Stories of Remembrance

Navy, Second World War (1939-45)Chief Petty Officer Ern Ramsden,Royal Australian Navy

One of the younger boys said to me "Ernie pray for us, will you?" I asked him, "Why me?", he replied thoughfully "I don't know, you can do it better than we can!"
Ern Ramsden in interview with grand-daughter Janet Lagstrom, 1984

It was approaching dawn, I’d just come off the middle-watch (from midnight to four), when I saw what seemed to be a magnificent firework display, far out on the horizon. Two or three minutes later I was bought back to reality when shells landed hap-hazardly into the water around the ship. My ‘firework’ show was the beginning of the Yarra’s haunting death, a devastating experience which will follow me for the rest of my life. The shells came from a Japanese cruiser, seven or eight miles away which could not see us, but had been warned of our approach by Japanese aircraft.

We had been at sea for nearly two years. With our pockets empty and our bags laden, we were on our way back to Australia, escorting a convoy of four small ships from java. My thoughts were of the times ahead, back with my family and my friends.

Although the age limit was 35, when I joined the navy reserves, I was almost 37. I signed up because I held a fascination for steam and a love of ships, and the ocean. I had no thoughts of ever going to war, two annual trips, and some weekends away from home. It was Friday 1 September 1939 (my eldest son’s 7th birthday), when I received a telegram stating, ‘Report to Port Melbourne forthwith.’ As I neared my home, my wife came running to meet me with the same message in her hand. … I could not even accept the fact that war was soon to be declared. The next day, Sunday 3 September, the newspapers raged with headlines such as “War Declared”. I was miles away from my family, ranked Petty Officer of Swan. … In a month I was re-drafted to Kutabul where I travelled to Garden Island, then I was drafted for the last time to HMAS Yarra.

… Within a few months I found myself waking up outside the demolished sick bay, surprised that there was no-one around me. I found my way to the upper deck, which had been deserted also. I staggered over to the railings where I could see a small raft already overladen with men. ... I could distinctly hear one voice yelling “Come on Ernie, you can make it, try!” Looking around me, I realised I had no alternative, but to jump overboard into the deep-green waters and swim the forty yards or so to the overladen raft or else I could go down with history in the submerging ship.

For two hours we struggled in the water. … All the time, the Japanese sailed around us taking ‘snap-shots’. By the end of the day, only twenty men had survived.

…When the sun rose again, we found the supplies allotted to the raft. One 14 pound tin of biscuits and a small barrel of water. After banging a hole in the biscuit tin we were unable to reseal it. In a short time the salt water managed to enter both the tin and the barrel, leaving us with no food and no fresh water. I’ve always been thankful that I was able to resist the temptation to drink the sea water, for those who couldn’t resist, never survived.

… Several times whilst on the raft, sharks circled around us. I even saw a man attacked, yet there was nothing I could do about it.

… I can recall thinking that I could not remember how long I had been on that raft. I kept seeing boats everywhere, yet they wouldn’t come and pick me up. I could remember the waves splashing at my feet. I was cold and wet through. I felt too weak to stand up.

In the hospital at Colombo, apparently one week later, the horror came back to me. I had spent six days on a life-raft, without food and drinking water. But finally, I had been rescued, along with twelve other survivors, by the KII Dutch submarine, who had taken us to Colombo, back to safety.

These words have been taken from an interview with Ern Ramsden by his grand-daughter Janet Lagstrom, 3 September 1984
 

  • Name Ernest Leigh Ramsden
  • Service Number PM1964
  • Date of Birth 02 February 1903
  • Place of Birth Birmingham, England
  • Date of Enlistment 02 September 1939
  • Date of Discharge 26 November 1945

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