- Letter Writer
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- RAN Ships
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- June 1997 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Commodore Eric Johnston AO AM OBE, Northern Territory Administrator 1981-89, Born Shanghai, China, July 29, Died Darwin, February 26, aged 63.
Already popular among Northern Territorians because of his energetic and effective performance as chief naval officer during and after the crisis brought on by Cyclone Tracey, Eric Johnston crisscrossed the Territory constantly when he became its administrator in 1981. No station was too far out of the way, no Aboriginal outpost or camp too remote to escape a visit.
Seldom in the turbulent history of the Territory had a vice-regal representative made such an impression on the people. Johnston and his wife Joan both had an enormous gift for putting people at ease immediately and his visits were much anticipated, unlike some previous administrators who were looked to with dread.
At a time when the chief minister of the Northern Territory was known as “Porky”, Opposition leader Bob Collins was nicknamed “Humphrey” and girth seemed to be a prerequisite for Territory leadership, Johnston was affectionately called “Big E” by all and sundry.
Eric Eugene Johnston was a native of Shanghai and the son of a navy captain. His parents moved to Australia in 1935, about 18 months after his birth. After he joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1947, his naval career took an adventurous course, including a period at the United States Naval War College at Rhode Island in 1970-71.
He saw plenty of duty on ships such as HMA Ships Australia, Culgoa, and Tobruk. After further training in Royal Navy establishments, he was posted to the cadet training ship HMAS Swan in 1959 and Britannia Royal Naval College for two years.
He served with HMAS Melbourne from 1964 to 1966, including service off the Malay Peninsula during the confrontation.
In his first seagoing command he joined HMAS Vendetta and was deployed with the US 7th Fleet in the waters off Vietnam in 1966-70. Later he would tell stories about how effectively he and the Australians were able to scrounge provisions from the US Navy. In 1971, he was awarded the OBE in the military division, as well as the US Commander in Chief Pacific Commendation.
Also that year, he met and married Joan, who had two sons from a previous marriage. A consort in the true sense of the word, she made an enormous contribution to his career and role as administrator of the Northern Territory.
After being promoted to captain in 1973, he began his long association with the Territory. He took up his post as naval officer commanding north Australia the next year, and was heading for an end to an uneventful term in Darwin when he was literally caught in the rubble of naval headquarters, destroyed by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve 1974.
Johnston and two sailors crawled out of the rubble of the stone building, erected in the 1870s and took refuge in what was left of it.
Over the next few months, he played a leading role in handling the ensuing emergency and clean-up of Darwin. The navy under his direction performed an enormously successful job in the demoralised, depopulated city. Johnston was awarded membership in the Military Division of the Order of Australia in 1975 “…for outstanding leadership, exemplary conduct and steadfast performance of his duties while exposed to the dangers of Cyclone Tracy and for his dedication and tireless efforts towards and for his restoration of Darwin’s defence and town services”.
Leaving Darwin in 1976, he was commanding officer of HMAS Perth until 1978. During his later tenure with the strategic and international policy division of Defence Central, he was the Australian delegate to the United Nations law of the sea conferences in New York and Geneva in 1978 and 1979. This stood the Northern Territory in good stead in its later negotiations with the federal government over the international seabed boundary with Indonesia. He was promoted to Commodore in July 1979 and took up his final naval appointment as Director of Public Information for the Department of Defence.
In June 1980, as chief minister, I invited him to become Administrator of the Northern Territory. He later told others: “Joan and I had made our minds up in seconds. Indeed, I think Paul was rather stunned at the speed of our response”. He retired from the navy on December 31 that year and began his term as Administrator the next day. He made it clear that he saw his role as one of bringing to the attention of government and the Opposition the aspirations of Territory people. He fulfilled that commitment with humour and humanity.