- Sullivan, John
- Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Kalgoorlie, HMAS Armidale I, HMAS Kuru, HMAS Castlemaine, HMAS Vigilant
- September 1983 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
On Saturday, at 1115, we set out. I left Sub-Lieut. Jim Buckland in charge of the raft and Carley float, with 27 of our sailors and 20 NEI troops. My crew consisted of 25 sailors and 3 AIF men, including the two wounded. Rowing in relays, we made quite a good speed, but the necessity for a rudder was soon apparent. Wireman Bill Lamshed solved the problem by carving up the bottom boards with his knife and from them fashioning a crude but effective rudder. Our compass was a small pocket edition given by one of the Dutch soldiers.
During the afternoon we fashioned our sails from three pairs of overalls, by threading a spar through the arms and tying them together with scraps of rope yarn. The boat hook stave made a quite effective mast.
Our rough sail was a considerable help, and our progress was good. At dusk we had our first ration – two tins of condensed milk amongst the 29 of us.
From then it was simply rowing, baling, stretches of delirium and monotony. The weather remained fine – no sea, a moderate swell and a favourable wind – but still no rain, and consequently nothing to drink.
On Sunday we had our first ration of beef – 29 men to a 12 ounce tin. While we were ‘enjoying’ our beef, one of the boys – I forgot which – told us it was his birthday, that he should be having lunch at Menzies – not sitting in a boat eating a teaspoonful of bully beef. ‘Never mind,’ I said, ‘get us to the mainland and I’ll buy you all the best dinner Menzies can provide.’ I was very pleased to be able to fulfil that promise more than a month later.
Monday was another ‘meatless day’, and waterless too, for there was still no rain. The boys were wondering by now when the promised land would come into sight. I told them we would have to keep at it for another two days at least. One of them suggested that a Southerly course might bring quicker results, and the idea spread like wild fire through the crew. It was useless to try to reason with them, and I had to tell them that we would steer as I directed, that is south east, and not as they guessed. Later, when we were home, they bought lottery tickets, naming the syndicate ‘South East’.
Daylight on Tuesday was just as any preceding day. We issued another meat ration, using our second and last tin of beef. By nine o’clock the sky was overcast and rain squalls could be seen all round us, but pull as we might, we could not reach them. Later in the morning, a fine drizzle began to fall, just enough to wet our bodies, but too light to catch. Not a drop of that water was wasted. We licked and licked until nothing was left. Shortly after, the rain fell more heavily, and soon we were in the centre of a true tropical downpour. We had a five gallon petrol tin which we hacked lengthwise into two, and gathering round these improvised troughs with our rubber blimps to catch the water, we soon had several pints.
Using empty milk tins as cups, all hands drank about a pint, and the remaining water was stored for future use. The end of a rubber blimp was cut off and used as a water bottle.
For a while it looked as though our luck was holding. A/S Rex Pullen, whom the boys described as having Radio Location ears, reported that he could hear a plane. Ten minutes later we saw it, but too far away for recognition. Soon, to our indescribable disappointment, it disappeared. Still, we had water now, and things looked much brighter, and the boys pulled with a will.
About 1200, Pullen heard another plane. This time it came much closer and we yelled and waved to attract its attention. For a while I thought it must pass us, but instead it flew directly overhead – a Catalina – and we knew we had been found at last.
The Cat. circled above us and we saw him drop a large parcel. There was a scramble to bring it inboard, but when we opened it, it contained only two blankets – no food. But there was also a note, which said, ‘Sorry, we’ve dropped all the food to the raft, but we’ll tell them where you are and send a ship to pick you up’.
Even food was forgotten then. Obviously the Captain had got through, the raft had been found, and we would be picked up in the next few hours. We decided not to row any longer, but to remain in the same position as we had been found. As night fell again, it became obvious that we were not to be rescued that day. The night was the longest we had ever spent, but we knew daylight would bring rescue, so our spirits were high.
On Wednesday, we found it terribly hard to wait with any patience at all, but at about nine o’clock a plane appeared, then several more. It was a squadron of Hudsons – 13 Squadron, led by Squadron Leader Whyte. They dropped us parcels of food and water, some in small buoyant packets, and some by parachute. In one of the parcels was a note – ‘Merry Christmas boys, – 13 Squadron takes off their hats to you, even though you nearly shot us down – and drop us a note some time’. Then followed their names. It was the squadron we had fired on between attacks on the Armidale.
More food followed, and another note which said ‘A corvette will pick you up in about three hours. We have given it the course to steer’.