Representatives of the Royal Australian Navy and Northern Territory community paused today to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the sinking of HMAS Patricia Cam and the loss of nine lives.
On 22 January 1943, almost a year after the initial air raid on Darwin, a Japanese seaplane bombed and sank Patricia Cam while the ship sailed from Milingimbi to Elcho Island on a supply run.
In addition to her crew of 19, the auxiliary minesweeper was carrying a missionary and five Yolngu men.
After the opening barrage, the seaplane returned to drop its second bomb and strafe survivors in the water with machine gun fire. It then landed, captured the missionary at gunpoint and flew off.
Commanding Officer of HMAS Coonawarra, Commander Viktor Pilicic, said the attack and subsequent story of survival is an extraordinary piece of Northern Territory military history.
“This is a story of mateship, bravery and sacrifice, and of pulling together when times are at their toughest,” Commander Pilicic said.
“The story of the brave men of Patricia Cam demonstrates the best in human character and continues to shape our values and identity as members of the Navy and as Territorians today.”
Two sailors and two Yolngu men died in the attack, while two more sailors clinging to hatch covers floated away and were not seen again.
The remaining 18 men clambered onto a life raft and reached Gurraka Island that night. Another sailor and a Yolngu man died from their injuries the following day.
A hunting party from the Wessel Islands arrived by canoe on 25 January 1943 and took the ship’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Sandy Meldrum, to get help.
Lieutenant Meldrum walked 56 kilometres in bare feet through rock and scrub with his rescuers before staggering into a Coastwatch Station at Jensen Bay on 26 January.
Food and a first aid kit were dropped off by plane to the survivors and HMAS Kuru rescued them on 29 January.
Post-war investigations found the missionary had been held prisoner at Dobo, Indonesia, until 4 May 1943, when he was killed by his Japanese captors.