Remembering Brethren Sailors on HMAS Perth

By Mike Carlton, Author of Cruiser, The Life & Loss of HMAS Perth and Her Crew

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from an eulogy given by Mike Carlton at the funeral of LEUT Gavin Campbell RAN, the last surviving officer from HMAS Perth. While many Americans, especially those with an affinity for the Navy, know the story of USS Houston, they are likely less familiar with the story of our brethren from Australia, HMAS Perth. Sailors aboard Perth had a very similar fate as Houston and this eulogy shares one Sailors experience of survival against all odds.

LEUT Gavin Campbell RAN, survivor of USS Perth sinking. Photo courtesy of Mike Carlton.

LEUT Gavin Campbell RAN, survivor of HMAS Perth sinking. Photo courtesy of Mike Carlton.

It is a great honour to be asked to speak about Gavin today, because he’s perhaps the bravest man I ever met. One of the finest men I ever met.

I ask you to picture this scene. It is the year 1942, on Wednesday the 25th of February. Singapore has fallen to the Japanese, and they are now sweeping south towards the Dutch East Indies, modern day Indonesia. Conquering and crushing all in their path, apparently unbeatable and unstoppable. Australia is in mortal peril.

Tanjung Priok, which is the harbour for Batavia, now Jakarta, is burning in pillars of fire and oily black smoke, the port devastated by waves of Japanese air raids. The cruiser HMAS Perth has just arrived from Australia to join the fight, and she is alongside fueling at a wharf and fighting off the Japanese bombers as they come over.

In a brief lull between air raids, there is time for a few beers in the wardroom to celebrate a birthday. Sub Lieutenant Gavin Campbell, a lanky young bloke from Portland in Victoria, has turned 21 this day. In the custom of the time, he’s officially come of age, become a man. Perth’s captain, Hec Waller, comes in for a drink, for Gavin is his secretary. And another guest is Lieutenant Commander Robert Rankin, captain of the little sloop HMAS Yarra, which is berthed nearby. Both these men will be dead within days, killed on the bridge in command, fighting their ships against hopeless, overpowering odds.

Perth sails that afternoon. She is to join an allied force of Dutch, British and American cruisers and destroyers off East Java, in what will be a gallant but hopeless attempt to turn back a Japanese invasion force. At the Battle of the Java Sea, on the night of February 27, that Allied squadron is badly mauled and beaten. Two Dutch cruisers and three Alllied destroyers are sunk.

Perth survives, and the next day she is ordered to make a break for it, to head south. But on the night of the 28th of February, she and the American cruiser USS Houston are attacked by a swarm of Japanese destroyers in the Sunda Strait, the narrow passage of water between the islands of Java and Sumatra.

Captain Waller fights back, but the odds are hopeless. Perth is struck by three torpedoes and a blizzard of gunfire, left shattered and sinking. Not long after midnight comes the order to abandon ship. The night is black, the water dark and threatening, but men begin jumping into the sea. Gavin leaves his action station at one of the .5 machine guns aft and is on the rail and about to jump himself when the fourth and final enemy torpedo hits the ship and blows him high into the air.

There were 681 men in Perth’s ship’s company the night she was lost. Only 328 of them survived the battle. 106 of them died as prisoners of the Japanese.

It was like floating through the sky, he told me. Luckily, he was wearing his life jacket, his ‘Mae West’, and when he came-to in the water it held him up. But only to find, as he tried to swim,  that he had a broken leg, trailing uselessly behind him. The pain must have been excruciating, but somehow he hauled himself onto a raft with some other men and there an Able Seaman named Bob Collins came to his help.

Collins had his sailor’s knife with him, his “pusser’s dirk.” He used it to hack off some strips of wood from a floating packing case, slashed Gavin’s overalls to make bandages, and he splinted the leg as best he could on this bobbing, lurching raft. It was the first of countless acts of mateship given and received by these Perth sailors in the months and years ahead, and it saved Gavin’s leg and his life.

hoto originally posted to ForceNet Community Facebook page. Original caption: Today is the anniversary of the Battle of the Java Sea - HMAS PERTH, HM Ships EXETER, ELECTRA and JUPITER, USS HOUSTON and the Dutch ships DE RUYTER, JAVA and KORTENAER, engaged a superior Japanese fleet in the Java Sea.

Photo originally posted to ForceNet Community Facebook page.
Original caption: Today is the anniversary of the Battle of the Java Sea – HMAS PERTH, HM Ships EXETER, ELECTRA and JUPITER, USS HOUSTON and the Dutch ships DE RUYTER, JAVA and KORTENAER, engaged a superior Japanese fleet in the Java Sea.

But his ordeal was far from over in these terrible days after the sinking. It had just begun. When they eventually staggered ashore on Java, Gavin – barely able to move – found himself alone on a beach with another wounded sailor, Able Seaman Denny Maher, a young bloke from Sydney.

“We can’t just stay here,” Gavin told him. “We’ve got to move on or we’ll die.” They decided they would try to escape the Japanese by heading south . . . their only hope. Perhaps there would be some Allied troops they could link up with. Using sign language, Denny Maher got some local villagers to make a rough crutch from the branch of a tree, which he padded with some kapok pulled out of a life jacket.

And they began their extraordinary trek. An odyssey. For three weeks these two staggered down the coast of Java, in the burning tropical heat of March: Gavin wracked with waves of pain, limping and hobbling, both of them tormented by hunger and thirst. Sometimes the villagers might give them a handful of rice, or they would drink muddy water from puddles. At other times the locals were hostile and threatening, scared of the Japanese, and moved them on.

 Three weeks. There were some days when Gavin simply couldn’t move at all . . .but Denny Maher stuck with him. They encouraged each other, abused each other in salty sailor’s language, cajoled and cursed each other.  But they went on, unbeatable, indomitable. Until eventually they entered a small town, where a Dutch Eurasian nurse discovered them, took them in, and bathed their wounds and fed them. The Japanese arrived the next day.

For Gavin, this was the beginning of three long, agonizing years as a prisoner-of-war. Three years of cruel abuse, of atrocities, of savagery the rest of us can only imagine. Three years of your mates sick and dying around you, in the horrors of the Burma-Siam Railway. There were 681 men in Perth’s ship’s company the night she was lost. Only 328 of them survived the battle. 106 of them died as prisoners of the Japanese. Less than a third of her ship’s company, 218 men, lived to return to Australia.

Miraculously, against all the odds, Gavin’s broken leg healed and he could walk again, although with a slight limp that would last a lifetime. In October 1942, he was in a group taken from the notorious Changi Prison in Singapore and packed into the hold of what they called a hell-ship,  a filthy crowded transport which took them to Burma and the railway. One of those with him was a Perth shipmate who would become, eventually, one of his oldest and best mates, Able Seaman Frank McGovern, a young bloke from Sydney, aged 23. Frank is with us here today.

The nightmare began. Of men worked until they were skeletons, bashed or shot by their  guards if they did not. Hunger and disease and sickness were their constant companions – cholera, dengue fever, amoebic dysentery, hideous tropical ulcers. Gavin came down with Beri Beri, a disease caused by starvation and vitamin deficiency in which the body swells up with fluid, like a great bladder of poison. Untreated, it’s fatal, and very swiftly so. But miraculously, he was nursed back to health by an Australian doctor, Albert Coates, and a Dutch chemist, also a prisoner, who had developed a vitamin injection from some local fruit. It was his second, perhaps third, escape from death. Not his last.

Gavin endured the endless agony of those three years as a POW with the strength and courage and unbreakable spirit that were the hallmarks of his life.  He found an elder brother on the railway, too: Ian Campbell, an army signaler who’d been captured at the Fall of Singapore. They had a brief, emotional reunion at what they called the 40-kilo mark on the railway before they were dragged their separate ways again.

In 1945, in the last days of the war, it was Gavin’s turn to give mateship. The Japanese marched them from a place called Tamarkan to a new camp outside Bangkok. Another of Perth’s officers, the assistant navigator, Lieutenant Lloyd Burgess, was too weak to make it on his own. Gavin carried him most of the way, mile after mile after mile through the jungle. That saved Lloyd Burgess’s life. Both of them made it back. Lloyd’s son and daughter-in-law are with us today.

Gavin was liberated in Thailand.  Suddenly, a British commando appeared from out of the jungle with a sub-machine gun, and it was all over. War’s end.  In what must have been an utterly surreal transformation,  they put him up in Bangkok’s most luxurious hotel, the Oriental, and eventually got him on a plane to Australia. He arrived at Melbourne’s old Essendon airport on the 15th of November, 1945 on a chilly day.  There was no one there to meet him, so he went over to a Red Cross hut and explained to the lady there that he’d just returned from being a prisoner of war of the Japanese.

“Well, ” she said. “I suppose you’d like a cup of tea then.”

Gavin stayed on in the navy for a while, until 1950, but it must have been tough. In those days nobody had heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They just told you told you to try to forget what had happened –  best not to talk about it – just pick yourself up and get on with it.  Many men relived the ordeal of the railway with the most terrible nightmares, night after night, and it broke a lot of them. But not Gavin.

He told me his story as I was writing my book about HMAS Perth and her crew a few years ago. We spent a lot of time together, putting it all down. And I am proud to say we became friends.  Never once did I hear from him even a hint of boasting or bravado or bullshit.  No flag-waving, no attempt to glorify his own part in it all. He was unfailingly modest and humble, to the point where sometimes I had to drag it out of him.

Yet he wanted the story told.  Not to brag, or to portray himself as some heroic figure.  Nothing could have been further from his mind. But I think it was important to him for his shipmates who had not returned, important that their story should be recorded and not forgotten.  So he told it with simplicity and honesty, anxious only that it should be true and accurate.

LEUT Gavin Campbell RAN, survivor of USS Perth sinking. Photo courtesy of Mike Carlton.

LEUT Gavin Campbell RAN, survivor of HMAS Perth sinking. Photo courtesy of Mike Carlton.

But, as always with Gavin, there were flashes of a delicious, dry wit and humour – a twinkle in his eye – that made him such a delightful man to be with.  I asked him once about one of his former navy captains. “Complete bastard,” he said. “Much worse than the Japanese.”

The sinking of Perth wasn’t all bad, he would say. It meant he hadn’t had to pay that wardroom mess bill for all those beers he’d bought on his 21st birthday. A few years ago, when I told him I was taking a television crew up to the Sunda Strait to dive on the wreck of Perth, he looked at me in horror.  “If you find that bill, ” he said,” just leave it there. I couldn’t afford the interest.” I can see him now, lanky frame hunched in a chair, chuckling at the thought of it.

Most striking of all, there was no bitterness nor hatred to him. Life dealt Gavin a bad hand. Like all his generation, he was a child of the Depression. The war stole the best years of his young manhood. After the war he found happiness in his marriage to Adrienne, until she was stricken by polio. Then, in 1999, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, the asbestos poisoning that got him in the end.

But never once – never – did I hear a word of complaint, or anger,or regret. He was calm, almost serene, in a way. This surprised and puzzled me at first. It was not what I had expected, and I couldn’t quite understand it. But I came to think it was because he had seen so much violence and killing, cruelty and horror, sickness and death – so much of man’s inhumanity to man – that he wanted no more part of it. Many of the other POWs were like that, too. They’d seen enough.

I think he believed that if he had succumbed to hatred, or a thirst for revenge, or if he wallowed in self-pity, these things would eventually corrode his soul and his spirit, and destroy him.  And Gavin Campbell was not to be destroyed. It was a characteristic he shared with many of those former Perth POWs I had the good luck and the privilege to meet. Frank McGovern, Arthur Bancroft, Fred Lasslett, Fred Skeels, and many more. Extraordinary men who rose above and triumphed over the worst that life could throw at them. And they stuck together in the HMAS Perth Association, a band of brothers.

The Royal Australian Navy remained an important part of his life, for he was proud of his service … The Navy returned the respect, deeply felt. Gavin’s last visitor in hospital before he died was the current commanding officer of HMAS Perth 3, Captain Ivan Ingham.

Gavin never yielded. Instead, he cherished and nurtured those things most close to him.   The things that mattered. Home, family, mates. Small pleasures, like a good whisky or a bad game of golf, or following the Sydney Swans (probably his only major flaw and failing.) The Royal Australian Navy remained an important part of his life, for he was proud of his service. In fact he loved the Navy, and he followed with interest and loyalty the two later ships named Perth, first a guided missile destroyer and the present-day Perth, a frigate. He was a sailor to the end. I’ll tell you something Sue told me – Gavin’s lying there now wearing his HMAS PERTH ASSOCIATION dress shirt, and a Sydney Swan’s scarf.

The Navy returned the respect, deeply felt. Gavin’s last visitor in hospital before he died was the current commanding officer of HMAS Perth 3, Captain Ivan Ingham. Another former Perth CO is with us today, Commodore Lee Goddard, who knew Gavin and admired him deeply,who loved inviting him to visit the ship and who is here today as a brother officer, a friend, and also officially representing the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, whose order the Australian White Ensign adorns Gavin’s casket today. Lieutenant Campbell was the last surviving officer of HMAS Perth. The Navy salutes one of its true heroes. One of the men who built the traditions that inspire the Navy today.

But for Gavin it was the people who mattered most. Old shipmates, like Frank McGovern. That shared hell of the railway forged the unbreakable bonds of true mateship which held Frank and Gavin together for 70 years, closer than brothers. Here in Sydney they would meet on the second Thursday of every month, without fail, year in year out, just to share a beer and keep touch, for as long as they lived. Frank felt he couldn’t speak today, but reckoned that I’d know what to say on his behalf.

But I don’t really. I don’t have the words, beyond telling you that these two are the best and finest men I have ever had the privilege to meet. Frank lost his brother Vince, who went down with Perth in the Sunda Strait. Today he farewells another brother, a loss that is profound, infinite. You have our sympathy, mate.

But above all for Gavin there was family. Sue, the wife he loved for 30 years and who loves him still.  His children, grandchildren, two great grandchildren, who also have our deepest sympathy in this time of their loss.

But we are all of us in sorrow today, in the sadness of final parting. But I like to think of it, too, as a celebration of a life well lived. And how lucky we were that our lives were touched by this fine man. A sailor and warrior who gave so much in the service of our country in its time of need and peril. It is a debt that we can repay only by keeping the memory alive.

Gavin Campbell was a kind, gentle and humble man of extraordinary grace and humanity. How good it was to know him. How sad it is to say goodbye this one last time.

Gavin, in the sailors’ farewell: may you have fair winds and following seas.

You were a truly great Australian.

 

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