They may have grown old and perhaps a little reliant on walking sticks but there was no doubt that the survivors of the first kamikaze attacks on Australian warships were standing tall as they remembered mates who served alongside them during the final major sea battle of the Second World War.
Veterans, descendants and current serving Navy personnel gathered at the Australian War Memorial in October to commemorate the Australian involvement in the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation and the 70th anniversary of the attack on HMAS Australia (II). Chief of Navy hosted a reception for the group before the Last Post Ceremony highlighted the contribution of a naval officer who died in the action.
The combined air and sea engagements and landings in the Leyte Gulf between 23-26 October 1944, are regarded as the largest naval battle in history. The action took a heavy toll on the Imperial Japanese Navy effectively destroying it as an offensive force.
Australia’s contribution was not insignificant. Under the command of Commodore John Collins, the Navy's heavy cruisers, HMA Ships Australia and Shropshire; the destroyers Arunta and Warramunga; landing ships infantry Westralia, Kanimbla and Manoora; the frigate Gascoyne and the motor launch HDML 1074 were involved. Royal Australian Navy oiler Bishopdale, the provision ship Merkur and the ammunition ships Poyang and Yunnan were in support.
On 21 October 1944 Australia was supporting the American landings at Leyte when she was struck by a Japanese dive bomber. The aircraft crashed into the foremast causing an explosion and a fire on the bridge. Among the 30 dead and 62 wounded was Australia's Commanding Officer, 42 year old Captain Emile Dechaineux.
The Last Post Ceremony tribute to Captain Dechaineux was read by Commander James Lybrand, the current commanding officer of the Collins class submarine HMAS Dechaineux named after the late Captain.
Commander Lybrand quoted the words of a sailor who served in Australia who recalled that even as his captain lay mortally wounded, Captain Dechaineux was still focussed on the welfare of his men.
“Look after them.Just how serious are the injuries? That's all (the Captain) was interested in... He died later in the day.... He never uttered a moan or a groan. He was an outstanding person;” Commander Lybrand told the hundreds of visitors in attendance.
Captain Dechaineux was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross in recognition of his command of HMS Eglinton while hunting down German E-boats in the North Sea. Among other service honours, he was posthumously awarded a United States Legion of Merit. Captain Dechaineux was buried at sea on the evening of 21 October 1944 and just days later the Australian ships were again in action.
Captain Dechaineux's son, retired Commodore Peter Dechaineux, was among those who laid wreaths and as the bugler played the last haunting notes of the Last Post, it was time to quietly reflect on the service of more than 4,000 Australians from all three services who took part in the Philippines campaign and to pay respects to almost 100 of them who never returned home.