- 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 the third morning, Leading Seaman Bool suggested that an attempt be made to salvage the sunken whaler. Nothing could be lost by trying, so we set about it, although the damage was so extensive that it looked a very forlorn hope. Apart from minor bullet holes, a gash from four to six inches wide had been cut in the side near the stern from the gunwale to the waterline. The boat had gone down with the ship when she sank and had wrenched herself free. In the process, all the gear such as the boat’s bag, compass and so on, had been lost.
First, the boat had to be freed of water before she could be patched.
Everybody was crowded onto the raft, which then floated very low in the water, and the damaged end of the whaler was dragged onto it. Then several men supported the other end of the boat until the gunwale was just above the water. Then we threw two men into the boat. These floated on their lifebelts, and baled for dear life. Gradually we got the water under control and were able to plug up the worst bullet holes with scraps of canvas. The big gash in the stern was a far greater problem. Fortunately, we found a piece of canvas just large enough to go over the hole. This we fixed on by screws taken from other parts of the boat, with the sailors’ knives. Screwing secondhand brass screws into hardwood with a knife is no joke, but it was done.
We found that the boat would now float with 29 men. The bottom of the big gash was just above the water line, and of course, was anything but watertight. It served, however, to stop water pouring in when the boat rolled. Constant baling with two tin hats was necessary to keep her afloat.
Now at last we had something that would float above the surface, instead of under it, and I was able to give each man in turn a spell in the comparative dryness of the boat. That night (Friday) was the worst up to date, in spite of having the boat. Everybody was getting a bit restive. There had been no sign of our aircraft, hunger and thirst were getting worse, and the effects of our long immersion, only very slightly alleviated by our spells in the boat, were beginning to make themselves felt. Salt water affected all the little cuts and abrasions, and all suffered cramps. Sleep had always been out of the question, except in little catnaps. In the main, a mild delirium took the place of sleep. Time, at night, seemed to stop still altogether. We had the weirdest dreams, mainly centered about food and cigarettes. I can remember telling an Ordinary Seaman to go to my cabin to get me some cigarettes. This lad had been my messenger when the ship was afloat, and I had given him the same order dozens of times before, and seeing him in the boat, I gave the order again. The look on his face was enough to bring me to my senses. In our minds, we devised the most marvellous meals, but I discouraged as far as possible too much discussion on the subject of food.
On Saturday morning there was still no sign of help arriving, and I began seriously to think of making for Bathurst Island myself, in the whaler. Several of the senior hands had urged this course the day before, but I was reluctant to leave the raft and Carley float, and there was still time for help to arrive. But by now we had been adrift for almost four days. Food was extremely short, and the effects of the prolonged exposure were becoming evident in us all. I reasoned that if the Captain got through in his boat, the raft and Carley float would get immediate help. They would have to tell their rescuers that we had left in the whaler, and the course we were steering. On the other hand, if the Captain failed to get through, another attempt in the whaler was our only chance. I decided to risk it.
Our remaining stocks of food were as follows: One barricoe containing about 3½ gallons of water, ten tins of condensed milk, and 6x 12 oz. tins of bully beef. As we had no other container, I decided to take only two tins of beef and six tins of milk, to be used in lieu of water. I considered that land might be reached in four to five days, but in view of our limited rations, I decided not to take the boat’s crew fully into my confidence. I also decided against calling for volunteers, and told off the crew myself. Many considerations governed this choice, but I eventually took one able seaman and one AIF soldier, both of whom had been wounded. These would have to be passengers, but were suffering considerably from the effects of immersion. For the rest, I took strong men who could be counted on to row for a long period, together with one or two who were showing signs of considerable nervous strain, and who, I thought might be a danger if left on the raft. We were to row continuously in four watches – half an hour, and an hour and a half off. We had five small dinghy oars and one whaler oar, and a boat hook stave, which I hoped might make a mast. There were no sails or rudder.