It is frequently recorded that the death toll from the first big Japanese air raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942, would have been much higher had it not been for the presence of the hospital ship HMAHS Manunda.
Although severely damaged and suffering heavy casualties herself, the Manunda was able to act as a well-equipped clearing station for many of the estimated 600 men left wounded from ships sunk and damaged in the harbour.
Sister Margaret Augusta De Mestre was on board the HMAHS Manunda on 19 February 1942. Having enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Corp in 1940 and Sister De Mestre sailed twice to the Middle East on the 2/1 Hospital Ship, HMAHS Manunda. Anchored in Darwin Harbour, near the merchant ship Zealandia and the oil tanker British Motorist, the Manunda was first hit by shrapnel and then a bomb during the first Japanese air attack. 12 members of the crew and hospital staff were killed, including Sister De Mestre and 47 others were wounded. Sister De Mestre was 26 and the first Australian Imperial Force nurse to be killed in action on Australian soil.
Captain James Garden was subsequently awarded an OBE in 1945 for his bravery and skill, both during the attacks, in leading a fire extinguishing team on the ship and in later navigating it by the stars to Fremantle with no navigation equipment and a jury-rigged steering system.
Built by William Beardmore and Co at Dalmuir in Scotland, Manunda was completed in 1929. She was requisitioned and converted to a hospital ship in Sydney, and completed as such on July 22, 1940.
Manunda made four trips to the Mediterranean and Middle East before the events at Darwin. She sailed for Fremantle the next day.
Subsequently, Manunda was posted as a hospital ship for Allied forces at Milne Bay New Guinea. From there she made 27 voyages to Brisbane and Sydney carrying wounded troops, and subsequently appeared elsewhere as required during the New Guinea campaigns.
In total she carried 30,000 wounded and ill men back to Australia. At the end of the war she was used for the repatriation of ex-POWs from Changi Prison in Singapore and from Batu Lintang camp in Borneo.
Decommissioned in September 1946 she returned to the coast passenger service in April 1948. In 1956 Manunda was sold to the Okadagumi Shipping Ltd of Japan and sailed from Sydney for the last time as TSMV Hakone Maru on 4 October that year.
The company’s plans for her did not eventuate, however, and she was broken up in Japan in 1957.