Distinguished officer gone but not forgotten

This article has photo gallery Published on LCDR Desmond Woods (author), CMDR Greg Swinden (author), ABIS Leo Baumgartner (photographer)

Location(s): Garden Island, Sydney

Topic(s): Naval History, HMAS Melbourne (II), Funeral

Pallbearers from HMAS Melbourne (III) carry the late Captain John Stevenson, AM, RAN (Retd) into the Naval Chapel at HMAS Kuttabul for his funeral. (photo: ABIS Leo Baumgartner)
Pallbearers from HMAS Melbourne (III) carry the late Captain John Stevenson, AM, RAN (Retd) into the Naval Chapel at HMAS Kuttabul for his funeral.

Today the Royal Australian Navy honoured the life of a highly regarded and greatly admired retired officer who had an extraordinary career, marked with distinguished service in war and peace, tragedy and controversy.

Captain John Philip Stevenson died on Wednesday, 30 January 2019, at the age of 98. His career will forever be remembered in Australian naval history.

Captain John Stevenson on the bridge of HMAS Melbourne (II), 1969. (Australian War Memorial Collection P01878.002)

Captain John Stevenson on the bridge of HMAS Melbourne (II), 1969. (Australian War Memorial Collection P01878.002)

In 1969 he was in command of HMAS Melbourne (II) when the United States Navy destroyer USS Frank E Evans turned under the Australian aircraft carrier’s bow and was cut in half.

He was subsequently cleared by Court Martial for any responsibility for the tragedy and in 2012 received an official apology from then Defence Minister Stephen Smith for having been tried. The apology letter acknowledged the unnecessary stress the Court Martial caused to Captain Stevenson and his family.

Captain Stevenson was today farewelled in the Garden Island Naval Chapel in Sydney with a ceremonial funeral, normally reserved only for officers who pass away during their service at the rank of Captain. This is the first time in the Royal Australian Navy’s history that a serving Captain’s funeral has been held for a retired officer.

Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Mike Noonan, said the ceremonial funeral recognised the very great contribution made by Captain Stevenson in peace and war to the Navy and the nation.

“Captain JP Stevenson has been accorded a ceremonial funeral of a serving Navy Captain to recognise that the circumstances in which he resigned from the Navy were unique, and to ensure there can be no doubt as to the very great esteem in which he is now held across our Navy,” Vice Admiral Noonan said.

“There can be no doubt that past mistakes were made that impacted both Captain Stevenson and his family. The Navy of 2019 is a more people focused organisation and strives to ensure that similar mistakes are not repeated.

“With the passing of Captain Stevenson, our Navy family has lost a fine leader and consummate gentleman, who served Australia with pride in war and peace over a 35 year career and continued to support our Navy long after his time in uniform.

“We hope today’s formal farewell, in addition to the formal apology Captain Stevenson received from Government in 2012, will help ease the burden which the Stevenson family has had to bear over the past five decades,” Vice Admiral Noonan said.

As part of today’s sad farewell, Captain Stevenson’s coffin was carried into the Garden Island Naval Chapel by six serving junior sailors from HMAS Melbourne (III). As the hearse passed through Fleet Base East, Melbourne’s ship’s company lined the rails of the warship as a mark of respect, while wharf sentries from other ships saluted. Captain Stevenson was also given a seven gun salute, which is normally reserved for serving officers who die while in command of a ship or shore establishment.

A unique and remarkable career

Captain Stevenson entered the Royal Australian Naval College (which was then at HMAS Cerberus) as a 13 year old Cadet Midshipman in 1934.

As a junior officer, he saw war service in HMA Ships Canberra, Nestor, Napier and Shropshire.

He was present in Yokohama Bay for the Japanese surrender in 1945 and witnessed the results of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. He was engaged in getting many sick and malnourished prisoners of war embarked for their return to Australia.

After the war, Lieutenant Stevenson went to the United Kingdom on loan to the Royal Navy where he saw operational service in the early days of the Malayan Emergency.

Promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1950 he returned to Australia in the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney (III).

Upon arrival in Australia he took command, in March 1951, of the frigate HMAS Barcoo which operated as the Royal Australian Navy’s training ship.

He later served in the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia (II) as navigation officer, and later re-joined Sydney as the Fleet Navigation Officer.

Sydney visited the United Kingdom for the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II where Stevenson commanded the Royal Australian Navy detachment during the coronation parade.

In 1954 Commander Stevenson was Director of Plans in Navy Office and also served in HMY Britannia as the naval equerry to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh during the Royal visit to the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne.

He commanded the destroyer HMAS Anzac (II) from January 1957 to June 1958 and in May 1959 was appointed as the Defence attaché to Thailand, where he was promoted to Captain in December 1960.

Captain Stevenson assumed command of HMAS Watson, in October 1961, and the following October took command of the destroyer HMAS Vendetta (II) as well as commanding the 10th Destroyer Squadron.

In April 1964 he commanded the fast troop transport HMAS Sydney (III) which took Australian troops to Borneo. In 1965 he commanded HMAS Cerberus. Then in late 1966 he became the Australian naval attaché in Washington, DC. After returning to Australia he assumed command of the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (II) in October 1968.

In the early hours of 3 June 1969 in the South China Sea, the American destroyer USS Frank E Evans crossed Melbourne’s bow and was cut in two.

The forward section of Evans sank immediately, resulting in the loss of 74 lives and Melbourne sustained extensive damage to her bow.

A joint US Navy/Royal Australian Navy Board of Inquiry in Subic Bay held Stevenson partly responsible, stating that as Commanding Officer of Melbourne he could have done more to prevent the collision from occurring.

However, a subsequent Royal Australian Navy Court Martial cleared him of any responsibility and commended him for his efforts to prevent the collision.

The integrity of the initial Board of Inquiry has since been questioned, particularly as it was presided over by the US Navy Admiral in overall tactical command of Evans at the time of the collision.

Stevenson’s defence counsel at his Navy Court Martial, Gordon Samuels, QC, stated he had “never seen a prosecution case so bereft of any possible proof of guilt.”

Despite being cleared, Captain Stevenson subsequently resigned from the Royal Australian Navy - bringing his distinguished 35-year naval career to an end.

In December 2012, Stevenson received an official apology from the Minister for Defence, the Honourable Stephen Smith, MP, in which the Minister stated that Stevenson was not treated fairly by the government of the day and the Royal Australian Navy following the events of 1969.

Minister Smith described Stevenson as “a distinguished naval officer who served his country with honour in peace and war.”

Following a successful civilian career, John Stevenson continued to work with service charities and was appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 2018 Australia Day Honours List.