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All At Sea

This article was originally published in the October 2018 Edition of Reveille.

By Steve Meacham

“Don’t call me a hero,” says Donald Kennedy, President of the Merchant Navy RSL sub-Branch. “There were plenty of heroes in the Merchant Navy during World War II, and I wasn’t one of them. I’m just a bloke who went to war when I was 16.”

Now 94, he’s only agreed to tell his story to remind younger generations of the critical role the Merchant Navy played in the defeat of Nazism and Imperial Japan. Casualties were horrendous, Don points out – particularly during the Battle of the Atlantic, which Winston Churchill admitted gave him sleepless nights during the war – as Hitler’s U-boats hunted down the ships supplying desperately needed food, fuel, weapons and troops to Britain.

“The number of Allied merchant ships sunk in all theatres of war between 1939 and 1945 was around 4000,” Don explains. “At one time, in 1942, more ships were being sunk than could possibly be replaced. Many thousands of seamen were killed, either in the initial attack or they died in the freezing water.” No wonder they called it “The Cruel Sea”.

“I was never in what was known as ‘the Western Approaches’ of the North Atlantic,” Don says. “And I was never in a convoy, which is where most merchant seamen died.” But he did serve in the Caribbean Sea, the South Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean – most of that time, unlikely as it seems, on a Norwegian tanker, MT Seirstad. Just 12 years old, and living in Sydney’s Manly when war was declared in 1939, Don had joined the National Emergency Services as a bicycle messenger, delivering communications to various air raid wardens; however, Don was anxious to play a bigger role and so he pestered his father to help him join the Merchant Navy (by 1944, the Australian Armed forces would only accept volunteers aged 18 or over).

After an initial two-minute interview in the recruiting office, he was given a piece of paper and told to present himself to the first mate of Seirstad. “Shy and stuttering”, Don boarded the ship. “This tall bloke came out, took the piece of paper, looked me up and down and said, ‘Come back tomorrow with your gear.’ Then he shut the door. The whole thing took 90 seconds.”

Then came the first scary moment of Don’s war: telling his mum. His father and mother had separated and Don’s older brother, Roy, was already serving as aircrew in the RAF’s Bomber Command. Don left it until the last minute. His mother, Jessie, tried to talk him out of it but it was too late: he’d signed up. On the morning before he sailed, “she walked me to the Manly ferry. I was cocky, but when I turned around I saw my mum crying. I’ll never forget that”.

Don has kept his crew pass, Norwegian pay book and photos of himself as a teenage seaman. As the only Australian on a Norwegian ship, he found an unexpected obstacle: “They thought  I was a Pom, and they didn’t like Poms.” Norway had fallen to the Nazis in June 1940, but most of its Merchant Navy – then one of the largest in the world – escaped to join the Allied cause, coming under British command.

Don’s first voyage took him through the Panama Canal to pick up high-octane gasoline in Aruba, off the coast of Venezuela. U-boats were active in the Caribbean, and a loaded oil tanker was a sitting target, Don says. “One hit and you go up.”

Months later, in the Caribbean, when Don had become “Kanon- Kommander” in charge of a 20mm anti-aircraft gun (after a tenminute training course), the alarm bells sounded. In the dead of night, when seamen were not even allowed to light a cigarette on deck for fear of alerting a U-boat, a parachute with “an enormously bright light” was seen descending. Hearing the Norwegian phrase for “Fire!”, Don strapped himself into his gun seat. “I could see the tracers going up, but I doubt I ever killed anyone.”

That wasn’t the end of his adventures on Seirstad. In 1945, the ship was returning to Australia after picking up particularly volatile cargo. Two days out from Brisbane, Don realised the ship was zig-zagging. A Norwegian crew member thought he’d seen a periscope. Then another thought he’d seen “the track of a torpedo coming towards us from the stern. The story is that it missed us by 10 metres”.

Though Don now believes it was a false alarm, it was one of the worst moments of his life. “Then a Lockheed Hudson bomber arrived. The pilot stayed with us for three or four hours. If there had been an enemy sub, the plane would have kept it submerged, unable to keep up with us. When the plane had to return to base, the pilot flew very low over us and waved. Then, as the plane was flying off, it did this shimmy, as if to say, ‘Good luck, mates’.”

Don accepted a discharge after 14 months of service with no leave, but signed up a month later – again to his mother’s anguish. This time it was to serve on a US Army Transport ship, San Pedro. This explains why Don has so many campaign medals (12 in all) from four countries: Britain, Norway, the USA and Australia.

“But there are no decoration medals,” he says, as he struggles to identify every one pinned to his suit jacket. “As I said, I’m no hero.”

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