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HMAS Patricia Cam

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A wooden motor vessel built in NSW, Patricia Cam began life as a tuna fishing boat. The minelaying activities of German surface raiders in 1940-41 highlighted the shortage of suitable vessels to keep Australia sea lanes clear of this threat, and Patricia Cam was requisitioned as an auxiliary minesweeper. She commissioned on 3 March 1942 under the command of Lieutenant John Grant, RANR.

On 8 March 1942 HMAS Patricia Cam sailed from Sydney and headed north. Arriving in Darwin on 5 April, she was employed as a general purpose vessel, which included store carrying and in May salvage on the wreck of the America ship Don Isidro, sunk in the first raid on Darwin of 19 February 1942.

Early on the morning of 13 January 1943, Patricia Cam left Darwin, carrying stores and personnel headed for several outlying missions. In addition to her crew she carried the Reverend Leonard Kentish, Chairman of the Methodist Northern Australia Mission District, and five Aboriginal personnel. One of the latter, Paddy Babawun of Millingimbi was a native pilot; one of a number of coastal Aborigines regularly carried to assist with navigation among the unchartered reefs and shoals.

Enemy reconnaissance floatplanes, based at Dobo in the Aru Islands and colloquially known as "Floatplane Joe", had for some time been harassing ships along Australia’s northern coast. With no radar, ships relied on the eyes and ears of their look outs for warning.

Two Jake Floatplanes had taken off from their base at 0900 hours, each armed with two 60kg bombs. One located Patricia Cam. At 1300 on 22 January, a plane was seen and heard by several of the ship’s company when just on the point of releasing a bomb. The aircraft, a three seater twin-floatplane of the 734th Kokatai, dived from out of the sun with its engine shut down, passing over Patricia Cam from stern to stem at no more than 10 feet above the mast.

The bomb landed amidships in the centre of the cargo hatch and exploded in the bottom planking. Patricia Cam sank within a minute. Several members of the ship’s company were sitting on the forward hatch when the explosion occurred and were thrown down the hold but were almost immediately wash out again by the inrush of water. Both ship’s boats were destroyed but the life-raft remained intact. One sailor, Ordinary Seaman Neil Penglase, went down with the ship.

While the survivors were bunched in a small area, the Japanese floatplane returned and dropped the second bomb amongst the survivors in the water, killing crew member AB Edward Nobes and two of the Aboriginal passengers, brothers Djinipula and Djimanbuy Yunupingu. It then machine-gunned the survivors in the water for the next 30 minutes, without managing to inflict any new injuries. It then flew away to the north, but soon returned and landed on the sea near the survivors. Threatened with a revolver, Kentish was ordered to swim over to the aircraft and after a brief conversation he was taken on board. The plane took off and disappeared to the north. This incident is possibly the only case of an Australia being taken prisoner by the Japanese in mainland Australian waters during WWII.

Two sailors, Ordinary Seaman Andrew Johnston and Chief ERA William Moffitt, remained at some distance from the main group and either unwilling or unable to swim, they were not seen again after nightfall and were presumed lost. 18 survivors landed on a small rocky inlet about 2 miles west of Cumberland Strait on 23 January. Stoker Percival Cameron and Gitjbapuy Wanambi from Trial Bay, died from their injuries later that day.

On the morning of 25 January a hunting party from Wessel Island arrived by canoe and took the commanding officer, Lieutenant Sandy Meldrum RANR(S), to seek aid. Although well supplied by his rescuers with food and water, he faced an agonising 35 mile march through the rock and scrub country of Wessel Island in bare feet. He staggered into the Coast watching Station at Jensen Bay on 6 January.

The remaining survivors were spotted on 27 January 1943 by an aircraft of 7 Squadron RAAF from Horn Island. They were all rescued by HMAS Kuru on 29 January 1943 and returned to Darwin two days later.

The fate of Reverend Kentish following his capture remained unknown until post war investigations confirmed he had been held prisoner at Dobo until 4 May 1943 when he was beheaded by his Japanese captors. Sub-Lieutenant Sagejima Maugan, who had ordered the execution, was later arrested as a War Criminal and sentenced to death. He was subsequently hung in Hong Kong’s Stanley Gaol on 23 August 1948.

A tree commemorates HMAS Patricia Cam at the Shrine of Remembrance, St Kilda Road, Melbourne.

Group portrait of survivors of the Auxiliary Mine Sweeper HMAS Patricia Cam, which was sunk on 22 January 1943, at the shore establishment HMAS Melville (AWM 014329)
HMAS Patricia Cam (AWM301155)
OD Seaman Neil Gray Penglase was killed when HMAS Patricia Cam was bombed on 22 January 1943 (AWM PO6417.002)