Veteran involved in USS Peary propeller find

An Army veteran was one of three Darwin divers who found two large ship propellers thought to be from the USS Peary, sunk with the loss of around 90 US servicemen’s lives in a Japanese air raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942.

28 October 2020

The discovery in May this year of the three-metre diameter propellers in 15 metres of water outside the shipping channel is considered extremely significant. They were found by three Darwin Sub Aqua Club members: Grant Treloar, Roland Hugli and Army veteran Clive Bartsch.

Historians say they are now rethinking the events surrounding the sinking of the Peary.

USS Peary, a Clemson-class destroyer, was sunk after suffering direct hits from up to five Japanese bombs.

Mr Treloar said that at the time of the discover, the three divers were searching for the remnants of Empire Flying Boat Corinthian that crashed in Darwin Harbour on 22 March 1942, with the loss of two lives.

Mr Bartsch, who spent nine years in the Royal Corps of Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, said finding the propellers had been a complete surprise.

‘We saw one and then another one,’ Mr Bartsch said. ‘They had to be off a destroyer, they weren’t the shape of a normal freighter propeller. They were off something that needed a bit of speed. And we were thinking there’s only one ship that they could have come off.

‘Grant rubbed at the sediment and it looked as though they were made of bronze.

‘They were there, with their shafts and a stanchion as part of the assembly.

‘They say the aft section of the Peary took a direct hit and that blew the aft magazine. That’s probably right because there’s a big debris field all around them.’

The Northern Territory Department of Tourism, Sport and Culture’s Heritage Branch confirmed the propellers are those from the Peary. Heritage Branch Director, Michael Wells, said the discovery had forced a complete review of what historians thought they knew about the loss.

‘It also forces us to confront what a terrible experience it must have been to be on board Peary when it was attacked,’ Mr Well said. ‘We now believe the ship was completely disabled after the first bomb hit, and thereafter was drifting helplessly. It was a “sitting duck” for further attacks.

‘It underlines the incredible courage of crew members, who we know continued to fire the ship’s guns in an attempt to defend the ship from attack.’

Mr Wells said the discovery confirmed that the first bomb was a direct hit on the stern causing the large stern section to break away, leaving the remaining part of the ship to drift on the out-going tide as it continued to take hits from enemy bombs, before it sank.

The stern section and propellers are several kilometres from the main wreck site, which is in deep water offshore from the Peary memorial on Darwin’s Esplanade.

The Australian and Northern Territory governments are working with the US Naval History and

Heritage Command regarding this significant discovery.

The Heritage Branch intends to conduct further research on the site. The NT Government will consider statutory protection as appropriate, but all USS Peary artefacts are automatically protected by the Commonwealth Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018.

Mr Treloar said underwater exploration of Darwin Harbour has its challenges, mainly because visibility is limited by sediment stirred up by tides of up to seven metres but at four to five metres on the day of the discovery visibility was ‘reasonably good’.

Mr Wells said the site would be thoroughly investigated to enable well-informed decisions about the valuable artefacts that had been discovered.

‘This discovery is important from an archaeological perspective,’ Mr Wells said. ‘It changes our interpretation of the wrecking event, and about where the remnants of Peary are. More survey work and research will need to be done to recreate the events of the day, and to locate other remnants of Peary, which could be scattered along a corridor on the floor of the harbour from where it was first hit, to where it eventually came to rest.’

Mr Bartsch has been diving for around 20 years. ‘[The discovery] was a bit of a buzz, getting to find something like that,’ he said.

Black and white photo of destroyer at sea