Remembering the HMAS Melbourne/Voyager disaster
By Jayne Keogh, Naval Association of Australia
There are some things that you just can’t unsee. That was the case for the sailors aboard the armada of ships and aircraft dispatched to the scene of the Melbourne/Voyager collision on the night of 10 February 1964. They managed to rescue 232 of their mates, but at a terrible personal cost.
At its Monthly Ceremony on 24 February, the Naval Association of Australia wishes to highlight the service of members of the Royal Australian Navy first responders. We will commemorate crew members from HMAS Voyager (II) (pictured) who paid the supreme sacrifice in the service of their country, and the persons who answered the call for assistance including HMA Ships Melbourne, Stuart, Hawk, Ibis, Curlew, Snipe and Teal and search and rescue (SAR) vessels from HMAS Creswell (Air Sprite and Air Nymph), air assets from Naval Air Station Nowra including Wessex and Sycamore helicopters, Gannets anti-submarine aircraft, Dakota aircraft, RAAF Neptune and HM submarine Tabard.
Their first sight was the massive hole ripped in Melbourne’s bow, the half of Voyager still floating but sinking fast and life rafts full with shocked, injured, and deceased sailors.
This was the assault on the senses that 24-year-old Lieutenant Kerry Stephens faced when his command HMAS Air Nymph, a SAR vessel from HMAS Creswell arrived at the scene two hours after the collision. Nine minutes after the collision Kerry had answered the hotline call, hit the emergency siren and within two minutes Air Nymph was manned and heading out at 28 knots.
Defence Force personnel are highly trained to immediately shift into adrenaline overdrive in emergency situations, just to operate at maximum efficiency. It is widely acknowledged now the effects of trauma often comes later, sometimes decades later, with triggered memories accompanied by intense emotional and physical reactions.
It took Kerry 44 years to tell his story, and only after being pressured by his naval colleagues.
‘Many of the sailors swimming in the water were not wearing life jackets,’ he says. ‘Some could obviously see us as we approached, and calls were heard from groups of those in the water crying “Over here, over here”.
‘The survivors we pulled out were suffering shock, severe injuries and required medical treatment by our Surgeon Lieutenant on board. Most were covered in oil from their immersion in water and traumatised from the collision.
Kerry was about to go alongside the stern of the Voyager to carry out a search for anyone still onboard. However, a Chief Ordnance Artificer from the destroyer, who had been recovered from the water, said he was the last to leave the stern section and assured him that there was no-one left onboard.
‘I always worried that I should have gone alongside the stern to check for survivors, and it wasn’t until 2008 at a lunch with a Voyager survivor that my mind was laid to rest. It’s a long time to wonder if you left some to die.
‘Our crew also brooded on our actions that night. 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.’
It was disappointing for Kerry that no acknowledgement, praise or thanks was ever received for what the SAR crews did that night during the rescue operations.
‘They saw many horrific things but did what they had to do, without question or hesitation,’ says Kerry. ‘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 was the same for the sailors on Melbourne, whose quick actions plucked 180 souls from the water in their lifeboats. The operating theatre and sickbay were ready to receive the injured.
However, for a long time a completely unfair and untrue rumour of fault followed the Captain and crew of Melbourne. The subsequent inquiry clearly exonerated Captain Robertson and his crew. But that did not diminish the ‘survivor guilt’ and perceived stigma of being on Melbourne. Until recently few memorial services even mentioned them.
One such sailor was Bob Clarey, a very young Stoker on Melbourne who was catching some night air on a break with a mate, sitting on the superstructure behind the funnel. This gave him a bird’s eye view of the whole accident. After ‘action stations’ was called, Bob scrambled to the deck and spent the next few hours getting the survivors ready for medical attention.
‘I remember the collision, it replays in my mind in nightmares, but I have no recollection of the two weeks I spent in the Balmoral Naval Hospital afterwards, where I was being psychologically assessed for what they called battle fatigue.’
Bob was just 16 years of age, a junior recruit. He never had his career in the Navy, leaving after 18 months due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
‘We had no counselling, thanks or recognition of our role that night. For years we were thought of as the bad guys of the Navy who had caused the accident.’
Only recently the crew of Melbourne were included in Voyager ceremonies which Bob has attended at St Marys at Kangaroo Point at the memorial to the tragedy. ‘I feel compelled to go, but it brings it all back to me – it’s a meltdown.’
Two Naval Association members, John King and Noel Chidley were called out on the minesweeper HMAS Ibis from Jervis Bay.
‘We went out and back three times that night, only finishing at 1030 the next morning,’ says Noel. ‘On one trip we could only travel at four knots as we were escorting the admiral’s barge which had men so badly injured that they couldn’t be moved, some not expected to make it. One sailor was missing an arm. Every time there is a shipping accident in the news, I have flashbacks, all bathed in that eerie green from the spotlights we set up on deck to look for men in the water.’
‘It is my hope that if those who are still alive read this article, they can be assured that the exceptional way they all performed their duties will never be forgotten,’ says Kerry.
A short ceremony is held at 10.30am on the last Thursday of every month at the Jack Tar statue in the South Brisbane Memorial Park. At each ceremony, a guest from the relevant part of the RAN tells their story in front of veterans, serving RAN personnel, descendants, and the general public.
This month, we will commemorate the Melbourne/Voyager disaster on Thursday 24 February. All welcome.
For more information: Jayne Keogh 0418 882 408 / naaqldmedia [at] outlook.com.
For anyone impacted by this article, support is available at Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling service. Open Arms has a range of specialised trauma-informed, military aware services, including counselling and group programs. Call 1800 011 146 for free and confidential support or visit www.openarms.gov.au