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Overboard: astonishing survival story

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A DREADED CRY, which all sailors hope and trust that they never hear. However, it does happen and when it does, all crew members try their hardest to help and hopefully save their shipmate. It happened aboard HMAS Warramunga during the invasion of the Philippines, but no cry was heard.

It was shortly after the bombardments of Leyte, in the early hours of the morning of the 25th November 1944. Warramunga was patrolling off the island of Samar, the seas were fairly calm with intermittent tropical rain.

Able Seaman Jim Hunt was to go on watch at 0400 but shortly before that he was overboard. No one heard his cry and when he did not report to his cruising watch station on ‘X’ gun, the other members thought that he had failed to wake up and was still in his hammock. When dawn action stations were called and he still did not appear, checks were made and he was reported missing.

The Captain, John Alliston, ordered a full search of the ship. This was done from stern to stern and even hatches and compartments that were padlocked were opened but there was no sign of him. At 0800 Alliston reported to the squadron commander that one, S8125 Able Seaman J.R. Hunt, was missing presumed lost overboard. Warramunga left the area for Manus. The following is Jim Hunt’s record of the event.

‘About 0330 on the morning of the 25th November 1944, I went amidships, on the iron deck before going on the morning watch on ‘X’ gun. I had stopped on the way at the galley and grabbed a mug of ‘kai’. The morning was hot, steamy and raining off and on. As we were on patrol our guardrails were down. I was wearing only my shorts and sandshoes and sat down on a bollard to cool off in the light breeze. After finishing my drink I put the mug on the deck, sat for a while longer, then stood up. On bending down to pick up the mug I slipped, falling backwards over the side. I called out but was not heard. The ship was moving fairly fast and it was not long before she was out of sight. Two other destroyers, also on patrol and American, passed close by but my shouting was not heard.

Just after 1400 on the same day, the USS Mugford (a four stacker) approached on an anti-submarine patrol in the Dingat Strait. They were on lookout for the crew of an ML lost that morning. I called out, they heard my cry, circled and dropped a scrambling net over the side. I swam to it and climbed aboard. I was taken to their sick bay, my identity disc checked, given a drink, had a shower and fell asleep on the bunk of the sick bay.

After treatment next day for sunburn, exposure, swollen eyes and ulcers on my legs, I was given clothing and a spare bunk in the CPO’s mess. I was allocated an action station with the fire control crews. It had been estimated that I had drifted some 20 miles from where I had gone overboard. As most of the Australian squadron had left the Leyte area I was allowed to stay aboard the Mugford which became the lead ship as ‘Captain D’ for a new landing at Ormoc Bay together with 50 LCIs.

The landing was without much opposition. As we started to retire we were attacked by a large number of Japanese aircraft. Mugford had in tow an LCI, which had been damaged and she made an easy target for the kamikazes. One plane dropped its bombs and then hurtled towards the ship, striking it at deck level and into a boiler room stack, killing the gun’s crew of a multiple .50 gun. It also caused fires in the boiler and engine rooms, which resulted in several ratings being killed.

I assisted in pulling the plane over the side, helped put out the fires and gave assistance in the sick bay where there were 20 seriously burnt crew members. Mugford was towed back to Leyte, temporarily repaired and after two days was ordered back to the US. I was transferred to the only ship at Leyte with Australians aboard and ordered to wait for the return of Warramunga.

The ship was the RFA Bishopdale, from which Warramunga had fuelled many times. On board were 5 Australian DEMS Gunners. I was allocated to assist them on the 3 inch HA Gun. On watch two weeks later, with the USS Boise alongside taking on fuel, an undetected kamikaze dived out of the sky towards the Boise, turned and hit the bridge of the Bishopdale, smashing through an empty fuel tank, then through the 1••• inch steel hull. It was then that the torpedo it was carrying exploded, blowing a hole into the hull about 30 feet by 30 feet. One of the Australians was on the bridge at the time and was killed as well as 4 Indian seamen. Nine Americans on the foredeck of the Boise were also killed. It happened so quickly that not one shot was fired by any ship in Leyte.

The Bishopdale continued to fuel ships in the harbour until her remaining tanks were empty which was about three weeks. After repairs to her bridge and trimming ship she was ordered to Brisbane. I stayed with her until that port was reached where I was taken to HMAS Morton and a full report was given by me to Naval Intelligence officers. I was shown a commendation report from the captain of the Mugford for my efforts on his ship during the action off the Philippines. I was then sent to Penguin at Sydney where after further treatment for my skin and eye problems I commenced training as a hydrographic surveyor’.

Warramunga had received a signal when she arrived at Manus that Able Seaman Hunt had been picked up by the Mugford and was alive and well.

After the war Jim went back into the workforce. He recently retired from Alcan Australia Ltd., where he was one of the Directors of that company. He had spent a considerable time working for them in New Zealand and the near eastern countries. During the years of 1967/68 he was President of the Rose Bay RSL Club.

Article by Sam Whyte first published in the December 1987 edition of the Naval Historical Review and republished in the December 2018 edition of Call The Hands which can be accessed here.

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