Paying respects in the world’s largest maritime grave site – Iron Bottom Sound
It was a vastly different scene last time Bill Quinn was on an Australian Navy ship outside Honiara.
It was back in 1942, in the midst of WWII, and what is now a bustling capital city with a population of more than 80,000 was nothing more than jungle and coconut trees.
The then 19-year-old was a stoker on HMAS Australia during WWII’s Battle of Savo Island.
And as he turned the point around Visale and looked over the horizon Mr Quinn saw something horrific – a scene that has stuck with him forever.
“My action station was below deck,” the 94-year-old said as he overlooked the now tranquil waters of what is today known as Iron Bottom Sound.
“But at the time I was given permission to go up on deck and get a breath of fresh air. I saw in the distance the ships on fire, and the action coming. There was fire everywhere.”
What Mr Quinn saw from the deck of his ship was HMAS Canberra, the Australian Navy’s flagship vessel during WWII, burning.
It – along with three United States Navy cruisers hit by Japanese fire – eventually sunk to the bottom of the ocean, taking 84 Australian lives with it.
Wednesday marked the 75th Anniversary of that fateful day, and Mr Quinn wanted to be here, in the Solomon Islands, to pay respects to his mates.
“It’s a very emotional time for me,” he said. “I never thought I’d get back here… I think of all those sailors that went down with the ships, and we got off scot-free.”
Mr Quinn was yesterday on-board the HMAS Success as part of a convoy of ships from the US Navy, New Zealand Navy and Solomon Islands Police Force which cruised out to the site where the HMAS Canberra now sits, 700m below the surface of Iron Bottom Sound, one of the world’s largest maritime war gravesites.
During a ceremony on deck, a procession of mourners from Australia, the US, Japan and various Pacific nations dropped wreaths into the Sound as a mark of respect to the dead. Mr Quinn, flanked by his two daughters and wiping a tear from his eye, was one of the mourners – his wreath slowly floating over gravesite of too many of his mates.
Later the crew from HMAS Success dropped 84 crosses, representing the 84 men who died, into the ocean with messages of written on them from primary school children back home.
Lucy from Newport Gardens Primary School summed it up: “Thank you. You make Australians proud”.