Yarra sailor’s love of Navy continued by kin

Published on LEUT Kara Wansbury (author)

Topic(s): Unit Citation for Gallantry, HMAS Yarra (II)

Lieutenant Commander Tor Sorensen takes a moment to reflect on his Great Uncle, James Edward Lye, at the HMAS Yarra II Unit Citation for Gallantry Investiture Ceremony held at the Port of Melbourne, Victoria.  (photo: Able Seaman Tom Gibson)
Lieutenant Commander Tor Sorensen takes a moment to reflect on his Great Uncle, James Edward Lye, at the HMAS Yarra II Unit Citation for Gallantry Investiture Ceremony held at the Port of Melbourne, Victoria.

Hearing stories about his Great Uncle, Able Seaman James Ly, who was killed in action when HMAS Yarra II was sunk by enemy action in 1942, instilled in Lieutenant Commander Tor Sorensen the desire to serve his country. 

LCDR Sorensen was told by his Grandmother that her Brother had loved the Navy, particularly the camaraderie. 

“My Great Uncle died protecting Australia. He loved his country and he loved the mateship of the Navy. I have always been interested in the Navy, and it obviously helps when you have that family connection,” LCDR Sorensen said.

That family connection has been strengthened in the past few years with both of LCDR Sorensen’s children baptised onboard HMAS Yarra IV. Following a time-honoured Navy tradition, both had their names inscribed on the ship’s bell.

My Grandmother and Great Aunt attended both baptisms onboard the ship, despite being in their nineties. They were both so frail, but because of their connection to the ship, through their Brother, neither of them wanted to miss it,” LCDR Sorensen said.

He said it was a great honour to be able to carry on the family legacy.

“I feel very proud to serve my country and be part of a service that protects Australia,” he said.

LCDR Sorensen attended yesterday’s investiture ceremony in Melbourne and saw the Chie f of Navy receive the Unit Citation for Gallantry on behalf of the crew of HMAS Yarra II.

On the 5th of February 1942, a convoy about to enter Singapore harbour was attacked by Japanese aircraft and the troop transport Empress of Asia was severely damaged, resulting in major fires, which caused the ship to begin to sink.

Despite the threat from continuing air attacks and the explosions in the Empress of Asia, HMAS Yarra’s Commanding Officer, Commander Wilfred Hastings Harrington, RAN, manoeuvred the ship alongside the stern of the sinking transport, enabling 1334 men to be transferred to Yarra. Yarra then proceeded to rescue a further 470 men from life rafts and floats in the vicinity.

On the 4th of March 1942, Yarra and her convoy of three merchant vessels were proceeding to Fremantle. In the early hours of the morning, Yarra’s lookouts sighted three Japanese heavy cruisers, each of which was greatly superior to Yarra in fighting strength and speed. Despite this, Yarra’s newly appointed Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Robert William Rankin, RAN, who had assumed command on 11 February 1942, immediately manoeuvred the ship between the enemy and the convoy, made smoke to screen the convoy and closed to engage.

Despite the obvious fate that awaited them, Yarra’s Ship’s Company showed extraordinary gallantry, skill and conspicuous devotion to duty in the face of a far superior enemy as they turned towards them and engaged against overwhelming odds. In the ensuing action, Yarra was stuck by heavy enemy shellfire, badly damaged and set on fire – yet continued to engage the enemy. When it was obvious the ship was about to sink, the order to abandon ship was given. Despite this order, the last remaining gun crew continued to engage the enemy until silenced by direct fire. From a Ship’s Company of 151 men there were 13 survivors.