ARMY sergeant Harry Stewart of the 16th company RAASC couldn't believe his eyes.
It was March 8, 1954, and he and others stood cold, wet and shivering on Stockton Bight beach staring out to sea in the early light.
A little earlier he and a fellow soldier had swum ashore amid crashing surf as if their lives had depended on it. They'd just abandoned a broken-down, likely-to-sink, heavy amphibious tank.
And now Sgt Stewart stood in shock looking at the scene in front of him.
"This fellow John and I had been on this towed tank, this LVT [Army landing vehicle], with flattened batteries and no motor. We couldn't steer and we'd been going up and down on the peaks and troughs of 30-foot [9-metre] waves," he said.
"Nearing shore we knew we'd be gone if the LVT rolled on us. It'd be easier to jump off and swim ashore. Then after finally getting on the beach we saw our tank float in unaided.
"We were shocked. If we'd stayed onboard we could have stayed dry," an annoyed Stewart, now aged 82 years, of Wallsend, said.
"Only then on the beach were we made aware of the scale of destruction and loss of life that had occurred [to the flotilla]. We realised how lucky we were that we went out to sea instead of coming into shore in the dark.
"We had been towed towards shore by another LVT until a short while before. At the end, we'd reluctantly used a 85 ton steel hawser for the tow, but in the waves it snapped like a piece of cotton.
"I believe our original LVT, plus the one in tow [and then abandoned] were the only vehicles to reach our destination."
The top of their abandoned amphibious army tank then sat bizarrely upright, visible among the ocean breakers, like some big orphan rock, buffeted by waves.
The now former Citizen Military Forces (CMF) sergeant survived what became known as 1954 Stockton Bight military disaster.
That's when a peaceful, overnight trip suddenly became a tragic training exercise. Their convoy of 19 amphibious vehicles heading across the Bight towards Morna Point was hit by a sudden squall about 4am.
About 100 of the 184 soldiers involved in the operation were thrown into a dangerous, shark-infested sea. Eight vehicles sank. The low-freeboard army DUKWs (Ducks) were probably the first swamped. Radio equipment was soaked. Three men died.
The accident featured in this column in March, marking the 60th anniversary of the event.
After that Weekender article, surviving former servicemen came forward to tell their tales. Former Sgt Harry Stewart was one of those with the clearest recall.
This then, is his rare first-hand account of those catastrophic events in 1954.
"I've got a bit upset at times over some reports, such as there was a big storm and we shouldn't have gone out," Stewart said.
"Nonsense. The sea was as calm as a millpond. You could have gone out in a canoe."
Stewart said the army flotilla set off about 2am from today's Horseshoe Beach with Sgt Harry "Typo" James in charge of a landing vehicle track (LVT) or "tank".
"I was the relief driver. I was supposed to take another vehicle out but there was water coming through a seal, so I didn't," he said.
'I don't know why James was called Typo, but he'd been in World War II and was pretty knowledgeable. He was a cousin of the operation's overall commander that night, Colonel Jack James.
"There were two companies present that night, not one as most people are led to believe. We were members of the 16th Coy RAASC [transport] and there was also the 15th Northern River Lancers. It might have been the first time we'd been on a camp together.
"Three types of amphibious vehicles were used. There were the DUKWs [Ducks], the LTVT 4 [personnel carriers] and the LVT4A [armoured carrier].
"About 3am, Typo told me a number of flares had been set off a little bit out at sea from us.
"At that time the sea had roughed up quite dramatically. We turned to see if we could help anyone.
"I turned on the Aldis Lamp [portable spot-signal lamp] to see if we could see anything.
"We then spotted a DUKW in distress. When we arrived we found the vehicle had engine trouble and could not be started.
"No one had a manual bilge pump. The DUKW was taking too much water and sank before our eyes.
"Men thrown into the water were picked up by us. A head count was made as there were supposed to be 13 persons on board. Our count was 12.
"We immediately began a search for the missing man. It was dark. We couldn't see. We spent an hour searching the sea, then did another head count and found there had been a mistake. All were on board. There were two brothers called White sitting next to each other when we did the first roll call.
"As large waves were breaking onshore, Typo then decided to go further out to sea where they were only large swells, which we rode easily.
"It's a pity others didn't do the same as there might have been a better result all up. There were quite a few seasick people, but that was better than being drowned, which could have happened if we went to shore in the dark.
"As we were out of sight of land we had no idea what had gone on during the night.
"We waited until daybreak then proceeded to come in closer to shore, keeping outside the breaker line, but continuing up the coast.
"We came across an LVT floating unmanned. John Morrow and I boarded the deserted vehicle and I tried to start it, but had no response.
"When the crew had abandoned ship they'd left all the switches turned on and had flattened the batteries.
"Vehicles ran on aviation spirit, but when engines got hot, the fuel started vapourising. You'd shut down an engine until it cooled. You just float on the water, waiting. I don't know what happened. People panic. It was pitch dark after all.
"We then decided to tow the vehicle in with us. We hooked up two heavy-duty hawsers and started to move, but we snapped the rope three times until we didn't have enough rope left.
"We only had the regular 85 ton steel hawser onboard. We were a bit dubious to try this as if anything happened we could lose both vehicles and maybe suffer loss of life.
"We were getting along smoothly when Typo came to the rear of his vehicle to us asking if I was prepared to go into Nelson Bay through the heads.
"I agreed thinking it was the best option. My estimate was a shore break of about eight to 10 metres. When Typo checked his fuel though he found he'd burned more than he thought.
"Towing a 12 or 13 ton tank uses a lot of fuel, so we had to take the alternative, the beach. When we rode the first wave in the weight on the tow rope was too much and it snapped, leaving us with no power and sitting up and down on the waves hoping Typo reached the beach OK.
"He did, but was not allowed by beach officials to return and reach us. We sat on a few waves but it became obvious to us our vehicle would not last long so we abandoned ship. We were amazed when the tank later floated inshore by itself."
Herald 1954 news files later show a closed army court of inquiry and an inquest exonerating all officers from blame.
But these days former Sgt Stewart mainly remembers his role beforehand, taking some "top brass investigators" out to sea to familiarise themselves with the scene.
"But they didn't know anything about our craft. When you are at sea in an almost empty vehicle, its sea cocks are left open for better ballast. The water runs though a grate underfoot to be pumped out," he said.
"The investigators thought we were sinking and wanted to quickly go back to shore, saying 'the amount of water onboard is starting to worry us'."