- Loosli, Geoffrey, Rear Admiral, RAN
- Ship histories and stories, Book reviews, Naval Engagements, Operations and Capabilities
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Melbourne II
- September 1999 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Title: In The Wake Author: Jo Stevenson Publisher: Hale and Iremonger, Sydney.
HMAS Melbourne was involved in two collisions during her lifetime. In 1964 HMAS Voyager was cut in two and 82 lives were lost. In 1969 USS Frank E. Evans was cut in two and 74 lives lost. All bridge personnel in Voyager including the Captain and Officer of the Watch, were killed so that it will never be known why the ship was following the course which resulted in the collision. The subsequent Royal Commissions left few satisfied that the cause was established or that blame had been correctly apportioned. Shortly after the Commissions rendered their findings the Commanding Officer of Melbourne resigned from the Navy as he believed he had no future hope of promotion because of the posting he had received to a shore establishment normally held by a more junior officer than he.
In contrast, all bridge personnel of USS Frank E. Evans survived the collision including the Commanding Officer and Officer of the Watch and his assistant. Consequently the information to piece together the events leading up to the point of collision is known. The joint USN/RAN Board heard its evidence in Subic Bay in the Philippines and in concluding its report apportioned blame primarily to Frank E. Evans but found that Melbourne contributed to the collision.
The author of “In the Wake”, Jo Stevenson, sat throughout the hearing of the Joint Board and painstakingly took down the evidence as it was given. Her husband, Captain J.P. Stevenson, was the Commanding Officer of Melbourne and was subsequently court martialled. The verdict was no case to answer and he was honourably acquitted. Shortly after the verdict he resigned from the Navy because he had been posted to a shore establishment to a position normally held by an officer of lower rank.
The author’s first book on the events surrounding the collision – “No Case to Answer” – was published in 1971. The book now under review essentially repeats the first 12 Chapters of that book with minimal change as they deal with the circumstances of the collision as they emerged before the Joint Board. The next two chapters relate the events leading to the decision to court martial Captain Stevenson and the proceedings of the Court.
Chapter 15 onwards has been rewritten substantially and added to by new material and opinion which has become available since the first book was published. The final chapters throw more light on matters relating to the appointment of Captain Stevenson from Melbourne to the position of Chief of Staff to the Flag Officer in Charge East Australia Area and his refusal to accept it but instead submit his resignation. Further insight to the conduct of the joint USN/RAN Board of Inquiry comes from an article by Anthony Vincent. He was the lawyer dispatched by the Naval Board to the Inquiry at Subic Bay to assist all Australian naval witnesses with legal advice, to represent any one or more of the witnesses becoming “suspected” of having committed an offence, and to observe the proceedings generally. On the first day of the Inquiry he was informed he would not be allowed into the Court for any purpose unless one of the RAN witnesses became “suspect”. In the event none did and Vincent did not appear in the Court.
Vincent was suffering terminal cancer when he wrote the article. After his death his wife sought the assistance of the Honourable Gordon Samuels QC, now the Governor of New South Wales, to arrange the publication of the article in the Quadrant Magazine in 1975. Vincent must have been sorely troubled by his role in the Inquiry and, to set his mind at rest when so tragically ill, determined to set the record straight. He believed that the composition of the six-man Board was wrong in that the President, Rear Admiral King USN, was too closely associated with the Evans and that the Australian counsel assisting the Board, Commander Glass QC RANVR, was “trumped” by the USN upgrading his counterpart to the rank of captain and thereby demoting Glass to assistant counsel rather than joint counsel.
He was dismayed that he was not allowed into the courtroom and he prepared a long submission justifying his presence in Court, but found that the Naval Board did not support him in his belief that he was there in part to observe the proceedings and protect the interests of the RAN. He was extremely critical of the manner in which the Board conducted day to day proceedings, with the President dominating the questioning of witnesses after counsel had completed asking theirs on behalf of the Board. He noted that officers from Evans had been `suspected’ which gave them the option of answering questions whereas they could well have been a time during the proceedings when Stevenson would have been considered as such. This led to the somewhat ‘devious course’ of finding him negligent when compiling the final report without at some stage of the hearing warning him that he was `suspect’.