Remembering Voyager - 50 years on

On Monday, flowers and rosemary leaves were sprinkled onto the waves of Jervis Bay in the place where, a kilometre below, the wreck of the HMAS Voyager rests.

Around 50 survivors and another 200 family members were aboard HMAS Choules to commemorate the 50th anniversary of what has become known as the Voyager disaster.

It was the country’s worst naval peacetime tragedy, and half a century later, survivors and their families still struggle with its aftermath.

On a calm evening just before 9pm on February 10, 1964, the HMAS Melbourne sliced through the HMAS Voyager during naval exercises 20 nautical miles offshore, killing 82 people.

Those who survived made it to life rafts, or held onto anything that could keep them afloat in the oil filled water, until they were picked up by rescuers.

New recruit, seventeen-year-old Len Price, was getting ready to go to bed when the chilling call of “hands to collision stations” piped through the ship.

In a matter of minutes he was to lose many good mates and embark on a life haunted by nightmares.

 Mr Price said while he believes he has buried most of his “demons”, the sound of tearing metal will never leave him.

“It’s embedded in my mind. It will never go away.  It still gets to me – even today,” Mr Price said.

Peter Rogers and two of his three sisters were aboard HMAS Choules on Monday too, to remember their father Buck who is regarded as one of the great heroes of Voyager.

Trapped with others in the mess hall, Buck Rogers doggedly helped people to safety, man by man, knowing he would not escape himself.

When it was clear that time had run out, he led the remaining men in prayer as the ship went down.

On that same night, miles away in Bombala, seventeen-year-old Peter was playing basketball. 

At five minutes to nine a ball smashed into the new watch his father had given him for Christmas, stopping it at the exact time of the collision.

Part of the Voyager story, which has been the subject of two Royal Commissions, is residual anger at how the survivors were treated.

In the days before anyone had heard of post-traumatic stress, the men were given no counselling and just one week’s leave. Many of them were sent straight back out to sea.

President of the Voyager Survivors’ Association Bluey Ducker said after he left the navy he cut off all ties with old friends, burned his uniform and then “bottled everything up” for 27 years.

But now, like many survivors he finds solace in the company of others who were there on that night.

Mr Ducker said he spent years feeling guilt that two of his mates had invited him to play Tombala in the mess, but he refused because he was tired. His mates didn’t survive.

Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs

He assured the survivors that what happened would never be forgotten.

For Bluey Ducker, returning to the site of the collision brought back vivid memories of that fateful night.

“Out here today, I’m still that 17-year-old,” he said.

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