One of the most extraordinary events of World War 2 was the forced abduction of a Australian clergyman at gunpoint, and his subsequent flight and execution at a Japanese base in 1943.
This was the “Kentish Affair”. Reverend Leonard Neol Kentish was the Chairman of the Chairman of the Methodist Northern Australian Mission District in Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory. The Mission had several buildings on islands in the Arafura Sea, and at regular intervals boats would leave Darwin for these outposts, loaded with supplies and personnel. One such boat was the HMAS Patricia Cam, which has started life as a tuna fishing boat in Sydney.
HMAS Patricia Cam
The minelaying activities of German Surface raiders in 1940-41 highlighted the shortage of suitable vessels to keep Australian sea lanes clear of this threat and Patricia Cam was requisitioned as an auxiliary minesweeper. She commissioned on 3 March 1942 under the command of Lieutenant John A. Grant, RANR(S).
On 8 March 1942 Patricia Cam sailed from Sydney and headed north. Arriving in Darwin on 5 April, she was employed as a general purpose vessel, which included store carrying and in May salvage on the wreck of the American ship Don Isidoro. The transportation of personnel and supplies around the north and north-western coastline continued throughout 1942.
On the 13th of January 1943, HMAS Patricia Cam left Darwin carrying stores and personnel headed for several outlying stations. Along with the crew, The passengers on board were Reverend Kentish and five natives. She departed Millingimbi on 22 January headed for Elcho Island.
At 1.30pm on 22 January, when HMAS Patricia Cam was heading towards Wessel Island, a plane was seen and heard by several of the ship’s company when just on the point of releasing a bomb. The aircraft, an Aichi E13A (“Jake”) three seater twin-floatplane from the Japanese Naval Air Arm’s 734th Kokatai, had dived from out of the sun with its engine shut down, passing over HMAS Patricia Cam from stern to stem at no more than 100 feet above the mast.
Aichi E13A floatplane
The bomb landed amidships in the centre of the cargo hatch and exploded in the bottom planking. HMAS Patricia Cam sank within a minute. Several members of the ship’s company were sitting on the forward hatch when the explosion occurred and were thrown down the hold but were almost immediately washed out again by the inrush of water. Both ship’s boats were destroyed but the life-raft remained intact. One sailor, Ordinary Seaman Neil G. Penglase, went down with the ship.
While the survivors were bunched in a small area the plane returned and dropped its second bomb, killing AB Edward D. Nobes and two of the aboriginal passengers. The plane then continued to circle for about half an hour, the rear machine gunner regularly firing into the scattering survivors, but without scoring any hits. The plane then flew away to the northward, but returned five minutes later and alighted on the water. One of the crew climbed out and beckoned for someone to swim over. No one accepted the invitation and the plane taxied in a circle closer to where Mr Kentish and a rating were resting on some floating hatch covers. Threatened with a revolver, Mr Kentish was ordered to swim over to the aircraft and after a brief conversation he was taken on board. The plane thereupon took off and finally disappeared to the north. Eighteen survivors of the attack managed to reach a rocky outcrop near Cumberland Island, and stayed there until being picked up by HMAS Kuru on the 29th of January.
Survivors of the HMAS Patricia Cam after returning to Darwin
Reverend Kentish’s fate remained unknown until after the war. Investigations by the Allied Occupation Force in Japan revealed that he had been held prisoner at Dobe until 4 May 1943 and then beheaded. Interrogations of former Japanese naval personnel eventually revealed that Sub-Lieutenant Sagejima Maugan had carried out the execution. Following his arrest and trial this officer was hanged at Stanley Gaol, Hong Kong on August 23 1948. Kentish’s body was finally buried at a cemetery in Ambon.
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The “Good Weekend” magazine of the Sydney Morning Herald dated Saturday March 14, 2014 featured an article on the sinking of the HMAS Patricia Cam called “I want him home” by Lisa Clausen. The article interviews Jan Braund, the daughter of crew member Percy Cameron. According to official RAN records, Cameron was lost at sea after the ship was bombed, and has no known grave. But archaeologists from the group Past Masters found on remote Marchinbar Island an L-shaped piece of wood, two metres in length with bolt holes and three intact bolts. Marchinbar Island is part of the Wessel Islands group, the place where the HMAS Patricia Cam was heading when it was attacked.
Giving credence to the possibility that survivors of the sinking made it to shore was the book “Trying to Be Sailors”, written by John Leggoe, one of the survivors who was picked up in late January. According to Leggoe, Percy Cameron and one of the Yplngu passengers had made it to the shore, but died and were buried there.
The Past Masters are trying to raise money to not only travel to Marchinbar Island to see if the graves are still visible, but to examine the wreck of the HMAS Patricia Cam, and see if the remnant found on the island match the wood of the sunken ship.