- Editorial Staff
- Ship histories and stories, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Kuru, HMAS Patricia Cam
- June 2017 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Graeme Andrews, one of our long serving members with a sharp wit and fine pen, wrote an excellent article Cam’s Trawlers first published in the May 2006 edition of Afloat magazine. After checking with Graeme much of the history of this company is taken from this article. Another primary source is a 1983 biography by John Leggoe, Trying to be Sailors, which graphically covers the late author’s time as First Lieutenant of HMAS Patricia Cam during her last fateful voyage. This is further supported by discussions with his surviving daughter Margaret Leggoe.
Sydney Fishing Fleets
Before the Second World War there were two main fishing fleets operating from Sydney, the Red Funnel Trawlers and those of Cam & Sons. Red Funnel operated out of Woolloomooloo Bay, now home of the Fleet Base East, while Cam’s base was at Blackwattle Bay near the eastern end of the Old Glebe Island Swing Bridge.
Rocco Caminiti arrived in New South Wales in 1881 seeking to escape his homeland’s political turmoil and establish a new life (this has a familiar ring). He first took up farming but later became a commercial fisherman. In 1907, Rocco died aged 58, leaving a wife, five sons and two daughters. One of his sons, Carlo, continued harbour fishing and in addition, in 1913, opened a fish shop in Drummoyne, starting a thriving new business.
In those days there was a NSW Government State Fishery, but in 1923, the fleet was privatised and the boats placed on the market (again a familiar theme). Carlo had sufficient funds to buy the trawler Goonambee and a second vessel was purchased the following year. From these beginnings Carlo Caminiti developed his fishing fleet.
They weathered the Great Depression and in 1934 the company was reconstituted as Cam & Sons Ltd. An expanding fleet took on the names of many family members which included Alfie Cam, Olive Camand Mary Cam. As these were all coal burners, to secure economical supplies and diversify, a colliery near Swansea was leased with surplus coal going to the open market.
In 1939 Carlo went to Europe intending to invest in modern ships and canning equipment. On his return, with war looming, he took the precaution of changing his name by deed poll and Carlo became Charles Cam. Further proofing the business against alien discrimination he appointed his son-in-law, John Reid, as General Manager.
The intended new ships never arrived, but in late 1939 and early 1940 the Commonwealth requisitioned all but one of Cam’s fleet of steam trawlers which were commissioned into the RAN as auxiliary minesweepers. However with wartime influx of population to the big cities there was an increased demand for fish. To make good this shortfall several new vessels were ordered from local yards to be built as wooden motor ships. The first and biggest was Patricia Cam, but in 1942 she too was requisitioned into the RAN. In the same year a similar fate awaited John Reid Cam which was taken over by the United States Army.
HMAS Patricia Cam
Built as part of a Federal Government scheme to promote Australian hardwood shipbuilding, Patricia Cam was a 121 foot (37 m) long wooden hulled ship of 300 tons constructed by the well-known building yard of Beattie Bros at Brisbane Waters, NSW. Fitted with two American manufactured Fairbanks-Morse 160 HP diesel engines she had an optimistic designed speed of 10 knots. The Gosford Times & Wyong DistrictAdvocate announced her launching on Saturday 30 November 1940 as a tuna fishing vessel capable of carrying 250 tons of fish. Far from being a fishing boat she was used as a collier carrying coal from Cam’s mine at Lake Macquarie, through the channel at Swansea, to their depot at Blackwattle Bay.
She was later requestioned by the Commonwealth and commissioned into the RAN under the command of Lieutenant John Grant, RANR, as an auxiliary minesweeper, on 3 March 1942. Her armament comprised 1 x 20 mm Oerlikon and 3 x machine guns. She had a crew of two officers and 18 sailors (1 x Coxswain, 8 x Seamen, 3 x ERAs, 3 x Stokers, 1 x Telegraphist, 1 x Cook & 1 x Steward).
We should do well to remember the devastating air attack upon Darwin on 19 February 1942 with rumours of invasion being rife. So with minimal workup HMAS Patricia Cam sailed under convoy from Sydney on 8 March with various stops en route, and with a few teething troubles, reached Darwin on 5 April. There was not much minesweeping but she settled into a routine of carrying stores and passengers to outlying missions. Her area of operation extended all across the Top End from Wyndham in Western Australia to Groote Eylandt near the Queensland border. With the jetty partially demolished she lay at anchor in Darwin, and with the tide out her flat bottom sat upon the freshly exposed beach. When the sun baked the sand dry, trucks would drive out to her to load and discharge cargo.
On 12 October 1942 command of this hard working vessel passed to 41 year old seasoned master mariner with plentiful experience in the Pacific islands, Lieutenant Alexander (Sandy) Meldrum RANR. Just before her final voyage a new First Lieutenant, Sub Lieutenant John Leggoe, RANVR was appointed. John was a 32 year old journalist who had joined under the ‘Yachtsmen Scheme’ which by this time was training new entries at HMAS Cerberus and then sending them to join small ships.
On yet another routine patrol, Patricia Cam left Darwin in the early hours of 13 January 1943, after one intermediate stop arrived at Millingimbi Mission on 20 January and two days later departed for Elcho Island. In addition to her crew she now embarked the Reverend Leonard Kentish, Chairman of the Methodist Northern Australian Mission District and five Aboriginal people, plus their canoe. Rev. Kentish was also a head of the local volunteer coast watchers. One of the new arrivals was ‘Paddy’ Babawun from Millingimbi, a skilled pilot, who assisted with navigation among uncharted reefs in these waters.
Enemy reconnaissance floatplanes based at Dobo in the Aru Islands, 300 miles (500 km) due north of Arnhem Land, had for some time harassed shipping along the northern Australian coast. It should not then have been entirely unexpected when at 1330 on Friday 22 January when on course for Wessel Island that ‘Floatplane Joe’ came silently upon them. This Japanese Naval Air Arm twin-engine floatplane (1) then cut her engines and dived out of the sun, passing overhead at low altitude, and dropped a single bomb which landed directly on the ship. The explosion blew the ship and her people skywards and much of her remains sank almost immediately. Her two boats were destroyed but one life-raft and the native canoe remained intact and, there was a supply of wooden wreckage and oil drums. One sailor, Ordinary Seaman Neil Penglase, went down with the ship.
While the survivors bunched together the plane returned and dropped a second bomb, killing Able Seaman Edward Nobes and two of the Aboriginal passengers, Djinipula Yunupingu and Djimanbuy Yunupingu, both from Yirrkala. The plane then machine gunned the area without inflicting any further damage. Next the floatplane landed and under threat of gunfire beckoned two survivors clinging to wreckage to it, one of these, the missionary Rev. Leonard Kentish, was bundled onboard and the plane took off. Leonard Kentish was the only Australian POW taken in home waters.
As the light faded, the worst of the wounded were on the life raft whilst the others clung to floating debris. They organised for teams of paddlers using one oar and another fashioned from a broken wood to propel the raft towards land. As one team tired they were replaced by another. During the night Ordinary Seaman Andrew (Andy) Johnston and Chief ERA William (Bill) Moffitt became separated from the main group and were never seen again. This is surprising as 24 year old Bill Moffitt was athletic and a fine swimmer, there are unconfirmed reports that his colleague Andy may have been injured, and that in helping his young friend they were both lost at sea.
In the early hours of Saturday 23 January the remaining 15 crew and three Yolngu men were washed ashore near the northern end of the Wessel Group island of Guluwuru. Within minutes of finding his feet on dry land Paddy started a fire which revived all their spirits. Although badly concussed, Narritjin Maymuru from Yirrkala came through the ordeal. Sadly Stoker Percy Cameron and Milirrma Gitjbapuy Marika, from Yirrkala, died from their injuries later that day and were buried together in a shallow grave with a canoe paddle set up as a marker.
Paddy and Narritjin were at home in the bush and could easily survive, they showed the others how to find fresh water, yams and oysters, but they knew that without help their colleagues would die. The crews of small ships operating in the north generally wore short shorts and worked like bronzed statues without shirts, they were more like pirates than naval sailors, but this was all part of an image of young reservists. Their lack of suitable clothing worked against them in this rugged terrain, without shade, where they became badly sun burned. There was no hope of swimming the Cumberland Strait which separated them from the largest of the Wessel Group islands of Marchibar which had a coast watching station at its far (eastern) end.
Luck was now with them as on the next day signal smoke was seen and the Yolngu men made contact with their kin who came by canoe to greet the survivors. With the aid of new Yolgnu guides, LEUT Meldrum crossed the Strait by canoe, and embarked on a barefoot trek over 26 miles (42 km) of rocks and scrub to the coast watching station at Jensen Bay. Meldrum used a canoe paddle as a club come walking stick during this venture and retained it until after his rescue.
After dark on Tuesday 26 January the party reached their destination and found Jack Jensen, now as an official coast watcher. Jack held the title of Petty Officer. Static prevented the radio from being coaxed into life until the next morning when a report was sent requesting help. Each day a morning flight was made by RAAF aircraft based Horn Island searching for expected invading Japanese. They were not disappointed when the flight, piloted by Pilot Officer Len Gairns, flew over Jensen Bay and eventually found the remaining survivors who had marked out there position with a message written by placing stones on the sandy beach. PO Gairns dropped a few rations and then unsuccessfully searched the wider area for any other survivors. Over the next two days more rations, clothes and equipment were air-dropped.
With news flashed to Darwin HMAS Kuru was sailed at midnight on 27 January and arrived at the Wessel Islands two days later to take the survivors aboard. They then proceeded to Jensen Bay to extract LEUT Meldrum. Kuru and her passengers arrived back at Darwin at 1000 Monday 1 February 1943. All but one of the survivors were in good health but AB Max Levett needed hospitalisation, from which he recovered.
At the time of the rescue Kuru was commanded by none other than LEUT John Grant, who had beenPatricia Cam’s first CO. She had only just returned from a number of other courageous ‘Timor Ferry’ rescue missions bringing refugees, including 70 women and children, from Portuguese Timor to the relative safety of Darwin. In another strange coincidence the patrol boat Kuru wasalso built by Beattie Bros, but in 1938 at their Balmain yard.
This ends the strange story of Patricia Cam, or as she was more affectionately known, Pat Cam. Built as a fishing vessel, she never caught a fish; as a naval minesweeper she never swept a mine; as a warship, unfortunately she never fired a shot in anger, but she did cement a bond and mutual respect between young men of the Royal Australian Navy and those who for generations have called Arnhem Land home.
HMAS Patricia Cam survivorsphotographed in front of the Naval Wing at the Kahlin Hospital, Darwin. Front row L-R: Stoker Arthur Bennett RANR of Melbourne, AB Greg Durrington RANR of Sydney, Telegraphist Bert Stevens of Sydney, Steward Alfred Tanner RANR of Melbourne. Standing: AB Don Brun RANR of Adelaide, Stoker George Williams RANR of Melbourne, Ordinary Seaman Vivian Murray RANR of Mackay, Sub Lieutenant John Leggoe RANVR of York, WA, Cook John Hawkins RANR of Melbourne, Lieutenant Alexander Meldrum RANR of Sydney, Petty Officer Hulbert Challender RAN of Hobart, AB Aubery White RANR of Perth and Engine Room Artificer John McKimmie RANR of Launceston. Note: AB Max Levett RANR of Bosey Park, SA is absent being confined to his hospital bed.
The fate of Reverend Kentish remained a mystery until 1946 when it was revealed he had been brutally interrogated, then executed and, buried near Dobo on 5 February 1943. Any interrogation must have been extremely difficult as he was stone deaf and relied upon a hearing aid which was lost during the air attack. His remains were recovered by a War Graves Unit and were reburied at the Australian War Graves Cemetery at Ambon. His persecutors were brought to justice, and after trial, two received life sentences and one paid with his life.
While Cam & Sons continued post war conditions were difficult: the ships were old, fuel expensive and fish prices low. The company finally closed its doors and its remaining ships were sold off in 1955 and 1956. And so ended the half a century legacy of Rocco Caminiti.
Search for Remains
In 2013 an expedition was mounted by ‘Past Masters to the Wessel Islands’ seeking to find evidence of WWII occupation and possible relics from earlier times as some ancient coins had been discovered here during WWII construction. The only discovery of interest was a large wooden fitting, with metal bolts, indicating this came from the frame of a large vessel circa 1940s. As this was near the area where Patricia Cam was sunk it was surmised these may have come from this vessel.
There was also a wartime relic in a mess at HMAS Coonwarrra which was a paddle from a native canoe. Could this have been that used by Lieutenant Meldrum during his epic walk in search of coast watcher Jack Jensen?
Mounting circumstantial evidence and continued agitation by close family members, both from the service and indigenous communities, of those lost in this tragedy caused the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, (now Vice Chief of the Defence Force) to order a further investigation. This gave rise in October 2014 to a new search using the Landing Craft Heavy HMAS Brunei, on her last mission before paying off, as a platform carrying an expert Army Unrecovered War Casualties Unit to the islands. Here the ship’s company of Brunei enthusiastically engaged in the physical aspects of searching for past comrades. Unfortunately, after many days of searching, no grave or remains were found. The leaders of the expedition came to the conclusion that over time, with erosion due to cyclonic activity, the grave had in all probability been washed back into the sea and any remains were no longer in or near the original site.
Patricia Cam memorial
Mr Banambi Wunungmurra, President of the East Arnhem Regional Council kindly extended an invitation to the Naval Historical Society to join them at Yirrkala in North East Arnhem Land on Anzac Day 2017 to dedicate a memorial to the 1943 sinking of Patricia Cam and to those brave men who lost their lives in this disaster. This included commemorating those Balanda, non-indigenous people, and native Yolngu people who stood as brothers in arms on these now distant days.
A stylish memorial has been erected close to a beautiful beachside location with a canoe paddle as its centrepiece. The names of all those involved in the Patricia Camstory are to be found on a plaque attached to the memorial. At the unveiling ceremony a memorial service was led by the Reverend Noel Kentish, son of the Reverend Leonard Kentish who was taken prisoner of war and flown by seaplane to the Adu Islands where he was beheaded by his captors. Many descendants of those who took part in the last fateful voyage of Patricia Cam came to this ceremony from all over the country, including many who were young children at the time.
The service also commemorated the rescue of United States pilot Clarence Sanford in 1942. After suffering battle damage to himself and his aircraft he made a miraculous flight across the Gulf of Carpentaria to be washed ashore off the Gove Peninsular on Bremer Island where he was rescued by Wandjuk, Milirrum and Milirrma Marika from Yirrkala and brought to safety at the Yirrkala mission. Back in the US he completed his medical studies and had a long career as a surgeon.
The overall event was sponsored by the Northern Territory Government as part of its 75 Year commemoration of the bombing of Darwin and the defence of Northern Australia. The NHS was represented by CMDR Walter Burroughs, RAN, Rtd. who helped prepare this article. None of this would have been possible without the dedication, passion and great organisational skill of Territorians, Karen and Mike Owen, to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude.
- Aichi E-13A ‘Jake’ – a long range reconnaissance seaplane (range 1,300 nm/2,100 km) with rear facing machine gun and two 250 lb bombs.
- Beaufort A9-108 – an Australian made bomber adapted from the Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber, with range of 1,600 nm/2,600 km, also used in reconnaissance roles by No 7 Squadron RAAF based at Horn Island in the Torres Strait.