Wooden Name Board : Liberty Ship, SS Robert J Walker

Place Oceans: Pacific Ocean, South West Pacific
Accession Number REL42365
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Heraldry
Physical description Wood
Maker Unknown
Place made United States of America: Washington State
Date made c 1943
Conflict Second World War, 1939-1945

Wooden name board from the Liberty Ship, Robert J Walker. Some of the board is missing, it appears to have been sawn off, leaving only 'ROBERT J. WA'. The edging is chamfered with some of the original cream paint in the recessed lettering still visible. There are several holes along the board which appear to have been used to attach it to the railing near the bridge.

History / Summary

This damaged wooden name board was found on the beach at Bherwerre Beach, near Sussex Inlet NSW after the Liberty ship SS Robert J Walker was sunk in December 1944.

The Robert J Walker, hull number 0629, was built by the Oregon Ship Building Corporation, United States of America and was launched on the 2nd February 1943. It was on route from Calcutta to Sydney via Fremantle and approximately 165 miles south of Sydney, near Moruya NSW, when it was attacked by the long range German Type IXD2 Unterseeboot (U-boat) U-862 in the late afternoon of 24 December 1944.

The U-Boat Commander, Heinrich Timm, was a highly experienced and decorated pre-war sailor and wartime submariner who had fought in the Arctic and Baltic seas. Timm opened fire with a torpedo, hitting the starboard side of the Liberty ship. The torpedo blew off the rudder, damaging the steering gear and creating a large hole in the hull of the ship. The Robert J Walker became un-manoeuvrable and was heading south when Timm fired a second torpedo around 6.20pm.

In a remarkable incident, this second torpedo was successfully spotted by the crew of the Liberty ship who destroyed it with one of their 20 mm Oerlikon guns. The ship's crew then threw smoke floats overboard, screening the ship for about forty five minutes.

A third torpedo was fired at about 8pm which avoided the Liberty ship's gun fire. The torpedo caused another large hole in the starboard side and one on the port side as well as throwing oil and water over the ship. The ship's complement of sixty-nine, including one civilian, abandoned ship in lift boats and rafts. Two crewmen were lost before they were rescued twenty four hours later by the Royal Australian Navy destroyer HMAS Quickmatch and landed at Sydney.

The Robert J Walker eventually sank early in the morning of Boxing Day 1944. Timm fired a total of five torpedos in his attack, becoming the only U-Boat to successfully sink an Allied ship in the Pacific.

The Royal Australian Air Force and Navy conducted a wide ranging series of naval and air search and destroy missions along a large part of the East Coast of Australia as a response to this attack. One of the patrolling Beaufort bombers sent to search for the U-862, A9-642 of No.32 Squadron RAAF, crashed during a severe thunderstorm at sea near Brisbane killing all four members of the crew on 27 December 1944. A portrait of one of the crewmen, Allan Gordon Munro of Coonamble NSW, is held in the National Collection as P0839.001.

To avoid the expected hunt for him on the east coast of Australia Timm continued his patrol eastwards to New Zealand, where he was un-successful in attacking any other Allied shipping. While heading back to the Australian east coast he was unexpectedly recalled back to the combined German-Japanese naval base of Jakarta. Moving via the Southern Ocean, Timm sank another American Liberty ship south west of Fremantle in January 1945, the USS Peter Sylvester, with its cargo of war supplies and live mules for the US Army in Burma.

The U-862 arrived at Jakarta in January 1945. With the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945 the submarine was handed over to the Imperial Japanese, who renamed it I-502. Although the Japanese were trained by the German crew on how to operate the U-boat they did not use it operationally before it was in turn surrendered to the Allies in August 1945 at the Singapore Naval base. Several months after the war had concluded the Royal Navy scuttled the U-boat in February 1946 in the Straits of Malacca.

The cruise of the U-862 to Australia and New Zealand is historically significant as it was the only time during the Second World War that the Nazis operated U-boats in Australian waters.