- A.N. Other
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2016 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Allan Miles
Whenever a tragedy happens resulting in the lives of young Australians who have chosen a career in service of this country, it is a great loss. Such a tragedy occurred in October 1963 when four midshipmen from the ‘Class of 1963’ who graduated from HMAS Creswell just months before, along with a sub-lieutenant, were involved in a training exercise aboard HMAS Sydney in the Whitsundays off the Queensland coast.
I am a member of the Airlie Beach Whitsunday RSL sub branch and while sitting enjoying some refreshments and conversation on the veranda overlooking Hook Island in August 2014 one of our members, Bill Rose (ex-RAN), started telling me about the training exercise that cost the lives of five young naval officers in 1963, just off Airlie Beach. My ears pricked up as I had never heard the story.
Bill related events of that fateful day when these sailors took their 27 foot Montague whaler on a training exercise that required the crew of five (four newly graduated midshipmen under the command of a sub-lieutenant) to circumnavigate Hook Island. The weather turned foul, the currents were extreme and many of the other whalers had difficulties in achieving the objective or indeed completing the exercise. The alarm was raised when the whaler failed to return to HMAS Sydney and a preliminary search was conducted. However it was not until the next day that a full-scale search got underway.
The whaler was found two days later with the bodies of two of the crew still inside the hull.
Sub Lieutenant Norman Longstaff – body never recovered
Midshipmen Peter Mulvany – body never recovered
Midshipman Brian Mayger – body never recovered
Midshipman Graham Pierce – body on board capsized whaler
Midshipman David Sanders – body on board capsized whaler
When I made my own investigation into this tragedy I found it had slipped below the radar for several reasons. Foremost being that in February 1964 the loss of HMAS Voyager, which shocked the nation, was a media headline for many months.
After Bill gave me the overview of the tragedy I spent some time thinking about it and what it meant to me as an Australian, an ex-member of the Defence Force, what affect it must have had on the families, the other members of the ‘Class of 1963’ and, indeed all those involved in the search or on board Sydney.
The first step is usually to ask for help so I contacted retired Commodore David Farthing, who as a naval aviator in the 1960s, was tasked to join the search. His recall of the event was clear and precise with details of the aerial search still imprinted in his memory. My meeting with him provided some answers and also posed a few new questions. Then it was off to Canberra to read the official inquiry report. That report offered no closure for the families nor was there any recognition of the dreams or aspirations of the five young Australians who had lost their lives.
Training accidents happen because service personnel train hard to attain the highest level of efficiency and readiness to undertake dangerous missions in defence of our nation. However, when the nation loses such personnel they deserve to have their service and sacrifice recognized. So I decided to ensure the location where the tragedy happened would be marked for future generations with their names recorded on a memorial so that they would not be lost in the passing of time.
A date was decided for the construction of the memorial and a site selected overlooking the beach at Cannonvale with a direct view of Hook Island. It would allow about one year’s preparation for the unveiling and dedication of the memorial in October. We would need to design a memorial, find and invite relatives of the five lost sailors, involve the community (local council, RSL members), arrange participation by Navy, raise a guest list and, most importantly, find the money to fund the project!
I wanted to see what a ‘Whaler’ looked like and to find out how they handled. Commander Shane Moore at Spectacle Island (the RAN’s repository for heritage and naval memorabilia from the first days of the colony) had hosted a BBQ for Anzac Victoria Cross recipients Keith Payne, Mark Donaldson, Willie Apiata and Ben Roberts-Smith in 2013, and as a result we had good contacts. So I rang him and he directed me to the Naval Heritage Centre Garden Island and to meet Commander Alex Hawes and arrange a tour of the centre.
A detailed plan was put on paper covering all the phases needed to be addressed that would ensure the successful completion of the project. This included: design, allocation of responsibilities, research, schedule, funding, equipment & partnerships. With duties allocated we set to work.
Of course we had a very good site available on the Remembrance Walk which was opened in 1988 and had a suitable stone in-situ, sitting on a sandstone pad that with just a little TLC would be ideal for our memorial. The site was the now unused Airlie Beach Whitsunday Sub Branch Cenotaph, where previous Anzac Day and Remembrance Day services were conducted. In discussions with the local council permission was obtained to use this site. It sits on the foreshore and has a 180 degree view of Hook Island where the tragedy occurred.
Chris Bull became the liaison to the local council, Bill Rose kept the sub branch fully informed and involved, while I travelled to Canberra to ‘Meet & Brief’ RSL National HQ, Defence and other government departments and try to gain support. We were indeed fortunate to have a Chief of Navy that agreed with the objectives of the group as well as an admiral as the national President of the RSL!
Contact was made with Commander Carl Capper the Commanding Officer of HMAS Cairns who allocated the resources we requested; a Naval Honour Guard, plus a bugler. The Commander agreed to officially represent the RAN.
A naval anchor was sourced then shipped to a foundry in Townsville where it was refurbished at no cost to the committee then transported down to Airlie Beach ten days before the scheduled unveiling and dedication. Three days before the unveiling our stonemason arrived from Mackay at 0745 hrs and worked until last light polishing the marble tablet, recessing the brass plaque into the tablet and securing it with screws and adhesive to reduce the possibility of unlawful removal. Then it was time for the placement of our anchor with heavy duty bolts into the base pad to secure the marble plate just below the brass plaque. Our very able tradesman Bob Mohle completed those tasks without any problem.
On Friday 23 October the naval contingent arrived from Cairns (Honour Guard and supporting personnel), checked into their billets and met with Bill, Chris and myself. Saturday was allocated to a rehearsal of the ‘Mounting of the Guard’ at the now completed Memorial.
Sunday 25 October was a beautiful day, sunshine with a gentle nor-easterly at about 4 knots – a day not too different to the start of that October day back in 1963.
Guests started to assemble before our marquee with seating for fifty guests and by the time our official party arrived at 1300 hrs a crowd of more than one hundred had assembled to watch the ceremony and be part of this service in recognition of the five naval officers.
Official guests included:
Cmdr Longstaff (brother) Sub Lieutenant Norman Longstaff
Brian & Carol Mayger (brother) Midshipman Brian Mayger
Peter & Patty Mayger (brother) Midshipman Brian Mayger
Mayor Jenny Whitney Whitsunday Council
Cr. Jan Clifford Whitsunday Council
Allan Miles & Mrs Miles CEO Operation Pilgrimage Group
CMDR Carl Capper & Mrs Capper Commanding Officer HMAS Cairns
Ewan Cameron State Vice President Qld RSL
John Byrne President HMAS Sydney Association
Father Chris Yule Proserpine Anglican Church
Bill & Joan Rose Airlie Beach Whitsunday sub branch
Chris & Kaye Bull Airlie Beach Whitsunday sub branch
Airlie Norton Vocalist (Australian National Anthem)
Rob Voigt Master of Ceremony
To have so many family members and friends of the five naval officers in attendance was due to the publicity we had undertaken for some months with advertisements in major newspapers, several ‘Human Interest’ stories via radio and TV interviews. Even more gratifying was the response from the general public who provided leads that led us to these family members. Several members of the ‘Class of 1963’ travelled from distant parts to be at the ceremony.
The brother of Midshipmen Peter Mulvany now lives in Denver, Colorado and made contact with our group. The best friend of Midshipman Graham Pierce’s fiancé rang to give me information of the trauma felt from her loss. A distant cousin from Newcastle, NSW contacted me and told me about Midshipman David Sanders.
Rob Voigt (ex RSM 1 Battalion) called the assembly to order and the ceremony was underway. The program was simple and dignified. There were a number of moments during the speeches that a hush settled over those gathered in respect for the ‘Service and Sacrifice’ of these young Australians who would never realise their dreams, never achieve their goals or ever have a family of their own.
On that day their families acknowledged that they had never been forgotten and this tribute hopefully goes some way to ensuring they will be remembered while ever this memorial stands. The ceremony went off without a hitch in fine weather and the subdued mood of many gave way to a sense of relief for a welcome service of remembrance. There was some expected emotion when we spoke to family members but they all expressed a level of gratitude that made the project to remember these young Australians worthwhile.
We will remember them
Lest we forget