JAPANESE FLOAT PLANE
BOMBS HMAS PATRICIA CAM
NEAR THE WESSEL ISLANDS, NT
ON 22 JANUARY 1943

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The 120 ft 9 ins long wooden motor vessel "Patricia Cam" (301 tons gross), was requisitioned by the Royal Australia Navy from the owners, Cam & Sons Pty. Ltd, Sydney on 9 February 1942. The vessel was built in Sydney in 1940 by G. Beattie. HMAS Patricia Cam was commissioned as an Auxiliary Mine Sweeper in Sydney on 3 March 1942. HMAS Patricia Cam sailed for Darwin on 8 March 1942 under the command of Lieutenant John A. Grant RANR (S). She carried a crew of 2 officers and 12 - 17 naval ratings. The ship was fitted with 1 Oerlikon, 2 Vickers machine guns and 1 browning machine gun.

HMAS Patricia Cam operated out of Darwin as a general purpose vessel for the RAN. She was also involved in salvage work in May 1942 on the American freighter Don Isidro which was attacked by Japanese aircraft on 19 February 1942 and was  beached on Bathurst Island. 73 survivors of the Don Isidro were rescued by HMAS Warnambool on 20 February 1942. During the rescue they were bombed by a Japanese float plane and 11 personnel were killed.

Early on 13 January 1943, HMAS Patricia Cam left Darwin  carrying stores and personnel headed for several outlying stations. The passengers on board were Reverend Leonard N. Kentish, Chairman of the Methodist Northern Australian Mission District and five natives. 

HMAS Patricia Cam left Goulburn Island on 19 January 1943 headed for Millingimbi Mission. She arrived there the following afternoon and departed Millingimbi on 22 January 1943 headed for Elcho Island.

At 1.30pm on 22 January 1943, a Japanese float plane of the 734th Kokatai, attacked the ship from out of the sun, with its engine turned off, dropping one of its large bombs. It passed over the ship from stern to stem at less than 100 feet and landed its bomb amidships. The explosion ruptured the bottom planking and the HMAS Patricia Cam sank within a minute. The HMAS Patricia Cam was located at 11 19' South, 136 23' East headed for Wessel Island at the time of the attack.

The 734th Kokatai, was a Japanese floatplane squadron of the the Japanese Naval Air Arm. (Can anyone confirm what type of floatplane the 734th Kokotai used?)

Japanese Aichi E13A Float Plane (codenamed "Jake)".
One of a number of types of Japanese float planes.

Several crew members were sitting on the forward hatch at the time of the attack and were thrown down into the hold of the ship. They were almost immediately washed out of the hold again but the sudden inrush of water. One crew member went down with the ship. The two rescue boats on HMAS Patricia Cam were destroyed in the attack. A rescue raft remained intact and was used by the survivors.

The Japanese floatplane returned and dropped the second bomb amongst the survivors in the water, killing one more crew member and two of the natives. It then machine-gunned the survivors in the water for the next 30 mins 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.

Sub Lieutenant John Leggoe, was one of the survivors in the water who witnessed this event. He stated that the rear gunner in the Japanese aircraft inserted a new magazine into his machine gun and fired a few rounds at the survivors in the water. Leggoe siad that one of the crew of the aircraft jumped down onto the float and tried to beckon one of them to swim across to the aircraft. Noone took up his offer. The Japanese floatplane then taxied around to the other side of the group of survivors near Leggoe and Kentish. The aircraft approached Kentish, who was about 50 yards further away from the main group. The Japanese on the float pointed his revolver at Kentish and ordered him to swim over to the aircraft. There was a few minutes discussion before Kentish was hauled up onto the float of the aircraft. Kentish was given a drink from a flask and then ordered up into the aircraft. The floatplane then took off and disappeared to the north. This incident is possibly the only case of an Australian being taken prisoner by the Japanese in mainland Australian waters during WW2.

By now the injured were placed in the ships rescue raft with a few of the uninjured survivors. The rest were supporting themselves in the sea using improvised rafts. 2 naval ratings clinging to a hatch cover drifted away from the main bunch of survivors and were not seen again after darkness fell.

18 survivors landed on a small rocky islet about 2 miles west of Cumberland Strait at 3.30 am the next morning. Cumberland Strait is the strait between the two main Wessel Islands. A RANR Stoker and a native amongst them, died from their injuries shortly afterwards. The natives amongst them managed to light a fire to attract attention on the nearby mainland.

Plenty of fresh water was located but the only food was shellfish and some edible roots. They were discovered by some searching natives on 25 January 1943. The natives took, the then Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Alexander C. Meldrum RANR (S) to the Marchinbar Island by canoe to seek further assistance. Meldrum then completed a gruelling 56 kms walk to Cape Wessel to where a Coastwatcher was located. A signal was sent to Darwin regarding the incident.

In the mean time, Flight Sergeant Len Gairns, of 7 Squadron RAAF based at Horn Island was on an operational flight, known as the "P" "Milk Run" patrol on 27 January 1943, when he spotted a bearded white man waving furiously from the beach on the northern tip of Wessel Island. The man wrote a message in the sand to identify he was from the HMAS Patricia Cam. It read "Patcam bombed no food have water". F/Sgt Gairns then dropped a message, and the man then drew an arrow on the sand pointing to the rest of the survivors. 

The remaining survivors were dropped some food and first aid kits on the following day. They were all rescued by HMAS Kuru on 29 January 1943.

The survivors were:-

Stoker A.R. Bennet (Melbourne)
Able Seaman G. Durrington (Sydney)
Telegraphist B.R.L. Stevens (Sydney)
Steward A.R. Tanner (Melbourne)
Able Seaman D.D. Brun (Adelaide)
Stoker G.W. Williams (Melbourne)
Ordinary Seaman D. Murray (Mackay, QLD)
Sub-Lieutenant J. Leggoe (WA)
Cook J.R. Jankins (Melbourne)
Lieutenant A.C. Meldrum (Sydney)
Petty Officer H.G. Challinder (Hobart)
Able Seaman A.R. White (Perth)
Engine Room Artificer J.D. McRimmie (Launceston)


Photo: via Des Kennedy BH RSL Hon Sec

The survivors of the attack on HMAS Patricia Cam

Some of the dead were as follows:-

Ordinary Seaman Andrew Alexander Johnston (Malanda, QLD)
Engine Room Artificer 4th Class William Robson Moffitt (Corowa, NSW)
Able Seaman Edward David Nobes (Camden, SA)
Ordinary Seaman Neil Gray Penglase (Colonel Light Gardens, SA)

Many years later it was discovered that the Reverend Kentish was subsequently executed by the Japanese.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank Ric D.T. Wilson and Des Kennedy for their assistance with this home page.

 

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 Peter Dunn 2003

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This page first produced 17 September 2003

This page last updated 03 December 2006