Tuesday night marked my first official ‘night shift’ and what a night it turned out to be! One of the projects planned for this voyage was to try and find the SS Macumba, an Australian war cargo ship that was sunk by a bomb attack from a Japanese float plane on the 6 August 1943 on its way from Brisbane to Darwin.
The anticipation and excitement of this project has been bubbling away since the start of our journey, and reached a peak as we made our way to the search area in the Arafura Sea, off the coast of Arnhem Land. We reached the search area at approximately 1 pm local time and a large group had crowded into the ops room, eyes glued to the sonar screens. It didn’t take long for the numbers to dwindle, and by 1.45 pm people started to drift off and float in and out, but I was not going anywhere! No way was I going to miss out on being a part of finding such an important piece of Australian maritime history! Work station set up, I bunkered down for the evening. I assisted where I could, when Amy, the technician on duty, needed to check operations or start running new software, lending my eyes to scan the sonar beams pinging up at us from the ocean floor.
After a few hours of our systematic grid search, something was spotted right on the edge of the search field. It wasn’t a ship but it was definitely something of interest! Some of the divots or pock shapes we had discovered were approximately five metres long. Could this be a debris field? As we swept up and down the grid, each time we passed the area, we were getting more of these mysterious shapes, becoming denser towards the edges of the search fields. With the search area being so large, we were only passing and getting glimpse of this area about every 40 minutes or so.
It was getting late. Just after midnight, and over 10 hours of searching, we were running out of time. Amy made a call to the bridge and spoke to Tom, the mate on duty, driving the ship. She requests that next time we turn and head down, we swing wide so we can see more of what is in this area. Even though it was slightly outside of the search area, Tom swung wide, very wide! Too wide, we thought as we nervously watched him navigate the ship from the sonar screen. But it wasn’t too wide at all, it was perfect. Into view on the radar screens the undoubted and crystal clear vision of Macumba appeared as we drifted above her.
There was an uproar of cheering and yells, squeals of delight and high fives as I jumped up and down on the spot. After a small moment of celebration, it was back to work for the scientist and technicians, as they completed their mapping surveys and recorded the required data for the NT Government, who had requested this search. After this, it was time to drop a camera from the deck to get some footage. The operations were still going at 4 am when, unable to keep my eyes open any longer, I called it a night.
Words just can’t describe the excitement and privilege it was to be part of the team, on the front line of this project, and to be one of the first to set eyes upon this ship in 74 years. The whole experience is absolutely priceless.
While this is a huge and exciting discovery for Australian maritime history, all of us on board ensured that we took time to reflect and be thankful for the servicemen and civilians who lost their lives defending our freedom. In this circumstance, the three lives that were lost when a bomb directly hit the engine room of the Macumba.
William Alfred Lane, aged 64 years, chief engineer, buried at sea
Thomas Harold Keller, aged 29 years, second engineer
George Dew, aged 66 years, donkeyman
May they rest in peace.