The MV Limerick, torpedoed off Cape Byron in 1943.
The MV Limerick, torpedoed off Cape Byron in 1943.

Japanese sub’s deadly toll

JUST two months prior to the AHS Centaur’s sinking off the south-east Queensland coast on April 26 1943, the same Japanese submarine torpedoed and sank the merchant ship, the MV Lim- erick, just 32km off Cape Byron.

Three days later, on April 29, the passenger steamer SS Wollongbar was torpedoed off the coast of Crescent Head, en route to Newcastle from Byron Bay.

Retired navy lieutenant Clem MacMahon, president of the Ballina Naval and Maritime Museum, said the submarine responsible for the Wollongbar’s demise was never confirmed, but it is thought to be the same one that sunk both the Centaur and Limerick.

“It was known as the I-177 and we think it got the Wollongbar also,” he said.

“I like to remind people that the war was only 32km away from us here. It really drives home how close it came.”

The same day the Wollongbar was sunk, the SS Bonalbo sailed right through the targeted area unscathed, though it was detained in Ballina for its own safety by the naval command. These were dark days for the Australian merchant navy, struggling to maintain essential war supply lines between Sydney, Darwin and Papua New Guinea.

Japanese submarines were operating all along Australia’s eastern seaboard in 1943, sinking five merchant ships in April alone.

Eighty-seven people died and a total of 25,000 tons of valuable wartime supplies were lost in that month.

The Limerick was travelling in a convoy of five merchant ships bound for Brisbane from Sydney. Two Royal Australian Navy minesweepers, the Colac and Ballarat, were escorting the convoy.

According to the diary of the Ballarat’s sick bay attendant Tom McLean, the Limerick became separated from the group due to engine problems that prevented it from dropping under 10 knots and forced it to travel in a zigzag pattern.

“At around 1am on the 26th, I-177 announced her presence torpedoing Limerick abaft her beam on the port side and the vessel very quickly developed a heavy list to port,” the diary reads.

“Colac instituted an anti-submarine search ... she dropped depth charges to keep the sub down. Ballarat continued with the convoy while Colac stood by the Limerick picking up many of her survivors throughout the night.

“Badly holed she could no longer maintain the struggle for life. At 6.30am she sank beneath the waves. Colac plucked her captain from the sea and rescued 70 ... Limerick’s third and fourth engineers went down with their ship.”

They were the only crew who died.

According to the RAN’s records, all efforts to locate and destroy the Japanese submarine failed.

The Wollongbar was bound for Byron Bay from Sydney at the time of the Limerick’s sinking and was diverted to search for survivors. Gale force conditions hampered the search and she returned to Ballina, only to be torpedoed on her way to Newcastle three days later. Of the 37 on board, only five survived in a lifeboat.

This Wollongbar was the replacement for the original ship wrecked in 1921 at Byron Bay.

The I-177 was sunk by the USS Samuel S Miles on October 3, 1944, with the loss of her entire crew of 101 sailors.

“Models of these ships and full accounts of their service are available at the museum,” Mr MacMahon said.

“Many people come in not realising we’re down here, and they leave very impressed.”



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