Sky News Agenda, Laura Jayes interview discussing the sinking of HMAS Sydney

Friday, November 19 2021

The Hon Andrew Gee MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel

LAURA JAYES: Welcome back. The Unknown Sailor, the sole body recovered from one of Australia's greatest naval tragedies, has finally been identified. Today marks 80 years since the sinking of HMAS Sydney during World War Two, along with the deaths of all 65 sailors on board.

ANNA RAWLINGS: A name and a face after 80 long years, the Unknown Sailor no more.

MICHAEL NOONAN: In youth and strength and loyalty, he gave everything mortal souls can ever give. Today, we honour him by name.

ANNA RAWLINGS: This is Thomas Welsby Clark, a 21 year old accountant from Brisbane who transferred from the Army to the Navy Reserve. He became an Able Seaman on HMAS Sydney, the pride of the Navy until she was destroyed off the coast of Western Australia in 1941.

VOICEOVER: HMAS Sydney has been in action with a heavily armed enemy merchant raider, which she sank by gunfire. The information was received from survivors from the enemy vessel who were picked up some time after the action. No subsequent communication has been received from HMAS Sydney and the Government regrets that she must be presumed lost.

ANNA RAWLINGS: A casualty of the Second World War, the ship was sunk after a battle with German cruiser, HSK Kormoran.

JOHN PERRYMAN: The loss of HMAS Sydney was a terrible blow to the country in 1941. It was an action fought at close quarters. It was an action which lasted about 50 minutes and the face of naval battle, Laura, is never pretty.

ANNA RAWLINGS: Of her 645 crew, none survived and only one was found, a single sailor, who washed up in a damaged life raft on Christmas Island three months after the battle.

MICHAEL NOONAN: Thomas was an Australian sailor. Alongside his shipmates, he was custodian of our nation's defence. He fought the enemy and he fought for his ship until nothing could be done. He faced peril and terror on the open sea. He died alone.

ANDREW GEE: The battle was ferocious and it was brutal. And Tom is believed to have been the only person to have made it to a life raft. 

ANNA RAWLINGS: The sole survivor buried by locals on the island where he remained for more than 60 years until his body was recovered from an unmarked grave in 2006. But the sailor's identity remained a mystery, DNA tests unable to provide answers until now.

JOHN PERRYMAN: The body was re interred in 2009 and since then, with DNA developments, we've gone down that path and also through genealogy to identify the remains. So it's really been a real sort of "Whodunit?" in some ways, just joining the dots to lead us to this day.

ANNA RAWLINGS: Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark's identification, a major breakthrough 80 years in the making. Over 35,000 Australian soldiers and airmen are still listed as missing in action from the wars of the 20th Century. For HMAS Sydney and the families of those who served, it's hoped today's announcement will finally put the Australian Navy's single worst loss of life to rest. Anna Rawlings, Sky News.

LAURA JAYES: Let's go live now to the Minister for Veterans Affairs, Andrew Gee. Andrew, this has been months, if not years, in the making. What does it say to you today and how important is it? 

ANDREW GEE: It's a very significant and historic day for our nation, for the family of Tom Clark and all of the other families of those who were lost on HMAS Sydney. And I think it also says a lot about our nation, that even after 80 years we're still working hard to identify the men and women who served and sacrificed so much for our country. And it sends the very clear message that no matter what the conflict, no matter when it was, no matter what the circumstances were at that time, Australia never, ever forgets that sacred duty to remember and honour those who served in our name. 

LAURA JAYES: These were young men. They were barely 20 years old, as was Tom. Is that why it's so important to put a name to some of these faces so you're reminded of the lessons of history? 

ANDREW GEE: That's definitely right, Laura. And I spoke to Tom's niece yesterday about this, and we had quite a lengthy conversation about what this meant to her family and what it means to our country, and there were definitely mixed emotions. I think on the one hand the family has great sadness in learning about the circumstances of that battle and what particularly happened to Tom, and they referred to him as "Tom". He was much loved in the family and his niece got to meet him once before he started service on the Sydney. And so there is great sadness there. 

I think there is gratitude for all of the people that have worked so hard to identify Tom. But there is also, I think, a recognition that in identifying Tom our country honours all of those who were lost on the Sydney and I think that's a really important point to make, and the family is very aware of that. And even though it has been very distressing and there is anguish there with the circumstances in which Tom lost his life, there is also a recognition that in identifying him, they help Australia honour and remember all of those who lost their lives in that tragic battle. 

LAURA JAYES: Well said, Minister, and we remember Tom and his family today. Thanks so much for your time.

ANDREW GEE: Thanks for having me on the show.

** End of transcript **

Open Arms — Veterans and Families Counselling provides support for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families. Free and confidential help is available 24/7. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546) or visit www.OpenArms.gov.au