A very unordinary seaman

In 1937, David Manning left school at the tender age of 13 and enrolled in the Royal Australian Naval College as a midshipman cadet. However, his parents soon decided that the life of a Naval Officer was not what they wanted for their son. After some discussion they withdrew him from the college. David left with a heavy heart but, three years later, when the war in Europe began, he tried to persuade his parents to allow him to re-enlist. It took them a while to be persuaded, but David eventually joined the Navy as an ordinary seaman on his eighteenth birthday.

In 1941 he joined HMAS Cerberus at the Flinders Naval Training Depot to complete his basic training. A few months later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, bringing the European war into the Pacific and closer to the shores of Australia. In late December of the same year, David joined the light cruiser HMAS Perth in Sydney and got his first wartime experience at sea escorting a New Zealand troopship up to Fiji. HMAS Perth then escorted the troopship Aquitania from Australia to New Guinea, after which she returned to Perth to await a new assignment.

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HMAS Perth, in 1941 – about the time Ordinary Seaman David Manning joined her.

After the Japanese captured Singapore, there were suspicions that they might also invade Java in Indonesia. HMAS Perth was ordered north to assist the Dutch colonial forces in defence of the island. Early 1942 found HMAS Perth in the Indonesian harbour of Sorabaya, joined with a force that was codenamed ABDA after the American, British, Dutch and Australian ships involved. The force was under the command of Dutch Rear Admiral Doorman and consisted of five cruisers − the Java and the Deruyter, belonging to the Dutch, the American USS Houston, the British HMS Exeter and the Australian HMAS Perth.

There was also a screen of nine destroyers, but four of these were obsolete American four-funnelled vessels of World War I vintage which were slow and used a great deal of fuel. An inherent problem with this scratch force was communication. The radios of the various nations worked on different frequencies and the orders of the Dutch Admiral had to be translated into English before they could be relayed to other ships.

The ABDA Force put to sea on 27 February 1942 and soon came upon a vastly superior force of Japanese ships in the Java Sea. A ferocious battle of naval guns and torpedoes began, which would later become known as the Battle of the Java Sea. The British cruiser HMS Exeter was hit by enemy fire and slowed right down, making her an easy target. HMAS Perth pulled out of line and laid a smoke screen around HMS Exeter allowing her to creep out of range and retire from the action. Both Dutch cruisers – one ahead and one astern of HMAS Perth – were torpedoed and burst into flames. Rear Admiral Doorman was killed, as were a great number of Dutch sailors, and Captain Waller of the Australian ship took command of the rapidly dwindling flotilla. With fuel and ammunition running low, he broke off the action around midnight. HMAS Perth then put into Batavia, present day Jakarta, where a small amount of fuel oil was obtained, but none of the ammunition that was so desperately needed. Eighteen-year-old David Manning, who had just experienced his first naval battle, was too tired and deafened by gunfire to feel any elation.

After dark that night, HMAS Perth and USS Houston – the only two cruisers that remained undamaged – headed out with the intention of passing through the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra to engage the Japanese forces that were known to be about to invade West Java. As they approached the strait the lookouts spotted an unidentified green light. When they challenged it with a Morse lamp, the light went out and all hell broke loose – USS Houston and HMAS Perth had inadvertently got in amongst the Japanese fleet and were being fired on from all sides. The Japanese illuminated the two allied ships with searchlights, making them very easy targets. When the US and Australian machine gunners fired back at the lights, they were switched off and replaced with spotlights from somewhere else in the fleet. The attack was well synchronized and systematic but the cruisers gave as good as they got. It was a ferocious battle, with the Japanese firing 85 torpedoes at the two vessels. It was inevitable that some would hit their target.

HMAS Perth took a torpedo amidships, which the captain immediately realised would be fatal. He just managed to give the order to abandon ship before a shell exploded in the bridge and killed him. David Manning, who was a loader on one of the aft twin gun mountings, was so deafened by the gunfire and explosions that he and his crew never heard the order to abandon ship. They carried on firing until they were out of ammunition, even firing star shells, a type of flare, at zero elevation in the hope that they might hit a Japanese ship and set it on fire.

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An artist’s impression of the Perth’s last moments, as David and Gavin were about to abandon ship.

When the ammunition was all used up and the ship had taken a starboard list, the gun crew realised it was time to go. David helped to put rafts and Carley floats – rafts made from cork and netting – over the side for those already in the water. He then climbed out onto the ship’s side with the intention of jumping into the sea. Although he was only vaguely aware of it at the time, there was another man, Sub Lieutenant Gavin Campbell, on the hull close to him. Before they could jump, however, the fourth torpedo to strike HMAS Perth exploded right underneath them. David has no memory of the next few minutes, but the next thing he knew, he was in the water next to Gavin who had sustained a broken leg in the explosion although David was uninjured. They came across a boarding net floating in the oily water and hung on to it as they watched the end of HMAS Perth. The USS Houston was sunk shortly after, and with her went any chance of being rescued by an allied ship.

David and Gavin clung to the net throughout the night, alongside other crew members. When a Japanese vessel came close and shone lights down on them someone in the water shouted, ‘We’re Australians and proud of it, you bastards.’ The lights went out and the ship moved off looking for Japanese survivors. At daybreak, David and Gavin found a Carley float and climbed in, and later were taken on board a large Japanese lifeboat that was manned by Australians. The boat picked up many more survivors until there were 50 or 60 on board. Their best chance of survival was to head for the closest land, the northern tip of Java, and after 16 hours they managed to beach the boat at a place called Labuan. They hoped to make contact with members of the Dutch army who had been in the area, but who were now retreating as the Japanese landed and advanced.

The wounded, including Gavin Campbell, had to remain on the beach with a few men who volunteered to remain there and look after them. By a fortunate twist of fate they were all rescued and taken to safety. Gavin spent many months being looked after by an attractive Dutch nurse who, it is rumoured, he became very fond of. Even to this day, David Manning has a slightly sardonic tone to his voice when discussing the matter. Not surprisingly, it seems to irritate him that Gavin was lucky enough to spend half the war in the arms of a nurse, while he himself was captured and ill-treated.

From the coast of Java the bulk of the survivors pressed inland, ill clad and mostly without shoes. Their only food and drink came from coconuts, and during the first part of the trek the local people helped them out by climbing trees to fetch the nuts for them. This was to change as they got further inland and closer to the influence of the Japanese occupying forces.

At one point they saw a small horse drawing a cart with a white paper flag. On the flag, the rising sun was painted in red. ‘Boy,’ said one of the American sailors, ‘am I glad to see that flag!’ The others looked at him in astonishment and asked why. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that’s got to be the Indonesian version of the Red Cross, don’t it?’ Someone quietly explained to him that it was the flag of the Imperial Japanese Army, the enemy.

Young David, who had by this time taken part in two major sea battles, abandoned a sinking ship, been blown up by a torpedo and spent the night swimming in hostile waters, had grown up quite quickly. He recalls that the long, difficult walk was actually quite interesting, with many conversations and many new companions. They chatted mainly about their families and that far-off land they called home.

Eventually, they were rounded up by hostile Indonesians and herded into Pendegland Jail, from where they were handed over to the Japanese. They were then taken to an unoccupied theatre building in Serang and forced to sit still on the floor in silence all day. If they moved or made a noise they were severely beaten. After eight weeks of confinement they were taken to Batavia to languish for seven months before being herded aboard the ship Kinkon Maru. The conditions on board were atrocious, with many of the prisoners already in ill health from malaria and other tropical diseases.

They landed briefly in Singapore, transhipped to the Maebasi Maru, then taken on to Rangoon on the Irrawaddy River in Burma, and in a smaller vessel travelled up the river to Moulmein. They were then force marched through the night to Moulmein Prison. A few days later they found themselves labouring on the Burmese end of the infamous Burma Railway.

For the following three years, Ordinary Seaman David Manning worked hard to survive under the brutal conditions imposed on allied prisoners by their captors. That part of David’s life is a story in itself, but to give some idea of those days I will quote part of the welcoming speech of Lieutenant Colonel Nagatomo, officer in charge of the Moulmein Prison: ‘It gives me pleasure to have you in my power, the rabble of a defeated army. Many men will die, but the railway will go through.’

Many men did die. Of the 188,000 workers who were brought in from all over Asia and forced to work on the railway, 85,000 died. Of the 60,000 allied prisoners, 16,000 died of starvation or disease, or were brutally murdered by their captors. Of the 15,000 Japanese soldiers associated with the railway, 1,000 of them also died. Of the 681 original crew members of HMAS Perth, 356 died in the Battle of Sunda Strait. Of those who were taken prisoner, 102 died in the harsh conditions imposed by their captors. Just 223 lived to return to Australia.

Four members of HMAS Perth’s company had what could be described as a lucky escape.

They were captured and shipped aboard the Japanese freighter Ruyoko Maru, which was then torpedoed and sunk by an American submarine. The prisoners who survived the sinking found themselves in an empty, hostile sea with no boats or rafts. The following day, when the American authorities realised that they had sunk a ship containing allied prisoners, they pulled out all the stops, sending six of their submarines to search for survivors. Of the hundreds that probably survived the sinking, only 60 remained above water a day later, and four of those were from HMAS Perth.

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I met David on a cruise ship, when he recounted his incredible story to me.

I was fortunate enough to meet David Manning in December 2007 on a cruise ship en-route from Sydney to Singapore. He recounted his incredible story in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone, mentioning that in the days to come we would pass through the Sunda Strait and over the area in which both HMAS Perth and the USS Houston lie at rest. He also told me that he intended to go out on deck, at the appropriate time, for a few minutes of silence as a mark of respect for his comrades who had never returned home. A group of about half a dozen of us, ex-service men, or men who had heard David’s story and were in some way associated with the sea, decided to accompany him on his vigil. He seemed pleased to have our companionship.

The following morning we assembled early on the aft deck before anyone else was about. One of those present was an ex-service Padre and he recited the Remembrance Oath: ‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Time shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. In the morning and at the going down of the sun we shall remember them.’

It was a very solemn, moving little service. As we stood for a moment, in silence, we were very conscious of the captains and crews of the Perth and the Houston, entombed in their broken ships 60 metres beneath our feet.

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We held a small but solemn service of remembrance at the ship’s rail, as our vessel passed over the last resting place of HMAS Perth and the USS Houston, 60 metres beneath our keel.

I felt it would have been nice if everyone on board the cruise ship could have heard David’s story and that of his poor drowned companions. After all, it was the sacrifices of David, his companions and the other men and women of his generation that had ultimately led us to the peace and prosperity that we were all enjoying on that cruise.

Standing there at the ship’s rail, gazing down into the waves, it was plain that it was not only the dead who had suffered. The families, friends and shipmates of those who had perished were destined to carry the pain of loss for the rest of their lives. David claims not to be an emotional sort of person, but I saw tears in his eyes that morning. I also saw, in my mind’s eye, the ghosts of David’s fallen comrades standing around him on the deck, smiling in gratitude that we not only remembered them, but had honoured their sacrifice.

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