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Unveiling of the Roll of Honour for Merchant Seamen, Canberra, Saturday, 17 October 1998: address.



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ADDRESS BY SIR WILLIAM DEANE

GOVERNOR-GENERAL OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA

ON THE OCCASION OF THE UNVEILING OF

THE ROLL OF HONOUR FOR MERCHANT SEAMEN

CANBERRA

SATURDAY, 17 OCTOBER 1998

We are gathered today to pay national honour to the memory and the sacrifice of the Australian Merchant Seamen who died whilst manning ships during the first and second World Wars. On the Roll of Honour which is being unveiled there are the names of 181 of our Merchant seamen who died during World War I and the names of a further 494 who died during World War II. We all know, however, that there are others whose names are unknown to us. They all died in our nation’s cause. We honour the memory and the sacrifice of them all.

The service of our Merchant seamen in those two World Wars commenced with our country’s involvement in the first of them. Thus, on this very day 84 years ago, Australian Merchant seamen were serving in the first Australian troop ships sailing from New South Wales and Victoria to Albany in Western Australia. The convoy later sailed

for Egypt after Turkey entered the War. On board were some of the first ANZACs who landed at Gallipoli.

I have recently been privileged to read a briefing paper prepared by Commodore Paul Berger. It tells of the many roles played by our Merchant seamen and of the many regions and ships in and on which they served and died during those two Wars. The story is a magnificent one. It is a story of the transportation of troops, often young and inexperienced, on the way to battle. And of the carriage of wounded veterans, prematurely aged by injury, suffering and loss, home from the battlefield. Of the supply of the weapons of war so that soldiers could fight. And of the delivery of food so that soldiers and civilians could eat. It encompassed participation in great mass convoys. Australian Merchant Seamen served, for example, in the ships involved in the evacuations from Dunkirk, from Greece and from Crete. And they also served in the grim Artie convoys taking supplies to Russia and in the desperately dangerous convoys attempting to relieve a besieged Malta. And in the North African landings. And there is also service in small vessels in so many places and in so many ways.

The constant companion of our Merchant mariners during those two World Wars was danger. The dreadful danger of the unseen U-Boats. The ever-present threat of enemy warships either disclosed or disguised as merchant vessels. The lurking potential of the mines. And, in the Second World War, the deadly menace of bombing from the air.

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A common companion was knowledge of vulnerability and of the absence of effective defence.

Too often, the only answer to those dangers and that knowledge was courage and, as is our Australian way, mateship and humour. And all too often the outcome of those dangers and vulnerability was the ultimate sacrifice of death in our nation’s cause ... the tragedy of lives unlived and unfulfilled; of dreams unrealised; of children of the next generation who would never be bom.

The courage of a man or woman under observation by others is always an inspiration: to those others at the time and, subsequently, when stories of such courage are told and retold. But there is something particularly special and tme about the courage of a man or woman on his or her own - away from the observation of war correspondents and historians and even of his or her fellows. Many of our Merchant seamen who died did so unseen. In the isolation of a flooded hold. In the black darkness of the ocean on a starless night. And, as I said at the outset of these remarks, the sacrifice of some, indeed of many, remains unrecorded and unknown even today.

All those who died gave all that they had to give. Those who died unknown and unacknowledged have also been deprived of the personal recognition and honour which were their due. We owe it to them, as well as to those whose names we know, to remember and honour their sacrifice today as the Roll of Honour, set on either side of Dennis Adams’ magnificent bronze memorial “Survivors”, is unveiled and in the future whenever we pause here to remember our Merchant seamen who died during the two World Wars.

I sincerely thank and congratulate Mr Adams for his outstanding achievement. And, as Governor-General, and speaking for all Australians, I congratulate and thank The Chairman, the Director the Council and the staff of the War Memorial, all the Merchant Navy and related Associations, the Company of Master Mariners of which I am Master, all their members and all those others who have worked so tirelessly and well to bring this Memorial and Roll of Honour to completion.

There is a belief in many of our Australian indigenous cultures that a person’s spirit will only be released when he or she has been accorded the traditional rites of his or her people. Here today, at our Australian War Memorial, we are honouring with our national traditional rites all those Merchant seamen who died in those two World Wars. Wherever their bodies may lie, we call their spirits home - every one of the 675 whose names are recorded here and every one of those whose names we do not know.

For they are part of our identity. They are part of our heritage. They, their deeds, their honour and their memory are part of us. Their spirit lingers lightly with that of the Unknown Soldier buried in the Hall of Memory. Here, at the true heart of the nation they loved.

May they rest with God.