The Chief of Navy has awarded a Group Commendation to the crews of two Royal Australian Navy vessels involved in the search and rescue efforts following the 1964 collision of HMA Ships Melbourne (II) and Voyager (II).
During a ceremony at HMAS Creswell, on the shores of Jervis Bay, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett said the tragedy had left an indelible mark on the nation and the Navy.
"We must recognise the overwhelmingly positive contributions that the crew members of Air Sprite and Air Nymph made in what would have been horrific circumstances," he said.
“The crews acted promptly, efficiently and with courage in an extremely challenging and traumatic situation to rescue 70 survivors from the sea and from life rafts following the collision.
“On a number of occasions, crew members courageously leapt from the search and rescue vessels into the oil-covered water to pull survivors from among the debris.
“The exemplary efforts of both crews undoubtedly prevented further loss of life.
“The outstanding professionalism and courage of the crews of HMA Ships Air Sprite and Air Nymph are of the highest order and in the finest traditions of the Royal Australian Navy.”
At the time, Air Sprite and Air Nymph were based at Creswell, where they served under the command of the then Lieutenant Kerry Stephen and Sub Lieutenant Tony Vodic.
There were three crews of 10 personnel supported by technical sailors to maintain the boats. One crew was at 10 minutes' notice to move whenever aircraft were operating from the Naval Air Station at HMAS Albatross or from the aircraft carrier Melbourne if she was in the vicinity.
The now retired Commander Stephen spoke of the actions that followed notification of the collision.
“I immediately hit the button for the emergency siren...which sounded throughout the whole of Creswell, recalling the Marine Section standby crew,” he said.
“My crew immediately manned Air Nymph and we departed within two minutes of that call heading out of Jervis Bay at maximum speed of 28 knots.
“Notwithstanding the pitch blackness of the night it was easy to head to the site of the collision because of all the helicopters flying overhead.”
It took more than an hour for his vessel to get to the scene which he said was littered with sailors in the water, some without life jackets, escaping the remains of Voyager which was all but sunk.
He singled out Able Seaman ‘Robby’ Robinson as an example of the selflessness of the rescue teams and why he had been so committed to ensure both crews were recognised.
“Able Seaman Robinson saw a sailor nearby sink beneath the water, he immediately leapt overboard, swam to the sailor and recovered him from under the water, brining him back to Air Nymph and reviving him,” Commander Stephen said.
Later the same sailor returned to the water for another 30 minutes to clear the propeller of the craft when it became entangled in a submerged life raft.
Almost 50 years after that night the men recounted the events in a phone call when Able Seaman Robinson was in hospital nearing his death, a conversation that Commander Stephen said was long overdue.
“I received a call from [his] wife...she said he had been so happy in his last few days as I had confirmed his heroism that night, something his family had not believed.”
The crews worked tirelessly through the night to search for survivors and missing personnel, pulling men directly from the water as well as from life rafts.
“They worked relentlessly in the darkness saving lives with little or no regard for their own safety,” Commander Stephen said.
“All crew members excelled in the performance of their duties, without complaint and, until today, have never been formally recognised for their outstanding devotion to duty, under extreme circumstances.”
Midge Vodic, the wife of the late Lieutenant Commander Vodic, said it was deeply gratifying to have the crews acknowledged.
“I know the families certainly appreciate the effort that the Navy has gone to to recognise the crews,” she said.
“It is certainly a story that I have told my children and grandchildren and should be told nationally as their bravery was unparalleled.”
Commander Stephen accepted the honour on behalf of both crews, and immediately donated his commendation to the HMAS Creswell Museum.
“This will serve as a permanent reminder to visitors of the outstanding work by the crews that fateful night.”