Gerald Hewish, otherwise known as Gerry to his friends, was 18 when he enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy in 1940 and served until 1946.
As a new recruit, he was sent to the training depot in Victoria before qualifying as a supply officer managing logistics working largely on land naval bases in Darwin and Papua New Guinea during World War II. He also served on HMAS Melville, Arunta and Launceston.
Gerald Hewish, 2020
At 98 he says there are a lot of memories when he looks back on this period of his life, but there is one date he will never forget - 19 February, 1942.
Gerry was on HMAS Melville during the bombing of Darwin by aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy that killed 237 people and destroyed ships, buildings and essential services across the Northern Territory city. Six large vessels were sunk and another 14 were damaged. The MV Neptuna exploded at the wharf causing massive damage. The greatest loss of life occurred when the destroyer USS Peary sank killing 88 people.
Gerry was part of a Navy team responsible for recovering bodies and cleaning up after the attack.
“It’s not something I like to talk about because it was a difficult time. It was horrific. There was a lot of damage and you can never forget a moment like that. It took everyone by surprise and it impacted everyone who lived and worked in Darwin including those of us in the defence forces. I was lucky to have survived the attacks so I am grateful for that.”
The Japanese air raids over Darwin continued until 12 November 1943.
After 18 months in Darwin, he transferred to Madang on the north coast of PNG where he spent another year and a half. “By the time I arrived, the war had virtually passed through the region. I didn’t see much enemy action except for aircraft sorties (plane attacks),” Gerry recalls. “The Navy base was a secure environment. You had the same people around you all the time. There wasn’t much movement in personnel so you made lifelong friends. “In our down time we played a lot of cards, did crosswords, listened to the radio and, on the odd occasion, there was a concert where they did skits and sang a bit of music.” Gerry remembers Madang as a small place that was “hot and steamy”. “The tropics are not a place for an Aussie bloke from NSW. Unless you’re born into that climate it’s a challenge,” he explains.
Gerry joined the Navy because his father, George Frederick Hewish, was a naval officer. “He was English and joined the Royal English Navy at the age of 12 and then transferred to Australia. He fought in the World War I and World War II and spent his entire career in the Navy,” Gerry remembers. “We lived down at Garden Island on-and-off over the years so it was very much in our blood. Back then it was actually an island before they built a dry dock to join it to the mainland.
“I was dead keen to go to the Army but my father vetoed that and said ‘no bloody way’, so I had to sign up to the Navy there wasn’t really any other choice. My brother also signed up too.
“I am sure him he was proud of us but he was just one of those people who didn’t show much emotion.”
Gerry was in PNG when both the Victory in Europe and the Pacific were declared. “Grog wasn’t really available, so the celebrations meant kicking up your heels sober but it was a good feeling,” Gerry says.
In 1946, Gerry joined the Navy as a civilian and continued to work in the supply department working his way up to a senior position as Supply Manager before retiring at 58. “I wanted to work on a farm when I came back from the war, but nothing came up so my father said “I can get you a job while you’re waiting’ and that’s how I landed the job at Garden Island and I didn’t leave until I had hung up my boots,” he says. “The Navy was predominantly made up of civilians and a lot of them were ex-service men and women from the war effort. I was lucky because the Navy offered me stability and I had an enjoyable and successful career and made lots of friends.”
Gerry has five medals including the Australian Service Medal 1939-45, Pacific Star, the 1939-45 Star, Defence Medal and Australian Service Medal.
Gerald's WWII medals