Donald Kennedy's veteran story

Donald Kennedy joined the Merchant Navy in Sydney on 1 February 1944, at the age of 16. His 'job interview' took only 2 minutes. Before the month was out, Donald was a deck boy on MT Seirstad of the Norwegian merchant marine.

Soon afterwards, Donald was promoted to assistant gunner on an anti-aircraft gun, then to gunner when the gunner left the ship at Panama while Seirstad was returning to Australia from the Atlantic. Donald became Kanonkommander

Donald used his gun in action for the first time in the Atlantic, about 1 month after being promoted to gunner. He remembered the anti-aircraft gunner training course was held in a shed on the wharf at Auckland. The course did not take much longer than his enlistment interview.

Donald served in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans during World War II.

Donald transferred to the United States Army Transport Point San Pedro in the last year of the Pacific War, but he left the ship in Shanghai in April 1946. He returned to Australia via the Philippines, having accepted a ride on an army transport aircraft.

Discharged from the merchant marine in June 1946, he joined the RSL in 1947 and went to sea once again in a variety of Australian ships until 1949. In 1950, Donald took a permanent position in the New South Wales Attorney General and Justice Department, retiring as state manager.

Second World War veteran


Joining the Merchant Navy

I was 16 and the people who weren't around at that time did not understand, perhaps, what the pressures were on people to volunteer. Because, not that it was any pressure on me as a school boy, but I pressured my father. I couldn't get in the Army, Navy, or Air Force because you had to be 18. Anyhow, I met him one day in Sydney and he said, "Here."

He gave me a piece of paper. He said, "Go to this firm." I went to the firm and gave the man a piece of paper. He said to me, "Why do you want to go to sea?" Being articulate and educated, I said, "I don't know."

Anyhow, he went away and made a phone call, came back and gave me a piece of paper again. He said, "Go to this ship." I found my way to a ship, Sydney Harbor. Knocked on the door and a big tall Norwegian gentlemen came out and said, "What do you want?" So I handed him my piece of paper.

He said, "Why do you want to go to sea?" You can guess what I said, "I don't know." So he talked to me for about a minute and he said, "Come back tomorrow morning with your gear." That was it.

A couple days later, we sailed out of Sydney Harbor headed for the Atlantic. Rather a foolish thing to do, when you come to think of it. But there were different circumstances, different circumstances. Just about everybody who could go, went. No compulsion, no conscription, it was all volunteers.

My cousins had gone, my brother was overseas in the Air Force. I haven't quite worked out why I did it. It wasn't any sense of trying to win the war. It was just that it was the thing to do. If you couldn't get in the Forces, you'd do what you can. I don't know why. I really don't understand. It was a stupid thing to do. I left my mother by herself, actually.

Life at sea

I was made a deck boy, which was a job there that required you to be part of the deck crew, only about 10 of us. The training consisted of being taken up onto the bridge, and showed the steering wheel, and point out the compass, and steer the ship.

You did three watches a day, four hour watches. If you start at mid-day, you went until 4:00 pm. Then midnight until 4:00 am. You did that seven days a week. When you're up on the bridge of the ship, you had two hours steering the ship and two hours out on the wing on look out. Because we had no lights, there was no radar or anything like that. That was my job at sea.

Subsequently through the inflection of time, rather than skill, I became an ordinary seaman. Then later on subsequently, AB they call it, able-bodied seaman. That was the peak of my shipping career. I was on a Norwegian Tanker. That ship had been built in Germany in 1938 and it was a pretty nice ship. I think there was only two. We had a fairly comfortable life, there's no question about that. It was never a hardship.

The Norwegians didn't have enough crew, you see, because a lot of their ships had sunk and they lost a lot of seaman and they recruited Australians wherever they could to get their crew. They were pretty good. They didn't like speaking English much. I had to learn Norwegian.

Risks at sea

I was never up in what they call convoys, I've made that crystal clear. When you go through the Panama Canal, you really come into the Caribbean Sea, which is part of the Atlantic Ocean. That was, for a time, a very, very dangerous area because, I don't know how it was, but they attacked a lot of ships there.

We went to the Canal, we went south to a place called Aruba where there was oil, and we were picking up oil. We were bringing it back to New Zealand, back to Australia, and we went up the Persian Gulf. Right up into the Gulf, into Iraq and Iran. They were called the Mesopotamian Persia in those days.

Took a load of oil down to South Africa and went into the Atlantic down there. But the ship that I was on did not go up into the North Atlantic where the Convoys were. To that extent, it was probably less dangerous waters than some of the people here went into.

There were many, many, many, many hundreds of ships sunk. Many thousands of seaman, Navy and Merchant Navy, lost. Many, many lost up there. But they never got us. The Japanese would have loved to have got us, but they missed. Once they fired a bunch of torpedo at our ship, but they missed.

Cannon Commander Kennedy

Yeah. I had to learn how to, 20 millimetre Oerlikon Anti-Aircraft Cannon. They showed you how to load it once. I was the, the Norwegian called it ammunition schlinger. That was the fellow that put the rounds into the 50 container magazine.

As I said earlier, after one or two trips, I can't remember when, the gunner got sick and was put ashore in the Panama Canal, so they promoted me.

I'll always remember the radio operator coming into the Mess and putting up a type written notice on the deck of the bulkhead, which was the wall.

He said, "Deck boy Kennedy is Cannon Commander Kennedy." I had risen to the great heights of being a cannon commander. It was about the peak of my gunning career.


Well, I came back in July of '46. It was strange really. We got off a plane at Mascot, I don't remember going through custom, or immigration, or anything, I just went home and visit Manly.

I think I was a bit of a loose end anyhow. I didn't have any great academic qualifications or anything. The government did not supply anything for Merchant Navy people at that time. So I went back to sea. I spent another four or five years at sea on ships, mainly around Australia over to Fiji, and New Zealand, and around Australian ports.

Then, accidentally again, I left the sea because in 1949, Australia was gripped by a coal miner strike. This last ship I was on was what we call a coal burner, it used to burn coal. They don't have that these days. That ship could not get fuel. It happened to be in Sydney. We had to lay it up. I remember climbing up the funnel and putting a tarpaulin over the funnel and went home and never went back to sea.

End of the War

I always remember, we were in Balikpapan Harbor in Borneo just after the war ended. The captain of our ship had heard that we were to take it up to Shanghai and give it to the Chinese government, because we were a pretty old ship.

So he arranged for 60 Japanese soldiers to come on the ship with guards and here was me, a 17 year old or 18 year old, I forget what it was. I had 10 Japanese prisoners under my care to work on the ship, to clean it up, because old ships get rusty. I had to put them to work, give them shipping hammers and scrapers, and things.

I was telling somebody the other day that we rigged up what we call a stage over the side of the ship where they had to sit on a plank and get the side of the ship. Some of them had a habit of dropping their hammers in the water. So the next day, I had one of the soldiers, Japanese soldiers, who spoke a bit of English. I said to him, "We're losing a lot of hammers over the side."

There were Australian soldiers there, sitting there with an Owen gun guarding them. I said, "Would you tell the rest of your men here that if anymore hammers go over the side, Nippon goes in after them." I never lost any hammers after that. Psychology. I wouldn't have put them in the water, but so. But that was the end, the war was over, the war was over.

Went to Philippines then up to Shanghai, as I said. So that was the end of the war, thank goodness. Thank goodness.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Donald Kennedy's veteran story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 17 May 2024,
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