A living book brimming with stories of World War II and the Korean War walks along the streets of Dromana. Gerry Shepherd, who joined the Navy League Sea Cadets’ Port Melbourne Company in 1942 as a 14-year-old, is clear as a bell when recalling wartime experiences. He may be a bit hard of hearing because of a lack of ear protection while firing the ship’s guns and using a circular saw, but the conversation flows freely about life, war and the reception held for him in Canberra on Labour Day weekend.
Gerry explains: “My three girls and I were invited to Canberra, where I formally presented the Royal Australian Navy with a scale model of the HMAS Bataan. I decided to build a model of the Bataan, which was known as the show pony of the navy because General MacArthur’s wife Jean christened the boat, about 30 years ago. It actually took me seven years to complete it and was one of the most difficult things I’ve done. It cost me $3500 in materials, which included brass, copper, aluminium, Huon pine and Perspex. When two naval officers visited the house and I told them I was going to bequeath it to the Queenscliffe Maritime Museum, they said it belonged in the navy’s historical section in Canberra. And that is where it is. Never in my wildest dreams could I think this would happen.”
Gerry continues: “I joined the RAN when I was 17 years old but wasn’t called up until 13 months later in 1944. I’ve always loved the sea. It’s romantic and contagious. It’s where I prefer to be. I served during World War II on the Tribal class destroyer HMAS Bataan in 1944, the Bathurst class corvette HMAS Lismore in 1946, and on the tank landing ship HMAS LST 3008 in 1946. I’ll never forget sailing into Tokyo Bay two days before surrender and every nation’s boat was there. It was so inspiring, and my lungs burst with pride. We sailed around Japan picking up prisoners of war and found survivors of HMAS Perth, which had gone down in the Sunda Strait. I was an able seaman and did everything on deck, from steering the ship to manning the guns, and also sailed on the Battle class destroyer HMAS Anzac in 1952 and the Bataan in 1952 during the Korean War.
“The Bataan had only been in Korea for a few days when a North Korean shore battery opened fire on us. They put a shell through the captain’s cabin, but luckily he was on the bridge at the time. I was a loader on our four-inch quick firing gun, and we were the first to respond to the enemy shore battery. The asbestos from the pipes and deck heads broke loose as we fired the guns, and I was covered with asbestos. It was in my eyes and mouth, everywhere. When I left the navy and became a carpenter I was covered in it too. I don’t know how I’ve survived this long, but I’m the only surviving member from the HMAS Bataan out of 320 sailors now. The conditions on board during the Korean War were tough with the flashing and noise from guns firing.”
With a life committed to service and sea, and now without his wife, Win, who passed away almost two years ago, this Brighton-born Dromana resident spends his time as welfare officer at both the Dromana Bowls Club and the Safety Beach Coast Guard. His secret to a long life? He laughs. “A wild life and grog!” – tongue in cheek, of course.
Ahoy there, Gerry. Almost 95 years young and going strong.