Thursday 9 August 2012 by Marie Kesina. 8 comments
News, Personal Stories, Collection, Collection Highlights

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the loss of HMAS Canberra. On 9th August 1942, the cruiser came to a catastrophic end in the Pacific during the Battle of Savo Island. Captain Frank Edmund Getting was in command at the time. He had a long association with the Navy. His story, and that of HMAS Canberra, was uncovered whilst scanning the Reports of Proceedings for HMAS Canberra.  

Portrait of Captain Frank Edmund Getting RAN, Commander of HMAS Canberra. Portrait of Captain Frank Edmund Getting RAN, Commander of HMAS Canberra. 019436
In December, 1912, Getting entered the Royal Australian Naval College. According to routine six-monthly confidential reports submitted by Commanding Officers, Getting was rated highly amongst his superiors.  In December 1940, during his service aboard the armed merchant cruiser ship, Kanimbla, he was promoted to captain. In his report of March 1940, Admiral Percy Noble, writes,

Although this officer has only served with me for a short time, he has so favourably impressed me with his ability, keenness and power of command … He has a fine physique and a good manner and appearance. His whole heart seems to be in the Service and I am sure he will do very well.

Captain Getting took command of HMAS Canberra on Wednesday 17 June 1942. Less than two months later, both he and the Canberra found themselves supporting the American landings at Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Pacific. The objective: to capture the almost complete Japanese airfield at Lunga Point, safe-guarding American/Australian supply lines.

 The landing was successful. The airfield was captured and re-named “Henderson Field”.  Despite the loss, the Japanese launched air attacks, and within two hours sent a cruiser force for the Allies.

American ships USS Chicago, Bagley and Patterson alongside HMAS Australia and Canberra patrolled the area to the south of Savo Island. Rear Admirals Crutchley (in command of the combined forces of Australian and American cruisers and destroyers at Guadalcanal) and Turner, concluded that the force was proceeding onto Rekata Bay, where they may launch an attack. In the early hours of 9 August 1942, the Japanese force approached undetected. At 1.50pm a flare was seen dropping south-west of Savo Island. At 1.55pm Canberra was identified as one of the ships on fire.

Struck by two torpedoes on her starboard side and over twenty salvoes of 8-inch shellfire, Canberra lost power and the ship was listing. Many died or were seriously wounded during the attack. Survivors were later transferred to US Ships Patterson and Blue.

Canberra Sinking in the battle of Savo Island Canberra Sinking in the battle of Savo Island P00698.002
 In his account of Canberra’s loss, Stoker John Oliver Rosynski describes the Japanese ships approaching the Canberra and the chaos that ensued. He goes on further, recounting how Captain Getting stood on the bridge, slowly and calmly giving orders.

About ten minutes into the action, Surgeon Commander Downward arrived on the bridge. Captain Getting was seriously wounded and in need of medical attention. Downward states,

The Commander [J.A. Walsh] was standing on the port side of the bridge. The Gunnery Officer’s body was on the port side. I spoke to the Captain but he refused any attention at all. He told me to look after the others.

Captain Getting died on board the USS Barnett on passage to Noumea and was buried at sea on 9 August. Of the 819 of those serving on board, 193 were casualties. In the final paragraph of his account, Rosynski writes,

They say that memory dims, but I’m sure in after years come what may, I’ll always have a thought for that ship, even though she lies buried for all time deep in the mud and drifting sands of the Pacific. She will, in my mind at least, sail the gallant “Canberra”.

More information:

Gill, G Herman, Royal Australian Navy, 1939-1942, Australia in the war of 1939-1945, Series 2 (Navy), vol. 1, Canberra, 1957. Retrieved from: /collection/records/awmohww2/navy/vol2/awmohww2-navy-vol2-ch5.pdf

HMAS Canberra Reports of Proceedings June 1940 – June 1942, Australian War Memorial, AWM78 82/2. Retrieved from: /collection/records/awm78/82/

Papers of Rosynski, John Oliver (Stoker), Australian War Memorial, PR01715

GETTING F E [Officers (RAN) personal record - Frank Edmund Getting], National Archives of Australia, A3978 GETTING F E. Retrieved from: http://www.naa.gov.au

Comments

Roger Smith

My Dad served on HMAS Canberra, he loved that ship with a passion that was hard to believe, he survived the sinking at Savo Island, he maintained until his dying day that the Canberra was torpedoed by USS Chicago by accident. Although he went to the UK to pick up HMAS Shopshire and served out the remainder of the the war on her, it was the Canberra he loved.

Guy Dixon

As a corollary to HMAS Canberra United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wished to commemorate the Australian ship's loss in recognition of the valour displayed by the Australian cruiser HMAS Canberra during the Battle of Savo Island, wished to name a US ship in her honour: Pittsburgh was selected and renamed USS Canberra, the only US ship ever to be named after a foreign naval vessel or foreign capital. Australia Prime John Howard was presented with the bell of USS Canberra at the 60th anniversary of the Australia/US alliance on September 10, 2001, the day before the attack on the World Trade Centre, September 11. The poignancy of the two countries shared experience in war was not lost. PM John Howard was scheduled to address a joint meeting of Congress on September 12, he attended but did not address the House as it was debating the September 11 attacks, he did however unilaterally invoked the ANZUS Treaty, making Australian forces and facilities available to the US in the war against terrorism, the first country to do so, which earned him a standing ovation in Congress on September and strengthened the already strong ties between the two countries and in particular their militaries.

Miranda

Thanks Roger for brining out the real reason behind the loss of Canberra.

jason boyle

Roger, My grandfather was a petty officer stoker on the Canberra and went down with the ship. My dad and his brother were the only children of Redmond and they along with all their children attended the 70th anniversary commemorations in Iron Bottom Sound in the Solomon Islands. We too have grown up with the knowledge that the Canberra was torpedoed by the USS Chicago. The explosions knocked out power to the ship leaving it unable to fire its guns or move as the engines were disabled. This left it lit up by flares for the Japanese to target as mentioned in the article above. There can be nothing but the utmost praise for Matt Anderson and Garry List as well as all the personnel from the HMAS Gascoyne & HMAS Huon. It was a highly emotive ceremony and one that our families are extremely grateful was so well organised and the hospitality and reverence extended to all who died and to the descendants who made the trip to SI.

Martin Hadlow

I lived in Solomon Islands in the 1980s and was a member of the Guadalcanal 40th anniversary committee (1982). As part of the commemorations, which we called "Turning Point", the new HMAS Canberra (FFG 02, D33) came to Honiara. It was my honour to be aboard the vessel when it travelled to a point in Ironbottom Sound where the original HMAS Canberra had met its fate in 1942. A short service was held on-board, the Captain spoke about the 1942 'Battle of Savo Island' and wreaths were laid in the water. However, the most emotional moment in the ceremony came when the ashes of deceased HMAS Canberra crew members were also committed to the deep. The truth of whether or not the original HMAS Canberra was torpedoed in error by the USS Chicago (or the USS Bagley, as some contend) will probably never be known. In the chaos of battle, and especially in a night engagement when confusion reigned supreme, anything was possible. However, one matter is certain and that is that the mortally damaged HMAS Canberra was later sunk (on the orders of the Australian authorities), by two US destroyers. Listing heavily and still on fire, HMAS Canberra was heavily shelled by one vessel and, not succumbing to that barrage, the cruiser went to the bottom only when engaged by torpedoes fired from the second destroyer. Vale HMAS Canberra and its gallant crew.

Tim Lyon

It is impossible for the USS Chicago to have torpedoed HMS Canberra as the Chicago did not have any torpedo tubes. In fact, none of the US heavy cruisers at Guadalcanal carried any torpedo tubes or torpedoes. It is, however, certainly possible that the Canberra was accidently torpedoed by a US destroyer (the USS Bagley did fire four torpedoes during the battle).

Terry

My grandfather served on the HMAS Canberra in the engine room, he always said that the ship was torpedoed on the starboard side by friendly fire, as the Japanese fleet was on the port side. For an illuminating read, 'The Shame of Savo' supports that the torpedos may have been fired by USS Bagley.

Philip Mussared

My father served on HMAS Canberra and wounded at Savo Island. As children growing up in the 50s and 60s, we never understood his unwillingness to talk about the sinking. Later the reasons became obvious. The Shame of Savo and other scholarly reseach strongly supports the thesis that Canberra was the victim of "friendly fire". For the survivors, Savo was not something they could talk about with pride. However, most went on to distinguished service for another three years and certainly my father had the greatest pride and fondness for his subsequent posting on a destryer that was the first Australian ship into Tokyo Bay in 1945. Let's remember a fine ship and her crew.