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Ronald Vickress

Ronald Vickress

Visual Signalman, Royal Australian Navy (RAN)

“When the time came in, you pitched in with the rest of them. It was no great heroics.”


In most years a trip into Sydney city in the month of March meant you were off to the Easter Show.

For the 17 year old Ronald Vickress, his trip to the city in 1943 meant much more than collecting sample bags and watching the woodchopping. From 1942 to 1946 the Easter Show was on hold while another life-changing drama unfolded, the Second World War. At the Showground recruitment centre there Ron undertook a medical examination and was now enlisted in the services.

“You did it because your mates had signed up, and my dad had been veteran of World War I.”


Ron had signed up for the Navy and was sent to Flinders Naval Depot in Victoria to train as a Visual Signalman. For five months the young recruits practiced their Morse code, semaphore and studied the flag signals of the Australian, US and the British navies. Their drills consisted of marching up and down in rows on the parade ground pretending to be ships. If their signals were not correct, the ‘ships’ would bump into each other. Best not to let that actually happen at sea.

Ron found it exciting and welcomed learning something new and was soon on a train to Townsville to join his ship. It was a six-day trip in which he had plenty of time to reflect on his lack of actual sailing experience, never having been to sea.

HMAS Pirie was a corvette-series minesweeper with anti-submarine sonar and anti-aircraft capabilities. It was now August 1943 and he would be with this ship for the next two and a half years.

“The first week or so you were sea sick. There were lots of young blokes like yourself. You told yourself, this is what I signed up for, and so you got on with it, no complaining.”

Well, there were a few complaints, mainly about the food and the shortage of sleep. He and the two other signalmen were on around-the-clock watches, fours hours on, eight hours off.

“My action station was on the bridge on the phone, controlling depth charges, but I was never sure if there was a submarine, even though I dropped a few.”

Serving on the Pirie was mostly a slow tense affair of providing an escort for other ships and making sure the course was clear of submarines and mines.

“There weren’t too many times when we were afraid but mine-sweeping was a bit ticklish because mines didn’t always do what they should.”

The Pirie was caught in air raids while patrolling around Port Moresby with the signals between ships flashing “red alert” but the bombs were aimed at the shore, not the ships.

Ron vividly remembers being in Tokyo Harbour on 2 September 1945, moored alongside the USS Missouri for the official signing of the Japanese Surrender by Emperor Hirohito. Later, the Pirie’s crew witnessed newly released Australian POWs on the deck of the British aircraft carrier HMS Speaker. Their rags had been replaced by naval uniforms and Ron and his crew sang Waltzing Matilda to them as they passed by. 


Ron Vickress and some of the Pirie crew

The Pirie had a complement of 85, 60 of whom were cramped into the small space of the fo’c’sle - or mess deck - like a large family.

“We were always teasing each other. We were mostly volunteers aged 19 to 20 and the oldest crew were only in their 40s.”

 At sea for long periods, there was no time off. Ron would do his eight hours of signalling duty then there were other tasks like mess duty, maintaining equipment and even pumping water.

On the trip to Tokyo, they’d departed Sydney on 20 June 1945 and Ron didn’t set foot on land - including the five days in Japan - until reaching Hong Kong on 18 September.

The news of the end of the Pacific conflict had been received with relief but there was no celebration.

“We knew we were still sailing among floating mines and knew there were Japanese who didn’t know the war was over or who wouldn’t follow orders. Even the American cruiser that had transported the atomic bomb was sunk by the Japanese on its way back to San Diego.”

In contrast, the end of the war in Europe back in May had been greeted with the usual nautical call to “Splice the main brace” which meant they were allowed a tot of rum - in this case from a barrel supplied by a nearby British ship.

At that stage they were escorting an oil tanker off the Philippines. When told of the news, the tanker’s crew were particularly nonchalant. “All we got in response was a wave of the arm. No one had time for celebration.”

As for dietary matters, there was fresh food if they were near shore and ports. Out at sea it was a different matter.

“Once we went for months having breakfasts of tinned herrings and bread and tea. We had to make our own water as well. We didn’t get fresh fruit often but then a supply ship pulled alongside and I remember getting an apple. I made an occasion of it and ate it sitting on my own on the fo’c’s’le.” 


Ron and his mates on the mess deck

Ron returned to Brsibane on the Pirie, and then caught the train to Sydney. In neither place was there any fanfare to celebrate the ship and crew’s return. Back in Sydney Ron was assigned to a signal depot, and continued to serve until his discharge on 18 June 1946. Ten days later he celebrated his 21st birthday.

Signalman Vickress later studied at university on a scholarship, a service ‘warrant’, and then worked as a teacher. He also married, had three children, and eventually wrote a number of books and plays based around his experiences at sea.

Ron still feels a strong bond with the Pirie crew who now number only seven and he still writes and distributes a newsletter among the group.