer, and eventually joined the fuelling force.
The Nepal’s effort was a stout one, because she had been unaided in her search, and was beginning to run short of fuel.
A few days after the incident, the Napier was given a similar assignment, but was accompanied by a small British aircraft carrier which had on board seven stretcher cases requiring urgent medical attention. After two days of almost constant air search, the hospital ship was sighted at dusk. We went alongside the hospital ship next day, and after passing stretcher cases aboard to us the carrier left us to rejoin the fuelling area.
Passing the sick men to the hospital ship was a ticklish operation to avoid making their journey, in their stretchers with built-up sides, any longer than necessary. At one stage the Napier was rolling only 20 feet away from the green hull of the mercy liner. As the first patient was being hauled across by the Javanese seamen on the hospital ship, it began to pour with rain, which lasted until the last man was passed over.
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