IT was around sunset on February 10, 1964. The destroyer HMAS Voyager was performing manoeuvres with the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne about 33 kilometres southeast of Jervis Bay.
Able Seaman John ‘Lofty’ Duncan was in Voyager’s starboard side supply office in the bow when he heard, “Hands to collision station,” pipe through the ship.
“What was that pipe?” he asked Leading Seaman Sam Richardson.
“Damned if I know.”
Suddenly, a very loud but dull “clung” reverberated through the hull and Voyager heeled to starboard. The lights went out, flickered on, then went out again, this time for good.
Able Seaman Duncan said, “Let’s get out of here.”
At the time, Duncan could not have known that HMAS Voyager had just been sliced in two by HMAS Melbourne. Now, nearly 50 years later, and after two Royal Commissions – the first time in Australia that a single incident has been so blessed – the events leading up to the collision still have not been resolved to the satisfaction of all participants.
It was Australia’s biggest peacetime disaster for the military; 82 people were killed.
Duncan was 20 at the time, and had been serving on HMAS Voyager for two months. When he got the posting he was thrilled; the destroyer was considered one of the most beautiful and exciting ships in the Royal Australian Navy.
When a friend asked Duncan where he had been posted, he told him he was going to a fighting ship. “Fighting to stay afloat,” Duncan quipped.
In the next few seconds after the collision, he managed to scramble from the supply store, grabbing an emergency lantern on the way. He automatically started climbing the ladder towards the weather decks. With some surprise he realised he was climbing down instead of up.
Just at that moment he heard Leading Hand Keith Williams shout out, “Lofty! Bring the light over here!”
Williams had been unsuccessfully searching for an escape scuttle using matches. With the emergency lantern they discovered the scuttle and were joined by other sailors. Duncan noticed the air was getting thin.
“I hope I die game,” he thought.
The hatch to the scuttle was screwed tight and would not budge. They tried opening it with a marlinspike but with no more luck. Then someone found a long steel bar.
“That finally cracked the torque, it spun and the hatch opened – up instead of down.”
Twelve men scrambled out and found themselves standing pretty well upright on the port hull of the Voyager.
“I dived into the water and dog-paddled to keep my mouth out of all the oil floating on the surface. When I’d done 60 feet I stopped and turned around and saw the bow section slowly bob and then sink beneath the waves.”
It was another one-and-a-half hours before he and the others were finally rescued by boat and taken to HMAS Melbourne.
Although he spent another six years in the navy, including duty on another destroyer HMAS Hobart when it was accidentally fired upon by an American fighter during the war in Vietnam, he became hyper-cautious.
“I carried a wheel spanner with me, especially if I was going below the water line.”
Duncan said he was also in denial.
“I wouldn’t tell anyone I was on the Voyager when it went down. It wasn’t until 20 years later at a reunion for survivors that I realised we all shared the same feelings.
“From that point on I was no longer in denial, and I could talk about my experiences.”
John Duncan got out of the navy in 1970. He had a few jobs in Brisbane and Sydney before finding employment with the University of Wollongong as a purchasing officer. He retired from full-time work in 1996 and now lives in Bomaderry.
“I love spending time with my grandkids, and a bit of dancing now and then,” he said.