First published in The Age on February 12, 1964
FOURTEEN VICTORIANS FEARED DEAD
P.M. ORDERS FULL INQUIRY
HOPE has been abandoned for 85 officers and ratings who are missing, believed dead, from the sunken R.A.N, destroyer H.M.A.S. Voyager.
The Minister for the Navy (Dr. Forbes) flew to Nowra, Jervis Bay, and H.M.A.S. Melbourne by navy helicopter late yesterday. On his return to Canberra he said: “The chances are slight.”
“We are continuing the search – but given the intensity of the search and the distance over which wreckage is now spread, I think I have a duty to say the chances are sleight,” Dr. Forbes said.
Voyager, whose motto was – “Where Fate Dictates” – is now 600 feet below the surface, 19 miles off the Australian coast, after being sliced in half by the aircraft carrier H.M.A.S. Melbourne.
AIR SWEEPS GO ON
One hundred and sixty of the 239 Voyager survivors will reach Sydney this morning aboard H.M.A.S. Melbourne. The carrier has a large section of its bow crumpled and 20 feet of its flight deck buckled.
The Prime Minister (Sir Robert Menzies) announced in Canberra yesterday that a judicial inquiry into the Melbourne-Voyager collision would begin at once.
Sir Robert said: "It is a shocking disaster, unparalleled in the peace-time history of Australia. The Government and the Naval Board extend their very deep sympathy to the bereaved families.
R.A.A.F. Neptunes searched the disaster area yesterday and last night without sighting survivors or bodies.
The first Neptune, recalled from a torpedo-dropping exercise, searched from 12.45 p.m. to 4 p.m.
The second Neptune took over the search at 4 p.m. with orders to stay in the area until about 11 p.m.
The search area as about 20 miles wide and extended 50 miles out to sea in a south easterly direction off Point Perpendicular.
The Neptunes got their instructions from the Royal Australian Navy frigate Stuart which was in control of the search.
The Navy had in the search area seven surface ships including Stuart, the Royal Navy submarine Tabard, two R.A.A.F. Gannet anti-submarine aircraft and two Wessex helicopters.
Melbourne left the collision scene at 9.30 a.m. and only late yesterday was able to build its speed up from three to eight knots as the weather improved.
It is expected to enter Sydney Heads about 5 a.m. today and pull alongside at about 6 a.m.
Survivors will be brought ashore and taken to H.M.A.S. Watson, where they will be re-equipped and sent on survivors' leave for seven days.
In Canberra, yesterday, Sir Robert Menzies had an early morning conference on the disaster with the Minister for the Navy (Dr. Forbes), the Navy Minister - designate (Mr. Chaney) and the Chief of the Naval Staff (Vice-Admiral Sir Hastings Harrington).
Later both Sir Robert Menzies and Dr. Forbes issued statements on the disaster.
In a statement explaining the position Dr. Forbes said: "At 9 p.m. last night Melbourne and Voyager were conducting flying operations about 20 miles off Jervis Bay. Voyager was acting as a rescue ship and her function was to stand by to pick up the crew of any aircraft which might fall into the sea in the process of landing on or taking off from Melbourne.
"Voyager was roughly half a mile astern of Melbourne so that when the carrier reversed her course it was necessary for her escort to transfer her position from ahead to astern.
“It appears that in carrying out this manoeuvre, Voyager cut across the bows of Melbourne and was cut in half.
"The forward part appears to have sunk almost immediately, the after part remaining afloat for about three hours.
"Melbourne suffered damage to her bows but this is repairable and she is proceeding to Sydney where she will arrive tomorrow morning, Wednesday.
"No injury was sustained by any of Melbourne's personnel, but 85 officers and men of the ship's complement of 324 are missing from Voyager. Next of kin are in the process of being informed.
In reply to a question, Admiral Harrington said the two ships had their full complements of men and were able to operate the normal watches.
Admiral Harrington said that naval regulations provided that at least one officer — the officer of the watch — had to be on the bridge of a ship at all times.
More officers would be on the bridge of any ship engaged in an exercise.
The normal position of an escort vessel in a night flying exercise was 20 degrees on the port quarter and between 1000 and 1500 yards behind the escorted ship.
Normally R.A.N. ships in an exercise would maintain both a radar watch and a visual watch, Admiral Harrington said.
A correspondent for "The Age" asked Dr. Forbes: "When a carrier reverses its course as the Melbourne did, is it normal for the escort vessel — in trying to take up it assigned position astern — to go across the course of the carrier, or should it go around in the wake of the carrier?"
Dr. Forbes consulted Admiral Harrington, then replied ''I don't think we should answer that question.”
The Minister declined to answer other questions which, he said, should be left to the judicial inquiry.
A reporter pointed out that the collision between the Voyager and the Melbourne was the third serious mishap involving R.A.N. ships in less than a year.
He asked whether Dr. Forbes saw any need for an inquiry into naval procedures and conditions generally to ascertain whether the incidents stemmed from any common cause.
HEARD TRAPPED MEN YELLING ...
These quotations from navy men give a vivid picture of the tragedy.
"It was terrible — I could hear people still trapped yelling out for help." — Petty Officer Geoff Worth (Voyager).
"The forward section of the ship split and turned turtle." — Lieutenant C. J. Nisbet (Voyager).
"I was under water - and then I saw the stars." — Lieut.-Commander P. W. Coombs (Chief Engineer, Voyager).
"Without the helicopters few lives would have been saved." — Sub-Lieutenant A. D. Vodic (search-rescue boat).
"We were upside down and under the water in 10 minutes." — Petty Officer Norman Swinnerton (Voyager).
"The rear of Voyager was still afloat but sinking slowly into the depths with her screws in the air." — Lieutenant Kerry Stephen (commander, search-and-rescue boat).
"I just did not see Melbourne until it started to grind into our side — God, it was awful.' — Ordinary Seaman John Jersovs (Voyager).