- Stephen, Kerry
- History - post WWII
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Creswell, HMAS Melbourne II, HMAS Voyager II
- June 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
At 0815 on 11 February, having searched all night and the first few hours of daylight, I decided that it was unlikely any further survivors or bodies would be found from the Voyager. Visibility was good for the search, although the swell had risen slightly, all debris in the area had been thoroughly checked and nothing further could be seen in the surrounding sea. Creswell was advised that we were returning to Jervis Bay and Air Nymph then adjusted course to return to the Marine Section.
Air Nymph arrived at the Marine Section at about 1030 on Tuesday 11 February and, as it rounded the breakwater heading to the wharf, many civilians were seen running to the Marine Section when they saw the boat approaching. It was realised these personnel were press reporters and photographers who were clamouring for details of what had happened. It was obvious that several of the photographers were more interested in the dried blood stains on the deck and cabin superstructure, where injured sailors had been lying the previous night, as they were keen on photographing the stark reminders of the previous night’s activities.
The Acting Executive Officer of Creswell, Commander Ian Richards, kept all the press and photographers at bay until I had a chance to tell him we had not recovered any further survivors or bodies. I was then bombarded with questions by the press until it was obvious I had nothing new for them. It was interesting that one newspaper report described me as ‘bleary-eyed and covered in salt spray’, which was not surprising as we had been at sea without any rest since 2100 the previous night. Shortly afterwards Air Sprite also returned alongside the Marine Section wharf, but they too had not recovered any more survivors or bodies.
The debris we had recovered from the sea was removed from Air Nymph, which was then refueled and sailed once more to the search area, this time under the command of Lieutenant Eric Mentz and a crew comprising personnel from Creswell ship’s company. They returned later that evening, again without locating any more survivors.
The crew from Air Nymph performed magnificently throughout that night and the following morning, undertaking roles that none could have envisaged when they joined the Navy. They did everything they could to rescue those survivors in the water and look after them when they were safely in the boat. They saw many horrific things but did what they had to do, without question or hesitation. They all showed initiative under extremely traumatic conditions and performed their duties above and beyond what would have been expected of sailors of their age and experience. It obviously concerned them later when they heard that 82 sailors had lost their lives that night and, in the following days, many of them came to see me and asked if there was anything more that they could have done, and whether we missed people in the water. When it became obvious that nearly all those missing were from the forward part of Voyager, it perhaps eased their concerns.
A report was submitted to the authorities detailing the events that occurred that night but nothing was ever heard back from Navy Office. It was disappointing that no acknowledgement, praise or thanks was ever received for what the SAR crews did that night during the rescue operations; nor was the exceptional service the crew rendered under the most traumatic conditions recognised. It seemed that as far the Navy was concerned it was a PR disaster and they wanted closure as soon as possible.
The only form of recognition received was much later when Air Nymph and the crew were at Garden Island dockyard and Mr Justice Spicer, who was conducting the Royal Commission into the collision, requested to see Air Nymph as part of the inquiry into the rescue operations. After his visit he told the crew that, in his opinion, there would have been a greater loss of life had the SARs not been out there that night.
There are three footnotes to this account. It is of interest that to the best of my knowledge, not one single sailor from the two SAR crews has ever lodged a claim for compensation for what he saw or had to do that night, yet they were in the thick of the rescue operations under the most traumatic conditions. To them it was a job that had to be done, no matter how difficult or horrendous it was for them. Afterwards they carried on with their careers in the Navy.