Survivor throws light on wartime mystery

May 15, 2005
Story by Paul Heinricks

A deadly Japanese submarine may have been behind one of Australia's most mysterious World War II naval tragedies, the disappearance of a raft carrying 28 survivors from the sinking of the corvette HMAS Armidale in 1942.

New research cited in HMAS Armidale Lives On , by Frank B. Walker, to be published next Saturday, shows the big Japanese submarine I-165 was lurking in the vicinity during the search for the raft in the Timor Sea on December 9 and 10, 1942.

The same submarine played a role in the destruction of the British naval Z Force, including the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse, off Malaya a year earlier, and on January 28, 1943, fired 10 shells at midnight into the tiny West Australian town of Port Gregory, north of Geraldton. It also sank nine merchant ships during the course of the war.

The research has been collated by one of HMAS Armidale's seven surviving crew, former Veterans Affairs chief psychologist V.R. "Ray" Leonard, 81, who was on the raft for three days before being chosen to go aboard a whaler lifeboat. The separation was "a very sad memory" for him.

He believes the raft's occupants, poignantly photographed by an RAAF Catalina flying boat, might have been shot by the submarine, either in the water or on board after capture - but says he cannot be certain.

Dr Leonard has turned up details showing the submarine had been ordered from Penang to Surabaya, in east Java, in November 1942, because of an Italian report (which turned out to be false) that Australians and Americans would invade Timor from the south.

Skippered by Lieutenant Commander Tatenosuke Tosu, the submarine, almost 100 metres long and capable of reaching 20 knots on the surface (eight knots submerged), left Surabaya on December 5 for a 17-day commerce raiding mission in the Arafura Sea, adjacent to the Timor Sea.

Dr Leonard, then a 19-year-old ordinary seaman, was on the bridge of the Armidale when it was sunk by two torpedoes from 13 Japanese planes about 110 kilometres south of Timor on December 1, 1942.

The Armidale was part of a three-ship operation to relieve the hard-pressed Australian troops holding out against the all-conquering Japanese in the jungles of Timor. It carried 83 crew and 66 Javanese commandos. A hundred men were lost.

The ship's sinking is memorable for the heroic actions of Ordinary Seaman Edward "Teddy" Sheean who, despite being injured in the arms and legs, strapped himself to an "oerlikon" gun and went down with the ship, still firing at the attacking planes from under water. He brought down at least one.

Sheean was the subject of a protracted but unsuccessful campaign to have him awarded the Royal Australian Navy's first Victoria Cross. A submarine has been named after him. Survivors have beeninvited to attend the commissioning of the new patrol boat HMAS Armidale in Darwin on June 24.

Dr Leonard's role as the ship was under attack was to fire a device that opened into a parachute with dangling wires a few hundred metres above the ship. The intention was to ensnare low-flying planes. It was spectacularly unsuccessful. "It seemed to me much more appropriate on HMS Pinafore than a modern warship," said Dr Leonard.

After the Armidale sank, survivors were strafed by machine-guns and under threat from sharks and sea snakes. RAAF planes sighted the raft on December 7 and 8, dropping food each time, but were unable to land because of rough water. When they returned on December 9, there was no trace of it.

Survivor and researcher Dr Ray Leonard and the HMAS Armidale, sunk in the Timor Sea in 1942.
Photo: Craig Sillitoe


Story reprinted with the permission of
Paul Heinricks and The Age Company LTD.
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