Jock McDonough: WWII 1939-1945

Experiences of A.V. ‘Jock’ McDonough during WW II 1939-1945 as HMAS Perth catapault pilot transcribed by Ross Johnson 2007 from recordings made by Anne McAvaney during the 1980s with some historical additions.

Allan Vernon ‘Jock’ McDonough 1914-2005

Introduction, 2021

Expanding upon the 1995 recorded oral history of Jock McDonough was one of Ross’s early projects. The original tapes and transcripts are now in the Australian War Memorial archive HERE and have been referenced by scholars and authors, notably Mike Carlton in Cruiser, 2011. Jock’s son, Michael, has also written further on his life. Post war, Jock spoke very little about his experiences. On his repatriation to Adelaide, he was sent to a camp at Victor Harbor, 100km away, for debriefing – which consisted of daily exercise (star jumps and pushups) and advice to ‘put it all behind you’. Family members were advised not to discuss what might have happened during those years away. Jock was hurt particularly by the fact his father, mother and two brothers did not ask him a single question about surviving a torpedoed ship or being imprisoned by the Japanese and toiling on the notorious Burma railroad. It was only in Jock’s later years that he opened up about the experiences that continued to plague him with terrible nightmares for most of his life and led him to suffer recurring episodes of malaria and ill-health.

Jock holds a place in history as the man who spotted the Japanese fleet in the Sunda Strait on their way south after attacking Pearl Harbour. The horror of that moment was still fresh when he recounted the experience after half a century. It was difficult for Jock to speak about it and hard to listen to. In some accounts, Jock is reputed to have called out, ‘Christ, we’re surrounded!’ before engaging in a terrible battle that saw the loss of his ship, her captain and most of her crew. Ross’s subsequent essay allowed Jock’s first hand experience to be presented to a wider audience and adds detail and context to the historical narrative.

Allan Vernon McDonough was born on December 8, 1914, in Adelaide. He was the middle son of John and Isabel McDonough who were ‘Geordies’, having migrated from Newcastle-on-Tyne in the northeast of England in the early 1900s. John McDonough was a plasterer by trade but became one of Adelaide’s exclusive builders, designing and creating the suburb of Springfield.

Jock spent his childhood in a beautiful two storey house in the centre of Springfield and attended Scotch College with his two brothers, where he played cricket and football and excelled in rowing as cox, initially of the first four and then the eight, becoming the youngest boy in the history of the school to be awarded full colours at the age of 14.

In the late twenties, Australia entered the World Depression – as a result of which Jock had to leave school and abandon all thoughts of embarking on a law degree. No employment was available anywhere and even his father had to close down his building business. After a period of unemployment, Jock was offered a job. He takes up his own story:[1]

I obtained work through Dalgety’s Stock Department taking two race horses by ship from Adelaide to Port Elliston on the West Coast.

After safe delivery of the horses I was offered a job by the purchaser Mort Barnes who had purchased the horses from Mick Rasheed’s deceased estate. The names of the horses were Pistol Raf, the daughter of the well known sire Pistol King and Mer Mar, sired by Lord Marcus, also well known in South Australia.

Jock spent two miserable years working for Barnes on his property on the west coast of South Australia. The hours were long, the living conditions poor, and the pay miserly. Barnes was a ruthless employer. Jock, then in his late teens, refrained from complaining to his parents and put up with his lot. However, he was very relieved when the depression began to lift around 1932 and he was able to return to Adelaide when his father recommenced his building business.

Following my father’s suggestion that my best option would be to get an all round knowledge of the building trade I started out as a carpenter. I did this under the tuition of a Mr Jim Thompson who, according to Father, was the best tradesman that he had ever had contact with during all his years as a building contractor. It was with Jim Thompson’s guidance and help that I tendered for a contract to do the carpentry work on a small house. I was successful in winning the contract and as I had met another young carpenter I employed him to assist me. [Jock would have been about 20 years of age at this time.]

On completing this contract and making more money than just wages for the two of us I tendered for two other houses that I saw being built and was again successful in winning the contracts. As a result I had to employ another carpenter and this led to other jobs being offered me.

As conditions in the building industry were rapidly improving and demand was increasing, before long I was employing six men and at times had to employ as many as eight.

A big help to my enterprise was that I tendered for all my Father’s work and before long Father obtained the contract to build Rostrevor College including the College Chapel[2] which was recognized as one of Adelaide’s finest. Father awarded me the carpentry contract for the project. During this project I had six men working for me. Fortunately the college was completed before World War II broke out in 1939. [Jock was 24 at the time of the declaration of war.]

In 1936 at the age of 21 I had purchased a brand new Ford V8 and it was at this time that I was introduced by a friend to Ron Gibb. Ron was an ardent motor mechanic who loved to tune cars to get the utmost out of them. As I had not sold my first car, an Amilcar 14/40, we were able to dismantle the Ford V8 motor and to hand file such parts as the inlet and exhaust ports, the crankshaft and other parts, until they were all perfectly smooth and highly polished. As a result of our efforts we were able to get a few more revs per minute out of the motor and this of course gave us a few more miles per hour and in fact gave us a top speed of over 105 miles per hour. [168 km/hr]

It was clear even at this young age that Jock was an enterprising young man with plenty of get up and go. In his business, he specialised in the construction of roofing frames whilst his spare time was devoted to motor bikes and cars and he was an active member of the Sporting Car Club of South Australia. In partnership with Ron Gibb, he drove the Ford V8 in the 1937 and 1938 South Australian Grand Prix and then, in 1939, participated in the Australian Grand Prix which was held on the Lobethal circuit that year. Interestingly, the author as a young boy of six can recall attending that event with his family. My father and Jock’s future father-in-law, Gordon Johnson, was the South Australian manager of the Ford Motor Company and, as such, had a vested interest in the performance of the Ford V8 which was pitted against more highly-favoured racing cars. The race was won by Alan Tomlinson[2] in a supercharged MG special and Jock was unplaced. There is no record of him meeting Gordon Johnson on that occasion.

Jock thrived on the adrenaline rush that came with speed machines. On one occasion he talked a young lady into joining him in his green racing machine – the fastest in Adelaide due to his engine modifications. After observing the sparkling lights of Adelaide from Windy Hill they raced down the steep curves of the old Belair Road. Jock knew there was a police patrol waiting just off the roadside. They knew his numberplate but he had to be caught to be charged. He was never caught.

With the declaration of war on September 2, 1939, Jock immediately presented himself to the recruiting office in Adelaide on the following Monday, September 4, for entry into the RAAF. Within two weeks he had sold his carpentry business and motor vehicle and waited to be called up.

At 11am on September 3, 1939 Britain and France declared war on Germany. Within hours Australia, Canada, India and others of the 47 nation British Empire pledged support and also declared war on the ‘Axis Alliance’ (Germany and Italy).

On September 4, 1939, the day after Australia declared war on Germany, I went into Adelaide to enlist in the RAAF as a pilot. At the recruiting centre I was given a form. The form in part wanted to know if pilot training would be undertaken either part or full time, at government expense or at your own expense. I indicated that I would start immediately in full time at my own expense. After a few weeks I enquired as to how my application was going and was informed that the ‘Empire Training Scheme’ was being formed

In early December, 1939, I, together with 12 other eager applicants, was instructed to report for a medical and aptitude test and I was the only one selected for pilot training. Another lengthy wait for the start of my training.

Proof of his physical fitness, powers of concentration and mental aptitude are confirmed by his selection for the Number 1 Course of the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS). As there were limited numbers of aircraft for training purposes and the emphasis was on the formation of extra Divisions for the Army, very few of the many volunteers were selected for aircrew training and fewer still for pilot training in the RAAF.

Newspaper clipping of enlistment. Jock first on left in lower photograph

At the outbreak of the second World War, the British Government realised it did not have adequate resources to maintain the Royal Air Force in the impending air war in Europe. Whilst British factories could rapidly increase their aircraft production, there was no guaranteed supply of trained crew. Pre-war plans had identified a need for 50,000 aircrew annually, but Britain could only supply 22,000. To overcome this problem, the British government put forward a plan to its dominions to jointly establish a pool of trained aircrew who could then serve with the RAF. The scheme was known as the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) and was signed in Ottawa on December 13, 1939, a few days after Jock’s 25th birthday.

Under the scheme, 50,000 aircrew would be trained annually and each dominion would conduct its own elementary training. Australia undertook to provide 28,000 aircrew over three years, which represented 36% of the proposed number of aircrew. The first basic flying course started on April 29, 1940, when training began simultaneously in all participating countries.[3]

No.1 Course of the Empire Air Training Scheme – Jock front row third from left

Jock takes up his story:

April 29, 1940, saw 24 young, able bodied men enlisted in the Number 1 course of the Empire Air training Scheme (EATS) gather at Parafield which is north of Adelaide, South Australia. Upon taking ‘The Oath’ we were given our official service

numbers starting with Ray Barry whose number was 407,000; mine was 407,008. Of the 16 South Australians and eight Victorians, two men never completed the course. One, Rodney Muller of Victoria was killed when his aircraft hit power lines at Werribee during night flying exercises from Point Cook.

During the 16 week initial training at Parafield, the days were broken up so that we would attend flight lectures, service training, P.T. and practical flying. The lectures included aero engines, air frames, flight theory, meteorology, maths, Morse code, navigation and parachutes. The actual ‘hands on’ flight training, which started almost immediately, was all done in De Havilland ‘Tiger Moths’. The average flying time with an instructor was six to eight hours, after which ‘circuits and bumps’ was practised.

On August 26, 1940, we commenced a 17 week ‘Service Flying’ training course at Point Cook, where a number of us, myself included, were posted to the twin engine training school. Single engine training was done in ‘Wopitys’ [probably Wirraways] and the mono-plane ‘Ansons’ were used for the twin engine instruction. The course included intermediate and advanced flying, night flying, long distance reconnaissance, both as pilot and navigator, together with enemy recognition and bomb and munitions ballistics.

On December 16, 1940 we were broken up and assigned to Fighter, Bombing or  Seaplane sections. Fighter and Bomber pilots were sent to Laverton, Victoria, and Seaplane pilots to Rathmines on Lake Maquarie, New South Wales. R.E.Barrey, E.J. (Teddy) Rowan and myself[4] were posted to 9 Squadron (Walrus, Seagull, and Douglas Dolphin). Approximately six pilots were posted to 11 Squadron (Catalina Flying Boat) and two were posted to 10 Squadron which was based in England with Coastal Command.[5] This conversion course commenced on December 18, went straight through Christmas and finished on February 27, 1941.

The Walruses were slow, but they were ideal for the job for which they were designed. Incidentally, it was the Royal Australian Air Force that drew up designs for a plane, and several companies tendered for the contract to build it, and it turned out to be the Walrus. It was built for catapulting, to be catapulted off a cruiser, go off and do the search, land on the water, be picked up, put back on the catapult and if necessary go and do another search.

We did have instructors at Rathmines who had been on Walrus aircraft. Our instructor had been on them for a number of years but he had never been on a cruiser and so our training as far as flying them was concerned – no problem. But we had no training from anybody who had been on one of these cruisers with a catapult, and the thing is to take off, turn around and land. Well, the takeoff isn’t too bad. That’s done for you, more or less. But the landing is completely different. There are no two landings ever the same. The sea is always a different pitch so we had to work out a system of coordinating the aircraft and the ship so we could take advantage of the ship with the ship manoeuvring into a position that would be advantageous to the aircraft. I got to learn this because the captain of the Hobart had had an aircraft on board before I was assigned to that ship and he had gained experience with aircraft.

Above; Avro Ansen and below; Walrus

It is recorded that on one notorious occasion Jock, with youthful disregard for his safety, flew his training aircraft under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He had the misfortune to have his plane number taken by a policeman who happened to be crossing the bridge on his bicycle at the time. Naturally this resulted in Jock being put on a charge by the airforce authorities.

Upon completion of the course at Rathmines on February 27, 1941, the four graduates were assigned to various ships.

Jock continues:

Teddy Rowan was assigned to HMAS Sydney  and later replaced Lt. A. Hoath R.N., who was lost at sea when the catapult on HMAS Australia malfunctioned. Rowan remained with the Australia until she was lost in the Battle of Savo Island on August 9, 1942.

Ray Barrey replaced Rowan on the Sydney and was aboard when she was lost after the confrontation with the armed merchant raider Kormoran off the West Australian coast on November 19, 1941.

I was posted to HMAS Hobart on April 2, 1941. A few days later we set sail for New Zealand in company with HMAS Australia and it was on this trip between Sydney and Wellington that I had my first catapult shot.

We didn’t have a fleet air arm as such in Australia and several of us that were on our flying training ] were selected as possibly people who could be the nucleus of the Fleet Air Arm of Australia. [Those selected were] rated as above average pilots and I think, and also the airforce were very keen that whoever they sent to the navy was seen to be above reproach. There was pride.

The first catapult shot I ever had was on the Hobart. We left Sydney for a trip to New Zealand in company with the Australia the day after I went on board. On our way down it was decided to fly the aircraft off to give me experience of being catapulted. We were close to New Zealand – about two hours flying time from Wellington. The idea was to shoot me off and to fly up and over the top of the Australia and for them to then shoot their aircraft off and let me have a look from up top and see what it looked like. Well that was good, they shot me off, and I flew into a position over the Australia. They shot their aircraft off – but it didn’t shoot off. A malfunction of some sort as we could see the aircraft didn’t get up sufficient speed. It got to the end of the catapult and went bang straight into the water. The Australia went to do a turn to pick up the aircraft and the Hobart also went to do a turn because they hadn’t anticipated this mishap. At the time of the catapults they were steaming above 14 knots because that is the maximum speed at which most submarines can travel underwater. Anyway the two ships were on a collision course. The Australia turned to get out of the collision course and the Hobart did likewise. The result was that they were chasing each other and getting further and further away from the sinking aircraft with its tail sticking out of the water. I could see what the problem was and came around quickly and landed as close as I dared to the stricken aircraft. I had to taxi a little distance. As we were taxiing up to it in the hope of getting a rope around the protruding tail, the air gunner, whose position is at the tail end of the aircraft, opened the rear hatch with the result that the air escaped and down it went just as we got to it. The wireless air gunner managed to get out and we picked him up but he was very badly knocked about, particularly in the facial area. Of course it was a fairly rough sea but we managed to get him on the front of the aircraft and then on board. We hadn’t intended to land on the rough sea at all as we were planning to fly on to the protected waters of Wellington. Anyway it was a good learning experience for me to land in comparatively rough water. Finally the Australia arrived on the scene and dropped off a lifeboat which came over to us and we transferred the injured man into their care. The aircraft had gone into the water nose first crumpling the forward structure and trapping the pilot and observer inside. We all wore big belts to stop us being thrown about during the catapult takeoff so that would have made an additional hazard. The wireless airgunner survived and I met him many years later. The pilot was a Royal Air Force pilot from the Fleet Air Arm branch and the observer was a navy observer. All the navigators or observers were navy personnel of the rank of lieutenant or above.

After doing time with the Hobart I was sent back to Rathmines because the Hobart was going up to the Mediterranean, and the authorities knew from previous experience that taking a cruiser with catapult aircraft into an area where land based planes could get to them was just suicide. They were only for reconnaissance and were unable to compete against the Stugers and dive bombers used by the Italians.

It was decided to take the catapult and the aircraft off the Hobart. The Perth was on its way from England, so when it came to Australia they put the catapult onto the Perth.

Successful catapault from HMAS Hobart (above)

So in May 1941 Jock was back at Rathmines passing on his experiences as an instructor in rough water take off and landing procedures. Although he had had only four months experience on HMAS Hobart, he had, however, logged an extraordinary number of flying hours and was the most experienced pilot available. During the course of this posting he had a number of close calls with inexperienced trainees and was at the controls of his aircraft in two forced landings following which he and his crew were fortunate in being able to walk away unscathed. Both of these forced landings were the result of suspect maintenance, either negligence or more likely, sabotage.

The first incident revealed that all the guides that retained the control lines on the pulleys had been removed, causing the control lines to jump off the pulleys. This made banking to change direction almost impossible and Jock had to use all his skill and experience to bring the aircraft to a safe landing.

In the second incident the engine failed on take-off causing the aircraft to ditch in a swamp just beyond the runway threshold. The cause on this occasion was found to be a shaped piece of copper wire lodged in the carburettor forcing it to remain open and subsequently flooding the fuel system. Without doubt sabotage, which could easily have cost Jock his life. 

It was May, 1941. I’d left the Hobart and was an instructor back at Rathmines waiting for the Perth to be refitted. When I went to the Hobart I knew very little about ships. Some people in the navy were still saying ‘What do we need an airforce for?’ So there was a bit of a thing about the airforce, more so on the Hobart.

Anyway, I had to get on the tender to go out to the Perth.[6] The ship was moored off the wharf. I got into the motor boat and this other chap said to me ‘You’re the flight are you?’ And I thought ‘Who the Hell are you?’ You were not to talk to strangers, not to give anything away. And he just said ‘I’m the captain, Captain Waller.’ He was the type of man that was free and easy. No airs and graces. He’d been a captain of destroyers, Captain D they called him. He’d been in the Mediterranean with Mountbatten and got on exceedingly well with him. On one occasion there was a big air raid on and someone came in to report it to Mountbatten.[7] He said ‘Where is it?’ When told of the location Mountbatten replied ‘That’s alright, Waller’s down there.’

Waller also got on very well with Lady Mountbatten. They were at a party somewhere in the Mediterranean when Lady Mountbatten said that she would love to get her hands on some sewing machines to do something or other. Next thing Waller turns up with three sewing machines he’d scrounged from somewhere. The Mountbattens thought Waller was absolutely wonderful to find them when nobody else could get them. There was a strong bond between Mountbatten and Waller. Mountbatten admired the qualities he saw in Waller.

When I moved around the Perth the story going around was: ‘This bastard, all he is is a gong hunter.’ Presumably this was because in the Mediterranean he’d been taking his destroyers in amongst the Italians and having a go at them. They  thought he was looking for glory but he wasn’t, he was just that type of man. He would chase Italian cruisers and they’d get the hell out when they knew Waller was coming. They lived in fear of this man and his squadron – because he had all the destroyers at his disposal.

Anyway, within a fortnight of him coming aboard the Perth, the whole ships company’s attitude changed. I could see this because I had been on board the Hobart and the Hobart was the direct opposite of the Perth’s  working environment – Waller’s presence and the way he  wentabout things, the way he spoke to people, the way he treated people. It just oozed out of this man – charisma. Of the best type. To get everybody to do what they should be doing anyway, but without a murmur of dissent. How one man can command that of 700 men. How one man can infuse those people with his ideas and how he wanted things done. I met him on day one.

The officers were separate from the other ranks on board. I had my own steward and that was only granted to the rank of Lieutenant Commanderand above. As the airforce officer you had a team of airforce personel aboard ship and you were responsible for their everyday activities. Also you had all the guff that came in from the airforce, in batches, and you had to go through all of that and keep up your daily routine orders which were always changing. You had to know what was happening. There was quite a bit of book work to do and you had to keep ferrying that back whenever you were somewhere that you could send communications.  

For a start we were all assembled on board and then we went out to sea on trials. We got out to sea the first time and it was discovered the communications on board were not working. It was investigated and it was found that tiny gramophone needles had been hammered into the lead cables that carried all the network of wires to various parts of the ship. They were tiny and were not at first obvious. It was probably carried out during the extensive refit in Cockatoo Dockyard after the Perth arrived from England. The dockhands were blamed as they were always coming on board to do things. We returned to Sydney and all the cabling had to be completely replaced. It gives you some idea of the extent of the sabotage that was taking place at the time. It was hard to imagine that we had people within the country who would do that sort of thing.

I think we lost four or five weeks as a result of the sabotage. We just sat in Sydney Harbour. America was not in the war at that time. Hobart had left to go to the Mediterranean. It was full steam ahead in Europe and it was looking pretty bad. Rommel was causing an awful lot of trouble. To try to contain him they threw everything they could into that area. A lot of army men were lost in the Middle East at that time.

To give my own views; the first war lasted four years, 1914 to 1918. I said ‘Oh, this one will last a year at the most. With modern aircraft and knowing the treatment the Jews were getting from the Germans, the Jews would just pour money into the Allies to stop this man Hitler. But they didn’t. They were still sending money to the nations who were supplying Germany with munitions That, in my opinion, was what helped prolong the war.

It wasn’t widely known about the sabotage. The authorities were frightened that panic would break out amongst civilians. But there were signs everywhere warning of sabotage. Even among friends you were not supposed to divulge anything at all about the services. Consequently one ship would not know what another ship was doing. It was only when you were in the higher ranks of the services that you were privy to what was going to happen in the next week or so. You couldn’t plan long range stuff because things would change so quickly.

As soon as the wiring was replaced we went back out to sea and did trials again for a couple of days and came back in and were then sent down to Port Phillip bay which was considered a good place for exercises. There were a lot of new young recruits aboard and it was generally felt that it would be a good idea to do manoevres to get the lads accustomed to what they had to do to work as an integrated unit.

Before the war I’d been racing cars and had that adventurous spirit and I thought the airforce would be a good thing to get into. And as it turned out, for landing at sea, some of the things I had learnt through the experience of racing cars, judgement and such like, you got to use it to the nth degree in landing at sea. You’ve got a big wave, 20 feet high, and that throws you up in the air, sometimes 30 feet, and you’ve got to power as hard as you can – and you have to get everything right. I think judging the speed of approaching the back end of a ship had similarities to driving fast cars – all of that experience undoubtedly helped me.[9]

Paintings of Captain Waller and his ship HMAS Perth

Before heading off to Port Phillip Bay an incident occurred off Sydney Harbour, probably at the end of November, 1941, a couple of weeks before Japan dramatically entered the war by attacking Pearl Harbour. It was during a gunnery exercise and Jock was required to fly over the target and observe the fall of shot from the ships. On completion of the exercise, he was to fly the aircraft in to Sydney where he and his crew were to stay overnight before rejoining the Perth the next morning upon its return to harbour.

Jock takes up the story:

We had been out off Sydney Heads – a long way off – for gunnery exercises. There were about five of us – the Australia, the Perth, the Ander, a sister ship to the Perth but with the New Zealand Navy, and a few smaller ships. We’d been out to shoot and I was the one delegated to do the flying for that group of ships. They had a tug towing a target and it was a day night exercise. I had only a certain amount of fuel after the day’s shoot to get me back to Sydney. We were just turning to fly into Sydney when out of the corner of my eye I picked up this submarine above surface and I yelled out to the observer ‘There’s a submarine,’  and yelled out to the wireless operator ‘Send a sub signal.’ We had specially coded signals to send from the aircraft to the ships. We were in constant radio communication.

About a fortnight before this incident the navy in their wisdom had told us not to fly over Sydney with bombs loaded as the civilians could be in danger. ‘It doesn’t matter if you see a submarine, let it go!’ We were at war! We were looking for submarines off the Australian coast but we had to take the bombs off !

I dived on this thing and didn’t have a bomb to drop on it. We had smoke flares. Little bomb type hand held things which the observer threw out the window and they sent a smoke signal. The observer could then work out the wind direction and strength to plot his position. While the wireless operator was sending his coded message I dived on the submarine and it started to submerge. All we could do was drop these smoke floats. That was good enough to give the ships – and we could still see them – a position so they could pick up where the sub was going.  

We were low on fuel so had to turn towards Sydney. At the time the wireless operator sent the signal the ships had been steering line ahead – one after the other. After he sent the signal, by coincidence as it later turned out, the Admiral got all the ships to do a turn. They were then line abreast which is the correct formation when in submarine danger. A submarine is then only presented with the end of the ship as a target. So it was the correct procedure in avoiding a submarine, to turn away from it. A ship can go faster than a submarine to escape from it. A sub can go about 14 or 15 knots, a ship 33 knots. Anyway, they had done this and were line abreast. We said ‘Oh good, they know where the submarine is, we have to get back to Sydney.’ The ships were doing a night shoot so they were going to stay out.

As we reached Sydney Heads out came three destroyers. Flat out. We didn’t know this had been prearranged. We thought ‘Beauty! They’re chasing down this submarine!’ We landed at Rose Bay, went to a hotel and stayed the night.

The next morning we had to get the aircraft and get to the Perth which was now moored in the Harbour. When we got on board and got the aircraft back on the catapult we said;

‘What happened about the submarine?’

‘What submarine?

Well, of course, then it was panic stations. Up to the Captain. We told him what we had seen but they were in complete ignorance.

We were quickly taken over to the Australia where the Admiral was aboard with all his entourage. We related what had happened.

‘Did you signal?’


Then, of course, the Admiral asked what had happened to the signal? The Captain said he didn’t know.

They gave us, that is the observer and I, Jane’s book of submarines: all the subs ever built. The most comprehensive silhouettes. It’s a big thick book with subs from different positions. We couldn’t see any that resembled our sub. Then they turned to the last page;

‘That’s it!’

It was the latest ‘I’ Class submarine built by the Japanese.

This was the first enemy submarine sighted in Australian waters. It was capable of a much longer range than any submarine in the world that had ever been built. It was faster. It could carry aircraft inside although only small aircraft like spotter seaplanes. It was big! It could also carry midget submarines of the type that came in through Sydney Heads behind the merchant ships – that’s how they got in through the net set up to stop submarines coming into Sydney Harbour. It was one of those that sank the RAN Depot ship HMAS Kuttabul  in Sydney Harbour on June 1, 1942 killing 21 naval personel. That happened after we were taken POW.[10] Just to give you some idea of the size and range of these subs. They were colossal.

Japan had not entered the war when we sighted that submarine. We sighted that off Sydney Heads, which gave the submarine time to leave where the Sydney was sunk [off the West Australian coast] come around the coast, and get to Sydney Heads. It could have been the same submarine, but this is purely conjecture. This was the time the HMAS Sydney was supposedly sunk by the German ship Kormoran with no survivors. [November 19, 1941]           

Fifty years later, on a train trip travelling up to Melbourne from Frankston there were three of us that had been on the Perth. We picked up another Perth chappie further up the line. He said:

‘Do you know, the funniest thing that ever happened to me at sea? We picked up a signal and it got all messed up.’

It turned out that he had been in charge of wireless communications on the Perth at the time the submarine was sighted. He’s still alive – Tom Goldsmith is his name. He said that on board the Perth on that day they had a radio operator reservist. He was manning the radio when my coded signal was received. He couldn’t understand what it was so, instead of seeking further advice, he screwed it up and put it in the wastepaper basket.

What had happened, unbeknown to me, was that when I got back on board the Perth that morning and asked about the signal, the wireless operators hunted through the wastepaper basket and – there was the signal!

The reservist radio operator was sent off the ship and never allowed back on board. Correct procedures had not been followed otherwise it would have been a different story. Of course we left Sydney and went off up to Java and I didn’t know the sequel to the saga until 50 years later.  

Flying the Walrus was uncomfortable by today’s standards. You had a very wide webbed belt to pull you back into the seat. You levered it across to lock it. It’s a metal seat, not padded like they are today. You’re sitting on your parachute. The other thing not recognised – the pilot, once catapulted, stayed there for a full four hour stint. You’d come back, have a cup of tea and a sandwich and do another four hours. We did eight hours a day sitting in that metal seat.

When you get out to sea – we didn’t have the navigational aids they’ve got today – you’re flying an aircraft over a featureless sea. On land you can pick up landmarks but with flying at sea you can’t do that. You’ve got to constantly watch to pick up wind change on the water which you can see coming. If you’re not alert you miss it – so the strain is always there, keeping the aircraft on course. You only have to be a fraction out on your course after fours and you can be that far away from your ship that you can’t see it. They’re camouflaged which adds to the mental strain. It’s not a conscious strain, looking back on it now, but it was there.

The G-force in taking off in a Walrus by catapult can be compared to a rocket taking off to the moon. Even the astronauts weren’t subjected to the same gravitational forces that we were. The catapult when it’s fully extended is 90 feet. The first 60 feet is taken up with acceleration. In the last 30 feet they stop the trolley. So in the first 60 feet you’ve got got to go from nought to 137 miles per hour. [220 kph] To be quite honest I really didn’t know what happened the first time. The skin is pulled tight across your face. You never became thoroughly accustomed to it, but you accepted it. A lot of pilots would say, ‘Why would you want to get into that thing.’

We were only given 18 months life aboard ship. That was the theory. Take you off and put someone else on. Well, none of us did the full 18 months. The Perth was sunk, but all the others had flying accidents of some sort, and killed themselves. I’m the only one that survived it.

 On about three occasions we flew off the ship, did our four hours reconnaissance and returned to find there was no ship. The ship’s not there. Now this wasn’t the fault of our navigational flying. The navigator I had, N.D.McWilliam, did his navigation  training with the English Fleet Air Arm. He always said – and I guess I have to repeat it – that he had never flown with such a good pilot. You’ve got to be accurate. There was no room for error. I felt the same about him anyway. Best navigator born because he was methodical. We’d both pick up wind changes and he would drop smoke floats. You’d navigate using those things. You can’t explain fully the reliance we placed on each other. He was on the Perth with me. In the end McWilliam got into the water as the last torpedo hit, and he was gone.

There was no such thing as training. We had supposedly done our training on how to fly a seaplane but we never had any training on landing on rough water. Landing on rough water is an art all of its own. The ship never stops. It keeps going and does an exercise to get ready for the aircraft to land. They do a ‘D.’ They steam at 30 degrees to windward, then turn 30 degrees to leeward, and allow the aircraft to land into the ‘D.’ It doesn’t stop the swell but blocks the waves to a degree.

On one of the occasions when we arrived back from reconnaissance to find no ship we started a square search. You fly so many minutes on this leg, then do a right angle, then so many minutes on the next and you keep doing that and the square gets bigger and bigger. The ship should be inside that area. When you’ve done about four legs and the ship’s still not there you begin to wonder and worry that you’ve made a mistake somewhere. You can’t break radio silence at sea because it could give your position away – unless it’s an extreme emergency. That could include sighting a submarine. You call the ship and they come to where you are. You stay above them on the surface. That never happened but that’s the theory.

On this occasion we got back to our rendezvous position and started the square search. We were nearly out of gas at the end of a four hour flight. If we didn’t pick up the ship within a quarter of an hour we were out of gasoline. We watched our fuel gauge continuously. So we were doing our square search and it was getting dark. All of a sudden I caught a glimpse of a shaft of light going up. I turned the plane in the direction I thought it was. We kept flying and presently another shaft went up and again I turned the aircraft to where I thought it had been. Suddenly we could see the ships and did the necessary procedures, landed, got picked up and reported to the captain. We had only about a quarter of a gallon of fuel left and in another couple of minutes we would have been down.

He had broken all the rules and regulations in the book by turning the search light on. He could be seen for miles. He showed me the four signals that he had sent to Admiral Crace on the Australia. ‘Our rendezvous position with our planes is xyz.’ The Admiral apparently ignored Captain Waller’s obligation to his aircraft so that the Perth and the Australia  were not at the rendezvous position as planned. It would seem that the Admiral didn’t care that he had two planes up. The other aircraft got back from its reconnaissance and likewise found no ships, ran out of fuel and was forced to land in the sea.

The Perth and Australia hung around all night trying to locate where the other aircraft might have gone down. I was up at dawn at action stations. You get up at dawn and go to your action station so that you’re ready in case there are any surface ships that have come into the area so you’re absolutely ready for any emergency. I was just getting up into the aircraft ready to be catapalted off just before daybreak, everything ready, when the Australia sighted the aircraft in the water. They had been able to stay afloat all night. Our captain said ‘If this ever happens again don’t think of anybody else but yourself.’

This incident occurred sometime during December 1941 or January 1942. It was during this time that the Perth was engaged in patrols, escort duties, exercises and manoeuvres, in the course of which she visited New Zealand, New Caledonia and New Guinea. Japan had just entered the war. On one occasion the ship went south, far below New Zealand, chasing a raider. The ship encountered huge seas before returning to more friendly latitudes.[11] Jock continues:

Top picture ; Walrus bedded down on board ‘Perth’. Below; successful catapault of Walrus from ‘Perth

There were quite a lot of ships being sunk at the time mainly between Sydney, New Zealand and the islands. We went all through the islands, up to Suva, looking for whatever was sinking shipping. We did that much flying that there was eventually a signal from the navy and the airforce to reduce the hours. You can only do so much maintenance on a ship and with so many hours flying you had to have more maintenance done. Aircraft were very scarce and valuable. You could get more men but not more aircraft. So you had to be careful you didn’t damage an aircraft. On a couple of occasions aircraft flew into a ship losing all the crew and the aircraft.

Captain Waller treated his aircraft as a toy. He loved his toy.[12] He had me flying and flying and flying! A four hour stint in the morning and quite often again in the afternoon. The pilot can’t move of course. To do a four hour stint out at sea with featureless water and no landmarks to get your bearings on, you had to fly with the utmost precision. A warship in the Pacific Ocean – imagine leaving it for four hours and trying to get back. You could easily miss it. The strain of flying those sort of missions was very great.

When I first went aboard the Perth and met Captain Waller he asked me ‘What does one do?’ He had made his reputation on destroyers in the Mediterranean and had never been on a ship with an aircraft. On the Hobart I had very little rapport with Captain Howden.[13] He was of that vintage that the captain was on one side and everyone else on the other. Waller was different – he was with his men.  The atmosphere on the two ships was like chalk and cheese. Not to say the Hobart was not a good working unit, it was. Howden was a very strict disciplinarian. Waller, however, got men to work together because of his personality, and because he was respected. He was a master tactician and that became well known.

In answer to Captain Waller’s question I had to reply, ‘I don’t know exactly, but what I think is this; you steam at about 15 degrees, and you reduce speed down to about 18 knots. You go into the turn with 25 degrees of helm and you create what they call a slick. Smooth water in an area like a ‘D.’

Well, we came to our first catapult shot on the Perth – there was nothing to that. I did a couple of circles around. At that stage he should get ready to form the ‘D.’ We landed in the ‘D’ but the ship was still going. That was quite alright in Port Phillip Bay. He had to virtually stop and let me catch up, however at sea that’s not supposed to be done because submarines could be about and could attack.       

So the landing was alright but everything else was messed up. When I got back on Board he said, ‘What went wrong flight? And I told him and he said, ‘Well, no, I didn’t take any speed off.’

So we got organised again and did another one, and I said, ‘From what I can remember from the Hobart  we did this, that, and so on. I hadn’t actually been told  what they did on board ship on the Hobart when I landed so I could only give my impressions of what went on.

From then on everything worked well.

In January 1942 a convoy came from America with cruisers and transport carriers. We accompanied them to Brisbane where we also went into harbour to get some fuel as we’d been at sea for a while. Then we came out, picked up the rest of the convoy and took them down to Sydney. We dropped some more off there and continued on down to Melbourne. A number of American ships were in Australian waters by then.

Whilst we were in Port Phillip Bay with this convoy of American ships it transpired that one of their ships, the USS Phoenix, which was en route to Java to join the ABDA Fleet (American, British, Dutch, Australian), developed engine trouble, so a decision was made to send the Perth in its place.

This was not anticipated. We were not supposed to go as the Hobart had already left and was up there. On a personal note I was due to be rested and a replacement pilot was being sent from Rathmines in NSW. He was being sent by train. As it turned out he had not arrived by the time the Perth was due to sail so I remained on board.

On February 14, 1942, HMAS Perth sailed from Melbourne for the Java Theatre, sailing via Perth, WA, and making the fastest crossing from Melbourne to Perth thus far recorded. However, in Perth the ship was delayed before sailing on to Java and Jock had his parachute checked ashore. It was found to have been sabotaged and full of holes and had to be replaced.[14]

The ‘Perth’ camouflaged and ready for action with Walrus in silhouette on the deck

The ships in harbour in Tandjong Priok, the port of Batavia, continued to be subject to enemy air raids during  February 24 and 25 but the Perth suffered no  significant damage apartfrom that inflicted on her aircraft by the Yarra’s pom poms as she lay alongside the Perth.

On February 25 the Perth sailed from Batavia to Surabaya in East Java in company with four Royal Navy ships. On February 26 the Perth departed Surabaja in company with the Dutch cruisers De Ruyter and Java, the cruisers USS Houston and HMS Exeter, two Dutch destroyers, four US destroyers together with destroyers HMS Jupiter, HMS Electra and HMS Encounter. The fleet proceeded along the north coast of Madura Island.

Jock describes his impressions of the Battle of the Java Sea:

The ABDA Fleet was formed under the command of Admiral Doorman, the Dutch admiral being the most senior naval officer in the ABDA Fleet. He was senior in rank to all the captains of the other ships. That’s where seniority rears its ugly head. He wasn’t necessarily the most competent man.

Another thing that became evident in the fleet – five cruisers and nine destroyers – was that no-one had worked out communications, the transmission of orders. Many of the signals were in Dutch which we couldn’t understand. There is no universal language on ships. We had our own log of emergency signals – they were very short so that they could be transmitted quickly: often only about four letters. But everyone had to know what those four letters meant. Anyway it was a huge disadvantage not having a uniform signalling code. We didn’t know what the others intentions were. Not like it is today where Australians are liaising with Americans, Asians, Indonesians Pakistanis. They all train together with our ships. If anything happens we are all on the same wavelength and can get messages from ship to ship.

Anyway, we went out into the Java Sea but couldn’t find the Japanese convoy that was coming down …

Historian Graham Donaldson:     

The assembly of the Imperial Japanese army, air and navy forces in southern Borneo, the Celebes and the Molucca Islands for the final assault to take Java occupied the greater part of February, 1942. During this time air raids were launched on Batavia, the capital, and Surabaya, the main naval base. The Japanese Eastern Force, 48th Division, was concentrated at Jolo Island in the Sulu Archipelago and the 56th Regimental Group at Balikpapan.

An Imperial Japanese Navy squadron, under Rear-Admiral Takeo Takagi, consisting of two heavy cruisers and two destroyer flotillas covered the 41 transports. The Japanese Western Force, sailing from Can Ranh Bay, comprised 56 transports escorted by four heavy cruisers and two flotillas of destroyers.

A striking force of four battleships and four aircraft carriers under Vice-Admiral Nobutake Kondo, having refuelled at Kendan, headed for the waters around Java.

On Thursday, February 26 a large Japanese expedition of transports protected by warships was reported approaching Java from the north, and it appeared to have been in at least three separate task groups. All available Allied ships-of-war were put to sea with the intention of locating and sinking the transports before the enemy landing could be effected. The ABDA Force was under the command of Dutch Rear-Admiral Karel Doorman, flying his flag in the Dutch cruiser De Ruyter …

… The next day Japanese aircraft shadowed Doorman’s squadron and he received confusing reports and was unable to locate the enemy so he returned to Surabaya on the afternoon of Friday, February 27. Upon entering the harbour he received news of the location of 30 Japanese transports, 20 miles west of Bawean Island, so he set out immediately to intercept and made contact with the enemy vessels at 4.12 pm the same afternoon when he sighted, 50 miles north of Surabaya, a Japanese squadron of at least two heavy cruisers plus a number of other enemy cruisers and 13 destroyers organized in two flotillas. The Japanese naval force commander, informed of the allied approach by aircraft shadowing Doorman’s squadron, had interposed his covering force between his transport convoy and the ABDA force. The first round of the major naval battle of the Java Sea was joined at once with gun-fire being exchanged between opposing cruisers at extreme range …

Jock takes up the story with his impressions when the fleet left Surabaya on the initial occasion:

Had I been able to be up and flying, I could have covered a colossal area of where the convoy was meant to be. Eventually we saw their aircraft coming over to look at us. So they knew what we were doing, but we didn’t know where they were or what they were doing.

After we’d been out searching in the Java Sea the Admiral turned the whole fleet around and took us back into Surabaya Harbour. I said,

‘What on earth are we going in there for? The Japanese have been shadowing us with their aircraft, they know we’re going in, they can bottle us up and we’ll never get out!’

Fortunately they got a signal to say the task force had been sighted. On some of these small islands the Allies had people coast watching and they let us know. So, no sooner had we sailed into harbour than we turned around and sailed out to sea again, fortunately or unfortunately. However, it was such a waste of time.

Donaldson continues:

The enemy destroyer flotilla attempted a torpedo attack, but was driven off by allied gunfire, with at least one Japanese destroyer being hit. Shortly after the other destroyer flotilla came on, and succeeded in reaching effective range and were able to launch their torpedo armament. The allied cruisers were unable to repel this attack, being at this time fully engaged in an exchange of gun-fire with the opposing Japanese cruisers. One torpedo hit the Kortenaer  which sank …the Exeter was hit from the intense and accurate fire from the eight inch cruisers Nachi and Haguro, putting out of action one of their boiler rooms. Exeter, losing speed and being unable to keep up the pace of the battle line, was then surrounded by a smoke screen created by the Australian cruiser Perth. This allowed the Exeter to retire in safety.

The surviving allied destroyers were ordered to make a counterattack on the retiring Japanese flotilla going into a cover  of smoke. The Electra, penetrating through the smoke screen, engaged three of the larger Japanese destroyers. She hit the leading destroyer with a salvo of gunfire, but herself received several hits and was finally engulfed in flames and sank. Fifty four survivors of the crew were picked up by an American submarine the next day.

The allied cruisers passed through the smoke screen and again engaged the enemy cruisers, this time at short range. The enemy eventually withdrew and was lost sight of at 6.30 pm to the north east in failing light.

Doorman continued the chase after nightfall but had to contend with Japanese reconnaissance aircraft dropping flares and illuminating his ships. He believed the enemies transport convoy to be on the other side of these warships and endeavoured to work around them. Unable to do so due to the enemy’s superior speed, he therefore turned south to close with the coast of Java and intercept the landing forces before they were able to amphibiously assault the shoreline. HMS Jupiter hit an undetected mine or was hit by a well placed torpedo, exploded and sank at 9.25 pm.

The Perth and Houston were exchanging gun-fire with the Nachi and Haguro, also fending off Japanese destroyers on a torpedo run at them. Doorman’s depleted squadron, now 12 miles off Rembang at 11.30 pm, sighted two Japanese cruisers between themselves and the shoreline, engaging them with gun-fire. Hits were made on both sides in the salvo of high explosive exchange and then suddenly the two Dutch cruisers blew up simultaneously in a massive cavalcade of seawater and steel armour plate with a huge loss of life. De Ruyter and Java, hit by high explosive warhead torpedoes, sank immediately and Doorman went down with his Flagship.

With the loss of Doorman, Waller as the next senior officer took charge of operations, and ordered the last two surviving Allied ships left in the battle, Perth and Houston, to retire from the engagement.

At thirty minutes past midnight on Sunday, March 1, 1942, 40 Japanese transports dropped anchor off Kragon, 100 miles west of Surabaya.

The Perth and Houston arrived at Tandjong Priok early the next day, while the Exeter accompanied by the destroyer HMS Encounter, had arrived during the night at Surabaya.  

HMAS Perth under fire at night in Java Sea, painting courtesy John Hamilton

Jock remembers his impressions of the Java Sea Battle from the bridge of the Perth. Not having an aircraft he was used an extra pair of eyes at the command centre of the cruiser:  

We started the engagement and it was on for young and old. Because the Japs close in pretty close to us, it wasn’t long before the De Ruyter sank from torpedo strikes, then the Java was hit. Next the Exeter [of River Plate fame] to the extent it was crippled and its speed reduced from 25 knots to 15. We couldn’t cut down to that speed so Waller threw a smoke screen around the Exeter so it could escape. When we came out of that and came back to where the enemy ships were, of course we struck them again. In the running battles it finished up that the Perth and the Houston were the only two ships afloat.

You can’t imagine what it was like, with our ships being blown up – and their ships being blown up by us! The carnage in that short time was colossal! There it was, we had this beautiful big ABDA striking force, actually the biggest cruisers available – and all we finished up with was the Perth, a six inch cruiser, and the Houston, an eight inch cruiser, against the Japanese eight and nine inch cruisers that had attacked us.

It was then that Waller, who was senior to the captain on the Houston, sent a signal: ‘Follow me!’

He took command, the others had been knocked off. He hot-footed it out of there with the Houston on his heels. The Houston had been in an engagement in the Philipines and she had been hit down aft. Her rear turrets were out of action, and also her catapult, so she couldn’t fly her aircraft. Exeter didn’t have an aircraft and nor did any of the others ships.

One thing stuck in our minds and has worried us ever since: the Dutch had flying boats called Dorniers, big long range seaplanes.[17] They had them there. They never sent any up in the air but just kept them on the ground. There were Dutch pilots from Indonesia at Rathmines – sent down to do some training but they didn’t get to do any night flying. So there was this alleged  air force with a crowd of pilots who couldn’t fly at night – the perfect time for them to fly. If they had been attacked they were never far from islands in which they could hide. If only they had sent up even one aircraft, one Dornier, it might have been a different story.

So – we were decimated. We were surrounded by these very big Japanese cruisers and their destroyers which were carrying the biggest torpedoes that had ever built. The smaller torpedoes that the British and Americans had, were easily diverted in rough water, but these things the Japanese had, were that big and powerful that once they were in the water and heading for the target, that’s where they went.

Well, we headed back to Java. When we arrived there we were very nearly out of ammunition. It had only been a brief encounter but we had thrown everything at them. We were also practically out of fuel because we had been cruising around in the Java Sea looking for this mob.

Above; the Exeter comes under fire in the Java Sea battle. Below; a Dutch Dornier flying boat

HMAS Perth and USS Houston arrived at Tandjong Priok on February 28 after the day and night actions off Surabaya.

Jock continues his narrative:

We tried to get fuel and ammunition. There was practically no ammunition to be obtained. We had taken on only a little fuel when we came under attack by air. The natives hot-footed it out of town, so there we were stranded – tied up at the wharf with all the lines connected trying to get oil on board and no native workers.

A couple of natives straggled back into town and the captain and commander went up to the Dutch Headquarters in Batavia to get a rundown on any information they may have had.

We only got 50 per cent of fuel and then untied and with the Houston headed for the Sunda Strait. We lost an hour to an hour and a half in harbour. Fortunately we sustained no damage in the air raid. Incidently, although all the other ships including the Houston had received hits in the Java Sea Battle, the Perth  had not suffered one scratch.

There are pictures that give you some idea of what a sea battle is like. You have shells coming at you, shooshing through the air. And then they hit and you think,

‘Well, the next salvo will get us!’ But we came out unscathed.

If the Dutch had sent just one Dornier out around Batavia, into the Sunda Strait and up the coast of Sumatra, they would have seen that second force that had left Pearl Harbour and had blown the Americans to Kingdom come – a huge force. Here they were heading for Batavia from the north west whilst on the other eastern side was the force that had attacked us. They had a two-pronged attack.

We decided to get out and get into the Indian Ocean and sail either to Columbo or another Dutch port on the west coast. As we sailed out of Tandjong Priok, the port of Batavia, at 1900 hours on February 28, we set a course for the Sunda Strait.

We had been locked up for days in what they call first degree of readiness: that is, every man is at his station. We had been at our action stations continuously from even before our first entry into Batavia. I hadn’t been near my cabin for about five days. The meals we were getting were scratch – sandwiches and cups of coffee. It was a fairly big strain. You’d been shot at and you were shooting at them … you can’t describe it.

We cleared the minefield in Batavia and the captain came on the blower and said:

‘There are no enemy ships within so many miles.’

This put the Japanese Pearl Harbour fleet near Singapore, allegedly heading east. We were heading west to go through the Sunda Strait. I think the people on Java could have heard the yell of relief that echoed through the ship.

As a result of this news the ship went into second degree of readiness. Half the crew of each unit – four inch guns, six inch guns, whatever – half could sleep but had to remain at action stations. Not in your cabin but at your station. We’d been like that for about five days, with inadequate food, and the stress was colossal.

I lay down on my action station which was up on the bridge. I just lay down at the bridge deck to sleep. You get tired but I think I was overtired. I couldn’t sleep so I stood up. There were big binoculars up there on each side of the bridge. They were operated by the ship’s gyros, so that when you looked through them and saw something, you pressed a button and they locked into the ship’s gyro system. It didn’t matter what the ship did, the binoculars stayed locked into the same view.

I was looking through the binoculars. It was getting dark. Suddenly I saw this ship silhouetted against the Sumatran coast. I yelled out that I had sighted this ship on the starboard side. The gunnery officer and the captain took over and they picked it up.

The ship went straight into first degree of readiness when I yelled out. The binoculars had automatically locked onto this ship. The gunnery officer was on the bridge naturally. When I sighted this ship, the call went out, ‘Action stations!’ The gunnery officer was standing with his finger on the fire button. The signallers challenged this other ship. A series of lights go on and off, on and off, in different sequences at different times of the day and known only to friendly ships and not to the enemy.

The response came up incorrect from the other ship – so we knew immediately that she wasn’t a friendly ship. There was thought to be another Australian ship in the area at the time so this ship was given the benefit of the doubt and we didn’t open fire immediately. However only seconds had gone past while this was happening.

The captain yelled out ‘Open Fire!’ The gunnery officer attacked.

The opposing ship had her broadside exposed to us and was caught completely by surprise.[18]

Everything flows once the action starts. Ammunition comes up from below where the rounds are stored. We got in two rounds before they had time to open fire as they were caught completely unawares.

It was then that I turned and took the binoculars off the target and looked up the coast. I saw other ships there and I’m reputed to have said:

‘Christ, we’re surrounded.’

We were surrounded. It was so. There were ships everywhere. It was the task force that sank the American Fleet in Pearl Harbour. We had run into this great force. We were completely outnumbered in ships and firepower and everything else.

 The Houston was following us. We were hit by a torpedo. It may even have been two, we were not certain. The blow was so great that standing on the deck it felt as though the whole ship lifted; such was the explosive power of their torpedoes.

Other enemy ships came in and turned their search lights on us. We were so brightly illuminated that you couldn’t even look out, the beams were so bright.

We continued in this vein for some time, going full belt with every gun blazing. They were doing the same to us. We were hit with torpedoes and still went on. Hit with another one, hit with another two.

It was then the captain said:

‘Abandon ship!’

Normally you would say: ‘Prepare to abandon ship,’ but he just said, “Abandon ship!’ There was no way anything could be done.

Like the others on the bridge I went to go down below to get onto the lower deck from where we could jump off. There were that many seamen trying to get down the gangway, I thought I wouldn’t be able to get down. I had two close range weapons on the bridge, aircraft guns, and a chap to reload them. So I went back on the bridge and emptied one gun at a Japanese ship we could see quite close.

Others who had gone down to the flag deck when the first order went to abandon ship were crowded there together. There’s ammunition there for what we called the pom-poms – the guns that go pom-pom. Well, the ammunition was all stored beside the guns, and it got a hit, just as they were all gathering there to jump off. They were all blown to bits. Killed the lot of them. It was lucky I couldn’t get down. It saved my life.

At that stage the Japanese landing force had actually anchored in Bandung Bay. So much for the Dutch intelligence! We’d sailed right into the middle of the landing.

I looked around on the bridge and there were only four of us left, the captain, the navigator, the gunnery officer, and myself. We were the only ones left on the bridge.

The gunnery officer had been hit by a piece of shrapnel near the corner of his eye. It took a complete V piece out of his ear. He got out of the ship. The navigator was also hit.

I went down one deck to what is known as the plot deck. There was a machine in there with a big chart that plots the ship’s movements, and you can also plot movements of enemy ships, so you know what’s happening.

I had all my anti-flash gear on and went to my locker where I kept a little bit of chocolate. I had big gloves on that reached up beyond the elbows and also a helmet. Because the guns were so close to the bridge one needed protection from the blasts.

Anyway, I took all this gear off and put a piece of chocolate in my mouth and then went back up virtually walking up the side of the ship which was now listing badly. I jumped off.

When I did leave the bridge the captain and navigator were still there. The navigator had been hit, as I said, and it’s possible but not probable, that the captain had stopped a bit of shrapnel too. If he hadn’t been injured, I think he would have been of the old type who believed the captain went with his ship. I don’t agree with that. I think that’s completely and utterly wrong. You have the most capable and best man that stays with his ship and goes down with it. It’s wrong. But with Waller – I really don’t know.

HMAS Perth in the Battle of the Sunda Strait, Australian War Memorial, courtesy D. Adams

Mackenzie J. Gregory gives an overall account of the Battle of the Sunda Strait:[19]

The Dutch authorities were loath to share their limited oil supply at Tandjong Priok with the Perth and Houston, and the Perth could only scrounge 300 tons of oil to bring her to 50 per cent of her tank capacity. Both cruisers were short of ammunition for their main armament, but nothing was available at Tandjong Priok. The Houston had about 50 rounds available for each of her six inch guns, and the Perth but a meagre 20 rounds for each of her six inch guns.

The Dutch Admiral Helfrich was in command and he ordered these two cruisers to sail for Tjilatjap on the south coast of Java.

Dutch reconnaissance aircraft as late as 3 pm that same day, February 28, had reported the western route to the Sunda Strait to be clear of enemy. They thought the Japanese Fleet was still some 10 hours away.

About 7 pm the cruisers put to sea … unfortunately the Japanese invasion force by that time was already on both sides of the entrance to the Sunda Strait …

… ten transports, with light cruiser Yara, and the 22nd Destroyer Division, Satsuki, Minatsuki, Fumitsuki, and Nagatsuki were west of the Sunda Strait whilst the second group with the light cruiser Sendai and the 20th Destroyer Division comprising Amagiri, Asagiri, and Yugiri  were making for Semarang in central Java.

The main group were off St Nicolaas Point, the western end of Java which delineates the eastern side of the Sunda Strait and this included six transports which went to Merak on the western side of the point, and another 27 transports landed most of the 2nd Infantry Division at Bantam Bay which is east of St Nicolaas Point. The destroyers Harukaze and Hatakase stayed with the main body of the transports in Bantam Bay along with the First Mine Sweeping Division, W1, W2, W3 and W4.

The destroyer Fubuki patrolled the eastern approaches to Sunda Strait, and the two heavy cruisers Mogami and Mikuma, the light cruiser Natori, the seven destroyers Shiratsuytu, Shirakumo, Murakumo, Shirayuki, Hatsuyuki, Asakaze, and Ahikinami  were all deployed in the vicinity of the anchorage.

Beyond the potential battle zone to the north were the light carrier Ryujo, the seaplane carrier Chiyoda, heavy cruisers Kumano and Suzuya, screened by destroyers Isonami, Shikinamni and Uranami.

There is no doubt the Japanese held the high ground and all the risks lay with the two Allied cruisers.                                    

The Japanese destroyer Fubuki was just over a mile east of Babi Island when at 10.15 pm she sighted strange ships steaming south of the island.. She altered course to take her north of Babi Island and shadowed the suspected enemy ships.

There was a full moon, a calm sea and visibility was good …

… At 10.44 the Perth picked up Fubuki which had been quietly following on behind, and challenged her by blinker tube. The response was unsatisfactory. Waller decided she was an enemy and opened fire.

Fubuki immediately made smoke and let loose nine Long-lance torpedoes at a range of 3,000 yards. The rest of the Japanese naval forces were, in the main, to the north and west. Fubuki now steamed off to the north.

The two allied cruisers neatly side stepped all of Fubuki’s onrushing torpedoes and resumed a course for the Sunda Strait.

At 10.52 pm the Hatakaze opened fire on the two escaping cruisers …

… When close to Panjang Island Perth and Houston turned NE. At this stage the largest of the Japanese ships were heading SE in three columns. Over a nine minute period they swamped the waters around the Allied cruisers with some 28 torpedoes.

The two cruisers were firing everything possible at their enemy, eight inch shells, six inch shells, and 50 calibre machine guns. The Perth fired off four torpedoes.

The Houston was the first to be hit, a shell striking the bridge and causing a fire. The Perth at this stage was still unscathed, but she was then hit three times, but she continued to fire with her four inch guns.

At this stage the Perth, firing her six inch armament by independent control, hit both Harukaze, on her rudder, and Shirayuki, on her bridge.

Now at 11.19 pm the Japanese heavies arrived on the scene from the west and each of them fired six torpedoes at the Perth from a range of 9,300 yards, reversing their course as they closed Babi Island.

The two Allied cruisers now turned towards St Nicholaas Point, almost out of ammunition. Were they perhaps making a last lunge for the Sunda Strait?

At 11.22 shells from the Japanese heavy cruisers began to erupt all around the Houston, illuminated by searchlights from the accompanying Japanese destroyers.

By now the end of this unequal battle was nigh. At 11.26 Harukaze and Hatukaze squirted off 11 torpedoes, to be quickly followed four minutes later by another 18 torpedoes fired from the Shirakumo and     Another torpedo is launched on its deadly path.   the Murakumo. One torpedo, probably from the Harukaze, struck the Perth in her forward engine room, killing all but one of the crew in that part of the ship.

Two further torpedoes struck home on the Perth, the first hitting the forward magazine and the second under the gun turret aft.

Captain Waller ordered his crew to abandon ship just before a fourth torpedo struck home.

The Perth sank at 0025 on March 1, 1942.[20]

The Houston followed a short time later at 0033.

Maps of Sunda Strait battle and launch of a torpedo

Jock continues his reminiscences as the Perth sinks:

Well, I got this bit of chocolate and jumped from the wall of the prop deck into the water. By this time the ship was heading down. The propellers were still turning but the stern was coming right up. I hit the water, went down, and have no recollection of coming back up. I remember going down, down, down and thinking if I’m not careful I could walk to Java. You think about being sucked down with the ship.

Anyway, I popped up again and the ship was still there, very close. Johnny Weissmuller and those blokes wouldn’t have been in the race with me! I hit every third wave I think, to get away from that ship as fast as I could. Don’t ask me how I did it, but I knew I just had to get away.

We had ‘May Wests’[21] on at all times, even going to bed. Those that jumped into the water too soon – including McWilliams the observer that used to fly with me – were in the water when the last torpedo hit. The concussion from the explosion was magnified by the water and they were all crushed.

I looked around and there were a couple of blokes in the water. The ship was still underway when the order to abandon ship was given so those that jumped off early were a good mile behind. I climbed onto a carley float. Presently more blokes climbed on – and presently you couldn’t see it! We’re standing on it but were up to our chests in water.

I said, ‘Some of us better get off this thing and hang onto the side to give everybody a chance.’

So I set the example, and I was the only one who jumped off, which was amazing. You would think that everyone would follow but they wouldn’t.

The water was thick with oil, not only from our ship, but from the other ships that had gone down.

The Houston had gone as well. At least the water was warm, so there was no problem with cold immersion. There were sharks, but there were so many bodies in the water that your chances of being taken were slender – you wouldn’t see or hear them anyway. It’s reputed that some were taken by sharks. There were many sharks in that area.

I got my shoes and trousers off – I don’t know how. In those days the underpants were buttoned into the trousers so everything came off. Many others did the same thing.

Eventually I found a bit of flotsam and swam over to it and hung on. The tide was taking us down swiftly. It rushes through the Sunda Strait from the Indian Ocean to the Java Sea. I saw this island and thought I’ll get onto that. I got very close to it but as I got near to it the current just kept me in its grip and swept me past.

I went on and came to another island and thought I’d be clever and head off so as to hit it in the middle – but the current did the same thing. It was so frustrating, to see land that close and you can’t get onto it. You don’t give up. You never believe the worst will happen to you.

Presently I saw a lifeboat. I swam over to it and they hauled me aboard. It was a lifeboat off one of the Japanese boats that we’d sunk but it was full of Australians.

I had been in the water 27 hours but at that stage I couldn’t really tell how much time had passed. I was just so pleased to see the lifeboat.[22]

Shortly afterwards we picked up McWilliam, the observer that had flown with me. He had been very badly crushed from being in the water when the torpedoes hit. I sat with him. I put him against my legs and held him to try to give him some relief. He was still conscious. I could talk to him a little bit. I said,

‘Hang on Mack, we’ll get ashore …’

McWilliam and I were very close. We had built up a friendship based on trust in each other – his ability to navigate and my ability to fly. We had a very close bond. I thought he was the best navigator ever born. He thought I was the best pilot. The things I could tell you about when we were lost in the Pacific Ocean, they add up!

I cradled Mac for about four hours. He died. A couple of other blokes died. It was then decided we should have a burial at sea. The padre was aboard and the Paymaster Commander, he was there too.

There are conflicting stories about what happened with the burial.[23] My version, and I was with McWilliam, is that it was the shortest burial ever. The padre [Mathieson] simply said,

‘God hath given, God hath taken.’

The padre got back to Australia eventually and did a lot of good work with young people.

We had oars, but it wasn’t until after McWilliam died that I organised the men to start rowing. It was dark by this time, into the second night. There were 20-something on the boat. You could see the silhouette of Java. During the daylight hours you could see both Java and Sumatra, the Strait wasn’t very wide where we were sunk.

Meanwhile, of course, the Japanese had been landing on Java for several hours. Their transports were escorted by destroyers and cruisers – the ones we came up against.

It was nominated that I should take over even though I was junior, because, they said, you know about navigating. I organised the blokes to take their turn on the oars. I did my best anyway and eventually I got to the stage where we were pretty close and I’d yell:

‘Only another five minutes and we’ll be there!’

I dug in and tried to keep them going. Then one bloke up forward yelled out,

‘The bastard’s taking us out to sea!’ and started carrying on. I went up forward and said,

‘Another word like that out of you and I’ll throw you overboard!’ He stopped immediately. You can easily start a panic.

Anyway, eventually I got them ashore. The observer who had been with me, McWilliam, had been in the navy prior to the war. He had been retrenched during the depression, and eventually got a job in New Guinea as a patrol officer. He’d said to me:

‘If any time we get shot down and get to an island, if you go three of four feet above the high water mark and dig a hole anywhere in the islands, invariably you’ll get fresh water.’

As we were getting close into shore I told the men not to drink too much because we’d been without fresh water all this time and they’d make themselves ill.

Anyway, we got ashore and we were all digging holes. The water was there alright – very good drinking water. My job then was to go along and tell them to drink only a little. Some didn’t listen. Actually there was a cartoon drawn later with us all digging, most with no pants on and all bottoms in the air.

A peculiar thing happened to me. The closer we got to the shore of Java, I seemed to know where we were. I had this premonition that I knew where we were.[24] Don’t ask me why. I told them that down the coast a few miles was a native village. Amongst us was one chappie with a broken leg and another with severe burns. I said,

‘I want half a dozen men to come with me and we’ll go to the village, get help, and come back again.’

We went off and eventually came to a village. It was there. I’d been there. I knew it in my mind. I’m sure it’s not my second time on earth, but I had this feeling. I just knew. Maybe it was wishful thinking that became reality …

When we entered the village, of course they couldn’t speak any English and we couldn’t speak Javanese. However, by one means and another we were able to get through the idea that we needed help. They were saying,

‘Nippon, Nippon, you can’t get back to where your men are.’

Not getting any help from that village we pressed on to the next. We thought the best way to keep away from the Japanese would be to keep inland which we did.

We set off walking and walked all that day barefoot. We’d been in the water that long that our feet were soft and we hadn’t gone far before our feet became raw.

Eventually we reached the next village, more inland and larger than the first. The Javanese had a gaol in this village. They opened the gates of the gaol, let all the prisoners out, and let us in.

It was a beautiful gaol and the walls had just been whitewashed. We went into the cells and lay down on the concrete slabs. We were absolutely exhausted at this stage – we’d been in the water and now we’d been walking for a long time trying to keep away from the Japs.     

The town we found ourselves in was a place called Serang. Others from the Perth were coming ashore in dribs and drabs and before long quite a number found their way into the gaol with us.

In the early hours of the morning there was this terrible commotion. We stuck our heads out because there was nobody guarding us. The Japs had arrived and they took over.

There was nobody to stop the Japanese when they landed at Bantam Bay. The Dutch just fled and the locals were pro-Japanese. All the kids in the little villages in Java, each consisting of 10 to 15 huts, had these Japanese flags. We knew the flag as the rising sun but these flags consisted of a single red blob on a white background. We had initially thought it was the Javanese flag, but of course it was the Japanese war flag.

Anyway the Japanese got us out and lined us up against the wall of the gaol. A beautiful wall it was, just whitewashed. Then they brought in three or four machine guns and pointed them at us. We thought it won’t be long now. They had a reputation for not taking prisoners.

We were just standing there expecting the worst when the Japanese officer asked for our senior officer to step forward. The Paymaster Commander stepped forward. Then the Japanese officer went away and came back with several pieces of meat that the natives had been cooking. He brought them back on the end of his sword and offered the meat to our paymaster. We thought this is a ritual that they go through before they machine gun us, we imagined all kinds of things. However our officer ate the meat and then we were put back in our cells.

We were locked up. It doesn’t take long to realise that you’re a prisoner of war – no arms, no ammunition – no pants! Not that we could have gone anywhere. My feet were like raw pieces of steak. Many of us had shoes on, but those, who like me, had taken their shoes off, suffered. We’d been walking on the roadway as fast as we could on those spongy feet.

The natives had gone to the cookhouse and were preparing a meal for us, rice and other food. We ate the food and they gave us soap. Nearby was a large well  to wash some of the fuel oil off our bodies. We looked like blackfellas, just coated in oil. However, it was only partially successful as we only had a small amount of soap to share amongst us all.

We were only there for a couple of days and were then moved from the gaol to a picture theatre which had a tiled floor but no seats. We were herded in there and by this time there were even Americans from the Houston. The Japanese were very strict. They only allowed us to sit up or lie down.

Again, we were there for a couple of days, just sitting on this tiled floor. My bottom became that sore that I raised my backside off the floor with my hands to get a bit of relief. The next thing I knew was that I was getting a belt in the shoulder with a Japanese rifle. Then he started garbling in Japanese so I supposed that I had disobeyed an order. I was supposed to sit there and not move. They had rubber soled shoes. Devil boots we called them. I didn’t hear this other bloke coming up with boots on and he got stuck into me with his boots. He kicked me around in the back, yabbering away like nothing on earth. He continued to kick me and I finished up black and blue and swollen and could hardly move my shoulders.

We stayed there about a week. We had no latrine accommodation but eventually obtained permission to dig a slit trench just outside the picture theatre and were able to use that for our toiletry.                                                             

Each day they brought us a big bun, shaped like a loaf of bread. We had one of these per man per day. Water was very scarce and several blokes died in the picture theatre. Some had been very badly burnt due to shells going through the ship and bursting the steam pipes. Their flesh was just dropping off them. Other blokes had been hit by shrapnel. We had no medical aid for them and there is nothing worse than rotting flesh – the stench was dreadful and not helped by the heat of the tropics.

I used to try to eat just half this little loaf of bread and save the other half for the following morning, but with no success. It was always gone. We had no food to speak of for days – it was pretty tough.

At the end of a week they marched us to another gaol in the same area. It was there they showed the Javanese how to treat white people. They lined up the Javanese and gave them sticks to beat us as we went past. According to the Japs they weren’t hitting us hard enough so they took over and showed them how to do it. This must have been the first time the natives had had an opportunity to belt a white man. They soon learned. The Japs seemed to take a great delight in doing it anyway. They were sadistic little bastards!

In this next gaol they put about 20 of us in a cell built for six. No latrine facilities except a bucket down one end. If you want to humiliate anyone, do that to them.

At the end of about a week, although it was hard to gauge time, we were transported by truck from Serang to a place called Bicycle Camp which was the main Dutch army barracks in Batavia itself. It had electricity, running water and a big cook house. No beds, just tiled floors. Some of us procured sarongs, so from then onwards I was covered. By this time there were a lot of blokes from the Second and Third Divisions. Machine gunners brought down from the Middle East and dropped off. They were going to defend Java but left all their guns and equipment on the wharves! There were also airforce personnel who’d flown down from Malaya.

There was no proper defence on Java because the Dutch in those days had this misconceived idea that the Japanese wouldn’t do anything to them because they would be needed to run the island and run their plantations, and that they would be able to carry on a normal life. They soon woke up to the fact that it wasn’t going to work that way but it was too late and they capitulated with virtually no resistance.

Some of our men had escaped up into the mountain area of Java and were there for quite some time. The natives were friendly towards them and gave them food and water. But then the Japs went rounding up through the different villages and found them and brought them to the Bicycle Camp.

Conditions there were reasonably good compared to what we eventually finished up with. We had our own men doing the cooking. The Japanese were buying in our rations from the locals but they were nowhere near what we would term adequate. In Bicycle Camp there were several hundred prisoners. There was plenty of room and the officers had one area completely to themselves.

Brigadier Blackburn from Adelaide was with us there. It was there that I met Harry Panafex who had been with me on the course. I heard this voice one day:

‘G’day Mac,’ and there was Harry! We stayed together after that for almost the whole time of our encarceration. We were in the same group that was the first to go to the Burma Siam Railway up past Singapore.[25]

After a period we were moved onto a ship in Tandjong Priok. This was an old rust bucket of a ship and we were sealed down below deck. They had latrine things stuck out over the side of the ship but you had to have a good excuse to go up to the toilet. They’d only allow a few up at a time. We were given very, very meagre rations.

They were dreadful organisers. We were all loaded on board and then they just anchored in the harbour. To be below decks in stifling heat with not enough water was difficult to say the least.

Anyway we arrived in Singapore and were marched up past the Changi Gaol to the Changi Barracks which had been built by the Brits for the British Forces. After the Japanese locked us in there they left us alone. One chap who spent the whole war in Changi Barracks said he saw only one Jap the whole time he was a prisoner of war. They let them look after themselves and be accountable to themselves and left them alone.

We were only in Changi Barracks for two days. The conditions were quite good because they were army barracks we slept in, but again no bedding.

Next we were shipped up to Burma to a place called Thanbyuzayat near Molmein. At one time there had been a railway connection from Singapore to Thanbyuzayat but we were taken by ship. We started from there.

Changi Barracks, Singapore 1942 Map of Java showing Serang

Jock indicates that his group was the first sent to start the railway so he was probably in ‘A’ Force leaving Batavia in October, 1942.

Thanbyuzayat was the northern most end of the proposed Burma-Siam Railway and is some 35 miles from the coast, so having arrived by ship the men had to march the remainder to reach their destination.

The reason for the Japanese decision to build the Burma/Thailand Railway is explained by E.R. (Bon) Hall in his book Railway of Death:[26]

In its rapid advance in over-running Burma, the Japanese Army had exceeded the safe limits of its lines of communications … The long sea haul around the southern tip of the Malayan Peninsula exposed Japanese shipping to the marauding Allied submarines and bombers from India.

Japan was beginning to feel the effects of the sea warfare on its shipping and by July 1942 had lost a total of about 500,000 tons and about 100 merchant ships.

In their search for a shorter and more economical route into Burma the Japanese looked to a railway linking Burma to the railway network on the seaboard of the countries east of Burma. The Japanese could move men and materials by rail from Korea through Manchuria, China, Indo China to Bangkok in Thailand, but forty miles west of Bangkok, at the town of Bampong, the railway transport system to Burma faced a gap of 250 miles (415 Km) through some of the thickest, wettest and most unhealthy jungle in the world. At the other end of this dense malarial-mosquito infested jungle was Thanbyuayat, about 50 miles north of Ye on the railway north to Molmein and Rangoon.. To lay a railway track between Bampong and Thanbyuzayat would give the Japanese an unbroken railway transport system from Korea through Thailand to the northern frontier of Burma …

… Their first assessment showed that it could not be completed in under five or six years. Then the Japanese realised that they had a ready made work force available in the form of thousands of Allied prisoners of war in camps in Malaya, Singapore, Java and Sumatra. To the Japanese these prisoners were an embarrassment and a hindrance, a large number of extra mouths to feed …

… It was a formidable task, particularly as the time-table for the project was from October, 1942 to December, 1943 which included the period of the wet monsoon when between 450 and 500 inches of rain would be emptied in five months on the area traversed. Added to this dreaded problem must be the difficult task of maintaining food supplies to the advanced camps, particularly in the wet season, and the fact that in the whole area malaria and other diseases were endemic.[27]

Top: cutting into a hill by hand on the railway construction. Below left: Perth survivors carrying rice bags. Below right: Laying the tracks.

In his description of his time on the railway, Jock does not specify in which camps his described episodes occurred but he does say that as the line was built teams would leapfrog over each other as they moved further into the jungle. He takes up his description from Thanbyuzatat where they started building the line:

… And we started building the railway.

I was in charge of what they called a kumi of about 60 men. They were all corporals. Harry Panafex had a kumi of sergeants. We were responsible for those men. We went to different camps and had different commanders. The commanders were Australian but then we had Japanese commanders over the guards who were in the main Korean.

Engineers had been up and had surveyed that area and they knew exactly what they wanted done. But they had the most primitive tools. A rice bag supported by a bamboo pole on each side. Two of you carried it, filled it with soil and then just tipped it over to the side, and so on as you dug through the side of a hill. They had that many workers, of course, that the railway got built – thousands of us. For every sleeper that was laid, a man died. It was a colossal waste. Men in the prime of their lives, just wasted.

The conditions became worse the further we went into the jungle. Rice and vegetables were brought to us, and during the monsoon months these ox carts with a few bags of rice and a few bags of vegetables, radishes mainly, had great difficulty getting through.

I was wearing clogs by this stage. Trying to walk in those when it’s been raining was difficult – you’d slide through all the mud and slush. The beginning of the railway was through fairly flattish country, through paddy field areas. Later we started to get into the hilly terrain where we had to slice into a hill, cut out all the soil by hand and tip it into the valley below.

The conditions under which we lived were heavily reliant on the type of Japanese commander we had at any particular time. The treatment that he meted out we had to put up with. Some were reasonably good, whilst others were the cruellest of people you could ever come across. They loved to bash you and stand you out on parade for the slightest little misdemeanor. They took great delight in beating the officers in front of the men. A bloke would start to whistle or sing – a bloke would be working and suddenly a tune comes into his head and he starts whistling it – that was forbidden. We couldn’t understand it. There was no logic behind what they did as far as we could work out. You weren’t allowed to sing, nor were you allowed to congregate with more than four people. I suppose this was to stop us rising up and overpowering them. But where could we go anyway, we were in the middle of the Burmese jungle which was rife with malaria, dengi fever and beri beri.

I had many malarial attacks. You didn’t have to get up and work when you were at the height of the illness. When the push came towards the end though, they were making the patients who would normally be excused, go out as well.

We usually worked in tens but more often we would have four men who were so sick they could hardly lift a chunk of earth. So six men would have to do the work of ten. They would set an allocation of so many cubic metres per man per day and it had to be achieved. When we finished building in one area we moved on to the next camp, sort of leapfrogging each other as we moved up the line.

Most of us thought we would get through. In fact all of us who eventually did get out felt that way. One or two gave up the ghost. One of the corporals in my kumi in our early days in Burma wasn’t too good and said, ‘I don’t want to live.’ I got talking to him and he showed me a photo of himself, his wife and two daughters. I talked like a Dutch uncle to that bloke but he just turned his head to the wall and gave up. It’s amazing how quickly death will come when you will it on yourself.

At the start we didn’t get any news of the outside world. Later, the Chinese began sending radio parts in with the rice bags (they were contractors to the Japanese). So we had to be careful when we got a bag of rice to check there was nothing in it. We were able to build radios and eventually we started to get the news as it happened. There were three blokes in charge of the wireless, one of whom was Ken Smith who was the senior airforce bloke.

They would hear the news and then come in amongst groups of us and pass it on. But the stupid Dutch started yapping and the Japs realised that we were getting news from somewhere, but they couldn’t work out whether it was from inside or whether it was the natives that were telling us.

It then became an order that the Dutch were not to be told the news. And then the news was to be withheld for four days so that what was heard tonight we’d hear in four days – all because of the Dutch. The most untrustworthy people you could ever strike in a day’s march. Dreadful!

We had to live with them. To give you an idea. They’d bang a drum to let us know that a meal was on and you’d rush up to get in the queue to get your share before it ran out. There’s the Dutch, first in the queue This was the joke!

‘Do I hel-up myself-u?’ they’d ask.

‘No you don’t bloody hel-up yourself-u!’

The food was issued out of course. They’d be first in the queue and as soon as they’d had their food they’d go down to the end of the queue again. Quite often their was some left and you could probably get half a scoop more.

So they cut that out. According to where you slept you’d be numbered off. Those in number one bay would have it one day and number two the next, so everyone had their turn. Except the Dutch – they’d try every day. Is it any wonder that we disliked the Dutch.

In the main Australians would help each other, really  help each other. If a bloke was sick you’d do everything to encourage him to eat. You’d carry his gear from one camp to the next. Anything. But that applied more to the Australians than anyone else. The Japanese recognised it. They would call for men for a work party when they wanted something special done.

‘Australia-man,’ they’d say.

‘Dutch man, no no!’

‘America man, no!’

They’d always ask for Australians on these work parties because they knew they’d go out and get the job done and try to get back.

The Burma Railway is a long stretch of line and there were camp commanders all along the way – Colonel Williams, Colonel Black and those sorts of people. We started at one end of the railway and we carried our bluey from one camp to the next until the railway was finished.

On one occasion, Jock was quietly walking along the railway track immersed in his own thoughts when suddenly he was knocked sideways and tumbled down an embankment. An elephant had quietly come up behind him carrying his mahout and Jock happened to be obstructing his path so he was knocked sideways off the railway.

On another occasion, Jock volunteered to help Colonel Coates during a cholera epidemic. Coates explained to him the management of such patients as he realised his own vulnerability to the disease and wanted someone to take over should he succumb. Jock recalled that as they went from patient to patient Coates told Jock that this one would die today and that one tomorrow. However it was not Coates that contracted cholera but Jock. The fever raged for several days and Jock was given up for dead but, as he recalled, he determined he was not going to die in such circumstances and eventually he recovered.

Upon completion of the railway the Perth and Houston survivors were split up. Jock was in a group who were marched up to the French Indo-China border (later Cambodia) to build a large staging camp. It was here in August 1945 that he learned of the Japanese capitulation.

Jock has not related in detail what happened towards the end of the war in his tapes but he told the author that he was more or less friendly with one of the kinder guards who informed him that the war was going badly for the Japanese and that they were planning to take the prisoners out into the jungle and shoot them all in order to conceal any evidence of maltreatment. He recommended to Jock that he should flee into the jungle and hide. Jock became concerned but did not flee and apparently the end of the war came so quickly after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the Japanese commander was caught unawares and this plan was not carried out.

Post War

In the two weeks following Japan’s surrender, Jock and a number of others found their way to Bangkok. It was here one evening when a number of  released prisoners were enjoying a quiet drink in an establishment, that a drunk Japanese officer burst through the door and demanded that all the patrons stand up to attention and salute him as had been the custom formerly.

His demand was greeted with jeers and he was then set upon by several Australians and thrown from the second storey window into the river below. He joined a number of his compatriots who met their ends in the river in similar circumstances. This story was related personally to the author by Jock.

After a day or two in Bangkok, Jock, along with two army sergeants and three corporals, was dispatched back to the French Indo-China from whence he had recently arrived. Jock, as the senior officer was put in charge of the group. Apparently a number of Army privates were misbehaving with the local girls and this group was sent to regain order. He seemed to be getting further away from home rather than closer. Why an RAAF officer was chosen to take charge of army personnel was never explained.

The war finished in August, 1945, but it was not until December that Jock came home. It was only through the strong demands made by a friend of his back in Australia, Wing Commander Bob Whittacombe:

 ‘If Jock McDonough is not put on the next aircraft coming back to Australia then don’t bother putting anyone else on the plane!’

Jock was repatriated back to Australia in a very debilitated state. His parents had thought him dead and, in fact, a memorial service had been held in Adelaide in his honour after the sinking of the Perth.

He was billeted at Victor Harbour in the Air Force establishment during his convalescence and slowly recovered his physical and mental strength.

Prior to the return of the POWs their families were advised not to discuss the experiences of their loved ones, a circumstance which Jock and all his fellow prisoners found extraordinary and offensive. His father, mother and two brothers never once talked to him about his ordeals and yet they freely discussed the lesser experiences of his two brothers who never left Australia and never came under enemy fire.

This attitude was perhaps best exemplified when the only other South Australian officer from the Perth asked Jock to be best man at his wedding in 1946. Jock barely knew him as they had been in different camps from the outset. Jock later expressed the view that it was because no-one else close to him knew of his experiences and it was a cry for moral support. That support could only come from a fellow prisoner. It appeared to this man that nobody else cared.

Following his release, Jock continued to suffer from periodic bouts of malaria and these continued for a number of years. On these occasions he would retire to bed for a couple of days until the fever subsided. During these attacks all he could tolerate eating was rice.

After the war, Jock met and married Gretta Johnson, had two sons, both of whom joined the RAN. There followed three grandsons, two of whom joined the Australian Army to continue the proud family tradition.

Jock embarked on many entrepreneurial enterprises after the war, starting as a builder and finishing as an oil-refiner whereby he collected used sump oil from garages, stored the oil in a rented pug hole above water, and then pumped it out and re-refined it using chemicals in his own designed machinery. Finally he successfully sold it back to the industry, the old MTT buses being one group who used Jock’s oil exclusively.

In the early years after the war, Jock satisfied his yearning for the fast lane by building and racing speed boats at Snowdens Beach on the Port River. He rose to become Commodore of the SA Speed Boat Racing Club. On one occasion trying to get an edge on rivals he flipped and cartwheeled his hydroplane through the air n in choppy waters. Within seconds Jock appeared above water, smiling and waving, having detached himself from his harness underwater.  

I was never scared – never fearful.

I have just met in the last few months a chappie who was on the same course as I was on. He was a Victorian and he went to Catalinas. He didn’t go to warships. He said ‘Why did you go to warships?’ Well, I didn’t want to go, I was told to go. They just said, ‘Right, there’s a warship down in Sydney Harbour called the Hobart. Get yourself down there and get on it.’

Going from Rathmines down to Sydney Harbour – there was the Aquitania, the Queen Mary, all the largest liners in the world were there. A squall came up on one occasion and all these ships had steam up. It was a sight! It was exciting!

In latter years, Jock’s health declined and he died peacefully on March 8, 2005, having happily celebrated his 90th birthday three months earlier. At the end of World War II he was the only surviving Australian catapult pilot, the average lifespan of serving catapult pilots being six months. As far as is known he was also the last survivor of Australia’s original Fleet Air Arm, having been selected for the Number I Course of the Empire Air Training Scheme at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939.

Vale ‘Flight,’ your country owes you a debt it will never repay.


[1] Jock’s story was dictated onto tapes by Anne Johnson when Jock was living in Frankston, Victoria, in 1995. It has been transcribed here as accurately as possible but with some minor corrections of syntax to make his intent clearer.

[2] The contract Jock’s father obtained was actually to rebuild the Rostrevor College Chapel. The original college and chapel were part of the residential property gifted to the school.

[2] At the date of writing, January, 2008, Alan Tomlinson, aged 90, was still alive and living in Perth.

[3] Australian War Memorial ‘Empire Air Training Scheme’.

[4] Also Eric Townsend, omitted by Jock.

[5] Actally three went to 10 Squadron, Alan Jones, Tom Gibson and Rex Senior (ref. Rex Senior’s anecdotes).

[6] October 24, 1941, six weeks before Pearl Harbour.

[7] These stories actually relate to Admiral and Lady Cunningham, C-in-C of the Mediterranean Fleet, and not Lord Mountbatten.

[8] Captain Waller 1900-1942. Painting by Joshua Smith, courtesy Australian War memorial. Admiral Sir Andrew

 (Viscount) Cunningham introduced Waller to Sir Robert Menzies when he visited the Middle East as ‘one of the greatest captains who ever sailed the seas.’

[9] The author at the age of 13 in 1947 experienced a terrifying ride in Jock’s green MG TC shortly after the war when he drove it at 70-80 mph down Fullarton Road opposite the Waite Research – a never to be forgotten ride!

[10] This incident described by Jock occurred some six months before the midget submarine episode inside Sydney Harbour.

[11]  Ref. Gretta McDonough, Jock’s wife.

[12] The seaplane was referred to by the lower ranks on the Perth as ‘The Pasha’s Duck.’  The off duty crew would watch the catapults for entertainment. They held their breath with each catapult and it was generally felt among the crew that they wouldn’t take the pilot’s place ‘for all the tea in China.’ Ref. Gretta McDonough.

[13] Many years after the end of the war, about 1963, and after Captain Howden had retired from the RAN and was living in Perth, he sought out Jock in Adelaide, rang him up, and paid him a visit at Belair. Jock and his wife Gretta spent a pleasant evening reminiscing with Howden whom they found still very reserved, perhaps due to his training with the Royal Navy. He had spent the whole war as captain of the light cruiser Hobart, and both he and his ship survived intact despite numerous close calls in many theatres of the war. It was during this visit that Howden’s deep appreciation of Jock and his willingness to fly was revealed, contrary to what Jock believed at the time. Ref. Gretta McDonough.

[14] Ref. Gretta McDonough.

[15] Tokyo Rose – a generic name given by the Allied Forces in the Pacific to any one of a dozen female broadcasters of propaganda in the English language from Japanese Radio.

[16]  Extracted January 12, 2007.

[17] Thirty seven Dutch and German built DO 24s were sent to the East Indies before the war. They were three-engined flying boats intended for military cargo transport and rescue and were originally designed for Dutch use in the Dutch East Indies. Six surviving DO 24s were commandeered by the RAAF in February 1942 and used for transport in New Guinea.

[18] Apparently not so, see later.

[19] Downloaded January, 2007.

[20] In one hour 87 enemy torpedoes were fired at the two Allied cruisers. 350 out of the Perth’s complement of 681 did not survive the sinking.

[21] ‘May West’ –  life jacket, life vest; rhyming slang after the well-endowed film star of same name.

[22] Without the lifeboat, Jock would have been destined to die in the ocean like many of his compatriots, as the current sweeping past the islands made it impossible to land.

[23] A somewhat different recording of this incident is written in Ronald McKie’s Proud Echo, pp 74-6. See Appendix 31.  

[24] Was it déjà vu that Jock was experiencing, brought on by his fatigue?

[25] Harry Panafex studied Medicine after the war and became a gynaecologist in Bendigo. He saw Jock regularly until Jock’s death in 2005. Harry died a short time later.

[26] E.R. (Bon) Hall, The Burma Thailand Railway of Death, Graphic Books,1981, pp 44-6.

[27] Of the 61,000 prisoners working on the line more than one in five died.

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