It was an extraordinary phone call that had brought me here, to an early morning in the Riverina – a call I would not have made if I was not joining my brother and his wife for a trek along the Great Ocean Walk along the south coast of Victoria – a call I would not have made if I hadn’t decided to spend a few days in Melbourne.  


That Tuesday morning, I was driving west across the country plains – heading to a town I never knew existed before that phone call – to meet, a ‘living legend’.


As I drove further and further west, I admit I was feeling increasingly annoyed.  I had been told the town of Berrigan was only a short drive from Albury, but I had already travelled past the 100km mark and there was still no sign of the town.  I had left the hilly country around Albury over an hour ago. I was out onto the flat plains.  The green pastures had given way to brown dry lands in the midst of a significant drought.  The detour was taking me a long way off my route to the start of the trek at Apollo Bay, and there was at least another seven hours of driving.


The road was straight and flat – not a car in sight.  With time to think I pondered how coincidences and chance events and encounters often connect events in life.


After an hour and half, I caught sight of a speck to the west.  Could that be the top of Berrigan communications tower?  As kilometres passed, the speck grew taller until I knew it was going to be my destination.  It seemed such a tiny town.


I flicked on the satellite navigation system in the Iphone and listened to Siri – ‘straight ahead for another 300 metres then take the second turn on the left’.  I did as I was told – not usual for me.  ‘Take the next turn to the left and you will be at your destination’.  I took the left turn and drove past the medical centre and local hospital, and into the car park of the retirement home.


I gathered my notes with some trepidation.  What would he be like at 98?  Would he have any interest in what I wanted to talk about?  I recalled Marty’s email – ‘you will be amazed at his recall’ and ‘he’s looking forward to meeting you’.


I entered the office and explained my visit.  The nurse welcomed me with an enthusiastic, ‘he’s been expecting you’.  She led me down a corridor, and another, and another into a small lounge room.  ‘Mr Blunt, this is Ken Brown and his wife Mavis’.  I was instantly greeted with smiles and hands to shake.


For the next two hours I was privileged to chat with an extraordinary person, a veteran – the last surviving sailor from several HMAS ships.


He was everything Marty had described - ‘bright as a button’ with an amazing recall that was to reveal extraordinary connections.


But what had any of this to do with Lolita, you may well ask!


Let me take you to the beginning.


*             *             *


In 1986 my father, John Miller Blunt, died.  Far too young at the age of sixty-six.  Taken from my mother, my brothers and from me, by the consequences of the war he never discussed.  We knew something had happened in the past.  He was always ‘jumpy’ at a car back-firing, or a door slamming with a loud bang.  We were never told why, and I understood mum had never been told everything.


I often recall a special time I had with him – after one of his early heart attacks – we were both together at the hospital – he was in bed and I was sitting beside him, watching TV together.  It happened to be a documentary film of my sailing and climbing adventure to Heard Island.  I glanced at him.  He had a smile from ear to ear – I could see he was thrilled and I could tell he was very proud of the achievement – gather a team of twenty adventurers and sailors, charter the yacht Anaconda II, sail to the remotest island in the world and climb Australia’s highest mountain – the glaciated active volcano of Big Ben.  I am sure it reminded him of his own sailing adventures and his participation in the very early Sydney Hobart yacht races.


I remember from the day I told him of my plans to visit Heard Island over ten years before, to the day we sailed back into Port Adelaide, he and my mother were staunch supporters.  At the time, they were living on Spectacle Island which became a de facto expedition headquarters – for the printing of T shirts to raise money, and a logistics store for the expedition’s equipment and everything else needed for the adventure.


Not long after his first heart attack he retired, and having served in the public service his whole life from the time he was a young man aged 16, he was entitled to a pension from the superannuation he had accumulated.  While not much, it was sufficient for him and my mother.  However, when he died, the pension was substantially reduced – despite his superannuation contributions over many, many years.


For years I saw Mum struggle.  She was too proud, like my father, to ask for any assistance she felt she did not deserve.  She fought on with what she had.  But with the growing number of grandchildren, it was tough, especially at Christmas and birthdays when she wanted to support her grandchildren and others.


A year or so after Dad died, Mum gave my brothers and me, a copy of a memoir Dad had written – about his work and family.  I had skimmed through it and put it away.  But at the time when I saw Mum struggling, I recalled a short passage where Dad had described the loss of his ship in the war.  There had been an explosion of some kind whilst the ship was in New Guinea.  Two sailors had been killed and Dad was burnt before being repatriated back to Australia.


I suggested to Mum that she should make an application for a war widow’s pension.  She would have none of it.  For her, there were others more deserving.  I persisted over a number of years but received the same response – No! – she would not ask for anything she did not deserve.


Without telling Mum, I spoke with officers at our local Legacy office to see if they could provide some assistance.  The officer listened to the brief account Dad had left of his service in the Navy and the loss of his ship.  The officer indicated there may be a possibility my mother may be eligible for a war widow’s pension, but more details of Dad’s service, the explosion, and his injuries were required.


At the time, I had been undertaking research in the National Australian Archives with regard to the discovery of Heard Island and other Antarctic matters and I was becoming adept at searching for records.  For some reason, still unknown to me to this day, I typed into the search box, the name of the vessel on which my father had served during the war.


A list of records appeared including a report of an inquiry into an explosion.


I was compelled to obtain that report.  Maybe it would shed light on the explosion and the injuries he sustained.  But the record was in Melbourne and it had not been released.  It was still confidential.  I lodged an application for it to be made accessible to the public.  After what seemed an eternity, I received notification the record was available and drove to Melbourne with thoughts swirling of what it would reveal.


The record provided all the details.  A Board of Inquiry had been conducted and all personnel associated with the ship and the explosion had been interviewed.  The circumstances were set out in the transcripts of interviews with the Board’s concluding report providing the details.


Again, I contacted Legacy with the new information, together with his service record and medical discharge papers.  The officer advised me to convince Mum to come and have a ‘chat’ adding that based on the material, she would have a chance of being awarded a pension.


It was a number of years before Mum decided to have the ‘chat’.  I recall as we walked in the door, she insisted she was there just to meet, and would not be asking for anything.  The officer was a gem – one of those wonderful people who knew what to say and understood her view.  Talking quietly to mum, he told us that he knew Dad’s story, and that she deserved the opportunity to lodge an application and see how the Department of Veterans Affairs may respond.  He asked if she had any grandchildren (he already knew because I had told him) and when she told him of the eight grandchildren, he suggested that anything she received from the pension, she could use for them – she could honour her commitment that she would not accept anything for herself – she could use it for the grandchildren and others.


She accepted his advice and whilst restating her commitment that she would never accept anything for herself, she signed the papers.  Nothing was heard for many months, but it was a pleasing moment when the officer telephoned me with the news.  Mum received the war widow’s pension.  Of the pension, true to her commitment, she never took any for herself.  She used the income to support her grandchildren and various charities.


Some years later, she asked how the officer could have known so much about Dad’s war record and the explosion.  I revealed the documents I had found, and told her the story she had never heard from Dad.


Dad’s ship was HMAS Lolita – a small patrol vessel that had served Australia well and will remain in my memory for years to come.


Over the years, I visited Mum every weekend or two – for a cup of tea and cake and a catch up – or an ‘argument’ about politics.


On one of the visits, I noticed a small suitcase inside the front door.  Nothing was said during our tea and conversation that afternoon, but as I was leaving, she pointed to the suitcase and said ‘I would like you to take it and look after it – it has Dad’s papers and things in it’.  I was busy at the time and put it in the cupboard for another day.


In August 2015, Mum died – after a short unexpected illness, a sad loss to us and many others.


I recalled the suitcase and took it out.  Among the papers was a photograph that caught my attention – a group of people, dressed to the ‘nines’ in ‘Sunday best’, gathered on a cannon, a very large cannon in a park.  There were ten people, and among them I recognised my grandfather – Percival Blunt and my grandmother – Catherine Miller.


Who were these other people, what was the occasion, and where was the photograph taken?  It was such an interesting photograph, I needed to find answers.


Our lovely family historian believed it to be a wedding photograph, taken some time after the end of WWI.  The Secretary of the Toowoomba and Darling Downs Family History Society sent the photograph to the Fort Lytton Historical Association.  Their researcher identified the cannon was from the Victorian Warship HMVS Cerberus (1) and had later been sent to HMAS Cerberus where it remains.  He added the photograph appeared to have been taken in the Botanic Park at Ballarat.



My grandmother Catherine Ferguson Miller of Toowoomba – centre row sitting on

the cannon third from the left.  My grandfather Percival Marmaduke Blunt

of Ipswich - standing at the rear – right.


A web search revealed there was a gun like the one in the photograph at HMAS Cerberus – a naval shore station to the south-east of Melbourne on Westernport Bay.  I recalled Dad had visited the station many times during his work.  I remember him speaking of the training and formal mess dinners he enjoyed at the base.


I decided I should inspect the cannon at HMAS Cerberus to confirm I was dealing with the same cannon.  After finding there was a historical museum at the station, I sent an email.  There was no response.  I called but the phone rang out.


I became busy with other pressing matters and tucked the issue away for another day.


*             *             *


It was the Wednesday before I was due to leave for the Great Ocean Walk.  I recalled the cannon and thought it may be possible to squeeze in a visit to HMAS Cerberus to have a look at the cannon.  I decided to give it a go, and dialled the number for the museum – same as before - no answer!  I left a brief message and asked for a call-back.  There was no call-back.


On the Thursday with time running out before my departure, I decided to give it another go and dialled the museum – again no answer.  Again, I left a brief message and asked for a call-back.  There was no call-back.


An hour later I decided to call the base commander.  But when I looked on the website, I found the name and a mobile number for a person at the museum – a Warrant Officer.  Annoyed that no-one had answered my earlier calls and there had been no call back, I decided to call the officer.


The conversation I had with Marty that morning was extraordinary.


He listened in silence while I explained about the photograph of the cannon, and the people sitting and standing on it, my search that had led me to HMAS Cerberus and my request to visit to inspect the cannon.  It was short notice, but I told him I would be willing to come down as soon as I finished the trek.


In responding, he apologised saying he had only recently retired from the Navy and his ten years at the museum, and that no person had yet been appointed to replace him.  He explained there was no such cannon at the museum, but there was one ‘in front of the Command Building’ and it may be possible to inspect it.  However, I would have to contact the station commander.


He seemed to warm to the story of the cannon and explained he understood the cannon at the base had come from Ballarat some years prior as part of a centenary of the base and that it had been removed from HMVS Cerberus.  He explained HMVS Cerberus was now lying on the bottom of Port Phillip Bay as a breakwater off Half Moon Bay at Black Rock.  He suggested I contact a person at the HMVS Cerberus Association as they would probably have more information regarding the cannon.


I thanked him, but, before we ended the call, he explained his role with the museum over the years and the work he had done.

There was something in what he said, that made me ask if he knew of the naval museum on Spectacle Island.  I was not prepared for the response.


‘Yes – I have been there over thirty times, I love it, it is so important and a wonderful collection of naval material, but I don’t know what’s happening to it now – there is only one person looking after it now.


Marty spoke for a good five minutes describing the collection, the buildings and Spectacle Island and offered to arrange for me to visit the island.


When he paused, I informed him I had already visited the collection many times.  There was silence.  I then added that I had lived on the island.  There was even more silence (if that was possible), and I could sense he was wondering who I was – a stranger calling him ‘out of the blue’ with the puzzling and surprising information – that I, had actually lived on Spectacle Island in Sydney Harbour, and I knew his favourite naval museum.


After a long pause, I explained my father’s role in the Naval Supply Branch, culminating as the Chief Superintendent of Supply, and our family’s time living in the house – the large white house at the northern end of the island.


I could sense he was stunned.  We continued to reminisce about the island and the collection.  I asked if the Mawson sledge was still there.  Of course, he asked how I knew of that particular item.  I explained my interest from my expedition to Heard Island and the later expeditions to Cape Denison in Antarctica to work on the conservation of Mawson’s Huts.  He said it had ‘disappeared’ when he last visited and the heritage officers in attendance were unsure where it was – he explained the necessity for continued interest by defence officials for the Navy’s heritage collections to ensure local knowledge would never be lost. (2)



The Residence, Spectacle Island in December 2016 – during a family reunion.



Family reunion outside the Residence.



Boat reconstruction in the Spectacle Island Museum.


The conversation was amazing.  For some reason, perhaps it was just his profound interest in the Navy and its history, which he clearly relished, I mentioned he may be interested in another story – that of HMAS Lolita and my research.


Well - the response from Marty was astounding.


With gusto and enthusiasm, he told me he knew the last surviving member of HMAS Lolita.  He told me this 98 year old veteran residing in a small country town, ‘is a living legend’ – and added in one breath without pause, that he was also the last surviving member of HMAS Nestor, and the second last surviving member of HMAS Sydney II.  That veteran is Ken Brown.  


What I thought would be a curt telephone call with a response along official lines – ‘you will have to get permission to visit HMAS Cerberus to inspect the cannon’, and ‘no it will not be possible in the short timeframe’ etc - extended for 30 minutes - a most amazing discussion of coincidental matters of mutual interest.


Sensing Marty’s enthusiasm for this ‘living legend’, I asked the location of the country town.  He explained ‘just west of Albury – just a short drive’.  In an instant I decided it may be possible I could take a short detour on my drive south to Apollo Bay.  I asked if it may be possible to visit him on Tuesday morning.


‘Absolutely – I was going to call him this afternoon – I am sure he would be interested to have a chat’.

As soon as we finished the call, Marty emailed a photograph to me.


Ken Brown (on the right) with the Chief of Navy in early 2018. (3)


Over the next 24 hours, we exchanged emails.  Marty confirmed that Ken, despite his 98 years of age, was as ‘bright as a button’, and would like to meet me.


‘His sharp recall will just blow you away. A truly amazing man.’


And so that was my destination that Tuesday morning – all because of a photograph of a cannon which included my grandparents, because I had lived on and knew Spectacle Island, and because of HMAS Lolita – the ship on which my father served during WWII.


What an extraordinary confluence of matters, and a chance encounter with ‘the’ Marty Grogan and our common interests!


*             *             *


The two hours spent with Ken was a wonderful experience.  It was a privilege to be able to chat with him about his time on HMAS Lolita.

Ken recounted his experience on HMAS Nestor – the only Royal Australian Navy ship never to have sailed in Australian waters.  It had been acquired by the Royal Australian Navy from the Royal Navy in February 1941 under the command of Commander George S. Stewart, RAN.  She joined the Home Fleet based at Scarpa Flow and spent the first months of service escorting North Atlantic convoys, on patrol and screening capital ships at sea.


In late May 1941 Nestor was a unit of the force which hunted and sank the German battleship Bismarck, although Nestor, having been diverted to Iceland to refuel, was not with the force when the Bismarck was eventually sunk on 27 May 1941.


Ken told me of the cold and terrible conditions in the North Sea, and the crew’s disappointment in not being with the fleet for the sinking of the Bismarck.


Nestor then entered the Mediterranean for the first time in July 1941 and subsequently spent time in the Indian Ocean before returning to the Mediterranean.  On 14 June 1942 she was part of the 7th Destroyer Flotilla, returning to Alexandria with an aborted Malta convoy, when off Crete, she was straddled by a stick of heavy bombs which killed four seamen and put her out of action.  HMAS Javelin took Nestor in tow, but by early next day she was sinking by the bow.  The crew was transferred to Javelin and HMAS Nestor was scuttled and sunk by depth charges.  Ken had joined Nestor in February 1941 and was with her when she was sunk.


HMAS Nestor under aerial attack whilst on convoy duty in the Mediterranean on 15 June 1942. (4)


We talked about HMAS Lolita and he told me of his time in HMAS Sydney II.  But what I found stunning, was his response when I asked him of his involvement with HMAS Australia II.


He recalled his adventure in 1950 when HMAS Australia was engaged in a mercy mission to the Australian Antarctic base at Heard Island, to extract the doctor who had fallen ill.  I sat in awe as he told me the story of how the crew thought they were sailing for Korea, but instead found themselves sailing in the opposite direction – to the Subantarctic.


I could not believe how the photograph of a cannon, Spectacle Island and HMAS Lolita had connected us – and both of us had visited this isolated and remote island – two people of a very select few.


We enjoyed our meeting, but it was time to leave – I really was behind schedule to arrive at the start of the hike.  We said our goodbyes and agreed we would keep in touch.


I sent him a card for Christmas with a short note thanking him and Mavis for the opportunity to meet and share our common interests.



Ken meeting Mavis with newly grown beard on disembarkation from HMAS

Australia after visit to Heard Island. (5)


*             *             *


Saturday 29 December 2018 was a stinking hot day - another heat wave.  While having a ‘little’ snooze I heard the mobile ring.  As I reluctantly rose, the phone stopped ringing.


I didn’t recognise the number, but pressed it to return the call.


Hello, this is Ken from Lolita’.


Ken had rung to thank me for the card and for a chat.  For twenty minutes we talked about his progress since I had seen him – ‘improving’ he said.  We spoke again about the coincidence of us both visiting Heard Island.  We spoke about ‘our’ ship – Lolita – and his being the last surviving member of the crew and me chasing its history.


I told him I was on a search for a photograph of Lolita before she became a HMAS ship – when she was a pleasure cruiser on Sydney Harbour and Pittwater in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.  I also told him I was looking for a photograph of HMAS Australia at Heard Island and that I would send both to him when I was successful.  I said I had a feeling I would be successful.  The only question in my mind would be when, and if I could do so whilst he could remember his adventures.


I also told him of my lobbying to have HMAS Lolita included on the memorial at Bradleys Head.  I informed him of the recent letter from the Minister for Veterans Affairs that explained the inadvertent exclusion would be corrected.  He said that would be important and he welcomed the news.


We agreed to catch up again.


1 Her Majesty’s Victorian Ship Cerberus.  At the time she was commissioned in 1870, Victoria was separate to New South Wales.  After Federation, naval ships became His or Her Majesty’s Australian Ships (HMAS).

2 The current Director Navy Heritage Collections has confirmed the two sledges are considered valuable items and are always stored at Spectacle Island except when they have been on loan to other institutions such as the Australian Museum.  The Director also confirmed as of August 2019, the Navy was mid-way through a major review of ‘Naval Heritage’, sponsored by the Deputy Chief of Navy.

3 Photo courtesy M Grogan

4 AWM Photograph 044998

5 Argus (Melbourne), 29 August 1950, p.5