The last night Robyn's mother ever saw Duncan was the night of the Japanese midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour at the end of May.
“He left from there and she didn’t ever see him again,” Robyn said. “Before that, I don’t know what the timing was, she got a telegram saying be at Mascot Airport at whatever time it was, and a group of the wives had been selected to go and see them when they were in Melbourne. She said she was sure the plane they flew on was put together with sticky tape and it was the most nerve wracking flight of her life.”
Duncan was aboard HMAS Canberra when it came under heavy Japanese attack from seven cruisers and a destroyer just before 2 am on 9 August while supporting US Marines near Savo Island in the Pacific. As the lead ship, Canberra received the full force of the Japanese barrage. The ship was hit 24 times in less than two minutes, and 84 of her crew were killed, including Captain Frank E. Getting, who was mortally wounded in the battle and died later.
In his account of Canberra’s loss, Stoker John Oliver Rosynski describes the Japanese ships approaching Canberra and the chaos that ensued, recounting how Getting stood on the bridge, slowly and calmly giving orders.
“It seems some power, some unknown devil steered the old ‘Canberra’ through thick and thin for nearly three years, then it let us have it all at once,” he later wrote. “She never had a chance.”
Below decks, as enemy shells exploded, damage control crews vainly fought the fires and the ship’s medical parties were forced to tend their charges in darkness. Insufferable heat caused the sickbay to be evacuated as the order came to prepare to abandon ship and the wounded lay in pouring rain, covered as much as possible by coats and blankets.
“I spoke to the Captain but he refused any attention at all,” the surgeon later wrote. “He told me to look after the others.”
In the darkness and confusion, the attackers wreaked havoc before withdrawing, and Duncan was one of the many reported missing, presumed dead as the ship was abandoned. The next day, USS Selfridge fired 263 5-inch shells and four torpedoes into Canberra. But the stubborn Canberra refused to sink until a torpedo fired by the USS Ellet administered the final blow. Canberra sank at about 8 am on 9 August 1942.
The US Navy Baltimore Class cruiser USS Canberra was later named in her honour, the only American warship named for a foreign warship or a foreign capital city.
Duncan’s death was officially confirmed in March 1943. He was just 26 years old. A couple of the survivors kept in touch with Duncan’s parents for the rest of their lives and the priest on the ship, Father Bill Evans, visited Duncan’s widow in hospital.
“He had my father’s overcoat, which had been put over one of the survivors in the lifeboat,” Robyn said. “And I remember her saying to me, ‘It even had a dirty handkerchief in it.’”
Father Evans, who later built a church as a memorial to the victims, became a life-long friend, ministering over Robyn's first marriage ceremony in the 1960s.
The captain’s widow also visited after the disaster, giving Robyn's mother a special Bunnykins china bowl for her baby that she treasured until the day she died in 1990. When Robyn visited her mother just a few months before she died, she hoped to find out more about the Canberra and her father, but it was still far too painful for her mother to talk about.
“She was lying there and I said, ‘Tell me about my dad. What sort of a guy was he?’ And she said, ‘Robyn, he was not a guy.’ And the shutter came down and she couldn’t talk,” Robyn said.
“I thought that would have been a really good time to find out, but nope, she couldn’t do it … I’ve got a real gap in my life. And I often think, what would my life have been like if my father hadn’t died.”