By Florence Livery
My father had a tortuous World War II experience. Whilst serving in the Royal Australian Navy, Able Seaman Panos Livery, was on this merry-go-round, going from the depths of despair to the dizziness of heights that a Far North Queensland lad could only dare to dream about.
Panos enlisted and went straight to the Pacific Front as a crew member of the ill-fated HMAS Canberra to face what I refer to as his first nightmare. His position during Action Stations was in the cordite-handling room, situated on the bottom deck, several storeys down. With six others, his job was to load the cordite onto a small elevator, which was taken to the gun turret up on deck. At Action Stations, the hatch door was locked from above, seven men in this 12-foot square sealed enclosure, surrounded by cordite powder and immersed in stench.
…. Battle of Savo Island, Guadalcanal, the morning of the 9 August, 1942. At approximately 2 am it came. This whopping, big, hell of a thud from what Panos thought was the middle of the ship, about 20 yards away. Followed by a few more thuds, the ship started to tilt and the indicator clock turned to Abandon Ship. They made a beeline up the ladder for the hatch, unfortunately all to no avail, sealed from above. With no lights or ventilation, the air thickened, breathing became heavier and the ship was tilting continually to starboard. For over an hour the cordite crew took it in turns to thump on the hatch door with an iron bar and yell as loud as they could to attract attention. Finally, they were heard by a lone Leading Hand who was sent down below with instructions to check out the damage, look for wounded and the dead and then flood the bottom two levels to prevent the rampant fire mid-ship being further fuelled by the ammunition magazines. He just happened to hear their cries for help.
Up on the top deck, confusion and mayhem was rife as the ship was going down. Maimed and dead bodies were everywhere, fires were raging and ammunition from the gun turrets was exploding on deck. Fortuitously it was pelting down with rain. At one stage they were torpedoed again, this time by friendly fire. The Battle of Savo Island was still happening and it was risky to send in the destroyers to pick up survivors as they too would be in the firing line. Just before dawn, with his mates help, Panos jumped ship, as USS Blue whizzed past.
After 28 days Survivor’s Leave Panos soon found himself off to London to pick up HMS Shropshire, a gift from the Royal Navy to assist the Australian war effort as a replacement for HMAS Canberra, which was by now at the bottom of the sea.
So, one-week Panos is five decks down below wondering if he will ever see daylight again and a few weeks later week he is crossing the Pacific via Honolulu being photographed with a lei around his neck, cuddling a Hawaiian girl, his mate and his girl making up the foursome. Would this not do your head in? Seeing the world with his pals, landing at San Francisco, ten wild and wonderful days travelling by train across to the east coast. Pure luxury! Pullman carriages, a porter for each carriage, seats made into comfortable bunks and scrumptious meals taken in the dining carriage. A far cry from the hammocks, powdered eggs and charcoal devilled chops of recent times.
Imagine this. Being greeted by the Golden Gate Bridge, then off to places like Reno, Omaha, Salt Lake City, through the Rocky Mountains, Cheyenne, Chicago, Cincinnati, Newport and Norfolk. This was followed by a week in New York City. Berthed at Pier 87, besides the capsized SS Normandie at Pier 88, Panos and his mates ensured they visited all of the landmarks of this great city – Times Square, Broadway, Madison Square Garden, Jack Dempsey’s Bar and the Stage Door Canteen where famous movie stars regularly dropped in to boost the morale of the troops. Careless, reckless and free. Not bad for a boy from Ingham.
Panos soon left the east coast to cross the Atlantic Ocean as his second nightmare was about to begin. For nearly two weeks, in the worst storm to hit the North Atlantic in 50 years, Panos was a crew member of HMS Wolfe, positioned in the middle of the 40-strong Convoy HX 230, stretching to a five-mile radius. Ten days of crossing the wild and rough waters of the Atlantic, dodging icebergs as they sailed passed Greenland into Icelandic waters and being hounded by U-boats all of the way. As Panos said later in life, ‘To see one periscope is bad enough but to see two to three on the one day was terrifying. They just hunted in packs.’
At dusk, approximately five days into the crossing after passing Greenland, the steering of HMS Wolfe suddenlybroke, she almost overturned and the order to Prepare to Abandon Ship was given. They were now stranded in the middle of the ocean, isolated from the convoy. The engineers worked ferociously to repair the steering and all the crew could do was to play poker and ensure that they consumed their daily ration of rum. As Panos was to comment 50 years later, ‘Thank God the seas were so turbulent and threatening. They would have had a real picnic if it was the Pacific Ocean.’ A thousand stavros (crosses) later, the steering was repaired and by late evening of the following day HMS Wolfe had sprinted to reunite with the convoy and regain her position in the middle of the pack.
Finally, they arrived in London and headed to the Royal Naval Dockyards at Chatham, 35 miles east of London. HMS Shropshire was undertaking a major refit and not quite ready to be handed over to the Australians. This would drag on for three months and whilst the awaiting crew were undertaking duties and drills of a sort, they had plenty of time on their hands. Regular day and extended leave were issued to pass the time and keep them out of mischief. By the time HMS Shropshire became HMAS Shropshire in June 1943, Panos know all of the taverns in the local area, had seen all of the sights of London and Edinburgh, fallen in love with many an English and Scottish lass and had both arms tattooed with swallows and a shellback turtle, in true naval style.
The climax of Panos’ time in Britain however was a childhood dream come true, although the enormity of the occasion did not dawn on him until later in life. The Shropshire contingent received an offer they could not refuse, a challenge by the English to field a side to play against the Harrod’s XI at Lord’s Cricket Ground. The Harrod’s team included members of the English First XI, playing under pseudonyms, (being wartime they could not be seen to be enjoying themselves too much). A very talented cricketer, this truly was one of Panos’ grandest moments in life. Nonetheless though, I ask you again, would this not do your head in? From a periscope to a cricket pitch in a matter of weeks! It is shuddering when confronted with the absolute extremes of wartime experiences.
It was now time to finally head home and for HMAS Shropshire to resume its place in the war. As they went through their last trials at Scapa Flow, a visit by King George VI (and all of the pomp and ceremony that such a visit entailed) was a fitting farewell to Panos’ northern sojourn.
Panos returned to Australia, saw the war out and married. Like many others, he refused to take any form of assistance, whether it be a defence home loan, re-training for employment purposes, nor would he participate in any Anzac Day march. The medals always remained loose and tattered at the bottom of the suitcase along with the old photographs. Panos himself, remained defiant and found it difficult to settle down.
In 1985 he retired and applied for a Veteran Affairs Gold Card. Panos needed to prove war related injuries to get the highest level. He was successful. 45 years later (by default), Panos was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
And we all breathed a sigh of relief. Of course, we all said. It now all makes sense. Of course, the war contributed to his character, his personality, those dark days. In recent years whilst going through Panos’ archives a scrap bit of paper was found with a note in his hand-writing, ‘I have Post Traumatic War Disorder.’
And so, we come to Anzac Day 2023 at the MCG.
I was most fortunate to be one of a handful of MCG Event Day staff members chosen to raise the flags on the MCG scoreboard roof-top as part of the Anzac Day Commemoration Service. What an honour! My family were overcome with joy.
At 2.50 pm the teams were on the ground and 95,000 patrons were fervently waiting for the service to begin. My heart was pounding as we climbed the interminable internal stair cases of the scoreboard. As I finally stepped up through the hatch I was on top of the world, both literally and figuratively and I could swear Dad was grinning from above.
As the rouse began to play from below on the arena, I sensed Dad peeping through the blue skies saying, ‘Go for it!’ Ever the prankster, I am also sure I heard him say, ‘And don’t mess it up!’ With tears streaming down my cheeks, I gradually released my halyard, my colleagues doing likewise and the five flags hit the top of their respective flagpoles in tandem as planned. Then, with precision timing the roulettes flew over the stadium to the last bar of the National Anthem and the crowd let out an almighty roar. Perhaps, just for a split second, I encountered the heights of euphoria Dad experienced during World War II.
Working at the MCG has afforded me numerous memorable moments over the past 20 years. However, this experience surpasses all others and one which I will forever cherish.
Love you always Dad, with sincere appreciation to the MCG Event Workforce Team.
Source: An Olive Amongst the Sugarcane, the unpublished memoirs of PG Livery 1985-1994.