Japanese submarine torpedoes boat off Nambucca Heads in May 1943

SURVIVORS: John Bird, left, after his ordeal on May 5, 1943. This photo appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 10, 1943. Photo courtesy of Nine Publishing archives

SURVIVORS: John Bird, left, after his ordeal on May 5, 1943. This photo appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 10, 1943. Photo courtesy of Nine Publishing archives

This is a story of two encounters, 76 years apart, that together open a window onto a wartime moment many of you may not even be aware of ...

The first is the incredible tale of Kew-born John Bird, who in 1943 at age 15 got a job as a deck hand on a Norwegian steamship, the SS Fingal, and steamed out of Melbourne up the east coast of Australia bound for Darwin.

"I got the job thanks to my sister Nancy Bird Walton (the famous aviatrix), who had links to the Norwegian Consul - they were the hiring group for Norwegian merchant ships," Mr Bird told the Nambucca Guardian from his home in Cooktown, North Queensland.

"It was around 1.30pm on May 5 - I'd just finished cleaning up after the midday meal in the crew's quarters and was feeling a bit seasick.

"I lay down on my upper bunk, hoping the boatswain wouldn't find me, when there was this massive explosion.

"I hit the roof and then the floor, found a life jacket and ran up the back staircase - the propeller was already out of the water and spraying water everywhere, so I knew the bow must be sinking.

"Just then I saw a torpedo shoot under the stern, just missing us ... I started to run and we were hit by the third torpedo. I fell over and caught my leg and thought "if this is dying it's pretty easy".

"A Norwegian crewman saw me and did up my life jacket, then the ship sank and I floated ... everyone on deck had been killed, 19 of us survived."

Photo of the SS Fingal John Bird has on his wall

Photo of the SS Fingal John Bird has on his wall

Grasping pieces of wreckage, the survivors then watched in horror as the destroyer that had been their guardian, USS Paterson, let off a couple of depth chargers and left the scene ... apparently presuming there could not possibly be any survivors.

"We were about five miles off the coast of Nambucca Heads and surrounded by Minties, millions of them, they were part of our cargo - it reminded me of that ad "It's moments like these ..."," Mr Bird laughed.

Although he was not laughing at that particular moment ...

It wasn't until late afternoon, 5.30pm, that he and the others were rescued, having been spotted by an RAAF plane, which then alerted the USS Paterson to return.

"We lived to tell the story and I continued working in the merchant navy throughout the war."

Roll forward to June this year to encounter number two, when Shirley Bolton and her husband were on holiday up north and met Mr Bird, who happened to ask where they came from.

"When I said we were from a little town in NSW called Nambucca Heads, he told us this story about how their boat was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sank five miles out to sea from town," Shirley said.

"I was so surprised because I'd never heard anything about this before!"

John Bird at home in Cooktown today

John Bird at home in Cooktown today

Now approaching his 92nd birthday, Mr Bird said he had always wondered whether anyone had heard the two explosions that day and if any debris had ever washed up on the beaches.

"I'd love to know if anyone has any information to tell me," he said.

Shirley said the Nambucca Heads Headland Museum had not enlightened her and came to the Nambucca Guardian asking if we could share the tale of Mr Bird and the SS Fingal ...

Please let us know if you have any information from your childhoods or those of your parents or grandparents that we could pass on to Mr Bird.

Contact Ute Schulenberg on 0447 376 366 or ute.schulenberg@nambuccaguardian.com.au.

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