JOHN Hannay was well below the waterline, in the bowels of HMAS Voyager when it was struck by HMAS Melbourne in February 1964.
He escaped into the night before the destroyer sank taking 81 lives with it in what became Australia’s worst naval disaster.
Approaching two years as a marine engineer – a stoker, as they called him – he was on watch in B engine room at the time of the collision. He was 20 years old.
Only seconds after a collision warning was piped through the ship, the vessel lurched before Mr Hannay had a chance to grab a hold.
“The ship rocked and I was thrown against the catwalk above the diesel generator,” he said.
“As the aft end of the ship rolled back upright and equipment stopped falling, there was silence.
“My first thought was ‘What had we hit?’ We had a submarine with us and I thought we might have hit that.
“I went up top and everything forward of the torpedo tubes was gone,” he said.
He was ordered back below decks to start the generator to keep power going.
“Once we got them going we got out of there.
“I remember coming up and being told to take my boots off and swim to a lifeboat.
“From there we boarded HMAS Melbourne,” he said.
Hours later, Mr Hannay gathered with what remained of his shipmates on Melbourne’s flight deck to watch HMAS Voyager slip beneath the sea.
By dawn on Tuesday, February 11 there was little evidence the Voyager had been there.
“We had been kept inside when we were taken aboard the Melbourne. They let us out to watch the Voyager’s aft section sink. We didn’t know how many people we had lost.
“I can’t remember what I was thinking.
“Some of those guys on Voyager were in the same intake as me. They were more than just mates,” he said.
Now as the 50th anniversary of the disaster approaches Mr Hannay is preparing himself to board HMAS Choules for a commemorative ceremony at the collision site off Jervis Bay.
Like so many of the survivors his battle with the aftermath has plagued him since that night. Given just a week off to get over it, he gets by with the support of family and friends.
Work for Mr Hannay in the years following the crash has always been outdoors – he is no longer able to stand being in confined spaces.
“With the anniversary coming up I’m a bit shaken, a bit nervous at seeing some of my old shipmates.”
Mr Hannay and his wife Brenda started the HMAS Voyager Survivors Association in 1994 to offer support to the survivors and their families.
“We get there, just taking one day at a time.”