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Drowned Man: HMAS Australia and a World War II murder mystery

3 September 2016 277 views No Comment

The Drowned Man: A True Story of Life, Death and Murder on HMAS Australia
By Brendan James Murray
Echo Publishing, 384pp, $32.95

One of the highlights of Mike Carlton’s magnificent naval history ‘Flagship’, which I recently reviewed in these pages, is its exploration of the murder of a young, homosexual crew member that took place on board HMAS Australia in March 1942. Now an entire book, although not quite as fine a work as Carlton’s, has been written on the subject.

In many ways a 70-year-old naval mystery, the details of which have never properly come to light, ‘The Drowned Man’ by Brendan James Murray focuses on what he terms “a true story of life, death and murder on HMAS Australia.

This quirky and often confronting book draws on extensive interviews with officers and men from the naval cruiser, along with their families and friends. For understandable reasons, some of those men and women who shared their previously suppressed stories with the author asked not to be named. Interviewees also included some American veterans. In all cases, Murray, whose grandfather Richard Radcliffe had briefly served on HMAS Australia, has honoured their request for anonymity.

‘The Drowned Man’ is a quest to find out what happened in the lower decks of the vessel and how the murder case was dealt with on board the ship and beyond, often in the face of a wall of silence and obfuscation. In so doing, Murray reveals some horrific truths about the violence of naval life during wartime.

As he claims, previous silences and dissemblings have often shrouded our understanding of war, and especially about the confined and cluttered all-male life at sea during World War II. As one surviving crew member to whom Murray spoke poignantly puts it, “I want to pass it [the information] on to the next generation. What fighting at sea was like. What it was really like. As it happens, this witness to events on board HMAS Australia later suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Murray is at his weakest when, in the prologue, he melodramatically attempts to imagine what it felt like for stoker John Riley, 19, to be stabbed repeatedly by his two 24-year-old shipmates Albert Gordon and Edward Elias, whom he was probably threatening to blackmail.

Murray is at his strongest when he painstakingly examines the realities of naval combat and evokes life on board a ship of more than 800 men. In particular he captures the hot, cramped and dangerous setting of the boiler and engine room in which Riley, Gordon and Elias all worked together. Even though overwritten and replete with made-up dialogue, ‘The Drowned Man’ is something of a page-turner.

As Murray reveals, leading stoker Gordon and stoker Elias were well-established sexual companions on board a ship whose commander, Wilfred Harrington, was keen to wipe out all whispers and traces of homosexuality.

After a lengthy court martial conducted on board sentenced Gordon and Elias to death, King George VI exercised clemency, reducing their punishment to life imprisonment. But as a result of numerous appeals the two were released in September 1950 after spending 8½ years behind bars. Thereafter the pair more or less vanished from public sight.

Tantalisingly Murray also reveals that four months before the death of Riley, who was buried at sea, another homosexual stoker, Robert George Blackburn, aged 25 and born in Edgecliff in Sydney, had most likely been attacked by shipmates and thrown overboard.

To my mind, Murray supplies convincing evidence that Blackburn was subject to foul play and group attack. But unlike the case of Riley, this November 1941 event was simply written off as lost at sea; drowned. Hence the title of this often fascinating book.

As well as investigating the deaths of Riley and Blackburn, Murray details a number of suicides and other examples of abuse on board the ship. He also graphically explores what it was like for long-time crew member Des Shinkfield to be the only teetotaller on board when the ship was repeatedly subject to kamikaze attacks.

Fittingly, ‘The Drowned Man’ is dedicated to the men who died while serving aboard HMAS Australia. Perhaps more importantly, this well researched and clearly illustrated book is also written in memory of the thousands of Australians in the army, navy and air force who, as the author deftly puts it, “served in silence during the Second World War, and those who continue to do so today.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, September 3-4, 2016 review, Books, p 20-21.

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