- Wright, Ken
- Ship histories and stories, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2005 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The William Dawes had left the South Australian city of Adelaide on 19 July bound for Brisbane, Queensland’s capital city, with a complement of 39 Merchant crew, 15 Naval Armed Guard and a cargo according to the Australian War Memorial records of 82 x quarter-ton jeeps, 33 x half-ton CPRs, 72 half-ton pickups, 2 x one and a half ton cargo trucks, 12 x two and a half ton cargo trucks, 12 ambulances, 12 half track vehicles and with explosives and other sundry Army stores, the total service cargo was approximately 7,177 tons. Three soldiers, a Lieutenant and two enlisted men, were also on board as the cargo was the equipment and stores of the United States Army 32nd Infantry Division (Michigan and Wisconsin National Guard) that had arrived in Adelaide from San Francisco on 14 May. They had been training at a military camp outside the city but early in July 1942 were ordered to transfer all personnel and equipment to Camp Tamborine near Brisbane. Most of the personnel were sent to their new camp by train but some were dispatched on five ships. The William Dawes was not part of this convoy of ships but steaming alone, unescorted, and was approximately midway between Merimbula and Tathra when the torpedo struck.
The first torpedo the Japanese fired at the Liberty ship that fateful July morning struck the stern section, causing massive damage from the entire after end of the ship to the centre of No. 5 hatch. This section separated and sank a short time later, taking with it the steering gear, the propeller, stern deck gun and the two anti-aircraft guns. The engine room flooded through the shaft alley. There were nine people in or on the after deckhouse. Two were on watch at the four inch gun that was atop the deckhouse and seven were asleep in their compartments. The two on watch were presumably killed instantly and of the seven below, four, including Signalman Minton, escaped. The others were trapped and perished.
The Captain had ordered the lifeboats lowered and the ship abandoned but instructed the boats to pull away from the ship and standby until daybreak to see if the ship could be saved. Sometime later, a second torpedo struck the ship amidships, setting the ship on fire, which started a series of explosions. Just after the fires had started, the crew were horrified to see the giant 1-11 surface about 1500 yards from the burning ship and lifeboats just before sunrise, presumably to observe or record their handiwork, and had submerged without interfering with the crew in the lifeboats a short time later. William Minton saw the submarine surface and remembers being extremely worried as he had heard of submarines ramming or machine gunning lifeboats. Realising the ship was unsalvageable; the Captain ordered the four lifeboats (one motorised) to head towards the nearest land, about 12 miles away. They had gone some distance when the rescue trawler from Merimbula arrived. The survivors were collected together and the four lifeboats were towed back to Merimbula. The local police constable on board the trawler compiled a list of the dead and wounded. One Army servicemen plus four Naval Armed Guard had been killed and four wounded, one badly. The dead soldier, twenty five year old Corporal Gerald O. Cable, Service Company, 126 Infantry had the dubious distinction of being the first 32nd Infantry Division serviceman to be killed in action while serving with William Dawes gun crew. Shortly afterwards, Camp Tamborine outside Brisbane, was renamed Camp Cable in his honour by his fellow soldiers. The 32nd were the first Americans to meet the Japanese in New Guinea.
Lorna was unaware a submarine attack had taken place but from her vantage point in the Tathra observation post, and with the aid of her binoculars, she could see the ship constantly changing course. With the steering gone, the ship was at the mercy of the ocean currents. As the drama at sea was unfolding, Lorna was reporting her observations to the major VAOC HQ at Moruya and making rough timeframe sketches of each event as it unfolded. Lorna’s efficient and speedy reports to her control station in Moruya had enabled the fishing trawler to be quickly dispatched to the scene to rescue any possible survivors. Another trawler was sent from the nearby fishing town of Eden as a stand by. A fishing boat was also sent out from Tathra and the local people, now aware of the tragedy that had taken place out at sea, gathered together to get food ready for the expected arrival of any survivors. They were bitterly disappointed when they heard the rescued crew had gone to Merimbula instead.