We were deeply saddened recently to learn of the passing of Bernie O’Brien on 25th December. Bernie was a strong supporter of our Association, also serving as Vice-President of the RSL Merchant Navy sub-Branch for many years. Those who knew Bernie miss him dearly. I have been blessed to know Bernie as a friend and many others share this appreciation. Throughout the hardships of life Bernie maintained a kindness, sincerity, generosity and loving nature. He is an inspiration to us all. We extend our deepest sympathies to Bernie’s family and remember them in our prayers.
A Service Celebrating the Life of Bernard O’Brien was held on 7th January at Woronora Cemetery. It was the most beautiful service I have ever attended; Tributes were given by Don Kennedy, President of Merchant Navy RSL sub-Branch and David Raymond, Post Commander of the American Legion. Sister Mary Leahy O.A.M. also contributed to the service which was officiated by Father Phillip Slattery.
Bernie first sailed with the Norwegian Merchant Marine as Deckhand. Soon after at 17 years of age, he joined the Fingal. Fingal left Sydney on 5th May 1943, torpedoed the same day off Nambucca Heads by Japanese submarine I-180. Of 31 crew members, 19 survivors were picked up by the destroyer U.S.S. Patterson (which had been acting as escort) and conveyed to Newcastle.
Upon return to Sydney, Bernie was told by the Norwegian Consul that he did not have any ships available. Bernie attended the Manpower Office in Martin Place (which occupied a tent in the middle of the road) requesting afternoon shift in a Munitions Factory so that his days would be free to look for another ship. The Manpower Officer advised Bernie to attend No.10 Walsh Bay where the U.S. Army immediately signed him up as A.B. despite his formidable qualifications as Deckhand. That was November 1943 and it was not until January 1947 that Bernie was discharged as First Officer.
Bernie’s Small Ships career was extraordinary. His first ship was S-126 Esther Johnson, a steam schooner built in 1923 of which Bernie held fond memories. Beginning March 1944 his next assignment was Cook/Deckhand on S-135 Lorrina, steel hulled, single screw motor coaster; pride of the Small Ships fleet.
From June 1944 Bernie served as A.B. on FS-12B Wangary; 62’ fast supply boat, until November when he was appointed to S-185 Kia Ora as Deckhand/Cook. Kia Ora was a wooden trawler, 41’2” long, with a one man wheelhouse and bunk. She was used to transport crews between ships at Finschaffen and Dreger Harbour.
January 1945 Bernie was assigned as A.B. to S-145 Wortanna; iron hulled, twin screw, motor lighter, the oldest ship in the Small Ships Section built 1876.
During March 1945 Bernie was assigned to S-233 Kimbriki; 45’ wooden tug boat, sailing to Hollandia as Deckhand.
Three months later Bernie sailed on S-339 Matonga as A.B. Matonga was an A.T.S. vessel with several Small Ships men in crew.
October 1945 Bernie served as Second Officer on S-1037, FS-258; steel freighter built in Brooklyn NY which sailed to Japan.
Almost four months later in January 1946 Bernie joined LT-784 as First Officer. LT-784 was an A.T.S. steam tug, the largest ocean going tug available to the U.S. Army at the time.
June 1946 Bernie was assigned as First Officer to S-707 Anaroo, FS-14A; 112’ fast supply boat. Captain Cecil Abbot had a crew of Americans who had decided that as the war was over, they would not work; preferring to take flying lessons at Clark Air Base. Bernie reminded the crew of their duties, resulting in all requesting discharge. After writing the transfers Bernie recruited the Filipino crew he had previously served with on the Large Tug. FS-14A was fitted with two new engines, repainted and attached to the Red Cross. Bernie’s daily duties were to escort the Red Cross ladies between Dewey Boulevard and Corregidor, until the Australian Government requested the return of civilians from Philippines and Japan.
Bernie was repatriated to Sydney on passenger /cargo vessel Hwa Lien, along with 474 Jewish migrants who had escaped Europe and hidden in China during the war.