Life's work dedicated to finding the men of HMAS AE1

Published on Mr James McPherson (author), Mr Bayden Findlay (photographer)

Topic(s): HMAS AE1, Naval Heritage and History

Rear Admiral Peter Briggs AO CSC RAN (Ret'd) reciting the Naval Ode at the commemorative service over the final resting place of HMAS AE1. (photo: Bayden Findlay)
Rear Admiral Peter Briggs AO CSC RAN (Ret'd) reciting the Naval Ode at the commemorative service over the final resting place of HMAS AE1.

The former Royal Australian Navy senior officer who has made finding HMAS AE1 his life's work says he will remember the moment the submarine was finally found off Papua New Guinea this week with mixed emotions.

The survey team in PNG that found AE1 had not even settled into a daily rhythm before the first sign of the lost submarine emerged.

Expedition leader, retired Rear Admiral Peter Briggs, said he was in his cabin as the autonomous underwater vehicle was retrieved from its first mission and the data was downloaded.

“It was late in the evening on the first day of the search and I got a knock on the door with a quiet survey chief saying “you might want to come and look at this”,” Rear Admiral Briggs said.

“We raced down to the data processing compartment and quickly saw a clear outline of a submarine shaped object.

“We were confident enough seeing the survey data that we immediately changed the planned second mission to get a closer look and our hopes were confirmed. 

“By the time we were dropping the camera to visually confirm it was AE1, there wasn't any doubt in anyone's mind the century-long search was over.

“Great ship handling and survey crew work facilitated extensive drop camera imagery to be taken along the length of the submarine.

“Our team of historians, marine archaeologists and technical experts will now forensically examine the footage and learn all we can from it.

“It is a great relief and sense of satisfaction after the years of research and gathering the resources to mount an expedition, and also a profound sense of sympathy for the 35 souls on board. 

“Our thoughts are with the families and descendants of those who perished that now start a delayed grieving process.

“There are of course a mix of emotions, but relief seems to prevail over excitement. 

“We have been in touch with a number of the descendants and are reminded of the fact we were searching for, and have now found sons, fathers, husbands, and brothers who were lost, but now have a known resting place,” Rear Admiral Briggs said. 

Before the survey team left the area, a commemorative service was held over the site with Rear Admiral Briggs leading all in a recitation of the Naval Ode, the words of which are more poignant than ever:

They have no grave but the cruel sea,
No flowers lay at their head,
A rusting hulk is their tombstone,
A’fast on the ocean bed.
We will remember them.