Bitter memories of Australia's worst peacetime Naval disaster

The Voyager Disaster occurred off Jervis Bay on February 10, 1964.

A destroyer, HMAS Voyager, was in a naval exercise with the aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne, when the two ships collided just before 9pm.

The Voyager was cut in two; sailors and officers who could escape plunged into the sea, but those trapped below deck went down.

Eighty-two men died in the disaster, including the Voyager’s commander, Captain Duncan Stevens.

There were two Royal Commissions into the incident; the first one attributing much blame to the Melbourne commander, John Robertson.

The second inquiry, in 1967, was prompted in part by claims that Stevens had a drinking problem. It cleared Robertson and found that Stevens had been unfit to command for medical reasons.

On February 10, 2014, the HMAS Creswell will take Voyager survivors and their relatives, including representatives from Penrith, to the site off Jervis Bay

It was the day the aircraft carrier on which he was serving, HMAS Melbourne, struck HMAS Voyager, the destroyer on which  Tony was stationed.

Mr Syaranamual, now 70 and living in Cambridge Gardens, remembers that night as if it were yesterday and  still feels emotional about it.

‘‘My younger brother had just joined the navy; he was 18,’’ he said. ‘‘I was an able seaman and an electrician.

‘‘I was on the flight deck and waved to my brother on the Voyager; he waved back.

‘‘That was the last time I saw him.’’

He was below deck when he and others on the Melbourne felt a large bump.

They soon discovered they had collided with the Voyager.

‘‘I immediately thought of Tony, but I had to go to emergency to help with those being rescued,’’ Mr Syaranamual said.

‘‘I raced up and asked the survivors if they’d seen Tony; none had.’’

The next morning he was told his brother was missing.   Tony, though a strong swimmer, was never found.

‘‘I bottled it up for 20 years,’’ Frank  Syaranamual said. ‘‘We were under orders not to talk about it; we got no counselling, except from the chaplain.’’

Their mother, May Syaranamual, 89, said she still felt the loss of her younger son.

‘‘Tony only went into the navy because he wanted to be with Frank,’’ Mrs Syaranamual said.

‘‘The first thing I saw on the news was that Tony was missing; no one came to tell me.

‘‘I want to say how upset and disgusted I was by it.’’

She said she would love to be at next Monday’s commemoration of the tragedy, but is too frail to attend.

‘‘I’m still bitter about it; all those young lives lost 50 years ago.’’

Her son said he was also devastated by the first inquiry into the disaster, which placed most of the blame on HMAS Melbourne.

‘‘We were abused; called murderers,’’ Mr Syaranamual said.

‘‘I blame the navy; there was a class hierarchy and they rushed recruits to sea before they were properly trained.’’

Her surviving son left the navy the same year.

‘‘I was made not to feel welcome in the navy; on one occasion I was called a troublemaker,’’ Mr Syaranamual said.

He worked in civilian electronic and computer industries before retiring five years ago.

He married Val, his girlfriend at the time of the disaster, and they went on to have children and grandchildren of their own.

Mr Syaranamual said he looked forward to meeting other survivors at the Voyager commemoration.

‘‘After the commemoration I would like to see an in-depth review; many survivors would like to talk about how they were treated.’’

A CHANCE visit to the  toilet saved Colin O’Flynn’s life, the night he served on HMAS Voyager as it collided with HMAS Melbourne.

‘‘I was a petty officer,’’ Mr O’Flynn, now 78 and living in Cambridge Park, said.

‘‘I was on the toilet when everything went black, water came up everywhere and the ship broke open.’’

Mr O’Flynn, nicknamed ‘‘Irish’’, suddenly found himself in the sea, clutching  the broken toilet door and bleeding from a deep wound.

‘‘I was terribly frightened, because February is the season for sharks and I feared they’d smell my blood.’’

But two passing sailors, both strong  swimmers, took hold of him and they swam to safety.

‘‘To this day I’m not sure who they were, because our faces were blackened by the oil,’’ Mr O’Flynn said.

‘‘I was meant to be on the other side of Voyager, but I had to go to the toilet.

‘‘Everyone back there perished.’’

‘‘Irish’’ O’Flynn served in the navy until 1979, retiring with the rank of Warrant Officer Coxswain.

He cannot attend the Voyager tragedy’s 50th anniversary commemoration because of a previous engagement, but he still feels it is important.

‘‘At the time we didn’t get any counselling; if you complained you were classed as weak,’’ Mr O’Flynn said.

‘‘We tried to block it out of our minds, but you can’t just chop memories off.’’

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BRIAN Hopkins was an able seaman on  Voyager when disaster struck on the night of February 10, 1964.

Now 69 and living in  St Marys, Mr Hopkins can remember almost every minute of that time.

‘‘I was in the shower room when I could feel a turn to starboard [right], then port [left], then a pipe [call] to collision stations,’’ he said.

‘‘All hell broke loose; we were up against the Melbourne.

‘‘I thought we’d sideswiped her.

‘‘It wasn’t until I was rescued and on the Melbourne that I realised the Voyager was cut in half.’’

He said it was only luck he was still alive because he was meant to be on duty elsewhere in the ship.

‘‘If they hadn’t had more men than required, I wouldn’t have been in the shower room,’’ Mr Hopkins said.

‘‘It was a matter of fate I wasn’t there; they all perished.’’

After surviving the disaster he stayed in the navy, rising to the rank of chief petty officer before retiring in 1982.

Mr Hopkins will join Frank Syaranamual and others at the site of the Voyager disaster next Monday.

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