Wreath-laying Ceremony on HMS 'Kent'over the site of the wreck of HMS 'Exeter' 27th July 2008by COFEPOW Member Tom Jowett
Early in July 2008 I received an e-mail from HMS 'Kent' saying that following the discovery of the 'Exeter', they had been asked by the MoD to perform a Wreath-laying Ceremony over the site of the wreck; and could I contact some survivors to make the trip as they had four berths available. No problem with that, but then read a bit further, . . . by the end of the month!
My first reaction was to say "yes" to four going out, which I did, but over the weekend had second and third thoughts; the BBC were hoping to do a documentary and wanted to film survivors, could they be invited? Also the diver that found the ship wanted to present a White Ensign that he had flown from the ship, to the survivors, could this happen? A 14,000-odd mile round trip for four eighty-odd-year-olds, without carers/guides/"minders" accompanying them?
I approached the ship to increase the numbers, but that decision had to be made at a higher level. A week later, I received an e-mail from the MoD to say yes, the BBC could take a team of two, the diver could go, and one or two descendants, in addition to the four survivors.
Now the headaches began! The BBC wanted good interviewees, but they had to have their GP's permission in writing to make the journey. Fortunately, the FEPOW spirit prevailed and one or two GPs were told where their stethoscopes would finish-up, resulting in four being able to make the trip.
Then a new problem surfaced - the Indonesians are not keen on journalists, so have special visa requirements for them with a minimum time to process of 6-8 weeks. Wheels turned within wheels, and miraculously, two visas appeared the next day. I don't know who pulled the strings, but they were effective! (I wonder if he/she wants to join us?)
Volunteers to make the trip? Too many to list, but the Navy helped out by saying "Males only", (un?)fortunately!
The plan was for us to join the ship in Surabaya on the Saturday morning, sail, be over the wreck for a service on the Sunday morning, and leave the ship on berthing in Jakarta the following day.
All the plans and ideas were falling into place, with the diver, Kevin Denlay, making his way up from Australia, along with a "new-to-us" survivor; the BBC were taking two survivors out from the UK on the Wednesday, the other three flying out on the Thursday, for everybody to meet in Surabaya for the Friday evening. Surabaya was, of course, where 'Exeter' sailed from on both occasions to engage the Japanese fleet in the Battles of the Java Sea. During the first skirmish, 'Exeter' lost some fourteen men, these were buried at the local European Cemetery during the ship's short stay between the Battles.
My flight to Surabaya was scheduled to go from Leeds via Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpar, meeting up with two others from Cardiff at Amsterdam. On arrival, looking around, I couldn't see anybody I recognized, then my phone rang, "Our plane has been delayed, we won't make the connection". At the desk the helpful KLM staff checked their computers and verified that the people were WW2 survivors attending a memorial service, they were arriving late, they wouldn't make the connection, but were booked on the next available flight, arriving Surabaya the same time as the ship was due to sail! A few frantic phone calls later, and the ship persuaded the authorities to delay the sailing for a couple of hours.
The rest of us met over a leisurely evening meal at the Hotel in Surabaya, meeting new friends, catching-up with old friends, more importantly, putting a face to a name &/or voice.
Saturday morning we boarded HMS 'Kent', met on the quay by our "minders" for the trip, officially they were "hosts", but I feel that they were to keep an eye on us in case we pressed a few wrong buttons. Our luggage was placed in our accommodation, (2-berth cabins for the Survivors, 5 camp-beds in a store under the Ops Room for the rest of us) and we enjoyed (the first of many!) a welcome drink in the Senior Rates Mess. With the ship due to sail, we were anxiously awaiting our delayed colleagues. As they arrived on board, the pilot already on board, the gangway was taken away, and the ship moved away from the wharf.
The ship was also hosting a delegation from the Indonesian Press, so the safety and information briefings for all the new "passengers" had to be conducted in both languages.
Clearing the Harbour, the ship proceeded out into open sea, where they conducted some exercises to "show off" their capabilities, mainly with the helicopter & fast recovery craft using varying boarding and chasing techniques, (very suitable in an area associated with pirates!)
On the Saturday evening, the film taken by the diver was shown in the Senior Rates Mess, with the BBC filming the survivors' reactions and comments.
Sunday, the ship was stopped over the site of the wreck, with the off-duty crew assembled on the flight-deck for the service. Concern was shown by the ship that there was no cover for the survivors, and would they be OK? My reply included the phrase that they spent three and a half years working without shade, so an hour or so now wouldn't be any problem.
The service was conducted by the ship's Padre, who had been careful to ask the right questions before-hand to make sure his story and facts were correct. During the service the Last Post and Reveille were sounded, together with the two minutes silence, followed by the Kohima Epitaph, and then the three wreaths were laid, first by the British High Commissioner to Indonesia, then the Commodore of Portsmouth Flotilla, followed by the four Survivors.
A very moving service, where the four survivors could finally pay their respects to their less fortunate colleagues that didn't make the long journey home.
As a final part to the service, Mr Kevin Denlay, the Diver presented the White Ensign that he "flew" from the 'Exeter' to the survivors. Wheels are in motion to have this Ensign re-presented to more survivors on the present HMS 'Exeter' in Portsmouth, then hopefully it will be made into a standard to remain in St Andrew's Chapel in Exeter Cathedral, alongside the stained glass window commemorating the men of 'Exeter' who didn't come home.
During Sunday afternoon the Junior Rates messes asked if they could host the survivors, to chat and listen, never have the messes been so full, and so quiet!
Monday morning saw the ship arriving alongside in Jakarta, where we left the ship. Three of us were scheduled to fly back that night, so had a quiet few hours collecting thoughts after a hectic and long weekend. The BBC took three survivors to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in Jakarta, where the fourteen men that lost their lives in the first skirmish had been laid to rest, having been transferred from the Surabaya Cemetery just after the War finished.
The weekend was busy but good, not an event to be missed. All four survivors made the trip OK, maybe a bit more tired than they would usually be at the start of the week, but contrary to, and despite their doctors advice and fears, alive and well.
The weekend was, of course, interspersed with the two BBC film crew pointing cameras and microphones everywhere. This is to be shown as part of BBC South West's "Inside Out" series of documentaries, currently scheduled to be shown in the South West region on 5th November 2008; from the bits I have seen so far, a lot of effort has gone into making it as accurate as possible.
Tom Jowett is now the point-of-contact for the HMS Exeter / Java Sea / Macassar Survivors. Reunions of Survivors, Widows, Families and Friends are held on the weekend closest to the anniversary of the sinking, 1st March. Anybody with any connection to 'Exeter' / Macassar survivors, whether it be wishing to join in with these reunions, share memories, or simply pass the time of day, should contact Tom.
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