Last man standing

In 1942 as a 19-year-old sailor, Yarrawonga’s Des Jones survived the sinking of the HMAS Canberra in the battle of Savo Island.

Now in 2021 as a 98-year old man, Des is the only sole survivor of the HMAS Canberra.

Earlier this year Channel seven US Correspondent Tim Lester contacted Des to give an account of his story as part of a feature on the HMAS Canberra and the USS Canberra’s deployment in the US.

Through a zoom call with Mr Lester in July, Des recalled the Japanese attack in the early hours of August 9, 1942 during World War II.

“We were in the Pacific off the Solomon Islands and were in the middle with US destroyers on either side,” Des said.

“It was a very dark night and even though some of the other ships had radar 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. 

Des remembers the incredible noise and shrapnel flying all around him.

“I had just come off watch as a First-Class Stoker and how lucky was I that that had occurred,” Des said. 

“Everyone who took over in the boiler room was dead. 

“I had just had a quick clean up and then 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. 

“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.”

Throughout the burst of Japanese fire, Des believed, and still does to this day, that it was a ‘friendly fire’ torpedo from one of the US escort destroyers, the USS Bagley, which took out Canberra’s boiler room.

The issue was long debated by historians but Des himself has no doubts whatsoever.

“The torpedo hit us fair in the middle and two boiler rooms were destroyed. At least eight men dead straight away and 110 wounded,” Des said.

“The US admitted to the sinking of the Canberra after the war.

“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 very lucky not to be wiped out completely.  

“All we could do was wait for them to finish us off. We were listing to the starboard side and were just sitting there before the onslaught of Japanese shots suddenly stopped.

“I don’t think I was frightened at all, you are too busy to really think about it.”

Throughout the ordeal and without any light to see where they were going, the able-bodied men aboard the Canberra scrambled below 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 attack, the American landing was successful, and the airfield was captured.

Miraculously, Des escaped the attack on the Canberra without a scratch and has recalled his story many a time to those interested in that part of Australian history.

“Now it is a part of history, so it doesn’t worry me,” Des said. 

“I always remember it on August 9 for sure. Remembrance Day is also a great time to reflect on it and to commemorate my mates that passed on the day and since then.

“I’m still surprised I’m the last one living.”

Des’ interview will feature on Channel seven in the new year with no broadcast date currently confirmed however the Chronicle will have a reminder in the days leading up to the program.   

WWI graves to be marked

The unmarked graves of seven WWI soldiers in the Yarrawonga Cemetery will now be adorned with plaques to commemorate the service of those men and women who fought in the First World War. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) had grants available for cemetery trusts or families to apply for to commemorate the deceased with a marked plaque as a great number went unmarked after returning from the war. 

These local plaques will be unveiled this Remembrance Day, tomorrow November 11 at 9.30am with anyone wishing to attend urged to come along.

Similar to ANZAC Day where Australian flags were placed on the graves of soldiers, this Remembrance Day red poppies will mark the graves of those who fought or took part in the wars. 

Students of both Sacred Heart Primary and College and Yarrawonga College P-12 will also be in attendance to commemorate this momentous day.