- Thomson, Max
- Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Burdekin, HMAS Hawkesbury I
- June 1985 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
FOR COUNTLESS GENERATIONS seamen have navigated by the stars. But it was a ‘Message from the Clouds’ that held the key to the rescue of several hundred servicemen after a collision between an oil tanker and a ship being used as a troop transport. Two frigates of the RAN – Hawkesbury and Burdekin – played key roles in the dramatic rescue operation.
Returning from a convoy escort assignment, Hawkesbury entered the fleet base at Manus Island, in the Admiralty Islands Group north of New Guinea, on September 26 1944.
She fuelled from the tanker Mission San Fernando and anchored off Rara Island, a small dot in Seeadler Harbour, one of the Pacific’s biggest and busiest fleet bases.
Next night Hawkesbury’s crew settled down to a rare treat – the first picture show on the frigate’s quarterdeck using its newly- acquired projector. Some of the ship’s company were allowed ashore to stretch their legs.
Visual communication between fleet control and the vast armada of shipping that lay in Manus was maintained from several high signal stations. Each had at least two decks, with several projectors operating on each deck. A signal watch in Manus was a period of hard concentration for signalmen of the warships lying in the harbour.
Suddenly, ‘How Two’ – the signal station closest to Hawkesbury, flashed urgently a signal ordering the Australian frigate to prepare to put to sea immediately.
The film screening was hastily abandoned. Crewmen ashore were left to their own devices.
The anchor was raised as willing hands broke records in hoisting inboard the ship’s motor cutter and whaler. And Hawkesbury began working up speed as she set off on the long run down Seeadler Harbour to the boom gate with its anti-submarine devices and precautions.
Having got the ship under way, the signal station began elaborating details of the mission, indicating that the task involved the rescue of men in the water after a collision at sea on the approaches to Manus.
As details began to unfold, with course and bearings pinpointing the drama, Hawkesbury found itself in difficulty as one of the harbour’s small islands began to block the visual signals from the shore station. And with the distance between the ship and the signal tower growing ever longer as Hawkesbury worked up speed, some ingenuity was needed urgently.
Fortunately, low cloudbanks hovered over Manus that night. So communication was suddenly switched. Still using the big 20- inch signal projectors, which had long since taken over from the 10-inch lamps operated when the drama first began, the signalling between the frigate and the distant shore station took the form of dots and dashes spelled out onto the low cloud bank. It was in this way that the Australian warship received her final instructions and much- needed detail.
Hawkesbury steamed on into the night, her crew eventually to see that most awesome of sights: a ship burning on the horizon ahead.
With men in the water, Hawkesbury entered the scene with extreme caution, aware now that the ship Don Maquis carrying several hundred troops, had collided with the oil tanker Mission Ridge.
Another Australian frigate, Burdekin, en route to Madang, had raced to the rescue scene and soon Hawkesbury’s motor cutter and whaler joined those of Burdekin in cautiously picking their way among men in the water and rescuing survivors. Burdekin eventually took aboard a very large number, especially those badly burned or suffering from immersion. She raced these worst cases to Manus for urgent treatment.
Hawkesbury between-decks, too, was crammed with survivors. Catalina flying boats overhead began dropping flares to keep the rescue scene illuminated and Hawkesbury used her two 20-inch searchlights to probe further for men in the water. Any sailor who has ever had experience using those 20-inch searchlights with their carbons that required replacing from time to time will know what the frigate’s sigs. went through that night, all suffering burned fingers and hands as the searchlights became so intensely hot with prolonged use.
Backgrounding the whole eerie scene was the fire raging in No. 3 hold of the Don Maquis, but fortunately that ship’s Master was among those rescued by Hawkesbury and his knowledge of the bulkheads and other essential information proved invaluable.
With magnificent seamanship, Lt. Cdr. H.G. Weston nudged Hawkesbury’s bow close to Don Maquis. Despite the loss of the ‘bull- ring’ when a wave smashed Hawkesbury’s bow onto the side of the burning ship, nevertheless the frigate was stabilised long enough for several crewmen to jump from the frigate’s bow onto Don Maquis. Lines followed, and Hawkesbury secured itself sufficiently to put proper boarding parties onto the burning vessel. A better concentration of Hawkesbury’s fire-fighting hoses followed and was sustained for a long period until a salvage tug arrived from Manus and took over this aspect of the rescue work.
It was a tired but elated ship’s company that turned the frigate about and steamed for Manus where arrangements had been made for reception of those survivors brought in by Hawkesbury. Later, Hawkesbury had the pleasure of seeing Don Maquis being towed into port. Eventually, she was repaired and recommissioned.
Hawkesbury and Burdekin both earned high commendation from the United States Navy and from the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board for their work in that rescue and the operation contributed to decorations that were awarded to officers and crew members of both warships.
With escort vessels desperately short, Hawkesbury hastily straightened-out between- decks and put to sea with the US submarine Flounder, then later steamed to another sea rendezvous where the US submarines Sea Wolf and Tempest received safe escort back to Manus base after long operational periods well to the north in Japanese held war zones.
Seven battleships, five cruisers, four carriers and a whole escort screen of destroyers back from operations around the Halmaheras lined up for entry through the Manus boom gate as Hawkesbury approached with her two subs. Such was the busy scene at Manus in those days.
‘Just imagine the signal traffic that lot will create when they anchor’ was the laconic comment of one signalman who knew only too well what was involved in keeping a watchful eye on not only all the ships anchored nearby and adjacent but on those shoreline signal towers with their several decks and the multiplicity of signal lamps that constantly blinked seaward. And which triggered such high drama as Hawkesbury encountered that night in Manus.