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Monday, March 4, 2024

WWII veteran’s precious donation

Issued with an armband, steel helmet and gas mask, 16-year-old air-raid warden Ron Vickress was called on duty the night of May 31, 1942, when three Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour.

One was entangled in anti-submarine nets, another fired at USS Chicago but missed, destroying HMAS Kuttabul, and the third was damaged by allied fire.

“My air raid precautions duty post wasn’t near the harbour, but four days later I saw the remains of one submarine lifted out of the water and plonked down onto the lawn of the Botanic Gardens in Farm Cove,” he said.

This initial volunteer service led him to train as a visual signalman in 1943, after which he spent two and a half years on HMAS Pirie, a corvette-series minesweeper with anti-submarine sonar.

Mr Vickress (pictured) has collected historic documents related to Pirie in the years since, and recently donated these to Navy’s Sea Power Centre in Canberra.

“There are a lot of local newsletters from the HMAS Pirie association that has been running since 1985,” he said.

The newsletters were written to all the ex-shipmates, but over time, they were sent to just the widows, sons and daughters.

There are also the proceedings of an enquiry into the so-called mutiny on Pirie in 1943, where 45 sailors refused to report for duty following grievances with the commanding officer, who was later replaced.

Looking back at his path to embarking in Pirie, Mr Vickress said he never felt apprehension during his five months of training at Flinders Naval Depot in Victoria.

“It was a shock, when after we took the oath of allegiance to King George VI, we had to mail out a will,” he said.

Travelling at eight knots, Pirie used a wire to cut mine chains and bring them to the surface.

“We sunk them with rifle fire, filled them with holes, enough so that they would sink. Sometimes, rarely, we would hit the right spot and they would blow up,” he said.

“The gunnery officer got a Bren gun from somewhere. We were sweeping about a dozen mines at a time. I think we swept over 500.”

Mr Vickress saw the Japanese surrender ceremony through binoculars, and the next day the crew sang Waltzing Matilda to newly released prisoners of war as they passed by.

“They had their rags replaced with naval uniforms. We were confused at first, then we realised they were POWs,” he said.

“Hundreds of aircraft – land-based and also ship – flew over for hours as a [show-of-force] gesture to the Japanese.”

His inspiration to volunteer came from his mates fighting in Kokoda and from his father, a WW1 veteran who joined the Volunteer Defence Corps – known at the time as the ‘dad’s army’.

“I did what was expected of me, having a father like that,” he said.

“I grew up seeing all these ex-servicemen. It was dreadful – a fella with no legs, fellas with plates in their heads.

“We had no great thought of being patriots or any of that rubbish, no heroes. We did what was expected of us and what we expected of ourselves.”

Mr Vickress went on to become a senior English and drama lecturer and is a prolific writer, with more than 40 published books, poems, novels and plays.

Among the books was Boys Time, which he wrote as a dedication to those who died in WW2 before the age of 18.

WW2 veteran Ron Vickress receives gifts from historian Petar Djokovic after donating his collection of historic documents related to HMAS Pirie.

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