Tom Kirkham's story

In 1941, at 15 years of age, Tom Kirkham joined the Merchant Navy. His first posting was aboard HMT Aquitania carrying troops from Wellington in New Zealand to the Middle East, via Fremantle, Colombo and the Suez Canal, and returning with Italian prisoners of war. In November 1941, Aquitania picked up 26 survivors of the German ship Kormoran, which had recently engaged HMAS Sydney.

On his return to Australia, Tom joined the Thornleigh-Normanhurst RSL Sub-Branch in Sydney. He was possibly the youngest veteran ever to join the RSL.

After transporting Australian troops to New Guinea, Tom transferred to SS Ulysses and sailed for England via Auckland and Panama. After a collision with a tanker near the Panama Canal, Ulysses made for Newport in the United States for repairs but was torpedoed by a U-boat and sunk off Cape Hatteras on 11 April 1942.

Fortunately, all survived and were rescued within approximately 4.5 hours. Granted survivor's leave, Tom spent a memorable 2 weeks in New York, which included an Anzac Day dinner at the famous Waldorf Astoria hotel. Tom started a new posting on HMT Orcades in Nova Scotia and participated in four Atlantic convoys.

After a bout of pleurisy, he joined SS Sarpedon and later served on the Danish Prize Ship, Astoria, en route from Chile to Australia with a cargo of bulk nitrate. Tom recalled socialising with German sailors in the South American ports.

Tom's final postings took him to Japan to supply the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Kure and to the Philippines to collect US Army vehicles to be sent to Australia. He paid off in December 1947.

Second World War veteran

Transcript

Torpedoed

Coming back to Sydney I left the Aquitania and I joined the Ulysses bound for England. The Ulysses was one of the last ships out of Hong Kong and we called into New Zealand on the way across the Pacific.

We went through the Panama Canal. On the Atlantic side of the canal we had a collision with a Panamanian oil tanker at night. I don't know what happened to the tanker but I know our bows were damaged badly.

We were on our way up to Newport News for repairs and then a sub come along. U-Boat 160. Captain Georg Lassen. He was one of the last of the aces. He sank 28 ships and he died last year. I've been keeping tabs on him and then we got three torpedoes. We got picked up about 4 hours later by an American destroyer.

Took us into Charleston, South Carolina and from Charleston, South Carolina we went up to New York where we had, we were given two weeks survivor's leave.

I had Anzac day dinner 1942 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the biggest hotel in the world. Miss Nola Luxford, she looked after all the Australians over there, air force mainly and we saw everything in New York. Got free fares. After a fortnight in New York on the loose, I was shipped up to Halifax Nova Scotia

German sailors: 'We got along pretty well'

I joined the Astoria and went over to South America to Peru and Chile. Took wheat across to Peru and brought nitrate back from Chile.

In Peru I met German sailors ashore in a hotel, in a pub like, you know, we got together, we were drinking together, talking together and one thing and another and then we went down to Tocopilla, Chile where they had 10,000 ton of nitrate for Australia. Met more German sailors down there and we got on pretty well.


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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Tom Kirkham's story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 20 June 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/oral-histories/tom-kirkhams-story
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