Reflective tone as Westralia's crew commended

Published on LEUT Gary McHugh (author), LSIS Richard Cordell (photographer), POIS James Whittle (photographer)

Location(s): HMAS Stirling, WA

Topic(s): HMAS Westralia (II), Group Commendation

Wreaths commemorate the lost sailors and officers of HMAS Westralia (II). (Archive image). (photo: LSIS Richard Cordell)
Wreaths commemorate the lost sailors and officers of HMAS Westralia (II). (Archive image).

A commemoration was held at HMAS Stirling on Sunday 5 May to remember the four lives that were lost 21 years ago in a fire on board the former supply vessel HMAS Westralia (II).

The ceremony also included the award of a group commendation to the ship’s company who fought valiantly to save the ship after the devastating fire broke out in the engine room shortly after sailing from Fleet Base West.

Although the fire was eventually brought under control, four members of the ship’s company succumbed to the intense smoke and flames that engulfed the engine space, they were: Midshipman Megan Pelly, Petty Officer Shaun Smith, Leading Seaman Bradley Meek and Able Seaman Phillip Carroll.

Able Seaman Boatswains Mate Bridget Hopkins, of HMAS Stirling, passes Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Michael Noonan, AO, RAN a wreath during the HMAS Westralia (II) memorial service held on the Quarter Deck of HMAS Stirling.

Able Seaman Boatswains Mate Bridget Hopkins, of HMAS Stirling, passes Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Michael Noonan, AO, RAN a wreath during the HMAS Westralia (II) memorial service held on the Quarter Deck of HMAS Stirling.

Speaking at the event, Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Michael Noonan paid tribute to the members who lost their lives, their families and their shipmates who saved the ship.

“It’s a tremendous honour for me, as the Chief of Navy, to be presiding over this event and to have made the decision to award this group commendation,” he said.

“Every year, on this day, we pay special tribute to our Navy shipmates who were lost in HMAS Westralia.

“Today we’re not only here to honour those who perished in the tragedy, but also to recognise the bravery, selflessness and courage of all the Westralia crew who fought so hard to save their ship and their shipmates on that tragic day.

“We’re also here to recognise the life-changing impact of that engine-room fire, and the devastation and emotional turmoil this event caused to the lives of so many of our Navy family.

“Through the efforts of many, the fire was extinguished without further loss of life or the loss of the ship; both of which were a real possibility,” he said.

VADM Noonan then awarded all former crew members who attended the ceremony their commendations.

Meanwhile, a commemoration was also held on board HMAS Sirius, a vessel often referred to as Westralia’s ‘sister ship’.

The tanker’s Commanding Officer, Commander Melanie Verho led the service as the ship made its way back to Fleet Base West after a nine-month deployment.

“Today, on the Indian Ocean, as we pause to remember this tragedy and the toll it has taken on so many people, Westralia survivors are gathering at Fleet Base West to do the same.

“This day marks the twenty-first anniversary of one of the worst peacetime incidents of our generation, and as such, 5 May 1998 is a day that will be etched in our memories forever,” Commander Verho said.

Sirius departed Fleet Base West last August and returned to her homeport on 8 May 2019.