Sailor and survivor – the sinking of the HMAS Canberra

August 09, 2017

Yarrawonga’s Des Jones remembers the HMAS Canberra with great fondness but is haunted by the events that unfolded the night she sank.

As a 19 year old sailor Yarrawonga’s Des Jones survived the sinking of the HMAS Canberra in the battle of Savo Island.

As a 94 year old man he is still haunted by the Japanese attack in the early hours of August 9, 1942 during World War II.
This year, to mark the 75th anniversary of the loss of 84 lives on the Canberra, Des wanted to place an in memoriam notice in the Yarrawonga Chronicle.
Instead, he agreed to share his account of that fateful August night, his opinion on the continued debate over ‘friendly fire’ and the long life he’s lived in honour of the mates he lost.
“We were in the Pacific off Guadalcanal (Solomon Islands). We were in the middle with US destroyers on either side,” Des said.
“It was a pitch black night and even though some of the other ships had radar the screen was breached and they saw at the last minute five Japanese attackers headed toward us.
“They signalled us with their lantern ‘enemy ships entering the harbour’ but it was all too late.”
The HMAS Canberra came under heavy fire from the Japanese around 1.45am on August 9.
The first Des remembers of the attack is the incredible noise and shrapnel flying all around him.
He’d just come off watch in the boiler room as a First Class Stoker and, after having a quick clean up, was stationed with a fire party near to the first aid unit.
“I remember hearing the noise and the whirr of the shrapnel. I was standing next to a mate and his hand was shot clean off. Clean severed just like that,” Des said.
“He looked at his hand on the floor and said ‘Des get the rings of my finger will you?’
“I couldn’t believe it. I said ‘no George I won’t and I grabbed him and took him into the first aid room which thankfully was right nearby.”
That was the last time Des saw George on the Canberra that night. He ran into him two years later and saw he had a prosthetic hand.
“He didn’t mention the rings when I saw him and I didn’t bring it up either,” Des said.
In the flurry of Japanese fire and the confusion of the battle, Des believes it was a ‘friendly fire’ torpedo from one of the US escort destroyers, the USS Bagley, which took out the Canberra’s boiler room.
The issue has long been debated by historians but Des has no doubts.
“The torpedo hit us fair in the middle and two boiler rooms were destroyed. At least eight men dead straight away,” Des said.
“Because the boiler rooms had been taken out we had no power, we had no steam to turn the guns and return fire.  We were crippled.
“All we could do was wait for them to finish us off. We were listing to the starboard side, hundreds were wounded and we were just sitting there.”
Then, the barrage of Japanese shots suddenly stopped.
“The Japanese didn’t want to waste their ammunition finishing us off. They knew we were going down so they stopped firing and they left,” Des said.
“If they’d kept going they would have blown us to bits and I wouldn’t be here telling the story.”
But it wasn’t over. Two Japanese planes nearby left the site of flailing Canberra and lined up three American cruisers.
“They lit them up. Just blew them out of the water,” Des said.
“Thousands of men were dead.”
In the pitch black darkness, the able-bodied men aboard the HMAS Canberra scrambled below amid the chaos and confusion to get the wounded to the upper deck to be rescued.
They didn’t know if, or when, the Japanese would come back.
“There were a lot of mistakes made that night, terrible mistakes, in all the confusion,” Des said.
“A lot has been written about what happened, but most of it is wrong.  In any case, a lot of good men died that night.”
The HMAS Canberra was in Guadalcanal to help the Americans take the Japanese airfield at Lunga Point.
Despite the Japanese attacked the American landing was successful and the airfield was captured.
In the hours after the attack, Des and the others left on board the Canberra waited for rescue.
“They told us to abandon ship at one point but all the boats had been destroyed,” Des said.
“A few other blokes and I went to the side and saw a raft so we decided to jump off and swim to it.
“Turned out that wasn’t the best decision because a while after that more destroyers came and took the others off the ship. We had to wait a while for them to get to us.”
Miraculously, Des escaped the attack on the Canberra without a scratch.
He was granted two weeks leave before returning to service onboard the HMAS Shropshire – an exact replica of the Canberra.
“They loaded it with all the latest gadgets they could find, all the latest radar, everything,” Des said.
“Guess they were hoping it wouldn’t happen again.”
On August 9, 1942, 84 men were killed on the HMAS Canberra and more than 110 were injured.
After the attack the order was given to scuttle the burning ship with reports suggesting it took up to 258 five-inch shells and four or five torpedoes to send her down.
The HMAS Canberra joined many other sunken warships in the area that became known as Iron Bottom Sound.
For Des, a full life followed that fateful night. He eventually left the Navy, trained to become an electrician and started a business, found love with his wife Marie, had three children and now has grandchildren and great grandchildren to enjoy.
He and Marie settled in Yarrawonga in 1980 and shared a wonderful life together before she passed away ten year ago.
Now Des is active within the Yarrawonga Mulwala RSL Sub-branch, he enjoys regular games of cards ‘up the club’, a counter meal at the pub down the street and recently bought his very own ‘bachelor pad’.
Des went to HMAS Canberra reunions years ago and kept touch with a few mates but says “there aren’t very many left of us now”.
He says he doesn’t really like to talk about the night on the Canberra too much.
Today (Wednesday) is an exception though. Des will attend a special Yarrawonga Mulwala RSL Sub-Branch service at the Memorial Wall marking the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the HMAS Canberra.
He’ll share his story, with those who will listen, and although he says he is still haunted by that night, maybe it will go some small way to laying the ghosts of the HMAS Canberra to rest.

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