Despite being in the thick of action on many occasions, Bathurst class corvette HMAS Colac ended the Second World War with only two members of her ship’s company killed and two wounded, another amazing ship and crew being remembered 75 years on.
The casualties occurred on 26 May 1945, when the ship was hit twice by Japanese artillery fire from Choiseul Island, part of the Solomon Islands group
Jim Paizis (retd), 94, of Melbourne, was a gunnery officer in Colac, which had finished a three-week operation bombarding Wewak and off-shore islands with other ships when she was sent to Choiseul Island.
“Our task was to assist the Army by shelling Japanese landing barges which were transferring troops to Bougainville, where our Army was operating,” he said.
“We entered Emerald Anchorage, a narrow sheltered harbour formed by a row of offshore islands about 500 metres from the coast, about 6pm on 25 May, and steamed down the length of the harbour firing all guns at barges, troops and anything we could see.
“There was no resistance and we were all happy with some action to break the monotony of convoys.
“On 26 May, at about the same time, the Commanding Officer decided to go in again for another shot.”
Mr Paizis said they entered the harbour and as they turned to starboard to proceed down the channel, he heard a shell roar overhead and land on an island on their port side.
“The Japanese guns were on a headland opposite the entrance and we started firing on the smoke from their guns,” he said.
“We turned to exit the harbour, still firing at the target and a shell hit the quarter deck killing Steward Brian Shute and Able Seaman Stan Smith who were manning a 50-calibre gun, and wounding another two sailors.
“We were still turning when another shell hit on the waterline and blew a hole where the engine room was, causing it to start filling with water. The crew had to abandon the engine room and eventually the engines were totally submerged but were running under water because we still had steam from the boiler room.”
Mr Paizis said Colac was settling by the stern with the weight of water, so they started to reduce weight by throwing anything heavy over the side.
“This included all our depth charges, mine sweeping cables and anything we could move; there was a concern she would sink and if that happened in the anchorage it would have been the end for all of us,” he said.
“We exited the harbour and steamed away with speed reducing as the boilers reduced pressure due to the system salting.
“We anchored over a reef a short distance from the coast and next day buried Brian and Stan at sea, lashed up in their hammocks.”
Mr Paizis said their loss was felt deeply by all as they were a close family in a small ship.
“I knew Brian better than others because he was an officer’s steward,” he said.
“There was a time when I lost my razor and he gave me a spare; it has sat in my bathroom cabinet since the war and I see it every morning.”
A signal for help resulted in a US Army supply
ship arriving to tow Colac to Treasury Island.
There they met a salvage ship and had a plate welded over the hole and the engine room pumped dry.
Mr Paizis said they were towed from Treasury Island to Finschhafen in New Guinea and from there an 11-day tow to Sydney by the Grimsby-class sloop HMAS Swan.
“We were still being repaired and refitted when the war ended,” he said.
“Our Commanding Officer later said going in for a second shot was the biggest mistake of his life.”
Colac was recommissioned briefly from 1951-53 and used as a training ship for National Service trainees and Naval Reserve members, before being placed back in reserve for nine years.
In 1962, she was stripped down, painted black and used as a tank-cleaning vessel at Sydney’s Garden Island until 1983.
Many photos taken of other warships during that era show Colac alongside.
After more than 41 years’ service in various roles, Colac was sunk by the Oberon-class submarine HMAS Ovens in a test firing of a Mk48 torpedo off Jervis Bay in March 1987.
SGT Dave Morley (author), Defence (photographer)