Determination to remedy a job of expediency done during WWII resulted in an unknown sailor receiving a headstone on his previously unmarked grave at Williamstown on 24 April.
A love of military history, an urge to set the record straight and a need to pay respects were the driving forces behind a Royal Australian Navy Reservist, Petty Officer Andy Campbell’s investigation into the fate of HMAS Goorangai.
Goorangai was the first Royal Australian Navy loss in WWII and the first loss of a surface vessel by the Navy since it was established.
The vessel sank in Port Phillip Bay after a collision with a passenger liner while on minesweeping operations in November 1940. The entire crew of 24 perished, but only six bodies were recovered, including the unidentified sailor.
“I knew of the story for many years and there seemed to be too many illogical things about it,” Petty Officer Campbell said.
“I was on long-service leave last year and had the time to visit the Melbourne office of the National Archives, the Australian War Memorial, Queenscliff and Point Nepean to check the documented accounts.
“While doing the research I decided to pay my respects to those sailors recovered.”
It was then he discovered the unidentified sailor was in an unmarked grave.
“There were five sailors identified and buried at Williamstown, Springvale and Cheltenham,” Petty Officer Campbell said.
“I visited all the sites but was unhappy that the unidentified remains at Williamstown were in an unmarked plot, which I thought was inappropriate because although it’s just one body, it represented any and all the unrecovered officers and sailors.”
The unidentified remains were recovered during salvage operations two months after the collision and buried within 24 hours in an unmarked plot with no families notified.
Petty Officer Campbell said he set about the task of rectifying the matter.
“I provided the Office of War Graves with conclusive documented evidence of the unidentified sailor and cemetery records, which were checked by the Department of Defence,” he said.
More than 70 years on, a dedication service was conducted at the gravesite on 24 April 2014, at 11am to recognise the sailor.
Commanding Officer of HMAS Cerberus, Captain Stephen Bowater officiated at the service.
“The opportunity to recognise the courageous service of this sailor, who made the ultimate sacrifice for his nation, is a solemn occasion for all past and present serving men and women,” Captain Bowater said.
“To be able to erect a headstone to mark the grave of a WWII sailor, so long after his ship was lost, is a significant achievement.”
A funeral firing party fired a volley of shots and a Navy Chaplain formally buried the unknown sailor while veterans from WWII, other ex-naval personnel and family of the crew of Goorangai reflected on the loss during the sounding of the Last Post.
The National President of the Naval Association of Australia and former Royal Australian Navy Reservist, Russell Pettis, said the dedication recognised the work of Petty Officer Campbell.
“It will be a fitting reward for his selfless dedication to oversee the appropriate outcome for a deserving soul,” he said. “I believe the work has created a very positive feeling in the wider community.”
Petty Officer Campbell said he was now in the process of correcting the record.
“I submitted a full referenced paper, which has been accepted by Heritage Victoria, the Australian War Memorial and Navy Seapower Centre and others,” Petty Officer Campbell said.
Imagery is available on the Defence Image Gallery: https://images.defence.gov.au/S20141182.