Navy memories inform Remembrance Day role
Pitch black, sailing through the fog, hunting an illegal Russian fishing vessel in rough Antarctic waters.
April Herbert and her shivering crew mates were crowded around HMAS Canberra’s sonar screen.
“This is great... they’re f...ed,” Ms Herbert said.
That was one of many experiences that made up Herbert’s 13 year career with the Navy. In that time, she served peacekeeping missions in South East Asia, lost a mate in an engine room fire, and deployed to the Middle East in the wake of September 11.
She’s called Geraldton home since leaving the navy in 2007, and played a big part in organising remembrance services this month.
She joined as a 25 year old in 1994, following in the footsteps of her father, who fought in the Battle of Kapyong during the Korean War.
Serving as a communications operator, Ms Herbert ran the ship’s radios, and later visual signalling, flashing Morse code with a light mounted to the deck.
The five ships she crewed have since been scuttled as dive wrecks and artificial reefs.
“Every ship I have served on is now decommissioned and at the bottom of the ocean, which makes me feel very old.”
In 1998 Ms Herbert was serving on HMAS Adelaide during a training exercise alongside the refuelling vessel HMAS Westralia near Rottnest Island.
During the exercise a fuel hose burst in the Westralia’s engine room, spraying fuel on the hot machinery and sending the room up “in a fireball”.
The fire suppression system went off, but the resulting flood of carbon monoxide killed four crew, including a close friend of Ms Herbert.
“I’d known him since before I joined the navy,” she said. “When-ever we were in the same city we would go out. He was a great guy. Somebody everyone liked.”
At the beginning of 2001 she was transferred to HMAS Canberra, which pulled into port at Cairns to resupply and conduct repairs on September 10, the day before the 9/11 attacks in the US.
“It was really bizarre. A lot of people were at the bars, and I came back on board and one of the guys had come with me,” she said. “I walked into the girls’ mess and the TV was right there. I said to him, ‘Oh my goodness, come have a look’.
“The first plane had hit. I’m saying, ‘Swampy, come here!’ and he goes, ‘I can’t go into the girls’ mess!’,” Herbert said.
“We had this big Clear Lower Decks the next day with the skipper, saying plans had changed, the ship wasn’t going into a big refit, we’re going to remain operational ... standby to standby, we don’t really know what’s happening yet.”
The crew was preparing to head to the Middle East, Another series of ‘work-ups’ – training exercises used to asses battle readiness – followed before they were diverted at the last minute to Antarctica to intercept illegal fishing for Patagonian Toothfish in Australian territorial waters.
“I don’t like seafood anyway, but deep-sea Antarctic fish ... There’s an enzyme that makes them able to live in deep waters, and when you expose it to air, very stinky,” she said.
The smell, she said, was the least of her problems. The cold, rough Antarctic seas were known to shake TVs off mountings, and throw computers down stairs.
“Down in that really violent water, all of a sudden there’s a rogue wave that’s not in the normal pattern, and it just throws you. You end up black and blue,” she said. “That was in January, it was very wild weather. Any other time of the year, the ship wouldn’t have been able to survive it, it was that rough... and that was the good time to do it.”
“They gave us balaclavas, woollen jumpers that submariners wear, thermal underwear ... you wanted more thermals. It was freezing. Your feet were sticking to the metal deck because it was so cold.”
Leaving the navy in 2007, Herbert earned a degree, moved from Cairns to Geraldton, and has been active in the local RSL, sitting on the committee organising the upcoming commemoration of the sinking of HMAS Sydney in 1941.
Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.
Sign up for our emails