CAPTAIN Hec Waller, DSO(and bar),RAN---------------------------------------------------HMAS Perth

(What follows is an extended version of an article originally written for Bruce Constable'sexcellent HMAS Perth website.)

Shortly after WWII, the Netherlands Government had wished to posthumously honour the gallant service of HMAS Perth's CO, Captain Hec. M.L. Waller, DSO and bar, RAN, with the award of the Knighthood of the 'Militaire Willems-Orde' - that country's equivalent of the Victoria Cross and therefore the most prestigious award for gallantry that could possibly be granted a foreign subject.

Files held at the Australian Archives in Canberra reveal correspondence betweenthe Royal Netherlands Legation and the Australian Government over this issue began on December 5, 1947, the Legation noting:

'the courageous and masterly conduct of the Commander of the Australian cruiser both in the Battle of the Java Sea and the Strait Sunda by which actions considerable loss was inflicted on the enemy'.

The Australian Labor Government at that time felt unable to accept the Netherlands offer, and in a Minute, dated February 23, 1948, gave as their reason:

'The proposal involves the recognition of services posthumously and, as the rules governing consideration of proposals for foreign awards precludes the acceptance of posthumous awards, the Prime Minister and the Acting Minister for Defence, whilst appreciating the offer of the Netherlands Government, regrets that he is unable to agree to the proposal'.

(The 'rules' here refer to the accepted practice in the Imperial system of awards that Australia was a party to in WWII, for posthumous gallantry awards to be awarded under the auspices of the sovereign rather than a foreign government.)

The correspondence referred to above was found in the National Archives only as recently as 1996. Later, with the support of two former members of Perth's crew, Australian Department of Defence authorities, were approached to see if it would be possible to re-activate the award in time for the March 1997 launching of the third Collins-class submarine, HMAS Waller. Though the Defence Department were sympathetic to the deposition, the advice received was that we would first have to raise the matter with the Netherlands Government. This was done. Unfortunately, protocol dictated that nothing could be done to rescind the decision taken by the postwar Australian Government. Advice from the Netherlands Embassy in Canberra indicated that a Cabinet decision taken in November 1952 had 'laid down that no further Royal honours for merit during the Second World War were to be conferred'. (It should be noted, this was in line with a similar decision taken by the British at much the same time.)

The Netherlands Government's response, while disappointing, was reasonable enough, given the circumstances. More difficult to come to terms with, however, were the exceptions made to the 'no foreign posthumous awards' rule when US posthumous awards had been conferredon two RAN officers killed-in-action in the South-West Pacific Area. (In the postwar period, awards had been accepted for and granted to CAPT Emile F.V. Dechaineux, DSC, RAN (after whom the fourth Collins-class submarineis named) who was mortally wounded when his ship, the cruiser, HMAS Australia, took a direct hit on the foremast from a kamikaze plane on October 21, 1944 in Leyte Gulf, and LCDR John M. Band, RANR(S), killed during the Allied landing at Finschafen, on the north coast of New Guinea, on September 22, 1943.) Acceptance of these awards demonstrated how the authorities had been prepared, on occasion, to turn (quite sensibly in hindsight) a Nelsonian blind eye to the regulations. Nonetheless, those few Perth survivors alive today might reasonably ask why were the Australian Government not prepared to go to the well a third time for Waller?

Of the six Collins-class submarines, three of them, Waller , Rankin and Sheean are named after men who were regarded as having demonstrated personal heroism of an extremely high order prior to their being killed-in-action. This has inevitably fuelled speculation on why they were not recommended for the Victoria Cross. A strong case for Waller could have been made, particularly since CAPT Albert H. Rooks, USN, CO of the other cruiser involved in the Sunda Strait action, USS Houston, had received the United States' highest award for gallantry: a posthumous Medal of Honor for 'extraordinary heroism, gallantry in action and distinguished service in the line of his profession' for the Sunda Strait action and earlier actions in February 1942.

Instead, the sequence of events leading to Hec Waller being granted his posthumous Mention in Despatches award, was as follows:

On March 3, 1945, Mr Norman Makin, the Minister for the Navy, gave a speech in the House of Representatives in which he released the the first details of Perth's fate. His statement, bearing all the hallmarks of a Victoria Cross recommendation/citation in-the-making, declared :

' ......Captain Waller and his men brought that heritage with them when they went into action in the Java Sea Battle, and in the darkness of the Sunda Strait; and it was a heritage they did not betray. In both these actions they left their mark on the enemy and their ship went down fighting against overwhelming odds. The rescue of four of Perth's company from the Japanese has at last thrown some light on the cruiser's final heroic service. It is a story of unflagging courage and devotion to duty. Though its end is tragedy, it is a story of which Australia and the Allies may well be proud.....'

If Makin's speech truly reflected how the Australian Government regarded Perth'sstirring deeds, why didn't they take the trouble to forward a posthumous Victoria Cross recommendation to the British Admiralty, once further details of Perth's final action became better known in the immediate postwar period? (Under a Royal Warrant issued December 31, 1942, all Dominion governments had been granted the authority to make Victoria Cross recommendations.)

And if the Australian Government was not prepared to submit a Victoria Cross recommendation for Waller, then there was nothing to prevent the Australian Commonwealth Naval Boardfrom doing so. Yet, in November 1945, when the Naval Board submitted to the Admiralty a number of gallantry award recommendations for Perth personnel, incredibly, Waller's name was not amongst them. On January 25, 1946, the Naval Board received what, for all intents and purposes, was a 'wake-up call' from the Admiralty enquiring whether Waller should be considered for a posthumous Mention in Despatches. A record of receipt of this communication to the Naval Board exists but not the actual correspondence. The Naval Board concurred in this proposal and Waller's name duly appeared together with those of other Perth personnel in the London Gazette of March 19, 1946.

While the Minute of January 25, 1946 might have telegraphed what the Admiralty's attitude would have been had a Victoria Cross recommendation for Waller been received in London from either the Naval Board or the Australian Government; there can be little doubt that the Naval Board had had to be prompted by the Admiraltyinto forwarding Waller's name for the posthumous Mention in Despatches. Had a case for a posthumous Victoria Cross been prepared in November 1945 by Chief of Naval Staff, VADM Sir Louis H. K. Hamilton, RN, the Admiralty would have had some difficulty in arguing against the proposed award. Implicit in granting the award would have been the magnificent fight both Perth and Houston had put up against tremendous odds and the great damage they had wrought on the Japanese invasion fleet they had inadvertently run into during the night of February 28/March 1, 1942.

The National Archive records reveal a sad chapter in Australia's naval affairs. Neither the Naval Board nor the Australian Government come out of this episode with any great credit. Both had shown little initiative when it came to Waller being recommended for what is popularly known as a 'ship VC' - one which, had it been awarded, would have been a source of immense pride to all crew members. For the Australian Government to then decline the Netherlands offer of posthumous recognition for Waller beggars belief, worse still, from a PR point of view, it was clearly done without any consideration of how, had they known, the surviving members of Perth's crew would have viewed such a decision.For the 463 men of Perth who had given their lives, for those who had survived the sinking of their ship and then three and a half years of captivity at the hands of the Japanese, and for those who had been so proud to serve under such a gallant and illustrious sailor, what the government did in their name in not accepting the Netherlands award can only be viewed as a grossly insensitive act.

Back to Top of Page

Table of contents

Back to Main Page