70th anniversary of Newcastle sub attack

FOR Hunter residents 1942 was a year of uncertainty, doom and gloom.

For merchant seamen travelling the seas during the crucial year in World War II, every voyage was possibly their last.

It was the year of fear for Australia as the war gradually crept closer to home shores amid increased Japanese occupation in the Pacific.

On June 9 the threat of invasion became reality for Hunter residents when Japanese submarines descended on Newcastle Harbour and launched a ferocious, albeit unsuccessful, attack in what is now known as the shelling of Newcastle.

The strike home followed bombings on Darwin, Broome and Sydney.

The Maritime Centre will acknowledge the 70th anniversary of the year of fear on June 2 with its annual memorial for marine soldiers.

"The memorial will mark almost 70 years to the hour signalling the beginning of the Japanese assault on merchant ships with the sinking of the Iron Chieftain on June 3," Maritime Centre president Peter Morris said.

"There were six enemy submarines roaming up and down the east coast from June and up until August the country was in crisis mode."

The Iron Chieftain was a BHP ship sailing from Newcastle to Whyalla. It was torpedoed by submarine I-24 about 50 kilometres north-east of Sydney, with 12 crew members dying.

One survivor, Don Burchell, is still living in the Hunter but was too unwell to talk to the Newcastle Herald.

A second BHP ship, the Iron Crown, was torpedoed the next day with only five of its 43 crew surviving.

Peter Morris said about 14,000 merchant mariners served during the war.

"Throughout the war they helped keep our supply line open but they were sitting ducks for submarines," he said.

"The Japanese attacks created the grimmest crisis our nation has ever faced. It was a year of crisis, a year of danger and a year of dread."

Survivors reflect on risky time

AS fresh-faced 17-year-olds Bernie O’Brien and Brian Druce both left the comfort of their homes to join the merchant navy.

While they were not deployed on war vessels the two veterans were very much in the firing line during World War II.

‘‘The moment merchant seamen left port in their ships they were in danger,’’ Mr O’Brien said.

Their exploits protecting and serving their country contrast markedly with the experience of four 17-year-old Hunter students living in different times.

Swansea High prefects Linden Wells and Lisa Butson, and Hunter School of Performing Arts captains Cara Egan and Mackenzie Burge will join the two at the Maritime Centre’s memorial on June 2 to look back on 1942.

‘‘It’s really quite scary and hard to imagine that as a 17-year-old I would be leaving my family to go on a ship,’’ Mackenzie said.

‘‘We don’t even think about war but for them it was part of life.’’

Mr O’Brien was almost lost at sea when he was torpedoed aboard the SS Fingal in 1943. He was one of only 19 survivors. Mr Druce served on many ships during the war from 1941 and said he was lucky to escape any serious attacks.

‘‘They said it would all be over by Christmas, the only thing was they didn’t say what Christmas,’’ he said.

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