The last surviving crew member of HMAS Canberra (I), 99-year-old Des Jones, remembers how he narrowly escaped death when his ship was sunk in the Battle of Savo Island.
CAPTION: Mr Des Jones commemorates the 80th anniversary of the loss of HMAS Canberra (I) as the last remaining survivor, held at the Naval Chapel, Garden Island, Sydney. Story by Sub-Lieutenant Tahlia Merigan. Photo by Leading Seaman Sittichai Sakonpoonpol.
This week marks the 80th anniversary of the battle, which claimed four allied ships and more than 1000 casualties, including 84 on Canberra (I).
Mr Jones, who joined the Navy as a stoker at 17, recounted events from 80 years ago as if it was yesterday.
“I came off watch at midnight and was very lucky. This all happened at 2am,” Mr Jones said.
CAPTION: HMAS Canberra (I) passing under the still being constructed Sydney Harbour Bridge, October 1930. Photo from RAN files.
The boiler room where Mr Jones was working just hours before was hit by a massive explosion, a torpedo, killing at least eight.
With the ship at action stations, Mr Jones and some of his shipmates were stationed near sickbay as a fire party.
“I remember hearing the noise and the bloke standing next to me, George, took the shrapnel.”
George’s hand was blown off and he asked Des to perform a grim task.
“Des will you get the rings off my finger?” George said.
“I said, ‘No, George,’ and grabbed him and dragged him to the sickbay which was right next door. Didn’t see him for six years but he did survive,” Mr Jones said.
They took all the wounded up to the upper decks to be transferred to US destroyers. They were ordered to see if they could get steam up again but the boiler rooms had been destroyed. The order to abandon ship came in.
“Some of us went into the water. I did and swam out to a Carley float [life raft], and got in that,” Mr Jones said.
“We paddled to starboard side of Canberra and were lucky we didn’t go down as the small arms ammo went up. When dawn came the Japanese were gone.”
The aftermath of battle included the loss of US cruisers Quincy, Vincennes and Astoria as well as Canberra (I).
US ships Ralph Talbot, Patterson and Chicago were also badly damaged.
More than 1000 allied lives were lost that night and 700 were wounded, including 109 from Canberra (I). The Japanese forces lost 58 crew in the battle.
Mr Jones encouraged Australians to consider a Navy career.
“I think it’s a good life in the Navy. I think it’s a good chance to do other things with so many different options. Go for it, it’s a good life,” he said.
Around the world commemorations have been held, including in Australia, the Solomon Islands and on board HMAS Canberra (III) to remember the battle and the lives lost.
Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Mark Hammond will commemorate the anniversary in the Solomon Islands.