A tale of war and peace07 August 2020
David Mattiske witnessed firsthand some of the most intense naval battles of WWII's Pacific campaign, before arriving in Japan for the first weeks of peace.
High on HMAS Shropshire’s bridge, 19-year-old David Mattiske watched as the vessel’s mine-sweeping paravane* cut through the sea far below, carving phosphorescent lines in the dark tropical waters.
Suddenly, he became aware that the port paravane was bobbing up and down strangely. There could only be one explanation – a deadly mine had been caught up in it.
“It was a very tense moment, and not a good thing to happen while we were proceeding into Leyte Gulf, ready to bombard the shores there before the landing of the Army,” David recalls.
Unable to detach the mine safely at night, the crew took the necessary measures to safeguard the ship as it sailed on. In the morning, as the crew considered how best to detangle it from the jaws of the paravane, the mine suddenly detached itself and floated down the side of the ship. Once the Shropshire was safely past, another ship detonated the mine.
“There was no point in being frightened or scared about it all. We had competent officers and they would have to be in control of the situation,” David says.
“We had gone through some of the toughest times without being hit. And on the law of averages, we thought that perhaps it is only a matter of time then before the kamikazes hit us.”
Drafted to HMAS Shropshire directly after completing his training at Flinders Naval Depot, David served aboard her until the end of World War II. Despite being involved in some of the major naval campaigns of the war, the Shropshire – and David – made it through unscathed.
The final moments of WWII
He clearly recalls the pivotal moment on the morning of 6 August when it became clear that the war might be coming to an end.
“All of a sudden the TBS – talk between ships – announced that an atomic bomb had been dropped at a place called Hiroshima. And so we were aware then that this may be the end of the war,” he says.
Following the Japanese surrender on 15 August, the Australian task force left Subic Bay in the Philippines, bound for Tokyo. David and the crew of HMAS Shropshire arrived in Tokyo Bay on 31 August, and were there when the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed on the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945.
But it’s a different historical event that brings a twinkle to David’s eye. “There was to be a ceremony to raise the flag at the British Embassy for the first time since the war started. And 30 people from Shropshire were going to be invited to attend, but we weren’t allowed to wear our typical Australian type shorts and shirts. We had to go across to the KG5 [King George V], the battleship, and get English gear, the old Bombay Bloomer type of shorts and stuff,” David says. “We took that back to the Shropshire and immediately cut it up and made it nice and trim, like Australians should be wearing shorts and shirts!”
After the ceremony, the crew members were given lunch by the embassy’s Japanese staff, who had continued to maintain the embassy throughout the war. “Excellent food, and lots of Japanese ice cold beer,” David recalls. “And, of course, we grabbed all the beer first, let the other people have the sandwiches. The first thought that went though my mind was ‘This beer is very good stuff. Perhaps this terrible enemy of Japan is not so bad if they can make beer like that!’”
David shows us a couple of cream, gilt-edged cards, embossed with a gold crest. They bear the signatures of all the crew members that attended the ceremony at the Embassy, along with those of Commodore Collins and Captain Nicholls. Exploring the empty Embassy after the ceremony, David had picked up a couple of the Ambassador’s visiting cards from his desk as a souvenir.
“Next morning I thought to myself, this is a piece of history.” He decided to breach protocol and approach both Commodore Collins and Captain Nichols, to ask them to sign the card.
“Collins had been our first captain so he knew me as a lookout. He knew me pretty well. I sat down and I told him what I’d got. ‘Oh,’ he chuckled, ‘that’s a bit of history, ain’t it?’ And he signed it. I went next door to the captain’s office. And the same thing happened.”
Empathy for the enemy
In Tokyo directly after the surrender, David was witness to the devastation that the Japanese city had suffered during the war. “The Japanese Army did some terrible things, as you know, to our prisoners. And yet, on my first trip to the Embassy, our transport took us through the downtown suburbs, which had been burnt out by incendiary fire. And there were acres and acres and acres, not of houses or rubble or anything – it was just burnt out. And there were old men and women and kids scratching around amongst the ashes, looking for things. It was a pitiful sight.” David’s face dims. “This war business, it’s just not right, is it?”
A lifelong member
“My RSL history is something which I’m very pleased about,” David says. Having grown up in a small town in Victoria where everyone knew everyone else, his association with the RSL began when his mother signed him up while he was deployed.
“I went along [after the war] and I attended a few meetings. And before long I was secretary, then I was president. The only Navy man there, I think, from memory. And I got to know people at ANZAC House, including Sir George Holland, who would be one of the great national leaders of the RSL and one of the great men of Australia.
“And I remember him saying to me one day, ‘David,’ he said, ‘the future of the RSL is to be involved in the community. We can’t just have a little hall somewhere in memory of what went on in the past. We have to get involved with the community.’ I thought that was good advice.”
* A paravane is a defence against moored mines. If a mine is in the path of a ship, the bow wave will push it aside and its mooring wire will be deflected down the paravane’s towing wire to its ‘jaws’ where it is cut. The mine then bobs to the surface where it can be detonated and sunk by gunfire.