NO.2 AIRFIELD CONSTRUCTION SQUADRON R.A.A.F.
DROWNING AT COCOS ISLAND
By LAC I.A. Hamilton
Sunday Stand down day
6 - 4 - 52
It was around noon to 1.pm, a typical Cocos Island sunny day. We had finished the midday meal, we were told about a visit that was organised for the crews of HMS NARVIK and ZEEBRUGGE two L.S.T.’s (landing ship tank) were to pay an official visit to us, as they were on their way to the Monte Bello Atomic Tests, and had come by sea from the U.K.
Peter Eccleston (G.H) with whom I had been on recruit course with (my tent mate) He was like me around 19.Y.0. but looked like a big red Indian, he came from around Taylor Sq Sydney where his brother owned a Hair Dressing Business, Jim Ramsay (civvy street Flower Gardener) who came from St Ives in Sydney, a Fitter Works, made up our group. We had our salt-water shower etc and donned clean shorts, sox, shirt etc and headed for the Airman’s Mess (wet). This was a double marquee tent with a rough bar and 4 gall drums for seats.
As we walked up the ridge toward the beach area, hells of a lot of blokes were gathered looking out toward the surf, which was really big at this time.
We had been provided with 2 (or 4) tickets to get bottles of beer (Melb. Bitter) to welcome the "Brits".
Cpl Dinny Ayliffe, Plant Op, who I knew in Woomera said "Hambone you are one of our Surf Club members, there are a few Poms gone over the reef'. I went down to the beach area and "Bodgie" Jimmy McFarlane (Draughtsman) A Manly bloke said "are you going after them”. It was a bit hectic at this time, I said "Yes, I'll have a go".
He and a few others said "We have a roll of rope here, do you want it for a line" (meaning a surf belt line).
I had stripped by this time naked, I put my beer tickets in my boots, (more later) and I said "anyone understands Surf lifesaving signals". "No" was the reply, so I gave them a few "demos" and said "I will go out through that channel rip, through the reef and watch for my signals."
I went in (barefoot and naked) to about 75yds to this 'channel rip' we knew, pulling this rope. Bodgie Mac had given me his Flippers Rubber, but I soon got rid of them.
I went straight through this "channel rip" looking at what seemed "mountains of waves" (more later). The bloody waves were mountains and as they hit the edge of the Coral Reef they "dumped" still I managed to break through to the (greener) deeper water, and then had to swim UP the bloody waves.
I clearly recall when surfacing from being dumped, I would scream "God oh God". I do think this clearing the air out of my lungs helped me to survive.
At last (I do not know how many dumpers I survived) I broke through to comparatively calm water. Who do you think I saw? My mate Kevin Mason (Heavy Plant welder and ex Queenscliff surf club) Bob Stewart Cpl (I don't remember his mustering) and a bloody Pom'.
I said to the Pom "What the 'F' are you doing in this surf' and he said "We know all about surf we have swum in the Mediterranean."
We were "breast stroking" at the time and saying to each other "the CA83 (the crash boat) from Direction Island will be here shortly". I surely was not going back through that surf. We thought that the powers to be would contact DI and get them out, but it turned out that there was no radio contact with D.I., West Island had to go through Perth.
We decided to make our way (Breaststroke) down the Coast and I remember passing the coral Quarry where I worked with the D8's. This was about 2 miles from the campsite.
We all sang (all we could remember) "I was born to wonder I was born to roam", nobody recalled the next line (the tune was 'Mississippi'). By this time it was drizzling rain and getting dark.
Remember this was 600 fathoms on the Navy Charts, Noah’s (sharks) everywhere. At last 'Maso' said "I've had it, I'm going for the shore."
Rounding a small point we decided to have a go and go in. We pushed the Pom onto the first wave and I followed, after a few dumpers I put my feet on solid coral.
It was black by this time and drizzle raining, we staggered over a few yards, and some of the SQN boys came out for us. 'Maso' collapsed and I said to Bobby Stewart "give him some "re sus" (resuscitation) for Gods sake".
By this time we were covered with rubber gas capes (WWII type) and I was put in a jeep with the C.O 'Nobby' Lings and the Equip Off (I think) Ken Cook?? He said to me "In the back LAC" Nobby said "In the bloody back cook" so I sat in the front. 'Nobby' asked me had I seen anything of Eccleston or Rowan I said "No Sir" (Nobby was crying at this time, could have been the rain running down his face!!)
Later I was put in 'sick bay', my poor bloody feet were like steak, and I was still naked, Sister Vivian Boswell of Newcastle (an angel) and one other fussed over me, my private parts were up in my stomach somewhere, they had to be massaged down, (immersion). The medical orderly (male) Ron English sat with me nearly all night, while I had my nightmares. I saw the M.O. next day and was 'rat shit'. ‘He sent me to our Padre an ex Pathfinder pilot. He told to write a long letter to my sister (Doreen), as I had explained my "Mother was a shit".
Next day I went down to the beach, my boots were still there. I remember after the swim, asking for a beer at the Airman's Mess, only to be told. "None Left". Later I was told that Jim Dyer a DMT took a DUKW (called Duck) out over the reef, looking for us and wrecked it. This is only hearsay on my part.
The Coroners Inquest I went in with permission accompanied by Kev. Mason, I was a nervous wreck.
The finding of this mob was, after asking us our estimation of the height of the waves, was 45 feet. I truly believe this as I swam up the bloody things.
No trace was found of Rowan or Ecco Bobby Stewart (Gold Coast Surf Club) Rec. George Medal. John Kelly. (Cottesloe Surf Club) B.E.M. Rowan and Eccleston Queens Decoration for Valour (Ecco Surf Club said to be Bondi was Maroubra). Ian Hamilton Sqn/Ldr Scott and about 6 others received letters from "My Lords of the Admiralty" and Chief of the Air Staff.
Lost was L.A.C. P. Rowan R.A.A.F. of Bondi Junction Sydney. L.A.C. P. Eccleston R.A.A.F. Originally of Temora NSW. Able Seaman J.E. Atkinson Royal Navy.
A23682 A.C. Hamilton LA wrote this account. Plant operator No. 2 Airfield Construction Squadron R.A.A.F Coco Island.
Letter from the Royal Navy Admiralty
28 AUG 1952
I desire to advise that a letter bas been
received from Mr. Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty concerning your actions in assisting to the rescue of visiting Royal Navy personnel from drowning at Cocoa Island on the 6th April, 1952.
A copy of the letter, which has been received, is set out hereunder for your information : -
"I am commanded by My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to inform you that they have received from the Commander in Chief, East Indies Station, a report of the circumstances attending the death of the late
J.E. Atkinson Able Seaman, P/SSX.840694, who was drowned on 6th April, 1952, whilst on a social visit, together with other personnel from H.M. Ships NARVIK and ZEEBRUGGE, to the Royal Australian Air Force. camp in the Cocos Islands.
"Five of the libertymen, including Able Seaman Atkinson went bathing in coral waters from a beach on Wrest Island and were soon in difficulties. Royal Australian Air Force personnel made every possible effort, regardless of the grave risks, entailed, to save the stricken swimmers and two airmen lost their lives in the rescue attempts.
"I am to request that you be so good as to convey to the Commonwealth Government an expression of my Lords appreciation of the efforts made by the Australian airmen."
I am pleased to forward this further recognition of your courageous service and would like
to add my personal appreciation of the manner in which you have upheld the tradition of the Royal Australian Air Force.
Air Vice Marshal,
AIR MEMBER FOR PERSONNEL.
No. A23682 A.C. Hamilton. IA
No. 2 Airfield Construction Squadron,
LETTER FROM THE CHIEF OF AIR STAFF RAAF
24 July, 1952.
Your Commanding Officer at Cocos Island has reported to me concerning the unfortunate drowning fatalities which occurred at West Island during the visit of the 'Royal Naval vessels to that Island last April.
I have been particularly pleased to observe from that report, that despite the full knowledge of the dangers confronting you and without thinking of your* own personal. safety, you courageously entered the heavy surf to assist in the rescue of the visiting servicemen who were in danger of being drowned.
Your actions on that occasion were highly commendable and in keeping with the finest traditions of the Royal Australian Air Force. In appreciation of your conduct I have arranged that a suitable record be placed on your personal documents.
J: D. L. HARDMAN
CHIEF OF THE AIR STAFF
This Account was written by
No.A23682 A. C. Hamilton, I.A
No. 2 Airfield Construction Squadron,
R. A. A. F. , Cocos Island